Predicting Every CFB Conference's Player of the Year in 2018
Team success is always the primary goal, but dozens of college football players have legitimate opportunities to stand out as the most productive contributors in their conferences.
While that doesn't automatically mean they'll be in contention for the Heisman Trophy, the best players from all 10 leagues have good chances to garner that attention.
Most conferences award top honors to one offensive and one defensive player. However, we're projecting 2018's overall top performer in each league, regardless of position.
Several key contenders are highlighted along with "one to watch"—perhaps a sleeper or a player returning from injury—from each conference.
American Athletic Conference
McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF: While leading the Knights to an AAC championship and a Peach Bowl triumph over Auburn, Milton threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns to only nine interceptions in 2017. He also ran for 613 yards and eight more scores.
Ed Oliver, DT, Houston: A two-year superstar for the Houston Cougars, Oliver has collected 139 total tackles with 39 for loss and 10.5 sacks. Additionally, he's tallied an impressive 12 pass breakups and five forced fumbles from his interior spot.
Malcolm Perry, QB, Navy: Zach Abey—who piled up 2,218 yards of total offense last season—is returning, but Perry is taking over under center for the Midshipmen. Last season, he scampered for 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns while primarily serving as a running back.
One to Watch
Memphis QB: You would be correct in saying Brady White and David Moore are not one person. However, if the winner of the quarterback battle holds on to the starting spot for the whole season, there's a good chance he'll have impressive stats in Mike Norvell's system like predecessor Riley Ferguson and put the Tigers in position to challenge for the AAC.
Milton had a tremendous year and should continue putting up massive numbers in new head coach Josh Heupel's system. But the potential No. 1 overall selection in the 2019 NFL draft gets our vote. Oliver can't even be compared to most AAC competition.
Atlantic Coast Conference
AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College: Through six games of his freshman season, Dillon managed 333 rushing yards and two touchdowns. During the next seven contests, he accumulated 1,256 yards and 12 scores. That level of production couldn't be ignored if repeated over a full season.
Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson: Perhaps this is a personal preference, since Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are also returning first-team All-ACC linemen. But Ferrell led Clemson with 18 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks last season, also forcing two fumbles.
Jaquan Johnson, S, Miami: Johnson often helped bring out the "Turnover Chain" by making four interceptions and forcing three fumbles. He also paced Miami with 96 tackles, serving as both a reliable and playmaking force in the secondary.
One to Watch
Cam Akers, RB, Florida State: There's uncertainty at quarterback, and the offensive line might struggle again. So the Seminoles aren't guaranteed to compete with Clemson in 2018. But if they do, that'd provide a wonderful boost for Cam Akers. He eclipsed 1,000 yards while sharing carries as a true freshman.
Would you take a Clemson defensive lineman or the field? We wouldn't criticize you for picking the former. Dillon's output behind a seasoned blocking unit gives him an early edge, but any of the Clemson stars could have a major claim to the award.
Big 12 Conference
Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma: Trey Sermon will factor into the rotation, but this is primarily Anderson's backfield. Last year, he collected 1,161 yards and 13 touchdowns as a runner along with 17 catches for 281 yards and five scores.
Will Grier, QB, West Virginia: Before a finger injury ended his season in mid-November, Grier threw for 300-plus yards in nine of 10 games. The Florida transfer totaled 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns while leading West Virginia to a 7-3 record when healthy.
Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma: Although we haven't really seen Murray since 2015 at Texas A&M, the hype surrounding the future Oakland Athletics outfielder is both immense and reasonable. Murray's dual-threat skills should provide an added threat in a friendly, proven system that has helped OU win three straight Big 12 titles.
One to Watch
Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas: Ehlinger encapsulated the team's inconsistency as a true freshman, but a year of development figures to result in bigger numbers if he beats out Shane Buechele. If Texas struggles early, though, Ehlinger will quickly fade from this conversation—and the Longhorns from Big 12 contention.
Grier will likely surpass 4,000 passing yards and approach 40 touchdowns. That's POY-worthy. In a conference in which massive stats are the norm, however, that wouldn't overtake Murray if OU celebrates yet another championship and he thrives on offense. Oklahoma is our Big 12 pick, so Murray gets the nod in a tight race.
