Who Will Be No. 1 Weapon of Each Top 25 College Football Team in 2015?

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2015

Who Will Be No. 1 Weapon of Each Top 25 College Football Team in 2015?

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    Georgia RB Nick Chubb
    Georgia RB Nick ChubbGrant Halverson/Getty Images

    If you look at college football's just-completed signing day as a shopping spree at the sporting goods store, most teams are now fully stocked up on weapons for the upcoming season.

    But nothing they picked up last week is as valuable as what was already in their arsenal back home.

    Using Bleacher Report's post-signing day Top 25 as a guideline, we've identified who will be the top weapon at each team's disposal during the 2015 season. These players were chosen based on how often they'll be turned to when a big play is needed, as well as how their skills and talents stand out from the rest of their team's options.

25. BYU

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Mitch Mathews, Sr., WR

    Height, weight: 6'6", 215 lbs

    2014 stats: 922 receiving yards, nine TDs

    Injuries wreaked havoc on BYU's quarterback and running back spots last season, yet the Cougars still managed to finish in the top 30 in total offense and win eight games. Mathews provided a source of consistent production amid all the turmoil and avoided injury to set the stage for a senior year with big expectations.

    Mathews had four 100-yard games in 2014, including a 16-reception, 182-yard, two-touchdown effort against Nevada. He wrapped things up with nine catches for 82 yards and a score in the Miami Beach Bowl loss to Memphis.

    With Christian Stewart graduating and Taysom Hill coming back from a major leg injury that cut his 2014 season short, BYU's quarterback situation is uncertain at this point. The same goes for the run game, with top back Jamaal Williams recovering from a torn ACL.

    Mathews is at full strength, though, and will be the top target of the Cougars offense.

24. Wisconsin

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Corey Clement, Jr., RB

    Height, weight: 5'11", 217 lbs

    2014 stats: 949 rushing yards, nine TDs

    Clement had a front-row seat to one of the greatest rushing seasons in FBS history as Melvin Gordon's backup. But with Gordon off to the NFL, it's Clement's turn to continue Wisconsin's trend of prolific running backs.

    The early returns show Clement is up to the task, as in his limited action in 2014, he still managed to put up enough yards to rank among the top 70 rushers in the country. And that came on less than 150 carries, resulting in a healthy 6.46 yards-per-carry average.

    New Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst has to figure out his quarterback situation as well as find some reliable receivers to keep the offense balanced. He doesn't have to worry about who will run the ball, though, as Clement has been brought along at a steady pace over his first two seasons and is primed for a big year.

23. LSU

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    Leonard Fournette, So., RB/KR

    Height, weight: 6'1", 230 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,034 rushing yards, 10 TDs; 26.0 yards per kickoff return, one TD

    Last season was just the appetizer. Fournette has so much more in store for his LSU career, making his impressive freshman campaign likely to be just a footnote compared to 2015 and beyond.

    The top overall prospect from the 2014 recruiting class, per 247Sports, Fournette entered last season with overwhelming hype surrounding him. He didn't set the world on fire as some might have predicted, but he also wasn't a bust, and he just kept getting better as the year went on.

    Fournette ran for 140-plus yards in each of his final two games, and in the Tigers' bowl loss to Notre Dame he also showed off his kick return skills by breaking off a 100-yard touchdown to go with 143 rushing yards and two scores on just 11 carries. That included an 89-yard scoring run.

    Because LSU heads into next season without a proven answer at quarterback, expect it to rely on Fournette even  more. 

    "More Herculean performances from Fournette will need to be the norm in 2015," Bleacher Report's Carter Bryant wrote.

    Considering he'll be coming off a full offseason of college-level workouts and training, that shouldn't be too hard to achieve.

22. Georgia Tech

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Justin Thomas, Jr., QB

    Height, weight: 5'11", 189 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,719 passing yards, 18 touchdowns; 1,086 rushing yards, eight TDs

    As the place where all parts of Georgia Tech's triple-option offense converge, Thomas is the most essential cog in coach Paul Johnson's well-oiled machine. And as the only major component coming back in 2015, Thomas somehow becomes even more important to the Yellow Jackets than he already was.

