Bleacher Report's 2017 College Football All-America Team

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 7, 2017

Bleacher Report's 2017 College Football All-America Team

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    James Washington
    James WashingtonSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Only one college football player can win the Heisman Trophy, but there's enough room for 27 players to be named Bleacher Report first-team All-Americans.

    Chosen by a panel of David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Greg Wallace, these players came from all over the map. There were at least three selections from each of the Power Five conferences, as well as the American Athletic Conference. We also have representatives from Notre Dame, Northern Illinois and San Diego State.

    The biggest surprise compared to a few months ago is how poorly the SEC fared. We had eight SEC players in our preseason All-Americans, but only four made the cut for the year-end list. Guys like Christian Kirk, Derrius Guice and Arden Key weren't anywhere near as dominant as expected, and there ended up being better special teams options than the ones we chose before the season.

    In fact, there were only seven playersBaker Mayfield, James Washington, Orlando Brown, Quenton Nelson, Ed Oliver, Josey Jewell and Minkah Fitzpatrickwho were voted as both preseason and end-of-season All-Americans.

    You'll have to do some scrolling to find out who the other 20 are.

Quarterback: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 71.0% completion, 4,340 yards, 41 TD, 5 INT, 203.8 QB rating; 310 rushing yards, 5 TD

    With all due respect to Lamar Jackson, Mason Rudolph, McKenzie Milton and Drew Lock, this was not a tough decision to make.

    Baker Mayfield just had the most efficient season for a quarterback in college football history, breaking his own record from last season.

    He probably should have won the Heisman in 2016, but we were so obsessed with Lamar Jackson's video-game numbers and Deshaun Watson's national championship run that Mayfield finished in third.

    This year, though, we were better prepared for Jackson's heroics, and Mayfield is the one making a push for the national championship. Apologies for the spoiler alert if you plan on watching the Heisman ceremony on Saturday night, but Mayfield is going to win by a landslide.

    Say what you will about his antics when he doesn't have the ball in his hands, but this dude has been slinging it around the field for the past three seasons—somehow getting better despite losing primary receivers each year.

    Maybe this would have been open for debate at the end of October, but when Mayfield threw for 598 yards and five touchdowns (while rushing for a sixth) in the Bedlam win at Oklahoma State, this became a no-brainer. Throwing for 13 touchdowns without a single interception in the next four games was just excessive icing on the cake.

Running Back: Bryce Love, Stanford

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 1,973 rushing yards, 8.3 yards per carry, 17 touchdowns

    What Bryce Love accomplished before the end of September was borderline unbelievable.

    The title of best running back in the country was supposed to go to Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice or Bo Scarbrough. Instead, the former backup to Christian McCaffrey averaged 217.6 yards per game and 11.1 yards per carry through his first five contests.

    On Stanford's first play from scrimmage in 2017, Love rushed for 62 yards against Rice. He had 176 yards on 11 carries in the first half, and he was just getting warmed up. A few weeks later, he rushed for 263 yards against UCLA and 301 yards against Arizona State in back-to-back weeks.

    Save for the game against Oregon State that he missed with an ankle injury, Love had at least one carry go for 31 or more yards in every game this season. And in 10 of 12 games, he had at least one rush go for more than 50 yards. Per CFB Stats, he finished the year with 23 rushes for 30 or more yards and a dozen that went for at least 50. In each category, he finished at least 50 percent ahead of the first runner-up.

    Because of the ankle, he didn't finish the year anywhere near as well as he started it. But as long as he rushes for at least 47 yards against TCU in the Alamo Bowl, he's going to bypass McCaffrey to become Stanford's all-time single-season rushing leader. And if he returns for a senior year, he'll almost certainly jump to No. 1 on Stanford's career rushing list.

    Not too shabby for a guy who was an afterthought at the national level heading into the season.

Running Back: Rashaad Penny, San Diego State

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    Kent Horner/Getty Images

    2017 Stats: 2,027 rushing yards, 7.4 yards per carry, 19 TD; 18 receptions, 142 yards, 2 TD; 2 kick-return TD; 1 punt-return TD

    As the backup to Donnel Pumphrey, Rashaad Penny had 1,018 rushing yards and 1,866 all-purpose yards as a junior.

    How did more people not see this monster senior season coming?

    Penny led the nation in rushing yards, but it's the all-purpose yards that really set him apart. Penn State's Saquon Barkley had 1,134 rushing yards, 594 receiving yards and 426 kick-return yards, and he still finished 544 all-purpose yards (45.3 per game) behind Penny.

