Breaking Down the Best Offensive Players in Each College Football Conference
Over the past few years, college football has become an increasingly offensive-oriented game. Spread offenses like Auburn, Clemson, Oregon and TCU's have piled up points from coast to coast, making the game truly fun for fans to watch.
With that said, there’s still room for power rushers who chew up three yards and a cloud of dust (or 50 yards and paydirt) each time out and powerful passing games that feature dropback signal-callers who’ll fit right into any NFL offense. The point? Offenses rule the game, and having talented offensive players on your roster is paramount to sustained success.
Here’s a look at the best offensive players in each FBS conference. Players were selected for their on-field impact, as well as their potential to make a difference for their respective teams in 2015.
Atlantic Coast Conference: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
In six-plus seasons at Clemson, Dabo Swinney has built one of the nation’s most consistent winners, a team that proved it was as talented defensively as it was offensively in 2014. This fall, the Tigers are in position to challenge for the ACC title and a College Football Playoff berth, provided they can fill in some key holes on defense.
But if they have a healthy Deshaun Watson, they can survive nearly anything thrown at them. The sophomore quarterback was hampered by injuries last fall (including a broken finger and a season-ending torn ACL), but when he was healthy, he was special.
The freshman threw for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns against two interceptions, including an ACC-record-tying six touchdown passes in his first career start against North Carolina.
At 6’2”, 205 pounds, Watson needs to add bulk, but he's an excellent passer with solid mobility. He is on pace to be full-speed for summer workouts with no ill effects, per Dan Wolken of USA Today.
"He's self-motivated to the nth degree," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told Wolken. "He's been through a lot already in his life and he's got a good perspective and appreciation for the whole process that he's been through. He's just wired differently. He's one in a million. If he stays healthy, there's no limit to him."
Watson should only improve in his second season. Chad Morris is gone as Clemson’s offensive coordinator, but new co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott will carry over Morris’ offensive philosophy. Watson will be the key to a special 2015 for Clemson.
American Athletic Conference: Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel
Gunner Kiel has finally found a home. And that’s a good thing for Cincinnati and fans of talented quarterbacks. The highly touted quarterback originally committed to LSU before signing with Notre Dame. But he transferred away from the Fighting Irish program following a redshirt season that cost him a year of eligibility.
Last fall, Kiel proved he was worth the wait, throwing for 3,254 yards with 31 touchdowns against 13 interceptions and completing 59.7 percent of his passes. In his collegiate debut, he torched Toledo for 418 yards. His six touchdowns set a Cincinnati single-game record and tied an AAC single-game mark. He led the Bearcats to a share of the AAC regular-season title, too.
At 6’4”, 208 pounds, he has prototypical size for a quarterback and is clearly the AAC’s top offensive player. With another season to learn, he should be even better this fall, keeping the Bearcats in conference title contention.
Big Ten Conference: Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
One of the biggest questions surrounding Ohio State this fall might concern the Buckeyes’ most worthy Heisman Trophy candidate. Is it the guy who wins the three-way quarterback derby (J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones or Braxton Miller)? Or is it the guy who that winner will hand the ball off to on a regular basis?
A strong case could be made for junior tailback Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott, who stands 6’0”, 225 pounds, is coming off of a breakout sophomore season, and he carried Ohio State to the College Football Playoff title. He had three consecutive 200-yard rushing games to end the season, including an amazing 36-carry, 246-yard, four-touchdown effort in the title-game rout of Oregon.
Last fall, Elliott rushed for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns despite a slow beginning that saw him get just 27 carries in the first three games. With a heavier workload this fall, he should blow past 2,000 yards. He is a fast, tough back who is a challenge for opposing linebackers to bring down. He’s the Big Ten’s best offensive player entering 2015.
Big 12 Conference: TCU QB Trevone Boykin
Once Trevone Boykin found a home, he was hard to stop. Last fall, Boykin settled in as TCU’s starting quarterback after switching between quarterback and wide receiver, but he found his fit under center.
Running the Air Raid offense, Boykin and the Horned Frogs were all but unstoppable, finishing the season 12-1 after a Peach Bowl demolition of Ole Miss. If not for a 61-58 loss to Baylor, TCU would likely have made the College Football Playoff.
As it turns out, the Frogs have plenty to play for in 2015. They’ll be one of the top College Football Playoff contenders, and Boykin will be a prime Heisman Trophy candidate. Last fall, he threw for 3,901 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, adding 707 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Boykin can run, he can throw and he has plenty of talent around him. It’s clear he’s the Big 12’s top offensive player.
Conference USA: Western Kentucky QB Brandon Doughty
If the average college football fan was asked to guess the FBS leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns last fall, they’d probably go through plenty of guesses before Brandon Doughty’s name popped up. Playing in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for the Conference USA's Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Doughty may be anonymous, but he's plenty prolific.
