The 2014 College Football season is nearly upon us. Kids love numerical rankings. Here are the Top 50 college football players entering the season. Ranking players across positions is always an imperfect process. The only thing certain is some unheralded freshman not on this list will probably step forward and win the Heisman. My only bias is against the team you root for, specifically.
50. Devin Gardner [QB - Michigan] Becoming an early punch line overshadowed a decent season statistically, all factors considered. Gardner was last seen leading three TD drives in the second half against Ohio State, on a broken foot and without a running game or pass blocking. He should have more help this year at the skill positions and, one hopes, a better game-plan to circumvent line struggles under Doug Nussmeier.
49. Ty Montgomery [WR - Stanford] Montgomery is the big-play threat on the outside Andrew Luck was missing in college. He had 958 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns as a junior last year. He also provided two rushing touchdowns and two more on kick returns. Put the ball in his hands.
48. Denzel Perryman [LB - Miami] NFL types will rip him for being too short. For college, he can go sideline to sideline from the middle linebacker spot and has a reputation for lowering the boom. With a front line that bordered on inept against the run at times last year, the Hurricanes will need him to put out fires.
47. Laquon Treadwell [WR - Ole Miss] The former five-star recruit caught 72 passes as a freshman last season. Practice highlights such as this will have Rebels fans salivating for year two. His teammates think he’s better than Amari Cooper.
46. Trae Waynes [CB - Michigan State] Waynes should be the next awesome Michigan State DB under Dantonio and Narduzzi. Expect him to step right in to replace Dennard at “shutdown corner.” Excellence is not developing great players. It is replacing them without much fuss.
45. Robert Nkemdiche [DT/DE - Ole Miss] The former No. 1 overall recruit had a productive true freshman season, despite missing time with a hamstring injury. He should make “the leap” many expect him to in year two.
44. Devin Funchess [WR - Michigan] Funchess began as a tight end with great hands. Then he was nominally a tight end. Now, he’s a wide receiver with the 6’5″ 230-pound body size DBs aren’t equipped to handle. He had a strong 2013. He should be in line for far more targets without Jeremy Gallon on the field.
43. La’el Collins [OT - LSU] A star LSU player who came back for his senior year? What a novelty. Collins is experienced and adept at both run and pass-blocking. He could move into the first round in 2015 with a polished, dominant season.
42. Matt Johnson [QB - Bowling Green] Johnson, quietly, ranked in the Top 15 in both QB Rating and yards/attempt as a sophomore in 2013. Most of his receiving corps returns. He should thrive, theoretically, in the MAC with the new, faster-paced offense under former Baylor assistant Dino Babers.
41. Tyler Lockett [WR - Kansas State] Bill Snyder is not known for throwing the ball all over the field. When they had to last season, Lockett lit up Texas (13 catches, 237 yards), Oklahoma (12 catches, 278 yards, 3TD) and Michigan (10 catches, 116 yards, 3 TD).
40. Dante Fowler [LB - Florida] Fowler led the Gators in TFL as a sophomore (10.5) and was second in sacks (3.5). A former five-star recruit, many anticipate he will progress forward to All-American contender as a Junior. He’s one for the NFL Draft radar.
39. DeVante Parker [WR - Louisville] Teddy Bridgewater spread the ball around. But, when it was time to score, Parker was the guy (22 touchdowns in 2012/13). He has been running a sub 4.4 40-yard dash. Feels like someone Bobby Petrino could have some fun with.
38. Duke Johnson [RB - Miami] Would have been hard to conceive 15 years ago that a player could be overlooked at Miami. But Johnson has been, compared to SEC colleagues. He was well on his way to a monster season last year, before a broken ankle against FSU ended it. He bulked up to carry a load this year. For Miami to do anything, he will need to do so for all 13 games.
37. Eric Striker [LB - Oklahoma] Striker made a name for himself his sophomore year, notably with three sacks and a forced fumble against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Expect Oklahoma to move him around to make plays, whether that’s as a pass rusher or a nickel back.
36. P.J. Williams [CB - Florida State] Williams is the best player returning on what should be an elite secondary (again). He came through with the big fourth quarter interception against Auburn in the title game.
35. Tre Jackson [G -Florida State] Jackson came back for his senior season. He’s large, nimble and frequently christened a “road grader.”