    At 224.8 yards per game, Penny had the third-best all-purpose season of the past decade. The only players he finished behind are 2015 Christian McCaffrey (276.0) and 2012 Antonio Andrews (243.5).

    The big difference between Penny and those two guys is that they were the primary punt returners and were given ample opportunity to return kickoffs. McCaffrey had 52 combined return attempts. Andrews had 47. Penny only had 17, and he still managed to take three of those to the house. Give this dude 30 more touches with a wedge of blockers, and maybe he gets another 900 yards to finish ahead of McCaffrey.

    Regardless of where he stacks up on the all-time list, Penny was the most electric back in the country this year. And he was showing no signs of slowing down, rushing for at least 200 yards in each of his final four games—including the win over Nevada in which he had 429 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns.

Wide Receiver: James Washington, Oklahoma State

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    James Washington
    James WashingtonSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 69 receptions, 1,423 yards, 12 touchdowns

    Advertised before the season as the best home run threat in the country, James Washington did not disappoint.

    Washington averaged more than 20 yards per reception, which was the highest mark among players who made at least three catches per game. He also led the nation in receptions that went for at least 30 yards, 40 yards and 50 yards.

    While he didn't have anything quite like his 296-yard game against Pittsburgh in September 2016, he could have gotten there against Baylor.

    Washington finished that afternoon with six catches for 239 yards. Those six receptions went for 68, 58, 45, 43, 13 and 12 yards. He had one receiving touchdown and the lone rushing touchdown of his career. One or two more looks and he could have easily eclipsed 300 yards, but he wasn't targeted at any point in the final 21 minutes of the 59-16 blowout.

    Because Washington was such a vertical threat for opponents to worry about, it opened up holes all over the field. Marcell Ateman finished with 1,049 receiving yards. Jalen McCleskey and Dillon Stoner each accounted for at least 40 receptions, 500 yards and five touchdowns. Led by Justice Hill, the Cowboys also rushed for 183.3 yards per game.

    It was overshadowed by Baker Mayfield and the in-state rival Oklahoma Sooners, but Washington helped pace Oklahoma State to 575.7 total yards per game.

Wide Receiver: Anthony Miller, Memphis

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    Anthony Miller
    Anthony MillerMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 92 receptions, 1,407 yards, 17 TD

    Though James Washington put up huge numbers for Oklahoma State, there were plenty of other threats on that offense that opponents had to try to stop. As a result, it wasn't that uncommon to see him streaking down the field for a deep ball against single coverage.

    But at Memphis, it was often Anthony Miller or bust, and everyone knew it. Despite facing defensive schemes hellbent on slowing him down, the former walk-on still averaged 7.7 catches and 117.3 receiving yards per game with 17 touchdowns.

    He will enter bowl season ranked in the top five nationally in all three categories.

    With Miller, it's not just the numbers, but how he got them. There were full-extension diving catches and ridiculous one-handed grabs. Even though he's only 5'11", Miller was always a candidate for a fade route because of his ability to leap and/or box out the cornerback for perfect positioning. And with the exception of catches made in the end zone, he had a knack for fighting for extra yards after the catch.

    That said, the numbers are ridiculous.

    In 50 percent of games this season, Miller had at least 144 receiving yards. That includes the 15-catch, 224-yard, 4-TD game against Connecticut in which Memphis set all sorts of school records on offense. It also includes the 14-catch, 195-yard, 3-TD game against UCF in the wildly entertaining AAC Championship Game.

    Because of his height, Miller might not even be one of the first 10 wide receivers drafted in April. But that just means some lucky franchise is going to fall into the second coming of Wes Welker in the fourth round.

Tight End: Mark Andrews, Oklahoma

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    Mark Andrews
    Mark AndrewsSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 58 receptions, 906 yards, 8 TD

    It's tough to say which is more ridiculous: That Mark Andrews is only a junior or that he counts as a tight end.

    In the past four years, only one other player listed as a tight end has finished with at least 810 receiving yards. That would be Evan Engram, who accounted for 926 yards last season as a senior before becoming one of the only good things about the 2017 New York Giants.

    Unless Andrews gets shut out in Oklahoma's game(s) in the College Football Playoff, he's going to finish ahead of Engram with room to spare. He might even become just the second tight end in the past nine years to record at least 1,000 yards in a season, joining 2013 Texas Tech's Jace Amaro (1,352 yards) on that short list.

    Andrews has been a crucial piece of Oklahoma's aerial assault in each of the past three seasons. Baker Mayfield's safety valveand one of his favorite red-zone targetshas made 108 catches for 1,713 yards and 22 touchdowns. He had a trio of 100-yard games this season, including the 134-yard performance in the season opener against UTEP.

