Predicting Every CFB Conference's Player of the Year in 2019
Championship picks, Top 25 rankings and player of the year forecasts are integral pieces of the college football offseason. That final category is perhaps the most interesting.
For good reason, returning stars are popular choices. Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa deserve all the praise they're receiving. But this is also a moment when potential breakout players are shoved even further into the spotlight.
While each conference's projected winner is highlighted, every league has multiple worthy candidates. We'll highlight a couple of other names to watch in each league, too.
Fitting to this transfer-happy era of college football, three of the 10 choices began their careers at a different school.
American Athletic Conference
Winner: D'Eriq King, QB, Houston
Despite missing the last two games, D'Eriq King still finished 2018 with 3,656 total offensive yards and 50 touchdowns. Because of that late-season knee injury, though, expectations for 2019 couldn't be set until he was healthy enough to take the field again.
He did just that in April.
"Feel great," King said, per Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle. "I've been cutting, running full speed, stopping, changing directions."
Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles left for Florida State, but new head coach Dana Holgorsen is installing his prolific offense at Houston. Throw in the returning skill-position talent—namely receivers Marquez Stevenson and Keith Corbin—and King is poised to thrive in 2018.
Others to watch: Brady White, QB, Memphis; Michael Warren II, RB, Cincinnati; Darriel Mack Jr. (or Brandon Wimbush), QB, UCF
Atlantic Coast Conference
Winner: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Clemson returns the 2018 ACC Player of the Year, but it might not be the player who first comes to mind. That honor went to running back Travis Etienne, who totaled 1,736 yards and 26 touchdowns for the national champions.
But he probably won't mind relinquishing the title to Trevor Lawrence.
As a true freshman, Lawrence completed 65.2 percent of his throws at a superb 8.3 yards per attempt. He amassed 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air, only tossing four interceptions.
In 2019, he'll be the full-time starter immediately. Lawrence earned the starting job in the fifth game of 2018 before leading Clemson to its fourth straight ACC crown and second national title in three years. He should have another prolific year for the heavy ACC favorites.
Others: Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson; AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College, Xavier Thomas, DE, Clemson
Big 12 Conference
Winner: Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
Identical to season predictions, this should be an Oklahoma/Texas battle. The most likely winners are Jalen Hurts and Sam Ehlinger, the quarterbacks for the rival programs.
While the head-to-head matchup is important, that result won't necessarily determine the award. Hurts' role in a more explosive OU offense gives him an advantage. Though his ability to involve the entire supporting cast is a question, having an All-American-caliber receiver in CeeDee Lamb lessens the concern.
Ehlinger should assemble an excellent year, and his timely rushing production deserves praise. But after the departure of creative slot target Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Ehlinger's total numbers may dip.
If either program has a more disappointing season than anticipated, expect the other's quarterback to emerge as the clear favorite.
Others to watch: Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas; Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State
Big Ten Conference
Winner: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Last season at Georgia, Justin Fields managed a few meaningful snaps but rarely had a chance to show his skill set. Consider this a vote of confidence in new Ohio State coach Ryan Day figuring out the optimal ways to use Fields.
The No. 2 overall prospect in 2018, Fields is a strong-armed quarterback and also an elite athlete. In limited action, Fields has looked like an intelligent passer and dynamic runner.
However, what if he doesn't match the hype?
Purdue will probably, and understandably, force-feed touches to Rondale Moore once again. He ranked third nationally with 2,215 all-purpose yards as a true freshman. But for Moore to truly contend for the award, Purdue might need nine or 10 wins—which Shea Patterson and Michigan are likely to achieve.
Others to watch: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue; Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan; J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State; Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin; A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa
Winner: Mason Fine, QB, North Texas
The two-time reigning Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Mason Fine is looking to join an exclusive group as a senior. He could become the league's second quarterback to ever win that award three straight times, potentially matching Louisville's Dave Ragone.
And the Mean Green have plenty of experience to aid that pursuit.