    In his first year running the complicated rushing attack, Thomas played like a seasoned veteran. Tech ranked second in the country in rushing, at 342 yards per game, with Thomas leading the team in carries (190) and yards.

    He also showed off a knack for making big plays in the passing game too. Though he only completed 51.3 percent of his passes, he averaged nearly 18 yards per completion.

    Tech's four running backs have graduated, as did its only two receivers who caught more than 10 passes. Thomas will ensure the skill-player turnover won't matter much.

21. Oklahoma

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Samaje Perine, So., RB

    Height, weight: 5'11", 243 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,713 rushing yards, 21 TDs

    The top freshman running back in the country last year emerged from a crowded backfield at Oklahoma to have the school's best rushing season since Quentin Griffin ran for 1,884 yards in 2002. This included setting the FBS single-game rushing record with 427 yards and five touchdowns against Kansas in November, one of three 200-yard games in 2014.

    "Perine will be the clear focus of Oklahoma's offense as a sophomore," Paul Myerberg of USA Today wrote (h/t Tulsa World).

    It wasn't until the fourth game of last season that Perine got his shot after battling with Alex Ross and Keith Ford for carries in the first three games. After he went for 242 yards against West Virginia, though, the job was mostly his.

    Oklahoma's coaching staff has gone through an overhaul this offseason, but Perine's upside should be a source of calm for new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. He developed some good running backs at East Carolina, but none were as talented as Perine.

20. Texas A&M

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Kyle Allen, So., QB

    Height, weight: 6'3", 205 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,322 passing yards, 16 TDs

    Given the keys to Texas A&M's offense full of bells and whistles midway through last season, Allen started off slow but then finished strong. Those final glimpses in 2014, which included carving up West Virginia to the tune of 294 yards and four touchdowns in the Liberty Bowl, are what we should expect on a weekly basis this coming season.

    Allen was the top-rated passer in the 2014 recruiting class, but he had to wait out the quick rise and fall of Kenny Hill before getting his shot to run the Aggies' attack. Now he's got the job all to himself, and with an endless supply of receivers to throw to, Allen should have a huge sophomore campaign.

    He also showed off some unexpected mobility in that bowl performance, rushing 10 times for 33 yards and a score. If that becomes a frequent tool on his belt, the sky is the limit for Allen.

19. Oklahoma State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Mason Rudolph, So., QB

    Height, weight: 6'4", 217 lbs

    2014 stats: 853 passing yards, six TDs

    Resigned to sitting out his first year of college, Rudolph had his redshirt pulled in late November as Oklahoma State dealt with injuries at quarterback. It was the best decision Cowboys coach Mike Gundy could have made, as the on-the-fly audition Rudolph got over the final three games of 2014 gave us a good idea of what he can do as a full-time starter.

    In a word: lots.

    Rudolph brought a level of confidence and consistency OK State hasn't had at the position since Brandon Weeden's senior year in 2011. Since then, the Cowboys have shuffled through multiple passers without finding one who could stick...or stay healthy.

    With at least 270 passing yards and two touchdowns in each start, Rudolph helped reverse the Cowboys' downward-trending season and got them a bowl victory. Give him a full offseason to continue developing, and he's a big reason this team is seeing its stock on the rise.

18. Tennessee

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Joshua Dobbs, Jr., QB

    Height, weight: 6'3", 216 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,206 passing yards, nine TDs; 469 rushing yards, eight TDs

    Tennessee's season turned for the better in the middle of a two-touchdown loss. That's when Dobbs made his 2014 debut early in a 34-20 home loss to Alabama. Despite the result, the change in how the Volunteers looked on offense and reacted to his presence enabled them to win four of their next five for their best record since 2009.