    "A guy who's that big shouldn't be able to run that fast," Mayfield said of Andrews in October, according to the AP (via USA Today). "Teams have to be able to pick and choose who they want to cover him. They put a little guy who can run with him, he's just much bigger and will body him up. Then you put a bigger guy who might match up his size, he can outrun him. It poses trouble for them."

    Like his QB, it's the consistency of Andrews that might be most impressive. With the exception of the game at Ohio State (two catches for 23 yards), this tight end had at least three receptions and 42 yards in every game this season.

    If he happens to come back for another year, he might be the top receiver in the nation.

Tackle: Orlando Brown, Oklahoma

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2017 Team Stats: 215.9 rushing yards, 367.4 passing yards, 44.9 points, 21 sacks allowed

    It's a testament to how good Oklahoma's offense was this season that Orlando Brown is the third Sooner on our list of 2017 All-Americans.

    Or, perhaps it's a testament to how good Brown is that Oklahoma's offense was worthy of such accolades.

    The 6'8" left tackle was the crown jewel of an offensive line that got back all five starters from last season. And with Baker Mayfield's blind side well protected, the Sooners were able to thrive, despite losing their top two running backs and top two wide receivers from 2016.

    The big early test for Brown and Co. was the Week 2 battle with Ohio State. The Buckeyes were expected to have one of the best defensive front sevens in the country. Coupled with playing on the road in the Horseshoe, it should have been an uncomfortable night for Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense.

    Instead, he had time to do just about whatever the heck he wanted, throwing for 386 yards and three touchdowns with just two sacks and eight incompletions in the season-defining victory.

    That would continue for the next three months, as opponents rarely laid a finger on Mayfield or brought down a ball-carrier in the backfield.

    One knock on Brown throughout his career has been lack of consistent effort. He brought his "A game" against Ohio State and in both games against TCU, but he would let up a bit against lesser opponents. But if he plays up to the competition in the Rose Bowl against Georgia, it could push Oklahoma into the national championship and could help vault him into the first round of the 2018 NFL draft.

Tackle: Isaiah Wynn, Georgia

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    Isaiah Wynn (77)
    Isaiah Wynn (77)John Amis/Associated Press

    2017 Team Stats: 263.5 rushing yards, 170.1 passing yards, 34.9 points

    With the exception of the 40-17 loss to Auburn, in which the Tigers dominated the line of scrimmage, Georgia went undefeated and allowed an average of one sack per game.

    Part of that is because the Bulldogs only attempted 18.8 passes per contest, but the bigger part is left tackle Isaiah Wynn.

    Georgia could have been in serious trouble when QB Jacob Eason suffered a knee injury just a few minutes into the season. At that point, the Dawgs had no choice but to turn to true freshman Jake Fromm. It could've gone as poorly for UGA as it did for Florida State when an injury to Deondre Francois forced the Seminoles to roll with James Blackman for the rest of the year.

    The big difference is Fromm's offensive lineparticularly the man responsible for protecting his blind sidegave him the opportunity to succeed. He rarely had to deal with pass-rushers, and a great UGA run game kept him from facing many of the 3rd-and-long situations in which things could unravel in a hurry for a young QB.

    Wynn was also a key part of that great rushing attack. In fact, it's because of his superb run blocking (and his lack of size compared to most NFL tackles) that he may serve as a guard or center in the pros. 

Guard: Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    2017 Team Stats: 279.1 rushing yards, 175.8 passing yards, 35.3 points

    One of the weirdest things about preseason All-American teams and mock drafts is that Notre Damewhich went 4-8 last year and was average on offensehad two of the highest-rated offensive linemen in the country in left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson.

    How is it possible that last year's team couldn't move the ball any better than Troy or Old Dominion if it had two soon-to-be first-round draft picks protecting its quarterback and creating holes for its running backs?

    This year, the rest of the Fighting Irish caught up to those linemen, resulting in one of the best team rushing attacks and a huge bounce back for a 9-3 record.

    Running behind Nelson, Josh Adams became a legitimate Heisman candidate. Fellow backs Deon McIntosh, Tony Jones Jr. and Dexter Williams also had strong rushing averages. And Brandon Wimbush—who had attempted just seven carries and five passes in his college career before this season—rushed and passed for a combined 30 touchdowns.

    Nelson is primarily renowned for his skills as a run-blocker. His ability to pull from left to right before laying out a would-be tackler is second to none. But Nelson also has high-level instincts as a pass-blocker and generally seems to be playing with his head on a swivel and a chip on his shoulder.

    Nelson started the year as a borderline first-round pick. B/R's Matt Miller had Nelson at No. 31 on his way-too-early big board in May. But Miller currently has Nelson projected as the 12th overall draft pick, and he may climb even higher. 

