College Football Players Who Will Put Up Ridiculous Stats in 2020
There has been a lot of rumbling in recent weeks about the desire—nay, the need—for EA Sports to bring back the NCAA Football franchise, but perhaps we can satiate that hunger by taking a look at the players most likely to put up video-game numbers during the 2020 college football season.
It is highly unlikely that anyone will come close to replicating the type of season Joe Burrow had in 2019, but there are several quarterbacks who are going to give it the ol' college try.
There are also a few running backs and wide receivers back for more after already dominating last year.
And does anyone happen to know the record for most sacks by a pair of teammates in a single season? I'm just asking on behalf of a couple of edge-rushers in Miami.
This is not intended to be a ranking of the top candidates to win the Heisman Trophy. (For that matter, it's not a ranking at all but rather a list of players in no particular order.) Instead, these are the players who figure to be statistically dominant at their positions this coming season based on a combination of performance in previous years, roster situation and difficulty of schedule.
K.J. Costello, QB, Mississippi State
Let's get this party started with the annual no-brainer pick: Mike Leach's quarterback.
Over the past seven seasons, Washington State's primary quarterback—from Connor Halliday to Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew II and Anthony Gordon—averaged 4,493 passing yards and 36.9 touchdowns per season. That even includes two years when the starter got banged up and it ended up being more of a timeshare. As a team, the Cougars averaged 5,086 passing yards and 41.4 touchdowns. And the numbers are just as ridiculous if you venture back in time to his 2000 to '09 run as the head coach at Texas Tech.
Even if we apply a 15 percent "discount" to account for the undeniable fact that SEC secondaries are better than those in the Big 12 and Pac-12, you're still talking about 4,300 passing yards and 35 touchdowns for Mississippi State's starting quarterback, provided he stays healthy. And over the past decade, there have only been 17 instances of Power Five quarterbacks hitting both of those plateaus.
Regardless of whether Mississippi State goes .500 or worse in Leach's first season there, those numbers would be noteworthy.
Stanford graduate transfer K.J. Costello is the heavy favorite to be that starting quarterback. He committed to Mississippi State less than a month after Leach took the job, and it's not like the Bulldogs had an established veteran in place. Tommy Stevens graduated, Keytaon Thompson recently transferred and Garrett Shrader is more of a dual-threat—the Air Raid Offense is built to utilize a pro-style mindset.
Costello had 3,540 passing yards and 29 touchdowns as a junior in 2018. Expect him to smash those numbers in 2020.
Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Ja'Marr Chase is much less of a sure thing to put up big numbers than K.J. Costello is, because so much of Chase's 2019 supporting cast is now in the NFL.
But, come on, I'm not not going to include the star wide receiver who led the nation in both receiving yards (1,780) and receiving touchdowns (20) last year.
Granted, the last time the leader in both categories returned for another season, it didn't work out so well. That was Colorado State's Rashard Higgins, who had 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2014 before dropping to 1,058 and eight, respectively, as a junior—in large part because the Rams lost their starting quarterback, starting running back and head coach that offseason.
Replacing talent at Colorado State was a lot tougher than it is at LSU, though. If opponents put all their eggs in the "Slow Down Chase" basket, they'll just get destroyed by wide receivers Terrace Marshall Jr. and Racey McMath or any number of talented running backs. And when they don't double him, he's liable to torch secondaries several times per game.
Guess it all depends on what type of arm LSU has at quarterback. If Myles Brennan can throw the deep ball half as well as Joe Burrow could, Chase can run down just about anything. But if LSU is unable to take the top off the defense, Chase's numbers probably come back to earth for a year.
Accounting for that uncertainty at quarterback, if Chase's stats are even 70 percent as good as they were in 2019, he's probably going to be a top-five pick next April.
Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Over the past few years, there has been so much focus on Clemson's star quarterback and its excellent defense that Travis Etienne's dominance at running back has gone underappreciated.
In each of the past two seasons, Etienne rushed for at least 1,600 yards and more than 18 touchdowns while averaging better than 7.5 yards per carry. The only other players in the past two decades to hit each of those marks in a single season were Larry Johnson, Melvin Gordon, Bryce Love, Rashaad Penny and Darrell Henderson. Etienne was the only one to do so multiple times.