Last fall, he threw for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns, completing 67.9 percent of his passes and leading the Hilltoppers offense to 44.4 points per game, which ranked sixth nationally. He stands 6’3”, 216 pounds and has developed into an NFL prospect.
Opposing defenses were likely unhappy to hear that the NCAA had granted him a sixth year of eligibility. (He suffered season-ending injuries after two games in 2011 and 2012), but WKU coach Jeff Brohm and his offense are giddy at the prospect of another season with Doughty running the show.
Mid-American Conference: Western Michigan RB Jarvion Franklin
Last fall, Jarvion Franklin had a debut unlike any other in Mid-American Conference history. The Western Michigan freshman rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns, piling up 1,719 all-purpose yards and playing a huge role in WMU’s turnaround from 1-11 in 2013 to 8-5 in 2014.
He became the first player in MAC history to win MAC Freshman of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year in the same season, and he’s far from done. Franklin, who stands 6’0”, 220 pounds, will have a talented, experienced offense around him in 2015, and he should be even better with a season’s worth of experience behind him.
As MLive.com's David Drew noted that Franklin spent spring fine-tuning his game and improving. Franklin discussed his offseason:
"It was kind of frustrating last year because sometimes I knew the right hole to go to, but I made the wrong decision," Franklin explained. "I'm trying to get better at trusting my instincts. It's about 100 percent fine-tuning (in the spring). I always try to come out here and have a good attitude and try to get better."
He served as a workhorse last fall and is expected to be a more complete back as a sophomore. Either way, he’s an electric player who America will get to know well soon.
Mountain West Conference: Colorado State WR Rashard Higgins
Ever bought a home and moved in, only to find that the old occupants left something behind for you? Maybe it’s a table or a nice picture hanging on the wall. Perhaps a mower in the garage or a grill sitting on the patio. When Mike Bobo took over Colorado State’s program last winter, he found a nice gift from now-Florida coach Jim McElwain: receiver Rashard Higgins.
Higgins was one of the nation’s top wideouts last fall, making 96 receptions for 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns. He had 10 100-yard receiving games on the season and finished the season with an eight-game 100-yard streak.
Higgins stands 6’2”, 188 pounds and has excellent speed, catching ability and consistency. While quarterback Garrett Grayson has graduated, Higgins will remain a focal point of Bobo’s first CSU offense and one of the nation’s best playmakers.
Pac-12 Conference: Southern California QB Cody Kessler
2015 could be the year that Southern California truly emerges from the cloud of NCAA probation and returns to national prominence. Following a 9-4 season, the Trojans return 16 starters and welcome a talented recruiting class. Most importantly, they have a star quarterback in senior Cody Kessler.
Kessler had an excellent season in 2014, throwing for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns against five interceptions. He stands 6’1”, 210 pounds and is a very efficient passer with excellent pocket-passing ability, vision and scrambling ability.
Kessler must adjust to the loss of leading receiver Nelson Agholor, a first-round NFL draft pick, but he still has plenty of talent, including sophomore receiver JuJu Smith and two-way player Adoree’ Jackson. If Kessler repeats last fall’s numbers, he’ll be the Pac-12’s best player, and USC will challenge for a College Football Playoff bid.
Southeastern Conference: Georgia TB Nick Chubb
For the second consecutive season, Georgia coach Mark Richt will head into fall with a Heisman Trophy candidate in his backfield. We all knew that Todd Gurley was a Heisman candidate in 2014, but suggesting Nick Chubb would follow in his footsteps might have earned you some quizzical glances from the Bulldog faithful last fall.
Not anymore. Gurley’s junior season was truncated by a four-game NCAA suspension for profiting from signed memorabilia and time off with a torn ACL, but Chubb stepped into the breach ably. He piled up 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns as a freshman while averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He is a powerful runner with the ability to bowl over tacklers and churn forward.
Chubb ended 2014 with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing efforts, blasting Louisville in the Belk Bowl for 266 yards and two touchdowns. While others, like LSU’s Leonard Fournette, will challenge him as the SEC’s top offensive player in 2015, Chubb has the track record to start the season as the league’s best and a serious Heisman Trophy candidate.
Sun Belt Conference: Louisiana-Lafayette RB Elijah McGuire
In four years, Louisiana-Lafayette Mark Hudspeth has built one of the most consistent programs in the Sun Belt, with four consecutive nine-win seasons and four consecutive bowl victories. The Ragin’ Cajuns have a strong offense, and although they’ll be reloading in places this fall, they can count on a strong effort from junior tailback Elijah McGuire.
McGuire is a two-time first-team All-Sun Belt selection and the returning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. He led the Sun Belt with 1,848 all-purpose yards and led Louisiana-Lafayette with 1,264 rushing yards and 45 receptions. In other words, he does it all.
McGuire stands 5’11”, 198 pounds and isn’t the biggest guy, but with Louisiana-Lafayette breaking in a new starting quarterback this fall, his impact will likely be even bigger in 2015.