Big Ten Conference
Nick Bosa, DL, Ohio State: Lining up opposite Bosa is a daunting task. During his sophomore year, he notched an FBS-best 66 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. He totaled 16.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks while consistently attracting extra blockers.
Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State: Saquon Barkley has gone to the NFL, but Penn State can lean on McSorley. The dual-threat quarterback followed up a 2016 season of 3,979 total offensive yards and 36 touchdowns with 4,061 and 39, respectively, last year.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin: The program's trend of excellence in the backfield is continuing with Taylor, who rumbled to 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman. He eclipsed the 100-yard barrier 10 times and 200-yard mark thrice.
One to Watch
Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan: If the Wolverines win the Big Ten, it likely means the offense capitalized on having an elite defense. And that probably would be the result of Patterson, a transfer from Ole Miss, asserting control of the scoring attack and propelling it to a recently unseen level.
Not only is Bosa the most talented player in the Big Ten, but he's also the premier challenger to Oliver for No. 1 in the country. The Buckeyes are once again the favorite to win the conference, according to OddsShark, and Bosa is the cornerstone of what should be an elite defense.
Mason Fine, QB, North Texas: Fine showed off his terrific downfield throwing ability while posting 4,052 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. He needs to clean up 15 interceptions, but North Texas is returning five of its top six receivers, which suggests another superb year.
Devin Singletary, RB, FAU: The nation's leader in rushing touchdowns, Singletary crossed the plane 32 times as a sophomore. He wrapped up Florida Atlantic's conference-winning campaign with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 33 total touchdowns.
Brent Stockstill, QB, Middle Tennessee: Can he stay healthy? That's the key for Stockstill after he missed a combined nine games in 2016 and 2017. But with back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons on his resume, the redshirt senior deserves to be considered one of the favorites.
One to Watch
Alex Thomson, QB, Marshall: A graduate transfer from Wagner, Thomson is set to replace Chase Litton under center. One clear advantage for Thomson is the return of Tyre Brady, who had 62 catches, 942 yards and eight touchdowns in his first year of eligibility after arriving from the University of Miami.
The departure of quarterback Jason Driskel may sting FAU, but the combination of Singletary's talent and head coach Lane Kiffin's scheme is flat-out overwhelming. Fine, who might become North Texas' all-time leading passer as a junior, should be the primary competition.
Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo: The connection Johnson has built with quarterback Tyree Jackson is exceptionally promising. The wideout linked up with Jackson for three straight 150-yard showings to end 2017, and he finished the year with 76 catches, 1,356 yards and 14 scores.
Nathan Rourke, QB, Ohio: Rourke isn't widely known, but that could start changing in 2018. During his first season at Ohio University, he amassed 2,203 passing yards and 912 rushing yards, throwing 17 touchdowns, running for 21 and even catching one.
Sutton Smith, DE, Northern Illinois: Out of nowhere, Sutton Smith emerged to earn second-team AP All-America recognition last season. The converted running back paced the nation in both tackles for loss (29.5) and sacks (14.0), also forcing three fumbles and returning the two he recovered for touchdowns.
One to Watch
Khalil Hodge, LB, Buffalo: "He's everywhere" is vague praise for a defender. Try this: Hodge more than doubled the total of Buffalo's second-leading tackler last season. He racked up 154 total takedowns with 6.5 for loss, adding two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
As long as Rourke and Ohio outlast Johnson, Hodge and Buffalo Bulls, the Bobcats should represent the East Division in the MAC Championship Game. With four experienced linemen, an improving receiving corps and a 1,000-yard rusher in A.J. Ouellette, Rourke should be the MAC's most prolific player.
Mountain West Conference
Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State: Montell Cozart shared snaps in 2017, but Boise State is Rypien's team again. Entering his fourth season as a starter, Rypien has 60 touchdowns compared to only 22 interceptions in 37 career games.
Juwan Washington, RB, San Diego State: Hey, look, it's a productive SDSU running back. Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark in consecutive seasons, and Washington—who tallied 759 as a backup last year—might carry on the stunning streak behind an experienced offensive line.
Andrew Wingard, S, Wyoming: Wingard posted a career-low 114 tackles in 2017. No, that's not a misprint. In three years at Wyoming, the safety has accumulated 367 total takedowns with 22.5 for loss and grabbed eight interceptions.