If you so choose, you can put an asterisk on it because he got to play in 15 games both years while most players are limited to 12 or 13. But whatever, it's impressive all the same, and he even added receiving to his arsenal last year.
After making 17 receptions for 135 yards between his first two seasons at Clemson, Etienne became an integral part of the passing game in 2019 with 37 catches for 432 yards and four scores. That made him one of seven players to eclipse 2,000 yards from scrimmage last season, and the only one to do so while averaging better than 7.3 yards per touch (8.4).
He's still going to be splitting touches with Lyn-J Dixon, and 5-star freshman Demarkcus Bowman will likely get at least a sliver of the pie, too. But Etienne has already been making a huge impact on just 15-18 touches per game. Expect that to continue in his final season.
Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma
Putting a quarterback with 11 career passing attempts on this list is a bit of a leap of faith, but as long as Lincoln Riley is there, we almost have to reserve a spot for "Oklahoma QB."
Riley has been the head coach of the Sooners for three years, and all he has done thus far is make the College Football Playoff three times with 2017 Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, 2018 Heisman winner Kyler Murray and 2019 Heisman first runner-up Jalen Hurts running the offense.
Though the Sooners did lose CeeDee Lamb as a first-round draft pick, the cupboards are still well-stocked. Charleston Rambo, Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease will anchor a young-but-extremely-talented receiving corps, and Kennedy Brooks is a much more than capable enough running back to force opponents to respect the ground game, too.
And it's not like Rattler is some unheralded walk-on who's just here because of the Riley factor. He was the highest-rated quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class, and the job probably would have been his as a true freshman if Hurts hadn't swooped in as a graduate transfer loaded with CFP experience.
Don't expect another 1,000-yard rushing season from Oklahoma's quarterback, though. Per MaxPreps, Rattler only averaged 24.8 rushing yards per game in high school. So if you're expecting him to emulate any of Oklahoma's recent greats, Mayfield is more likely than Murray or Hurts.
Gregory Rousseau and Quincy Roche, Miami
Gregory Rousseau had a breakout redshirt freshman campaign for the ages in 2019.
The edge-rusher was a 3-star recruit in 2018, so he wasn't exactly at top of watch lists to begin last season. But he's already in the top 10 of most of the way too early 2021 NFL mock drafts thanks to 15.5 sacks—second only to Chase Young's 16.5.
The only other freshmen (true or redshirt) in the past decade to account for more than 11.0 sacks in a season was Texas A&M's Myles Garrett (11.5 in 2014). Two years later, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, so you can perhaps appreciate the hype surrounding a guy who had four more sacks than Garrett.
Better yet, Miami went out and got him one heck of a running mate in Quincy Roche.
Roche tallied 26.0 sacks over his past three seasons in Temple, half of those coming last year. Along with Rousseau and Oregon State's Hamilcar Rashed Jr., Roche is one of just three returning players who racked up at least 12 sacks in 2019. Putting those two edge-rushing freight trains together is a terrifying proposition for opposing offensive lines.
Doesn't hurt matters that Miami's 2020 schedule is a joke, either. The Hurricanes don't have to face Clemson in ACC play, and their toughest nonconference opponent (Michigan State) is arguably the 12th-best team in the Big Ten.
Separately, this duo had 28.5 sacks in 2019. It might combine for 30 in 2020.
Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State
One thing is for certain with Chuba Hubbard: As long as he's healthy, he's going to get a lot of touches.
Hubbard led the nation in rushing attempts last season with 328 of them. He also either outright led or tied for the lead in rushes that went for at least: 30 yards, 40 yards, 50 yards, 60 yards, 70 yards, 80 yards and 90 yards.
Easy to see why the Cowboys kept handing him the ball, since he gave them 6.4 yards per tote.
He wasn't quite as dominant in the chunk-gain department as Memphis' Darrell Henderson in 2018 or Stanford's Bryce Love in 2017, but he was a constant threat to break loose for six points. He had at least 100 rushing yards in 12 of 13 games played, including four contests with at least 220 yards.
Late in the year, Hubbard also became a legitimate factor in Oklahoma State's passing game. He had just 40 receiving yards in his first nine games prior to racking up 42 against Kansas and 88 at West Virginia. He made multiple receptions in each of his final four games.