    Per an October piece by Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, "One veteran evaluator said '(Nelson is) better than half the NFL at his position right now.'"

Guard: Braden Smith, Auburn

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    2017 Team Stats: 228.2 rushing yards, 225.8 passing yards, 34.4 points

    Two weeks into the season, it would have been preposterous to suggest that an Auburn offensive lineman would eventually become a first-team All-American candidate. The Tigers allowed three sacks in the season opener against Georgia Southern and were slaughtered for 11 sacks and just 117 total yards the following week against Clemson.

    But thanks in large part to Braden Smith, Auburn improved drastically from there, allowing a combined total of just 13 sacks in its next 10 games and becoming one of the most unstoppable rushing teams in the country.

    Running behind Smith, Kerryon Johnson was a late bloomer as a Heisman candidate. The junior averaged 138.3 rushing yards per game in November and was a problem for which neither Georgia nor Alabama had a solution. (During the regular season, that is. The Bulldogs kept an injured Johnson from accomplishing much of anything in the SEC Championship Game.)

    In those marquee wins over No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama, the Tigers allowed just three combined sacks. Smith is generally more of a run-blocker than a pass-blocker, but he was a critical piece of the unit that gave Jarrett Stidham ample time to operate.

Center: Billy Price, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    2017 Team Stats249.4 rushing yards, 274.2 passing yards, 42.5 points

    It's a little ridiculous that Ohio State thrived on offense while moving a multiyear starter at guard to center for a second consecutive season. It worked so beautifully with Pat Elflein last year that Urban Meyer and his coaching staff decided to do it again with Billy Price.

    And now Price is the highest-rated center on virtually every NFL draft board under the sun.

    Because of his history playing both left and right guard, Price has looked comfortable in both run- and pass-blocking situations, regardless of the opposing defensive front. Whether he's going head to head with a nose tackle, helping slow down a less beefy lineman or engaging with a blitzing linebacker/safety, Price is never overmatched.

    He isn't a second-level blocker who's going to pancake many guys, but Price is like a brick wall with a low center of gravity. You're not getting through him, and with competent guards flanking him, you're not getting around Price, either.

    As a result, Ohio State has a prolific offense and ranks 10th in the nation in tackles for loss allowed per game. That blocking was on full display in the Big Ten Championship Game with Wisconsin's top-notch defense finishing with zero sacks and just four yards gained on tackles for loss.

Defensive End: Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 73 tackles, 25.0 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks, one forced fumble

    It's not often that a defender enters the season as one of the most hyped players in the country and continues to put up incredible stats.

    Case in point, Boston College's Harold Landry had 16.5 sacks last season and was supposed to be a monster this year. Instead, he became the focal point in film study by opposing teams, resulting in just 5.0 sacks in eight games before he missed the rest of the year with an injury. And LSU's Arden Key was a ghost for a guy who entered the season as a projected top-10 draft pick.

    But Bradley Chubb?

    That dude delivered.

    The leader of the Wolfpack defense had 21.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2016, and he posted slightly better overall numbers (in one fewer game) this year. Chubb was part of at least one tackle for loss in all but one game this season, including three games with multiple sacks.

    He did this in spite of playing on a defensive line that doesn't have any other noteworthy pass-rushers. No other member of the Wolfpack finished the season with more than 8.5 tackles for loss or 3.0 sacks. Chubb was the only guy that opposing teams had to worry about, which was clear from the double-teams he faced all season.

    And yet, he still managed to get more backfield penetration than just about any other player in the country.

    Chubb won the Bronko Nagurski Award, honoring the best defensive player of the year. There were a lot of clear picks for defenders on our list of first-team All-Americans, but he was the most obvious.

Defensive End: Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 56 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, 14.0 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries (two TDs), three passes defended

    Sutton Smith is a defensive lineman who is the furthest thing from a household name.

    Hell, until he got to Northern Illinois, he didn't even play defense.

    Per Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune, Smith rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior in high school, and he intended to be a running back in college. In his first fall camp with the Huskies, he was trying out at RB when he decked a safety who had scooped up a fumble.

    "The coaches were so impressed with the tackle, they moved him to defense," Greenstein wrote.

    Two years later, he led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss as a sophomore.

    Smith had at least one sack in nine of 12 games this season, including a three-sack game against Kent State and a 2.5-sack, 5.5-TFL performance against Western Michigan. And in two of the three games in which he didn't have a sack, he both forced and recovered a fumble to make up for it.

