The 25 Most Exciting College Football Players of 2011

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2011

The 25 Most Exciting College Football Players of 2011

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    After an exciting week of college football, the nation is beginning to focus on the rankings and potential bowl destinations for each team.

    Like it or not, part of a team's résumé for a particular bowl or the BCS relies on big plays by exciting players. These showtime players are often the public face of their respective teams, and many football fans around the nation associate one team with the dynamic play of one or two players.

    So which players are the most exciting in the nation?

    Here's our list of the top 25 for 2011.

25. Kirk Cousins

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    Michigan State's Kirk Cousins squeaks by with a No. 25 ranking in our list of top exciting players in college football.

    The face of the matter is, Kirk Cousins is a very solid quarterback, but lacks the explosive abilities of some of his contemporaries.

    Cousins is the quintessential pocket passer, and he is very good at what he does. Big plays are few and far between for the No. 10 Spartans when Cousins is throwing the ball, but his methodical efficiency is moving Cousins' name quickly up the MSU wins list for starting quarterbacks.

    In the end, Cousins probably makes this list for perhaps the 2011 season's most exciting play thus far for a final second Hail Mary pass to Keith Nichol for a touchdown to knock off then-No. 4 Wisconsin.

24. Vinny Curry

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    It's a shame that Marshall doesn't have more games on national television. If the Herd were seen by more people, the name Vinny Curry would likely be instantly recognizable amongst college football enthusiasts.

    Curry is a starting senior defensive lineman for the Thundering Herd and has 9.5 sacks this season in eight games. That places him in second place on the 2011 FBS sacks leader list.

    His 9.5 sacks so far this season account for 57 yards of lost production for opponents, and if that wasn't enough, he's added another 30 yards in TFLs this season, bringing his total to 17.0 TFLs for 87 yards.

23. Justin Veltung

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    Over the years, there haven't been many bright spots of the Idaho Vandals. Justin Veltung is one exception.

    Veltung is the leading returner for the Vandals, and he has a habit of burning coverage teams when opponents dare put the ball in his hands.

    While most coaches are more than happy with eight to 12-yard returns on punts, Veltung is averaging 18.75 yards per punt return this season, ranking third in the FBS. He's also returned two punts for touchdowns this season, tied for best in the nation.

    Veltung also adds an average kick return of 21.1 yards to his stats.

22. Marcus Lattimore

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    It really is a shame we won't be seeing South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore from this point on in 2011.

    His season-ending injury does more than severely hamper SC's chances at a repeat SEC East title. It deprives the nation of watching one of the more electric running backs we've seen in quite some time.

    In South Carolina's seven games this season, Lattimore rushed for over 800 yards, averaging 116.9 yards per game while accounting for 10 touchdowns on the ground and one more score through the air.

    His absence will be keenly felt by his teammates, and the SEC Championship Game will likely not include South Carolina now that Lattimore will be watching the games from the sidelines. Were it not for his injury, we probably would have placed Lattimore much further up the list.

21. Case Keenum

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    This Houston sixth-year senior quarterback is the top passer in the FBS so far this season, with 2,685 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and an average of 383.6 yards per game.

    It probably helps that Houston doesn't play a single quality opponent and their rushing offense isn't anything to write home about (ranked 53rd in the nation).

    Case Keenum is already the FBS' career offensive yards record holder, and he's on pace to capture both the passing yards and passing touchdowns title before the year is out.

    Had Keenum chosen to play football at a better program, he would be making Heisman noise and leading his team towards a BCS berth, and possibly a national title.

    But he chose Houston, and so, he's relegated to play the role of interesting historical footnote. His lack of national exposure also limits his ranking on this list.

20. Andrew Luck

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    The opinions on Andrew Luck are basically split into two categories. The first is “Andrew Luck is the greatest player ever,” and the second is “Andrew Luck is pretty good, but not as great as everyone else thinks.”

    So far this season, Luck has done what he's been asked to do: lead the Cardinal to win after win. Still, the Cardinal have yet to be tested this season, and the jury is still out on how good this Stanford team is this season.