Part of the reason for that added impact was the injuries suffered by leading receiver Tylan Wallace and quarterback Spencer Sanders. The offense was nowhere near as potent at that point, and checkdowns to the running back became more common. But Hubbard still managed 162.0 yards from scrimmage per game in those final four contests when he was just about the only legitimate threat on the field.
Perhaps with a healthy Wallace and Sanders back, the Cowboys revert to almost exclusively handing the ball off to Hubbard. However, the now proven possibility of using him in flat routes and swing routes could make him even more lethal in 2020.
Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
Who could have guessed in early April 2019 that Kedon Slovis would throw for 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns last season?
Back then, JT Daniels was the obvious candidate to start with Jack Sears and Matt Fink jostling for the backup job. Slovis was merely the No. 705 overall recruit in the 2019 class who seemed destined for a redshirt year as the practice squad QB.
But he earned the backup job during fall camp and was forced into action in the second half of the opening game against Fresno State when Daniels suffered what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury (ACL). Slovis subsequently missed the final 58 minutes against Utah and the following game against Washington with an injury of his own, but came back and was outstanding over the latter half of the season.
In USC's final six games, Slovis threw for at least 400 yards four times, averaging 380.5 yards and 3.5 touchdowns.
Condense that data set a bit further to just the final four contests, and the true freshman had 14 touchdowns against one interception with a remarkable 77.5 percent completion rate. His passer efficiency rating in those four games was 196.48—only slightly behind Joe Burrow's Heisman-winning season mark of 201.96.
Three of his four favorite targets are back for another year, too, and Bru McCoy—a top-10 overall recruit in 2019—will be in the mix to fill the void from Michael Pittman Jr.'s departure. In other words, USC's passing attack may well pick up right where it left off. And with the Trojans scheduled to open the 2020 season against Alabama, Slovis could make quite the Week 1 dent in the Heisman conversation.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Alabama's Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy were the first two wide receivers selected in the 2020 NFL draft, going at No. 12 and No. 15 overall, respectively. But DeVonta Smith actually put up the Crimson Tide's best numbers last season.
Some will argue that it's because opposing secondaries were more worried about Jeudy and Ruggs that Smith was able to stockpile 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns. However, those people might want to go back and watch Alabama's game against LSU, in which Smith had seven catches for 213 yards and two touchdowns despite being covered by Derek Stingley Jr. just about the entire night. On both the 64-yard touchdown and the 85-yard touchdown, Smith dusted one of the best defensive backs in the nation.
And that wasn't even his best game. Smith made 11 receptions for 274 yards and five touchdowns against Ole Miss. The Rebels were rendered completely helpless to contain him.
So perhaps the better argument is that it's because of Jeudy and Ruggs that Smith only averaged 5.2 receptions and 96.6 yards per game, and that his numbers are likely going to be even more impressive in 2020.
And as was the case in our previous discussion about LSU's Ja'Marr Chase, it's certainly not like Smith is the only guy opponents need to worry about. RB Najee Harris and WR Jaylen Waddle easily could have been included on this list, too, and don't forget about Trey Sanders—the No. 1 RB in the 2019 class who missed all of last season due to a foot injury.
Per usual, Alabama is still loaded with talent, and Smith figures to be the biggest producer in this elite offense.
Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) and Justin Fields (Ohio State)
Like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson during the 1978-79 college basketball season, it's going to be almost impossible to mention one of these star players without also discussing the other for the next calendar year, so you might as well start getting used to it now.
It had already been like that to a lesser degree. Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields were the top two overall recruits in the 2018 class and they both played high school ball in Georgia. Comparisons and contrasts were made between these two guys long before they squared off in the College Football Playoff semifinals this past December.
Now that they're entering their draft-eligible season, though, it's going to be relentless.
But totally justified.
Fields accounted for 3,757 combined passing and rushing yards, 51 total touchdowns and three interceptions in his first season after transferring to Ohio State. He was lethally efficient, and Lawrence wasn't far behind with marks of 4,228, 45 and eight, respectively.
The former accounted for at least four touchdowns in each of his first five games; the latter entered the national championship riding a streak of nine consecutive contests accounting for at least three touchdowns. Mediocre performances were few and far between, and bad games simply didn't happen. Expect more of the same before this duo rides off into the sunset in the top five picks of the 2021 NFL draft.
Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite unless otherwise noted.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.