    Dobbs finished second on the team in rushing in less than half a season, scoring more touchdowns on the ground than any of Tennessee's entire running back unit. His passing numbers were hot and cold, but there was enough promise there to know that with an offseason of work as the clear No. 1 quarterback, he is lined up to have a huge junior year.

    The Volunteers are still young, but also quite experienced in spite of that youth. Dobbs serves as a perfect leader for such a team, as he's really matured on the field. 

17. Arkansas

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Brandon Allen, Sr., QB

    Height, weight: 6'3", 210 lbs

    2014 stats: 2,285 passing yards, 20 TDs

    Arkansas is built to win games in the trenches, with a massive offensive line that opens huge holes for two 1,000-yard rushers and a stout defensive front that controls the line of scrimmage.

    But without Allen, the Razorbacks aren't going to be able to take that next step and rise up the SEC West standings.

    That big line and backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams got the headlines, but Allen was the glue that held Arkansas' offense together. His numbers weren't flashy. But they were dependable, and he made minimal mistakes, finishing the season with only five interceptions and going his final 90 throws (over four games) without a pick.

    "He's incredibly tough, he's a very smart football player, and the biggest person who wants to have success in our football program is Brandon Allen," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema told Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee.

    Allen won't set the world on fire with his passing in 2015, but that doesn't take away from his value.

16. Arizona

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Scooby Wright, Jr., LB

    Height, weight: 6'1", 246 lbs

    2014 stats: 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, six forced fumbles

    Arizona brings back so many great young weapons on offense that it's hard to pick just one who will stand out more than the rest in 2015. The same thing can't be said about the Wildcats defense, which again will be guided by the top individual defender in the country.

    Last year Wright won three major defensive awards, hauling in the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski hardware, the spoils of a season that saw him lead the nation in tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles while finishing third in sacks. Arizona wasn't known for a particularly strong defense as a team, but there was no denying how dominant Wright was.

    And with the Wildcats losing six starters on defense, Wright will become even more important to their success this season. His numbers might drop off without support from his teammates, or they could end up going up if he has to do it all himself.

15. Florida State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dalvin Cook, So., RB

    Height, weight: 6'0", 200 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,008 rushing yards, eight TDs

    Jameis Winston may be gone, but there's no dearth of talent on Florida State's roster. The Seminoles continue to recruit amazingly, and a gem they landed in 2014 has already produced some amazing results.

    But Cook figures to only get better with a full year of offseason workouts under his belt. Despite being an early enrollee last year, an injury in the spring kept him off the field and made his availability limited when last season began.

    Once Cook got into the mix, though, he showed us what he's capable of. He ran for 122 yards in his first career start against Syracuse, then ended his freshman year with three straight 100-yard efforts.

    As the Seminoles spend this spring and summer figuring out who will succeed Winston at quarterback, Cook will use the time honing his craft for what should be a monster sophomore season.

14. Auburn

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Jeremy Johnson, Jr., QB

    Height, weight: 6'5", 230 lbs

    2014 stats: 436 passing yards, three TDs

    Anyone who wishes Auburn would have thrown the ball more can take solace in knowing that the air assault will be a much larger part of the offense in 2015. Johnson has a better arm than Nick Marshall, and while not a statue in the pocket, he's less likely to take off and run with it.

    The Tigers are still going to be a run-heavy team, but they don't have an experienced back they can turn to at the outset. That puts more weight on what Johnson can do, and while his time last fall was limited in his lone spot of prolonged play, he looked great.

    Johnson started in place of Marshall in the 2014 season opener against Arkansas, and he completed 12 of 16 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

13. Georgia

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Nick Chubb, So., RB

    Height, weight: 5'10", 228 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,547 rushing yards, 14 TDs

    Had Chubb been Georgia's primary running back all season in 2014, he might have challenged Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon for the national rushing title and his run at the single-season record. Depending on how new Bulldogs offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer calls plays, such a push for the record books could be in the cards this fall.

    "Chubb's production won't decrease on a per-carry or per-game basis under Schottenheimer, and he'll get the ball early and often," wrote Bleacher Report's Andrew Hall, putting up a conservative 1,800-yard goal for the likely Heisman candidate.