34. Ameer Abdullah [RB - Nebraska] Abdullah carried the load for an erratic Nebraska offense with 281 carries. He produced dependably, getting held below 100 yards in a game just twice. He opted to return as a senior and to finish his education. Nebraska could not be more grateful.
33. Kendall Fuller [CB - Virginia Tech] Freshman All-American last season. He led Va. Tech with six interceptions. With his older brother Kyle departed to the NFL (1st round pick), don’t expect him to be thrown at very much.
32. Michael Bennett [DT - Ohio State] Bennett is the old man on Ohio State’s young, ridiculous defensive line. He could improve on his seven sacks and 11.5 TFL as a senior. Or not, if the young Bucks around him capitalize on the damage he’s causing inside.
31. Jaelen Strong [WR - Arizona State] Strong started the season with five 100-plus yard games in his first six starts. He finished with more than 1,100 on 75 receptions. That was after not arriving from Junior College until the Fall. With a season and a full off-season of conditioning under his belt, he could do some “high octane” things for the Sun Devils in 2014.
30. Ramik Wilson [LB - Georgia] Wilson had his first significant playing time last season as a junior. He led the SEC in tackles with 133, contributed four sacks and 11 TFL and made 1st-team All Conference. Not terrible.
29. Mario Edwards [DE - Florida State] Edwards is high on NFL Draft boards. Florida State will be looking for him to build on his dominant performance against Auburn in last year’s the BCS title game.
28. Antwan Goodley [WR - Baylor] He’s fast and strong. That tends to lead to one being good at the football. Goodley led Baylor in receptions (71), yards (1,339) and touchdown catches (13) in 2013. He’s back for more as a senior.
27. Cameron Erving [OT - Florida State] He returned for his fifth season after a BCS title, because the Seminoles did not have quite enough coming back. Should be among the favored names in what could be a deep first-round tackle class.
26. Mike Davis [RB - South Carolina] Davis was having perhaps the best running back season in the SEC in 2013, before being cut short by injury. He’s powerful, explosive and a factor in the passing game. If this is the year Steve Spurrier’s project comes to fruition, Davis will be a major reason why.
25. Braxton Miller [QB - Ohio State] Miller is still not 100 percent. But if he gets there and Ohio State finds a replacement for Carlos Hyde in the backfield, Miller may be the nation’s best running quarterback and a strong candidate to head to New York.
24. Hroniss Grasu [C - Oregon] Fifth-year player and a fourth-year starter. Grasu is coming off a first-team All-American season. The enjoyment from stating his name with a flourish did not hurt his ranking.
23. Nick Marshall [QB- Auburn] Off-season hiccups aside, Marshall threw for 1,976 yards, ran for 1,068 and accounted for 26 touchdowns in 2013. Next season will be his second at Auburn, at quarterback and under Gus Malzahn. Significant improvement would certainly be something.
22. Randy Gregory [DE - Nebraska] Gregory was one of the B1G’s most dominant players in conference play, amassing 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. He was a major reason Nebraska’s defense improved as the season progressed.
21. A’Shawn Robinson [DE - Alabama] Linebackers normally make the plays in Nick Saban’s stifling 3-4. But, Robinson led the team in sacks (5.5) and finished second in tackles for loss (8) as a true freshman last year. Should have a better handle on the system moving into his second year. Could go down as one of the Longhorns’ biggest recruiting whiffs.
20. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu [CB - Oregon] Two-time All American at corner. Huge get by Oregon to keep him around one more year as the defense transitions with personnel and coordinator changes.
19. Myles Jack [RB/LB - UCLA] Jack was the Pac 12 defensive freshman of the year at linebacker. He also won the offensive award, for the few times he dabbled at running back and averaged more than seven yards/carry. Expect plays, on both sides of the field. Fortunately, he does not have to face the mighty Logan Thomas again.
18. Brandon Scherff [OT - Iowa] Scherff opted to return for his fifth season. Kirk Ferentz compared it to Andrew Luck going back to Stanford. Has been described as both a weight room and a football “freak.” We’ll wait until the NFL Combine for the definitive take on his ass.
17. Nelson Agholor [WR - USC] Agholor may be college football’s biggest home run threat, on offense or special teams. More stable QB play plus more targets with Marquis Lee departing should lead to monster production as a junior.
