Ranking the Top 10 Seniors Heading into the 2020 College Football Season
If you think all the best talent in college football leaves for the NFL after three seasons, you might want to take a look at the bountiful crop of seniors who will be gracing the field this fall.
Everyone on this list almost certainly would have been drafted had they opted to go that route. Several of them even had first-round potential. But none of that conjecture matters anymore. They're coming back, and they should have a big impact on the upcoming season.
Our ranking is based on a combination of production from the past three seasons and projections for 2020, though it should go without saying that the former is more important since it helps shape the latter.
Honorable mentions: Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest; Ian Book, Notre Dame; Shane Buechele, SMU; Kylin Hill, Mississippi State; Richard LeCounte III, Georgia; Jamie Newman, Georgia; Hamilcar Rashed Jr., Oregon State; Brady White, Memphis
Honorable Mention: Dylan Moses, Alabama LB
Dylan Moses should have been on our Top 10 Juniors list from last week. He is a redshirt junior, but I thought he was a redshirt senior. Did not realize my error until putting this list together. Mea culpa.
The veteran linebacker needs to be represented somewhere, though, because he was a borderline top 10 overall player prior to tearing his ACL last August and subsequently missing the entire 2019 season.
Last April, our resident NFL draft expert Matt Miller had Moses projected as the No. 9 overall pick. And despite missing the most recent season, a lot of people thought he still could have gone in the first round this year if he had declared.
He didn't, though. He'll be back in Tuscaloosa seeking to prove that he belongs in that top 10 range once again.
Moses led the Crimson Tide in total tackles as a sophomore with 86, but it's more than just the number. He has an innate ability to read plays and the elite sideline-to-sideline range to almost single-handedly keep opponents from breaking off big plays. If he's back to full health, he should have a Jabrill Peppers type of impact and could be this year's defensive phenom who ends up in the top 10 of the Heisman vote.
10. Quincy Roche, Miami DL
There are two graduate transfers in our top 10, both of whom ended up at Miami. Clearly, the Hurricanes have grown tired of Clemson lording over the ACC and they are hoping to make a big splash this season.
Miami already had a darn fine sack artist in Gregory Rousseau. As a redshirt freshman, he had more sacks (15.5) than all players aside from Ohio State's Chase Young. And now the Canes add Quincy Roche, who had 13 sacks in 2019 and 26 over the past three seasons at Temple.
Roche got out to a slow start last year. After six games, he had just 12 tackles and three sacks. But in his next six contests, he more than tripled both of those totals, recording 37 tackles and 10 sacks. Just against Tulane, he had 12 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Offensive lines in the ACC are generally better than those in the AAC, but it just so happens that Temple faced three ACC opponents in the span of one calendar year—Duke in the 2018 Independence Bowl, Georgia Tech during the 2019 regular season and North Carolina in the 2019 Military Bowl. Roche had a combined total of 15 tackles and three sacks in those games.
Translation: He should do just fine in the ACC.
Miami had one of the best pass-rushing units in recent years, but it is going to be an absolute terror in that department this year.
9. Elijah Molden, Washington DB
Did you know Washington's defensive backs are allowed to stay in college for four years? Between Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Byron Murphy and Taylor Rapp all leaving early in the past half-decade, I was starting to think the Huskies were strongly encouraging their best secondary players to leave as soon as possible.
But Elijah Molden is breaking that...mold.
He had a remarkable 2019 campaign, racking up 79 tackles (5.5 for loss), 13 passes defended, four interceptions and three forced fumbles. Aside from the tackles for loss, he led Washington in all of those categories. In fact, he either outright led or tied for first place in the Pac-12 in passes defended, interceptions and forced fumbles.
And if it weren't for Murphy and Rapp leaving early (and Jordan Miller graduating) after the 2018 season, Molden likely would've remained stuck in a backup role, trying to make the most of his opportunities on special teams once again.
He'll be back in 2020 as one of the only known commodities for Washington. With 10 starters graduating and QB Jacob Eason, RB Salvon Ahmed and TE Hunter Bryant all leaving a year early, it's probably going to be a rebuilding year in Seattle. Molden will do his best to make sure that's not the case, though.
8. Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State WR
Tylan Wallace suffered a torn ACL in early November 2019 and missed Oklahoma State's final five games.
Up until that point, though, he was arguably the best receiver in the nation dating back to the start of 2018.
During those two seasons, Wallace was one of nine players with at least 2,000 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. He got his 2,394 yards and 20 scores in just 21 games. It took Jerry Jeudy 28 games to get to 2,478 yards and 24 touchdowns, and Tee Higgins needed 30 games to reach 2,103 yards and 25 scores.