    Chubb was lightly used in Georgia's first five games; then once Todd Gurley became unavailable, he got his chance and ran with it. And ran with it. And kept on running.

    His last eight games all produced at least 113 rushing yards—with the lowest tally coming on nine carries against FCS Charleston Southern—and he ended strong with a school bowl-record 266 yards and two touchdowns in the Belk Bowl victory against Louisville.

    Schottenheimer is likely to be most focused on making sure his quarterback is comfortable. Repeatedly feeding the Chubb beast should be a key component of that game plan.

12. Arizona State

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    D.J. Foster, Sr., WR

    Height, weight: 5'11", 205 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,081 rushing yards, nine TDs; 688 receiving yards, three TDs

    Foster was Arizona State's leading rusher in 2014, but he's being moved into a new role for his senior year in an effort to maximize his skills while also preparing him for his pro career. He'll now be a slot receiver and likely could be the Sun Devils' top receiving target.

    "It's a position I feel is more suitable to me," Foster told Kevin Zimmerman of Fox Sports Arizona in January after announcing he would hold off entering the NFL draft so he could continue to work on converting into a pass-catcher.

    The late emergence of freshman running back Demario Richard made it possible to move Foster without worrying about a drop-off in rushing production. Foster will likely still get touches in the backfield, but with No. 1 receiver Jaelen Strong turning pro, his talents are most needed in the receiving game.

    In three seasons, Foster has gained more than 3,900 all-purpose yards and scored 28 touchdowns.

11. Ole Miss

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Laquon Treadwell, Jr., WR

    Height, weight: 6'2", 229 lbs

    2014 stats: 632 receiving yards, five TDs

    Treadwell suffered a major leg injury in a loss to Auburn in early November that ended his season. Some might say Ole Miss' season ended there, as its offense fall apart without having Treadwell available to make all the big catches.

    Despite missing the Rebels' final three games, Treadwell still led the team in receptions with 48. That included 10 (for 103 yards and a touchdown) in that last game, when he was taken down and fell just short of scoring a potential game-winning touchdown on the play that resulted in a broken leg and a dislocated ankle.

    The hope is that Treadwell will be back in time for spring practice, though he likely would take it easy during those workouts to enable his injuries to fully heal. By the fall, though, he'll be 100 percent and ready to resume his role as Ole Miss' most deadly (and dependable) weapon.

10. Clemson

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    Deshaun Watson, So., QB

    Height, weight: 6'2", 205 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,466 passing yards, 14 TDs; 200 rushing yards, five TDs

    When he was on the field, Watson was a difference-maker for Clemson. Assuming he can stay healthy in 2015, he'll help the Tigers finally get over the hump and take down Florida State for ACC supremacy.

    Watson missed three games with a broken hand, then injured his knee shortly after returning. He played through torn ligaments to help Clemson end a losing skid to rival South Carolina, then had surgery and missed the Russell Athletic Bowl.

    Clemson's offense just wasn't the same without Watson, and his ability to avoid further injury will be the key to this season.

9. Oregon

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    Doug Benc/Associated Press

    Royce Freeman, So., RB

    Height, weight: 6'0", 229 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,365 rushing yards, 18 TDs

    The post-Marcus Mariota era at Oregon will require a shifting of priorities on offense, moving away from the quarterback as focal point and putting more responsibility on the Ducks' wealth of skill players. But this will still be a run-first attack, which means Freeman is the most important piece of the puzzle.

    He was the first freshman in program history to top 1,000 rushing yards, and he got there in the 11th game of the season. He had six 100-yard games, but in the playoffs, Freeman had hit a wall and saw his production drop off dramatically as Thomas Tyner became the go-to back.

    Expect that to serve as a major motivator for Freeman this offseason and for him to come out firing on all cylinders in September.