North Texas brings back a 1,000-yard receiver in Rico Bussey Jr., along with multiyear contributors Jaelon Darden and Michael Lawrence. Tight end Kelvin Smith, two all-conference honorable mention blockers and head coach Seth Littrell all return, too.
Others to watch: James Morgan, QB, FIU; Isaiah Green, QB, Marshall; Spencer Brown, RB, UAB
Winner: Jon Wassink, QB, Western Michigan
The MAC race is one glorious mess.
Nathan Rourke is hugely productive, yet Ohio is retooling the receiving corps. Toledo is doing the same while waiting for a resolution in the QB competition. Mike Glass III was brilliantly efficient for Eastern Michigan last season but had scattered playing time.
Even our MAC pick—Western Michigan quarterback Jon Wassink—lost his top target. Still, the Broncos return D'Wayne Eskridge, tight end Giovanni Ricci and versatile back LeVante Bellamy.
Whichever programs end up navigating the minefield that is the MAC in 2019 will have the leading contenders.
Others to watch: Nathan Rourke, QB, Ohio; Mitchell Guadagni and Eli Peters, QB, Toledo; Mike Glass III, QB, Eastern Michigan
Mountain West Conference
Winner: Jordan Love, QB, Utah State
Boise State might end up winning the Mountain West again, but Chase Cord's recovery from an ACL tear has complicated this race. If his season debut is delayed yet he's the top option, the Broncos may have a midseason switch at the position.
That's unlikely to happen at Utah State, which has Jordan Love running the offense. He amassed 3,630 total yards and accounted for 39 touchdowns in 2018.
Granted, Love must adapt to new coordinator Mike Sanford. Any issues could provide a window for Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald or San Diego State running back Juwan Washington, who both missed time due to injury last year.
The Mountain West does boast a pair of standout defenders who could challenge for the award in Boise State rusher Curtis Weaver and Utah State tackling machine David Woodward.
Others to watch: Cole McDonald, QB, Hawaii; Juwan Washington, RB, San Diego State; Curtis Weaver, LB, Boise State; David Woodward, LB, Utah State
Winner: Jacob Eason, QB, Washington
Three Georgia quarterback recruits have a chance to win conference player of the year this season, though two have transferred from the Bulldogs. Those two are Fields and Jacob Eason.
After sitting out 2018 because of transfer rules, the former UGA starter is ready to lead Washington. In addition to oft-injured but talented tackle Trey Adams, the Huskies have four returning players up front and three key receivers, plus tight end Hunter Bryant.
The last point is a main advantage for Eason compared to Oregon's Justin Herbert. While the entire offensive line is intact, the Ducks are banking on breakout seasons at receiver—or, in the case of Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson, a bounce-back year.
Washington State's quarterback—whether it's Gage Gubrud or someone else—is a wild card because of Mike Leach's offense.
Others to watch: Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon; Gage Gubrud, QB, Washington State; Zack Moss, RB, Utah; JT Daniels, QB, USC
Winner: Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Although the national title showed Tua Tagovailoa's flaws, this is still the same quarterback who was basically running away with the Heisman Trophy until the SEC Championship Game.
And basically the same receiving corps, too.
Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy is back along with Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith. They combined for 201 catches, 3,597 yards and 38 touchdowns last season. Tagovailoa should put up prolific numbers once again.
Barring injury, this is Tagovailoa's award to lose.
Others to watch: Grant Delpit, S, LSU; Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Sun Belt Conference
Winner: Zac Thomas, QB, Appalachian State
Appalachian State is dealing with a rarity at the program this offseason—change—but new head coach Eli Drinkwitz is inheriting an outstanding duo to lead the offense.
Zac Thomas accounted for 2,543 yards and 31 touchdowns last year, while Darrynton Evans scampered for 1,187 yards and seven scores.
Throw in that Appalachian State is the clear favorite to secure the Sun Belt crown, and they're the players to beat. Midweek matchups with Georgia Southern and Troy will be pivotal games both in this race and the conference as a whole.
Others to watch: Darrynton Evans, RB, Appalachian State; Shai Werts, QB, Georgia Southern; Kaleb Barker, QB, Troy