16. Melvin Gordon [RB - Wisconsin] Gordon ran for more than 1600 yards at 7.81 per carry and 12 touchdowns, while splitting carries with James White in Wisconsin’s offense. Barry Alvarez liked it. Coming back better in 2014 would be…wow.
15. T.J. Yeldon [RB - Alabama] Yeldon is Alabama’s feature back, despite the immense depth and talent behind him. Expect a third consecutive 1,000-yard season and five to six yards per carry when Alabama needs it in tough conference games. His most impressive achievement may be stopping Derrick Henry from seeing more of the field.
14. Brett Hundley [QB - UCLA] Hundley was just on the cover of Sports Illustrated. NFL scouts love him. He has an impressive set of tools. But he has not quite dominated at the college level yet. Skeptics may point out Keith Price had better production than him last season and Kevin Hogan was not far behind.
13. Joey Bosa [DE - Ohio State] Bosa is 6’5″ 285 with enough athleticism to do standing backflips. He came on strong at the end of his true freshman season, with 5.5 sacks and 7.5 TFL over Ohio State’s last five games. He should get better and will be playing against B1G linemen.
12. Andrus Peat [OT - Stanford] Peat is a former five-star offensive line recruit, with Stanford finishing. According to David Shaw, he has potential to be the best left tackle since Jonathan Ogden.
11. Landon Collins [S - Alabama] A five-star recruit who…has lived up to the hype and will likely be a 1st-round draft pick. Collins makes plays in all phases of the defense. He should play a more prominent role as an upperclassman, given Alabama’s defensive losses.
10. Vernon Hargreaves III [CB - Florida] Hargreaves stepped right in as a freshman last season and made first-team All-SEC. Per Will Muschamp, he is already “a pro at what he does.” Crucially, he was not on the field for this.
9. Bryce Petty [QB - Baylor] Petty opted to return for his fifth season. He was the best statistical passer not named Jameis Winston last year, completing 62 percent of his passes for 4,200 yards and a 32-3 TD-INT ratio. He also received high marks for leadership. A “system quarterback” is not always a bad thing.
8. Amari Cooper [WR - Alabama] Cooper was frustrated and sidetracked by injuries his sophomore year. Except for the final two games, when he had 15 catches for 299 yards and looked every bit the player he was as a freshman. Expect Jacob Coker to look for him early and often.
7. Marcus Mariota [QB-Oregon] Mariota has the size and dual-threat skill set to make NFL teams salivate. He mayhave been the first QB off the board in 2014. He bulked up this offseason, which will hopefully help his durability. His sprained knee saw Oregon dip from BCS Title Contender to Alamo Bowl by last season’s end.
6. Cedric Ogbuehi [OT - Texas A&M] Presuming all goes well, next year’s NFL Draft may be the third-straight a Texas A&M tackle goes in the Top 10 picks. Texas A&M paid for a $50,000 insurance policy to keep him from leaving for the 1st Round last year.
5. Shilique Calhoun [DE - Michigan St.] MSU loses much of its defense, but has one major component coming back. Calhoun scored three touchdowns in the Spartans’ first two games. He also added 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss last season. If he progresses again as a junior, well, yeah…
4. Todd Gurley [RB - Georgia] Gurley had nagging injuries, but still ran for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns on 165 carries. He may put up Heisman-caliber running back numbers in the S-E-C if he can stay on the field. He could also help the Dawgs put a few more games on ice.
3. Leonard Williams [DT - USC] Williams was a 1st-team All-American as a sophomore in 2013, with five sacks and 12.5 tackles per loss. He did that while playing at an estimated 65-70 percent all season with a shoulder injury. He’s healthy after surgery, which is a scary, scary thought. Can’t fault his insatiable hair game.
2. Vic Beasley [DE - Clemson] He will be discredited for being too undersized to play DE in the NFL. But, he does just fine in college. Beasley returns for his senior year after ranking top five nationally in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (23). He should do alright.
1. Jameis Winston [QB - Florida St.] We’ll leave the crab legs, squirrel hunting and sexual assault accusations to another post. Winston was a clear upgrade at quarterback, for a school that sent its last two to the 1st round. He led the nation in passer rating and yards/attempt as a freshman. He threw for 40 touchdowns en route to a national title. Look forward to the boilerplate columns about his new-found maturity and for the NFL Draft-niks picking apart his game like carrion.