    It was Smith who delivered one of the final blows in Northern Illinois' statement road win over Nebraska. On the last drive of the game for the Cornhuskers, Smith got to Tanner Lee for a big sack, forcing them into a 4th-and-14 situation. That nearly impossible down and distance ended up resulting in the game-sealing interception.

    Could he add to his already impressive numbers with a big performance against Duke in the Quick Lane Bowl? The Blue Devils are ranked 101st in the nation in tackles for loss allowed per game, so it's likely.

Defensive Tackle: Hercules Mata'afa, Washington State

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 43 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery

    One of the most interesting developments of the 2017 college football season was a Mike Leach-coached team playing some defense. Washington State had given up at least 405 yards per game and 26.4 points per game in each of the previous five seasons under Leach, but the Cougars got those numbers down to 313.6 and 24.4, respectively.

    As far as QB rating is concerned, Wazzu had the fifth-best passing defense in the country. And that all starts up front with the relentless pressure from Hercules Mata'afa.

    Per CFB stats, Mata'afa ranks fifth nationally in tackles for loss. Usually, the guys at the top of that list are edge-rushers and blitzing linebackers; not defensive tackles who have to fight through double-teams and who are always in the line of sight of the ball-carriers they're trying to bring down.

    Yet, Mata'afa made multiple tackles behind the line of scrimmage in eight of 12 games and had multiple sacks four times.

    Without question, his MVP performance came against Utah on Nov. 11. He had eight tackles, five for loss and three sacks, each of which either matched or set a career high. On one of those sacks, he stripped Tyler Huntley and recovered the fumble. And on the subsequent drive, he came close to recording a safety, sacking Huntley at the Utah 3.

Defensive Tackle: Ed Oliver, Houston

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    Ed Oliver
    Ed OliverMichael Wyke/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 69 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 3 passes defended, 2 fumbles forced, 1 blocked kick

    It took a little while for Ed Oliver to get rolling. Though he did have 11 tackles and a key forced fumble in Houston's first game of the season against Arizona, he had just 3.5 tackles for loss and no sacks by mid-October.

    Part of that is because of the MCL injury he suffered against Temple. He left that game early and finished with just one tackle. Oliver played the following week against SMU, but he didn't have his usual explosiveness.

    Aside from those two games, though, he had at least one tackle for loss in every game this season. And he finished with a flourish, recording five sacks in his final five games.

    Oliver saved his best for last, thwarting Navy's triple-option offense with 14 tackles, 3.5 for loss and 2.0 sacks. The Midshipmen only attempted eight passes in the game, but Oliver was right there when they did try to move the ball through the air. Because of this menace of a defensive tackle, Navy amassed fewer total yards (291) and points (14) against Houston than it did in any other game this season.

    (Quite the shift from Navy's 46-40 upset of Houston in 2016.)

    Unlike most of the guys on this list, Oliver is only a sophomore, so we already know he'll be at the top of the preseason 2018 Defensive Player of the Year rankings.

Linebacker: Roquan Smith, Georgia

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    Roquan Smith
    Roquan SmithKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2017 Stats: 113 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two passes defended, one forced fumble, two fumbles recovered

    Unlike last year when Jabrill Peppers and Jonathan Allen both finished in the top seven in the Heisman votingor 2012 when Manti Te'o finished just 323 voting points behind Johnny Manzielthere was never a strong push for a defensive player to be considered for college football's most coveted individual honor.

    Had there been one, though, that defender almost certainly would have been Georgia's Roquan Smith.

    With 10 returning starters from last season, Georgia's defense was expected to be better than it was last year. That said, there weren't many people who thought the Dawgs would be top four in the nation in both points and total yards allowed per game.

    Smith was, by far, the biggest reason this defense became almost impossible to move the ball against.

    In comparing Smith to Herschel Walker on the list of greatest Georgia Bulldogs he has even seen, AJC's Mark Bradley had perhaps the best possible description for his presence on the field:

    "Smith was so omnipresent against Georgia Tech, which can sometimes make defenses look bad, that you wondered if he were twins."

    Watch any Georgia game and it felt like Smith was everywhereparticularly late in the season. He had at least nine tackles in each of his final five games and recorded a sack in four of those five contests. Both of his fumble recoveries for the season came in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn, where the Bulldogs held the Tigers to just seven pointsmaking up for the embarrassing 40-17 result just three weeks prior.

    Buckle up for the proverbial unstoppable force (Baker Mayfield) against the immovable object (Smith) in the Rose Bowl.

Linebacker: Josey Jewell, Iowa

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 125 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 11 passes defended, two interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery

    The lists of finalists for year-end awards are always controversial. It's almost as if they intentionally leave out one of the best candidates just to get people fired up.