    Luck is consistently very good, but we've yet to see anything super exciting from the senior. He is, after all, ranked just 21st in terms of average passing yards per game this season.

    As Stanford's back-heavy schedule ramps up, Luck will find himself in big-game situations that call for big-time exciting plays. Let's see if he can make them again this season.

19. Tony Jefferson

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    Tony Jefferson has been prowling the Oklahoma defensive backfield this year, and he's come away with four interceptions so far this season.

    What keeps Jefferson's excitement meter low is the fact that he has been unable to provide any big returns on his four picks, averaging just four yards per return.

    After OU's loss to Texas Tech, expect the Sooners to be hungry to prove that the loss was a fluke. Quarterbacks throwing in the direction of this sophomore do so at their own risk.

18. Brodrick Brown

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    We'll stay in the state of Oklahoma for our next selection, but this time, we'll travel to Stillwater to find Brodrick Brown.

    This junior defensive back also has four picks on the season, but averages slightly more—six yards—per return.

    With the Cowboys' stock moving up in the Big 12 and the BCS, expect Brown and company to make some of their own headlines on a team with a media-darling offensive attack.

17. Bobby Cowan

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    We'll give the special teams guys some love, too, as we travel back to Idaho to find the Vandals punter, Bobby Cowan.

    For most teams, sending the punter out on the field is a bad thing. The same goes for Idaho, but the Vandals are forced into a lot of fourth downs. Cowan has booted the ball a staggering 61 times so far in 2011—only topped by Memphis's Tom Hornsey with 62.

    All of that punting (nearly nine punts per game) makes for a lot of practice, and Cowan has certainly proven that he knows what he's doing when it comes to bombing a long punt.

    In his 61 punts, he averages nearly 50 yards per punt, good enough for 417.6 yards per game—nearly 90 yards more than any other punter in the FBS.

    If you have to punt a lot, you better have someone like Cowan on your sideline.

16. Henry Josey

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    This Missouri sophomore leads the nation in rushing plays for 10 or more yards with 33.

    Josey also has 10 rushes for longer than 20 yards and five for longer than 30.

    While Josey's success hasn't propelled Missouri to any great wins this season, he's still young. With the SEC possibly on the horizon for Mizzou, we may be seeing a lot more of this young running back, and possibly on a bigger stage.

    Josey also sits at ninth in the nation in rushing yards, with 855 and six touchdowns.

15. Stephen Hill

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    A lot of impressive numbers have been posted by Georgia Tech's running game this season, but that doesn't mean the Yellow Jackets don't have any jaw-droppers in their receiving corps.

    Junior wideout Stephen Hill has four plays this season of longer than 50 yards, two of which ended up longer than 70 yards. There's nothing quite as exciting in college football as a player that can put up huge numbers in a single play.

14. T.J. Graham

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    This NC State senior wide receiver leads all FBS players with 13 plays of 30 yards or more.

    This do-it-all player not only hauls in the catches, he's a primary kick returner for NC State. While averaging better than 70 yards per game receiving, T.J. Graham also averages 116.1 yards per game in combined kick/punt returns and has one punt return touchdown on eight attempts this season.

13. Trent Richardson

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    It's hard to talk about Alabama's success without mentioning Trent Richardson.

    While he hasn't exactly blossomed into the Heisman candidate many were expecting and Tide fans were hoping, he has been a solid performer for Nick Saban.

    Richardson's 989 yards is nothing to sneeze at and ranks him seventh in the nation through Week 8. But Richardson's real contribution to the excitement of watching a Crimson Tide game is his 17 rushing touchdowns this season—just one behind FBS leader Bernard Pierce of Temple.

    Every time Richardson touches the ball, he's a threat to score. As the season progresses, Richardson will have the opportunity to improve his very good numbers against some top competition in BCS-relevent games. Doing so may add Richardson's name to the Heisman party guest list.

    Better late than never.

12. Sammy Watkins

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    It's rare to see such buzz surrounding a freshman, but Clemson's Sammy Watkins is definitely deserving of the attention.

    In his eight games this season for the Tigers, this youngster is averaging over 100 yards per game receiving. With numbers like that at such a early point in his college career, you can expect Watkins to be able to make a run at NCAA career marks if he stays in college until graduation.