    Oregon's recent addition of Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams—who arrives in the summer—provides a potential answer to the quarterback situation, but the lack of uncertainty surrounding Freeman makes him far more valuable than any passer.

8. Notre Dame

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Malik Zaire, So., QB

    Height, weight: 6'0", 210 lbs

    2014 stats: 266 passing yards, one TD; 187 rushing yards, two TDs

    Looking for a good reason why Mike Sanford, after turning down other offers, has, according to Irish247's Steve Wiltfong, reportedly decided to leave Boise State to become Notre Dame's offensive coordinator? Just watch what Zaire was able to do against LSU's strong defense during the Music City Bowl in December.

    The redshirt freshman split time at quarterback with Everett Golson but clearly outplayed him, completing 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 96 yards and a score. And, most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over.

    With Zaire dominating, Golson is supposedly looking to transfer for the 2015 season, according to The Times-Picayune (h/t ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy). Regardless of whether that happens, Zaire figures to be leading the Fighting Irish offense this fall and providing Notre Dame opponents with plenty of headaches figuring out how to stop him.

7. UCLA

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    Paul Perkins, Jr., RB

    Height, weight: 5'11", 198 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,575 rushing yards, nine TDs

    Perkins led the Pac-12 in rushing last season, nearly tripling his production from his freshman year as UCLA devoted more to the run but without putting mobile quarterback Brett Hundley into harm's way as much. Now the Bruins head into 2015 with an open competition for the passing job, putting more importance on Perkins' role.

    With six 100-yard games and no efforts producing less than 78 in a contest, Perkins was amazingly consistent and dependable. Coach Jim Mora knew he could expect Perkins to pick up the necessary yardage when the situation dictated a run, and Perkins rarely disappointed.

    UCLA could end up going with a true freshman, Josh Rosen, as its quarterback this fall. Having Perkins there to hand off to 20-plus times per game will ease Rosen's transition to college ball. 

6. Michigan State

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Connor Cook, Sr., QB

    Height, weight: 6'4", 218 lbs

    2014 stats: 3,214 passing yards, 24 TDs

    A senior quarterback might be the one of the most valuable items a college football team can have. For Michigan State, getting Cook to return for his final season prevented it from having to almost completely start over on offense in 2014.

    "Cook can bring consistency to an offense that loses its top rusher and its top receiver this season," wrote Dan Murphy of ESPN.com.

    Jeremy Langford ran for more than 1,500 yards, while Tony Lippett had 1,100-plus receiving yards. Both have graduated, as did the No. 2 rusher and receiver from last year's 11-win team, but thankfully, Cook returns to serve as a steadying point for an offense that has grown from a liability to a strength since he became the starter in 2013.

    The Spartans will find themselves good options to run and catch the ball, but having Cook there to hold everything together as these newcomers settle in makes all the difference in the world.

5. Alabama

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Derrick Henry, Jr., RB

    Height, weight: 6'3", 241 lbs

    2014 stats: 990 rushing yards, 11 TDs

    Alabama lost a top-flight running back to the NFL draft last month and indefinitely suspended another rusher this week.

    But there's still Henry, and he's really all the Crimson Tide will need to have another dominant running game.

    Henry only had 172 carries last season, yet he led the team in rushing while tying T.J. Yeldon with 11 touchdowns. Yeldon turned pro, leaving Henry to take on a greater role that must already have linebackers in the SEC sweating at the thought of having to tackle the enormous ball-carrier in the open field.

    Alabama has tended to split its carries between several backs under Nick Saban, and Lane Kiffin kept that approach last season in his first year as offensive coordinator. But Henry will likely make the coaches buck that trend, as he's an every-down runner who is deserving of 20-plus carries each game.

4. USC

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Adoree' Jackson, So., WR/CB/KR

    Height, weight: 5'11", 185 lbs

    2014 stats: 138 receiving yards, three TDs; 49 tackles, four tackles for loss; 29.7 kick return average, two TDs

    The Pac-12 Conference has become the home of two-way stars the last few years, with UCLA's Myles Jack starting the trend by playing running back and linebacker in 2013 and Washington's Shaq Thompson doing the same last season.