Wallace averaged 114.7 receiving yards per game as a sophomore, ranking third in the nation in that category. He was at 112.9 at the time of his torn ACL, which would have been good enough for fourth place if he had played in enough games to qualify.
There's no way to know if he would have returned for a senior season if he hadn't suffered the injury, though college football history certainly suggests it was unlikely to happen.
Only two players in the past two decades tallied at least 1,200 receiving yards in back-to-back years and then came back for one more: Middle Tennessee's Richie James—who did it as a true freshman and sophomore and didn't have a choice—and Western Michigan's Corey Davis. And Davis came back better than ever, setting career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns en route to the FBS record for career receiving yards.
Regardless, Wallace is coming back, and he should be headed for one heck of senior season, provided his knee has fully recovered.
7. Trey Smith, Tennessee OL
Trey Smith was already one of the best comeback stories in recent years. Blood clots in his lungs cut short his sophomore season after seven games, but he battled back as a junior and dominated over the second half of last year—despite barely being allowed to practice and despite switching from left tackle in 2018 to left guard in 2019.
And now he's coming back for a senior season with the Volunteers.
Smith bounced between guard and tackle as a freshman but earned all-SEC first-team honors at the former position as a junior. He was an integral part of Tennessee ending the season on a six-game winning streak, protecting Jarrett Guarantano for more than 400 passing yards against Missouri and paving the way for Tennessee's ground game to run for nearly 300 yards the following week against Vanderbilt.
If the Vols continue to build on that strong finish and make a push back into the Top 25, Smith will deservedly get a lot more national attention.
Whether they go with Guarantano, Brian Maurer or true freshman Harrison Bailey, Smith will be tasked with keeping his QB's uniform clean and keeping Tennessee's offense moving in the right direction.
6. Marvin Wilson, Florida State DT
"He's the best returning interior defensive lineman and going to be highly coveted next April."
That's what Pro Football Focus' Anthony Treash wrote while ranking Marvin Wilson as the fourth-best returning defensive lineman for next season.
In just nine games—he missed the last three with a hand injury—Wilson had 44 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and four passes defended.
Doesn't seem like much compared to an edge-rusher like Chase Young, but that's damn impressive for a guy who has to fight his way through two blockers on virtually every snap.
Auburn's Derrick Brown is a mortal lock to be the top interior lineman drafted in 2020, and his stats (54 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, four passes defended in 12 games) weren't any better than Wilson's. Same goes for Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence from that elite Clemson defensive line in 2018.
Even the best defensive tackles rarely put up big numbers.
But you watch Florida State play defense and your eyes are immediately drawn to Wilson—and not just because his No. 21 looks out of place in the trenches. Keeping him from getting into the backfield is clearly the biggest goal for offensive lines, but he still muscles his way through and gets pressure on the quarterback on a fairly regular basis. Getting that guy back for another year was a huge win for new head coach Mike Norvell.
5. DeVonta Smith, Alabama WR
Both Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III are legitimate candidates to be taken in the Top 10 of the NFL draft later this month, but DeVonta Smith was actually Alabama's top receiver last year.
Smith made 68 receptions for 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns. Jeudy had him beat in receptions (77), and Ruggs narrowly edged him out in yards per reception (18.7 to 18.5), but Smith led the Crimson Tide in both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
In the Week 5 win over Ole Miss, Smith made 11 catches for 274 yards and five touchdowns—all five of which went for more than 20 yards. He also had seven receptions for 213 yards and a pair of scores in Alabama's colossal showdown with LSU. The two touchdowns came from 64 and 85 yards out.
Smith also had a few impressive performances as a sophomore and was famously on the receiving end of the 41-yard, national championship-winning, overtime touchdown against Georgia at the end of the 2017 season.
We shall see who ultimately wins Alabama's quarterback battle. But whether it's Mac Jones, Taulia Tagovailoa or true freshman Bryce Young doing the passing, Smith is going to be one of the top receivers. His battle with LSU's Ja'Marr Chase for SEC supremacy will likely also decide who is the best wide receiver in the country.
4. Sam Ehlinger, Texas QB
Sam Ehlinger entered last season as one of the top 10 Heisman candidates, and he ended up being slightly better as a junior than he was as a sophomore.
His passer efficiency rating increased from 146.8 to 151.8, which was good for the third-best mark among quarterbacks who attempted at least 450 passes. And while his rushing touchdowns decreased from 16 to seven, he improved from 2.9 yards per carry to 4.1.