    The one thing keeping Watkins out of our top 10 is the fact that he has just one receiving touchdown on the season. But his amazing ability as a freshman to put up big numbers definitely are cause of recognition.

11. Robert Woods

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    USC may not be eligible for the Pac-12 Championship Game or a bowl game this season, but that doesn't mean Lane Kiffin isn't positioning his program for a possible championship run in 2012.

    One of the key pieces in that puzzle is sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods.

    Woods is second in the FBS with 128.9 yards per game, just 0.5 ypg behind the nation's leader, Keenan Allen of Cal.

    Woods also has eight touchdown receptions in 2011, good enough for a tie for fifth in the nation and just one back of four players tied with nine.

    But perhaps most importantly, Woods provides USC fans with some excitement this season while simultaneously giving some hope for the Trojans' future. He'll be a big-time playmaker that will need to play a marquee role in the future if there is to be a USC post-sanctions resurgence.

10. Chris Polk

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    One of the surprises out of the Pac-12 this season has been the solid play of the Washington Huskies.

    After losing Husky great Jake Locker to graduation, many assumed Washington would take a step backwards this season. Not only did that not happen, but it appears the Huskies are taking the next step forward.

    Although Washington has since dropped from the polls, their brief appearance in the BCS rankings was testament to the program's continued growth, and junior running back Chris Polk has been a big part of that.

    Polk ranks sixth in the nation with 124.6 rushing yards per game this season, and his 5.9 yards per carry average means that the Huskies have a back that can be counted on in tough situations. If Washington is going to take another giant leap forward in the Pac-12 next season, the type of play Polk has displayed so far this season is a must.

9. Geno Smith

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    West Virginia's chances at a BCS berth may have taken a severe hit this week with the Mountaineers' loss at Syracuse, but that doesn't mean Geno Smith isn't still fun to watch.

    The junior quarterback for Dana Holgorsen has put on some kind of show this season, and leads the nation with 96 completions for 10 or more yards and has 11 passes for 40-or-more yards.

    With seven games under his belt this season, Smith is just three yards shy of 2,500 yards passing while putting up 356.7 yards per game.

    West Virginia may not be BCS material this season, but it looks as if the high-flying offense is back in action in Morgantown.

8. Seth Doege

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    This Texas Tech junior quarterback really took it upon himself to throw a massive gremlin in the BCS engine this past weekend.

    After enduring well over an hour-long delay due to lightning, Doege led the Red Raiders back onto the field in Norman, Okla. before leading the Raiders up and down the field in a wild upset of the then-No. 3 Sooners.

    Not only did the delay not bother Doege, the Norman crowd couldn't sway an incredibly impressive performance highlighted by some spectacular touchdown throws.

    It may not be the biggest football upset of all time, but it ranks right up there in terms of Texas Tech victories.

    By the way, Doege also sports a 372.6 passing yards per game average—best amongst all quarterbacks from BCS-AQ programs.

    The best news is that Texas Tech fans will have another year to be impressed by Seth Doege.

7. Kellen Moore

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    You almost feel bad for Kellen Moore.

    He is still one of the most accurate passers in the nation (76.3 completion percentage, second in the FBS), ranks fourth in terms for QB rating (180.72), tied for first with 24 touchdown passes and is just one win from the all-time FBS mark for wins by a starting quarterback.

    But yet, he's not getting the type of press you'd expect from a player with his skill and accomplishments.

    He may not be a quarterback of a BCS-AQ program, but Boise State gets plenty of ink, far more than many AQ programs.

    So why is he so overlooked?

    This season, No. 4 Boise State just isn't stacked with the showtime receivers as in years past, and Moore has had to spread the ball around while relying on more traditional-yardage plays. Gone are the days of the 60-yard bomb to Titus Young or the 45-yard slant to Austin Pettis. Both of those Broncos greats now practice their trade in the NFL.

    Additionally, there's the specter of yet again missing out on the BCS Championship Game combined with the expectation of an undefeated season.

    In the end, the question is whether or not something is exciting if it's expected.