    Lamar Jackson wasn't a top-three finisher for the Davey O'Brien Award (nation's best QB), but J.T. Barrett was? Rashaad Penny led the nation in rushing yards, but he was omitted from the final trio of candidates for the Doak Walker Award (nation's best RB)? And how in the world was Anthony Miller not among the three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award (nation's best receiver)?

    Worst of all, though, was Josey Jewell not finishing in the top five for the Butkus Award (best linebacker)particularly considering he was named one of the five finalists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player).

    No disrespect to the five guys who were nominated (Roquan Smith, T.J. Edwards, Tremaine Edmunds, Dorian O'Daniel and Devin Bush), but Jewell was easily one of the three best linebackers in the nation.

    Despite missing one game with a shoulder injury, Jewell became the first player since 2011 to record at least 120 tackles and 11 passes defended in the same season. Factor in his ability to get backfield penetration and he truly is one of a kind.

    In the near-win over Penn State, Jewell had 16 tackles (three for loss), two pass breakups, an interception and a fumble recovery. The big story from that game was the last-second win for the Nittany Lions and the 305 yards from scrimmage for Saquon Barkley, but he might have gone for 450 yards in a blowout win were it not for Jewell.

Linebacker: T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    2017 Stats: 75 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, seven passes defended, four interceptions (one TD)

    One of the biggest question marks facing any College Football Playoff contender heading into the season was Wisconsin's linebacker situation. The Badgers lost both T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel to the NFL, and they lost Jack Cichy to a torn ACL just three weeks before the season began.

    But this is Wisconsin we're talking about. Both in football and basketball, this program seems to manufacture diamonds in the rough, turning 3-star recruits into legitimate professional prospects on an annual basis. Guys like Ryan Connelly and Leon Jacobs filled the void in a big way while T.J. Edwardsthe lone returning starter from last year's linebacker corps—turned into a star.

    Edwards was the centerpiece of one of the nation's top defenses. Even after a tough outing in the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin finished the year at No. 1 in yards allowed per game and trailed only Alabama and Clemson in scoring defense.

    Given all the conversations about Wisconsin's strength of schedule for the past two months, this is the part where you try to throw an asterisk on those achievements because of the lack of suitable competition. But Edwards and Wisconsin made good offenses look bad and made bad offenses look atrocious.

    His best performance came against Michigan, which was arguably the best team the Badgers faced during the regular season. Edwards had a season-high 11 tackles, including a critical third-down sack to keep the Wolverines out of field-goal range in what was a 7-7 game in the third quarter.

    Edwards also played a key role in Wisconsin's season-opening win over Utah State. The Badgers trailed 10-0 late in the second quarter, but an Edwards interception enabled them to tie up the game before the intermission. With that momentum, they came out in the second half and turned that game into a blowout.

Linebacker: Dorian O'Daniel, Clemson

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 84 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, two interceptions (two TD), five passes defended, two fumble recoveries

    Clemson's defense is so great as a whole that it was tough for anyone to stand out as an individual. There were 10 different Tigers who recorded at least one interception, nine who forced at least one fumble and eight who had multiple sacks. Just about everyone who steps on the field for this defense can rush the passer, tackle in open space and break up a pass attempt.

    It's why Clemson held nine of 13 opponents to 14 points or fewer, but it's also why Dorian O'Daniel only barely made the cut as our fourth linebacker and only Tiger.

    One month ago, O'Daniel might have been a more obvious first-team All-American. He had a pick-six in the road win over Louisville in Week 3 as well as the road win over Virginia Tech in Week 5. All five of his sacks came in Clemson's first eight games, and he was averaging 7.7 tackles per game through the first nine.

    Save for a fumble recovery in the ACC Championship Game, though, O'Daniel was a ghost late in the year. He had 15 total tackles in Clemson's final four games, only one of which came behind the line of scrimmage. Compare this to his 14 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in the Week 2 win over Auburn and it's hard to believe we're even talking about the same player.

    Of course, part of the problem is that those four opponents couldn't even move the ball well enough to consistently reach Clemson's linebackers. Against Alabama and possibly Oklahoma or Georgia in the College Football Playoff, though, we'll once again get a chance to see O'Daniel's value added on D.

Cornerback: Josh Jackson, Iowa

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    Joshua Jackson
    Joshua JacksonCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 47 tackles, 18 passes broken up, seven interceptions (two TD), one fumble forced, one blocked FG

    With Desmond King blocking his path to playing time, Josh Jackson didn't see much of the field in his first two seasons with the Hawkeyes. Between his freshman and sophomore years, he had 18 total tackles, six passes defended and no interceptions.