One to Watch
Marcus McMaryion, QB, Fresno State: The transfer from Oregon State helped Fresno State reach the MWC Championship Game last season. McMaryion ended the campaign with 3,028 yards of total offense and 18 touchdowns.
San Diego State returns three full-time and two part-time starters up front, so Washington's output could be comparable to Penny's. That should be electric enough to steal POY honors, even if Rypien—a respectable yet not overwhelming producer—and Boise State repeat as conference champs.
Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon: Injuries limited Herbert to only eight appearances in 2017, but he still closed the year with 2,166 yards of total offense and 20 touchdowns. In 461 career passing attempts, he's only tossed nine interceptions.
Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona: The breakout star of 2017, Tate became a feared playmaker once he entered as the injury replacement for Brandon Dawkins. Tate had an unspectacular 1,591 yards and 14 scores with nine interceptions through the air, but he shredded defenses for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Bryce Love, RB, Stanford: Love replaced record-breaking back Christian McCaffrey in epic fashion. Thanks to 12 games of 100-plus yards—including a high of 301—Love set a Stanford mark with 2,118 yards. He also scored 19 touchdowns and was the runner-up to Baker Mayfield in Heisman Trophy voting.
One to Watch
Jake Browning, QB, Washington: Exactly how good is Browning? The 2016 campaign saw him amass 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns, but he only threw for 19 scores last season. Somewhere in the middle would make him a Pac-12 Player of the Year contender, though.
Stanford returns four offensive linemen who earned at least Pac-12 Honorable Mention honors in 2017 plus two experienced starters. It's wild to consider, but Love might have more space to attack next season. The speedster should run away with this award.
Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State: New Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead oversaw McSorley's development into an All-Big Ten player. Fitzgerald is already a proven SEC talent, considering he's accrued 6,564 yards of total offense and 66 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia: Though Fromm's numbers as a protected freshman weren't jaw-dropping, his talent was on full display. He notched 9.0 yards per attempt and had 24 touchdowns compared to only seven interceptions. In a larger role—and complemented by an improved receiving corps—Fromm should thrive.
Drew Lock, QB, Missouri: If the Tigers have an average season or the offense struggles under new coordinator Derek Dooley, Lock won't be a serious contender. But we're not going to ignore somebody who led the FBS with 44 touchdown passes last year.
Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn: A transfer from Baylor, Stidham posted 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns with six interceptions in his first year starting at Auburn. He also chipped in four scores on the ground, helping the Tigers finish 10-4 and defeat a pair of No. 1 teams.
One to Watch
Alabama QB: Will two-year starter Jalen Hurts or national title hero Tua Tagovailoa be behind center for the Tide? And will he share time? Those two questions will shape whether Alabama's quarterback will be involved in the SEC Player of the Year discussion.
The SEC should be a prime example of "biggest stats" not equating to "Player of the Year." That distinction may push Fitzgerald and Lock a tier below Fromm, Stidham and Alabama's quarterback. We're giving an early nod to Fromm, though a full season of Tagovailoa might be enough to overtake the Georgia star.
Sun Belt Conference
Clifton Duck, CB, Appalachian State: As a freshman, Duck impressed with 57 tackles and five interceptions. He backed up that strong debut in 2017, registering 50 total stops and six interceptions.
Justice Hansen, QB, Arkansas State: Hansen narrowly missed out on leading the conference in passing yards (3,967), but his 37 touchdowns blew away the Sun Belt. The rising redshirt senior also posted 423 yards and seven scores on the ground.
Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State: After shredding defenses for 1,402 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016, Moore didn't live up to expectations as a junior. Still, he finished the season with four straight 100-yard showings and should be a force in 2017.
One to Watch
Penny Hart, WR, Georgia State: In each of his two healthy seasons, Hart has crested the 1,000-yard barrier. The 5'8" wideout snared 74 passes for a Sun Belt-best 1,121 yards in 2017, also matching his 2015 total of eight touchdowns.
Duck and Appalachian State will be a tough matchup for Hansen, but the Troy Trojans don't appear on the Red Wolves' schedule. Missing a top-tier defense should help the signal-caller propel Arkansas State to title contention and secure his place as the Sun Belt's best player.