6. Robert Griffin, III

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    One of the early-season surprises this year was Baylor.

    The Bears began the year by knocking off a highly-ranked TCU squad thanks to the exploits of junior quarterback Robert Griffin, III.

    RG3 made headlines when he made his way several weeks into the season while continuing to throw more touchdowns than incomplete passes while leading Baylor up the polls. The Bears have since fallen back down to earth, and Griffin's stats aren't quite as eye-popping, but he still leads the nation with a QB rating of 205.13. He's also the most accurate passer in the FBS through eight weeks, completing 78.1 percent of his throws while amassing a 22-to-2 touchdowns to interception ratio.

    The Bears have been exciting to watch this season, mostly thanks to RG3. The only thing that keeps him from cracking the top five is his relative lack of passing yardage this season: 1,950, good enough for just 21st in the FBS.

5. Russell Wilson

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    Even after Wisconsin's loss at Michigan State, Russell Wilson has to be considered one of the most exciting players to watch in college football today.

    Wisconsin has always been a run-first team, fielding a prototypical Big Ten offense comprised of huge offensive lineman and strong, bruising running backs. This season, you can add a strong, accurate and quick quarterback to the mix, giving the Badgers an absolutely deadly combination on offense.

    It took the nation's No. 2 defense in Michigan State to slow down the Wisconsin juggernaut, and the Badgers still were able to overcome a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit only to fall victim to a miracle Hail Mary as time expired.

4. David Amerson

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    Note to ACC quarterbacks: Do not throw the ball anywhere near David Amerson.

    This d-back for NC State is one of the most prolific ball hawks to prowl any defensive backfield this season, as Amerson already has eight interceptions in seven games this season.

    Amerson, just a sophomore, leads the FBS in interceptions this season, and with several years left to suit up for the Wolfpack, you can bet you'll be hearing more about this kid before his college days are over.

3. Denard Robinson

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    This selection shouldn't surprise anyone. Denard Robinson is one of the most electric players in college football, and the only thing that keeps him from being the most exciting player in the game is his slightly less than as impressive ability to throw the ball compared to his talent he displays when running with the ball.

    Robinson not only leads the Michigan Wolverines in terms of rushing yards per game, he leads the Big Ten Legends Division and is just six yards behind Wisconsin's Montee Ball for the conference lead. He's also the top rushing quarterback in the nation with 762 yards on the ground.

    Last season, Robinson finished with 1,702 yards, third in the nation.

    Every time Robinson touches the ball (which is almost every play), he's a touchdown threat, and this junior will continue to be a major part of Michigan's rebuilding program under Brady Hoke.

2. Brandon Weeden

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    Only once in a great while do we get to see a player like Brandon Weeden.

    Aside from leading an Oklahoma State offense that seems to be able to score almost at will, Weeden has guided the Cowboys to some impressive second half comebacks this season and has his team poised for a run at the BCS Championship.

    Weeden is throwing for an average of 348.0 yards per game this season, and 19 touchdowns and 2,436 passing yards easily places him amongst the nation's elite quarterbacks. If he can effectively continue to guide the Cowboys through the Big 12, including a much-needed win over Oklahoma in this year's installation of Bedlam, the Cowboys will likely be punching their ticket to New Orleans, and Weeden will be punching his ticket to immortality in Stillwater.

1. LaMichael James

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    LaMichael James is again a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy.

    Last year, James finished third in Heisman voting and ended the season with an FBS-leading 1,731 yards. He's poised to repeat as the top running back in the nation this season and already has 852 yards. James has played in just six games due to injury, but his 142.0 yards per game leads the nation, and James looks to return to action for the Ducks soon.

    The preseason Heisman buzz may have dulled slightly, as there have been just two players in the modern era ever to have won the Heisman while missing a game during the season (Charles White in 1979 and Charlie Ward in 1993). A season-opening loss to LSU, where James rushed for just 54 yards, also hurt his chances, but if there's one thing we know about LaMichael James, it's that he can put up yards, and points in a hurry when he has the ball.

    If James returns to his pre-injury form for the Ducks, he'll again electrify fans as he leads Oregon to a Pac-12 title.