    Compare that to this year's numbers and you're looking at the breakout star of the 2017 college football season.

    Those full-year numbers are nice and all, but what made Jackson a unanimous first-team All-American was his two-game stretch against what ended up being the No. 5 and No. 6 teams in the final CFP rankings: Ohio State and Wisconsin.

    Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett entered the afternoon against Iowa with just one interception in his first eight games. As you might recall, after his sterling performance against Penn State in the previous week, Barrett was gaining serious steam as a front-runner for the Heisman. That went up in smoke when Jackson picked off Barrett not once, not twice, but three times in Iowa's 55-24 rout of the Buckeyes.

    Seven days later, this star defensive back was Iowa's only source of "offense" against Wisconsin. On the fourth play of the game, Jackson returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown. Early in the third quarter, he did it again, this time from 52 yards out. The Hawkeyes had 66 yards of total offense in the game, and their only points came on those interceptions. But because of Jackson, it was a relatively interesting game deep into the third quarter.

    Factor in his one interception in Week 1 and his other in Week 3 and Jackson finished in a tie for the national lead in interceptions with seven. And combining his interceptions and passes broken up, Jackson finished five passes defended ahead of any other player. In fact, the only other player in the past decade to reach 25 in that category was Houston's William Jackson III in 2015, which made him a first-round draft pick that spring.

Cornerback: Denzel Ward, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 37 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, 15 passes broken up, two interceptions, one blocked punt, one blocked PAT

    Similar to the previously discussed situation with Wisconsin's linebackers, one of the biggest questions heading into this season was: How will Ohio State's secondary fare after losing Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore as first-round draft picks?

    As it turns out, the Denzel Ward-led Buckeyes were still doggone good.

    They weren't quite as great in terms of interceptions (12 this year; 21 last year), but they were mighty close to last year's elite secondary in terms of yards per attempt and yards per game allowed. And as far as total passes defended (breakups and interceptions), their slight dip from 71 to 68 was more impressive than anyone could have expected.

    A quarter of those defended passes came courtesy of Ward, who received a crash course in defending passes last year. He played a lot as a sophomore in 2016, logging 468 defensive snaps, per his bio on the team site. During that time, he was targeted often as the least of the many evils in OSU's defensive backfield, and he ended up tying for the team lead in passes broken up.

    This year, he had nearly twice as many passes defended as any other Buckeye. He also played a key role on special teams, blocking a punt in the 39-38 win over Penn State and blocking an extra point in the 31-20 win over Michigan.

Safety: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 52 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, seven passes broken up, one interception, one forced fumble, one blocked field goal

    Minkah Fitzpatrick's junior-year numbers weren't anywhere near as impressive as those from his sophomore season. But that's not because he forgot how to defend or how to catch. It's because opposing quarterbacks avoided him like the plague, instead trying their luck along the sidelines with Levi Wallace and Anthony Averett.

    Fitzpatrick's transition from cornerback to safety made the entire Crimson Tide secondary much tougher to probe.

    Alabama's pass defense was good last year, but it was elite this year.

    Compared to a 106.5 mark in 2016, Alabama's opponents had a collective QB rating of 98.9, which was the second-lowest in the nation. The Crimson Tide also held opponents to just seven passing touchdowns. That's the fewest allowed by any team this season, and three of those seven TDs came late in the fourth quarter of games that were already effectively over.

    Only one of those touchdowns came in the final five games of the season.

    For Fitzpatrick, it was sort of a Darrelle Revis effect. Even in years in which he didn't have the greatest individual stats, it's clear from the team's overall defensive numbers that he was still impacting the game by forcing opponents to try to live with only using two-thirds of the field. And Alabama's only giving up one passing play that went for more than 40 yards is proof that Fitzpatrick kept teams from even trying the deep ball.

Safety: Quin Blanding, Virginia

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 121 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions (one TD), two passes broken up

    Here's a fun fact about Quin Blanding: He is one of just six players in the past decade with at least 475 career tackles, per Sports-Reference.

    The other five players on that list were all linebackers, which makes Blanding a unique safety.

    He's almost an undersized, slightly faster linebacker who just happens to line up in the secondary. Blanding has respectable instincts in pass coverage, but he's not a center fielder who's going to break up a bunch of passes. Rather than a ball-hawking safety, he's a missile with coordinates set on the ball-carrier.

    At least in that regard, he's a bit like Troy Polamalu.

    Aside from a career-high 17 tackles in the season finale against Virginia Tech and the pick-six against Duke—the only one in his four seasons—there aren't any specific moments that stand out in Blanding's senior year. He was just a rock-solid source of tackles who joined forces with Micah Kiser and Jordan Mack to give Virginia a respectable defense after two straight years of being dreadful on that side of the ball.