    But Jackson upped the ante last year as a true freshman, not only shining at both wide receiver and cornerback, but doing so by starting on both sides in the same game. And that's not even taking into account his playmaking ability as a returner, running back kickoffs for touchdowns against Utah and in the Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.

    Jackson also caught three passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in the bowl game, while making seven tackles on defense.

    USC's recruiting haul the past few years, including finishing a close second to Alabama in the 2015 class, per 247Sports, has its roster stocked up on talent at every position. Yet that shouldn't warrant limiting the involvement that Jackson has all over the field, not when he's just becoming the best two-way player in college football since Charles Woodson.

    "Making the most of his opportunities in special teams and on offense, as he did in the Holiday Bowl, is how Jackson can be the next Woodson," Bleacher Report's Kyle Kensing wrote.

3. Baylor

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Shock Linwood, Jr., RB

    Height, weight: 5'9", 200 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,252 yards, 16 TDs

    Baylor's passing attack is so explosive that we often forget the Bears are never lacking in production from the run game. They've had a 1,000-yard rusher each of the past five years, with Linwood taking that mantle in 2014.

    The Bears will be breaking in a new quarterback this season, and while that hasn't slowed down the air assault in the past, it would stand to reason that Linwood will get more touches early on as Seth Russell or incoming freshman Jarrett Stidham settles into the job.

    He's been the most durable of Baylor's backs the past two seasons, stepping up as a redshirt freshman in 2013 when injuries slowed other rushers and then avoiding any ailments this past year.

    The highlight reels are going to be heavy on big-pass plays again for the Bears in 2015, but in between, there will be a lot of consistently productive carries from Linwood.

2. TCU

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Trevone Boykin, Sr., QB

    Height, weight: 6'2", 205 lbs

    2014 stats: 3,901 passing yards, 33 TDs; 707 rushing yards, eight TDs

    TCU wasn't a one-man team in going from 4-8 in 2013 to a national title contender last season. But one player's massive improvement had an impact on the Horned Frogs' rise to prominence.

    Boykin was arguably the nation's most improved player in 2014, going from a man without a position—the year before, he bounced around between quarterback, running back and receiver and was in line to be a wideout last spring—to one who was as integral to his team's success as anyone else in the country.

    Co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham deserve a lot of credit for that transformation, but so does Boykin for buying into his coaches' plan.

    Now Boykin heads into his final season as once again the primary weapon in TCU's impressive cadre, one who can use his strong arm to hit any number of receiving targets or his legs to create on the fly. He isn't the only reason the Frogs enter 2015 as a common choice for a playoff spot, but he is the one whose performance this fall will make or break any postseason hopes.

1. Ohio State

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Ezekiel Elliott, Jr., RB

    Height, weight: 6'0", 225 lbs

    2014 stats: 1,878 rushing yards, 18 TDs

    No matter which quarterback Ohio State goes with in 2015, the defending national champions are going to have a good one to work with. But none will matter as much to the Buckeyes' quest to repeat as Elliott, whose emergence in the final month of last season tipped the scales in their favor.

    Elliott finished third nationally in rushing yards, but from December on, he was heads and tails above all other running backs. His final three games were exhibits in excellence: 220 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, 230 yards and two TDs against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and, finally, 246 yards and four scores in the championship against Oregon.

    "Before Elliott, no Ohio State back had ever surpassed 200 yards in consecutive games," wrote Zach Braziller of the New York Post.

    The choice between J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller at quarterback will dictate the overall style of OSU's offense, but regardless of the selection, Elliott's importance won't differ. He established himself as a dependable workhorse in the biggest of games, and with the pressure of being champions weighing down constantly on this team in the fall, he'll be the one to turn to more than anyone else.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

    Editor's note: An earlier version of this story listed Florida at No. 15 instead of Florida State, as ranked in the post-signing day Top 25 used as a guideline. We regret the error.

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