If Texas had been more nationally relevant instead of losing five games—and if there hadn't been five other quarterbacks last season who were nothing short of sensational—perhaps he could have lived up to that preseason hype.
Ehlinger did have a couple of duds, particularly the four-interception game in the loss to TCU. But he threw for more than 400 yards and had five total touchdowns in the Week 2 classic against LSU. He was also rock solid in Texas' destruction of Utah in the Alamo Bowl, accounting for four touchdowns against what had been one of the best defenses in the country.
However, we'll see how he fares without his top two targets from last season, Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson. He survived the 2018-to-2019 transition to life without Lil'Jordan Humphrey just fine, but this will be an even bigger challenge. If he passes this test, he just might be the third QB off the board in the 2021 draft, after Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, of course.
3. D'Eriq King, Miami QB
Miami's biggest problem over the past three seasons has been the lack of a playmaker at quarterback—and its inability to stick with one guy at that position because of it. Whether it was Malik Rosier, N'Kosi Perry or Jarren Williams behind center, the Hurricanes offense hasn't been that intimidating and went through monthlong droughts where it couldn't find the endzone.
Look no further than the 35-3 loss to Wisconsin and the 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech in the last two bowl games as proof that the offense has been fundamentally flawed for a while.
Rather than endure another year of those woes, the Canes went out and got D'Eriq King as a graduate transfer from Houston.
King only played in four games last year before shutting it down to preserve one final year of eligibility, but he was sensational in 2018.
Though he suffered a season-ending injury early in Houston's 11th game of that season, King threw for 2,982 yards, rushed for 674 more and scored a combined total of 50 touchdowns. His magnum opus came in the game against South Florida, in which he accounted for 551 yards and seven touchdowns.
He also had six touchdowns in back-to-back weeks against Arizona and Texas Tech, which shows he's more than just a Group of Five star. And the ridiculous thing is he wasn't even a quarterback until midway through his sophomore season, so he was still learning how to read college defenses two years ago.
Give him a better supporting cast and a competent defense—both of which he'll have in Miami—and he should be able to thrive in the ACC.
2. Najee Harris, Alabama RB
Najee Harris hasn't been quite the generational talent that we were expecting, but the No. 2 overall recruit from the 2017 class hasn't exactly been a bust, either.
Part of that was simply lack of opportunity in his first two seasons. Not only was he stuck behind Damien Harris both years, but the Crimson Tide also had both Jalen Hurts and Bo Scarbrough in 2017 and had Josh Jacobs in 2018. 2019 was his first chance to be the featured back, and he was still Plan B behind one of the most incredible receiving corps in college football history.
Even so, he racked up 1,528 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns—with a handful of outrageous highlights along the way. His 42-yard catch and run against South Carolina was easily one of the best plays of the entire season.
He had 190 total yards against eventual national champion LSU, 172 yards in the Iron Bowl and 136 yards (all rushing) in the Citrus Bowl win over Michigan.
He has yet to hit 200 in a single game in his career, but it's coming. I doubt he'll have a 2015 Derrick Henry type of year (395 carries for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns), but he should be one of the nation's biggest stars in 2020.
1. Travis Etienne, Clemson RB
You can just about take it to the bank every year that the top senior in preseason rankings is going to be the guy who makes the most surprising decision to return for another year.
And when he plays for a team that has been in the College Football Playoff in five consecutive years, even better.
Travis Etienne did more than enough over the past three seasons to at least be in the running as the first running back taken in this year's draft. For his career, he's averaging 7.8 yards per carry, racking up more than 4,000 yards and 56 touchdowns. A repeat of last season would get him into the top 10 in all-time yards and up to No. 3 in TDs.
Not too shabby for a guy who was in a three-way timeshare as a freshman and who has barely averaged 12 carries per game in his career.
Etienne also drastically improved as a weapon in the passing game in 2019. As a result, he put up numbers quite similar to a certain Heisman winner who had his title revoked:
2019 Etienne: 207 carries, 1,614 yards, 19 TD; 37 receptions, 432 yards, 4 TD
2005 Reggie Bush: 200 carries, 1,740 yards, 16 TD; 37 receptions, 478 yards, 2 TD
Granted, Bush did it in 13 games while Etienne had 15, but on a per-touch basis, "ETN" is right up there with one of the most electrifying players in college football history. Trevor Lawrence understandably gets most of the Clemson love from the national media, but Etienne is quite the second fiddle who has finished top 10 in the Heisman vote each of the last two years.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.