Kicker: Matt Gay, Utah

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: Made all 37 PATs. Made 27 of 31 field goals. Was 5 of 6 from 50+ yards.

    Auburn's Daniel Carlson had a fourth solid year of place kicking. In his career, Carlson has made 81.1 percent of field goals and all 195 of his extra-point attempts. Unless he scores at least 23 points in the Peach Bowl, he will finish his career at No. 5 on the career points leaderboard.

    But as far as just the 2017 season is concerned, Utah's Matt Gay was the king of kickers.

    His 27 made field goals were the most in the country. At 87.1 percent, he ranked 11th in accuracy among qualified kickers. But he was the only one to attempt at least three field goals from 50-plus yards and also convert on more than 85 percent of his attempts for the season.

    In a September win over San Jose State, he drained both a 50-yard and 56-yard field goal in the first quarter, finishing that game with 18 points.

    Factoring in his success rate from the 40-49 range, Gay was nine of 12 on attempts from at least 40 yards out. That might be enough for him to get some looks from the NFL.

Punter: Michael Dickson, Texas

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 73 punts, 48.4 yards per punt

    It's hard to believe that there are ridiculously specific advanced stats in virtually every organized sport under the sun, but as far as readily available data is concerned, the best we can do for punting in college football is yards per punt.

    Not even net yards per punt. Or a count of touchbacks. Or average hang time. Or anything really. We just know how far dudes can kick the ball.

    And Michael Dickson has a great foot, averaging 0.8 more yards per punt than anyone else this season.

    The best example of Dickson's prowess was the 13-10 game against Oklahoma State in October. In one of the strangest battles for field position in recent Big 12 history, Dickson was called upon to punt 11 times. He averaged 50.9 yards per punt, and it would have been even more if not for the three times he punted it less than 40 yards and pinned the Cowboys inside their own 15.

    That's the part which is most frustrating about only knowing yards per punt.

    Alabama's JK Scott is a fantastic punter who gets a lot of hang time and frequently pins the opposition inside its own 10. But he ranked 35th in yards per punt while Alabama only allowed five punt-return yards in the entire season. It's absurd that he looks so statistically inferior to Dickson just because Alabama's offense gave him more coffin-corner opportunities than the Texas offense gave to Dickson.

    There's a good chance Dickson would still be our All-American instead of Scott even with additional data, but trying to pinpoint the best punter shouldn't have to be so subjective. Let's all make our 2017 holiday wish for there to be more punting data next season. (Stats for offensive linemen, too, please.)

Kick Returner: Tony Pollard, Memphis

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 19 kick returns, 42.4 yards per return, four touchdowns

    Memphis already has one of the best offenses in the nation, ranking fourth in both total yards per play and total yards per game.

    It's not fair that the Tigers also had the best kick returner.

    On 21 percent of his kickoff returns, Tony Pollard found the end zone.

    Three of those four touchdowns were critical. Against both Louisiana-Monroe and Houston, Memphis only won by one possession. And against Southern Illinois, it was a three-point game late in the third quarter when he went 100 yards to help give the Tigers a double-digit lead.

    As a result of his touchdowns, Pollard has the highest single-season return average since at least 1976.

    And those returns are only part of the story. Pollard also averaged 14.7 yards per reception and 7.7 yards per carry while getting 63 touches in the offense, finishing the season with 10 all-purpose touchdowns.

    If this bottle of greased lightning comes back for another season, don't be surprised if he leads the nation in all-purpose yards in 2018.

Punt Returner: Dante Pettis, Washington

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 21 punt returns, 20.4 yards per return, four touchdowns

    It's hard to believe that teams kept giving Dante Pettis a chance to return punts against them.

    The man entered his senior season with 846 career punt-return yards and five touchdowns. At a certain point, you'd think opponents would have figured out they're better off just punting the ball out of bounds after 20 yards than kicking it to Pettis.

    Instead, teams were inexplicably committed to making him the all-time leader in punt-return touchdowns.

    Pettis took one punt to the house in each of his first three games of the season. At that point, he was averaging a staggering 38.8 yards per return. And for at least a couple of weeks, opponents finally wised up and didn't give him a returnable punt.

    Eventually, though, he broke free against Oregon for his ninth TD.

    In addition to the touchdowns, Pettis is the first player since Jeremy Kerley (2007-10) to accumulate at least 1,200 career punt-return yards (1,274). He could have a bright future as the NFL's next Danny Amendolathough, hopefully a less injury-prone version of that speedster.


    Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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