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College football’s 25 most important players for 2021

College football’s last two national title games were perfect encapsulations of the two types of stars we end up with: the ones we saw coming and the ones we didn’t. In 2019, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, college football’s star recruit and golden boy and the defending national champion, squared off against LSU’s late-rising Joe Burrow, who had to transfer and labor through an up-and-down first season as starter before surging.

Last season, we had Ohio State’s Justin Fields, the top prospect in Lawrence’s class, against Alabama’s Mac Jones, who had to wait until his third year in Tuscaloosa to start a game (and it was only that soon because of injury).

All four of the above players became stars, but two required star turns later in their careers.

This piece is about the star turns — more specifically, the players who could most dramatically impact the college football season and its national title race with such a turn. This is the third annual Most Important Players of the Season list. In 2019, I almost nailed the top spot, listing Burrow No. 2. In 2020, the No. 1 player … was the same guy who’s No. 1 this year.

Now, let’s dive into 2021.

Pure transcendence potential

We already know quite a bit about these guys, but they might still have one more gear. Call this the 2009 Ndamukong Suh portion of the list.

25. RB Breece Hall, Iowa State

If a team is to ever win a national title despite less-than-elite recruiting, it’s going to need elite quarterback play, at least one dynamite pass rusher and at least one All-American level player in the skill corps. In Brock Purdy, Will McDonald and Hall, ISU has all three. Hall is one of the most proven backs in the country, combining speed on the outside with some of the best between-the-tackles running you’ll see.

24. S Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame

In pass rusher Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, safety Shaun Crawford and company, Notre Dame nearly has to replace more play-making talent on defense than any other team in the country. But the Fighting Irish still have Hamilton, a former all-world recruit who has more than lived up to the hype. He is a one-man pass defense, capable of blitzing, locking things down in man coverage and serving as the requisite roaming ball hawk.

23. QB Sam Howell, North Carolina

You could make a convincing case that, as important as it was for Mack Brown to nail his coordinator hires when he returned to coaching at Chapel Hill in 2019, plucking Howell from Florida State’s grasp was as or more important. He’s thrown for 7,227 yards and 68 TDs in two years, and while he’s going to be looking around at a pretty new skill corps this time around, he’s got a veteran line and a megawatt arm.

22. RB Bijan Robinson, Texas

Steve Sarkisian’s first Texas offense won’t have the otherworldly bounty of talent that he worked with at Alabama last fall, but he’ll have at least one incredible piece in Robinson. The 2020 blue-chipper exploded late last fall, gaining a combined 651 rushing and receiving yards in just 55 touches in his last five games. One assumes he’ll see as much of the ball as he can handle in 2021, and Texas will be better off for it.

21. CB Derek Stingley, LSU

Stingley was the best defensive player in the country late in LSU’s 2019 national title run, but injuries took his A-game away last fall. He still wasn’t bad, but here’s a reminder that in 2019, opponents threw at Stingley 92 times, and it resulted in only 31 completions, six interceptions and a raw QBR of 23.4. If he’s that player again, LSU’s automatically a few steps better than last season.

20. DE Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma

As a sophomore rush end, Bonitto generated the highest pressure rate in the country, recorded eight sacks and forced 21 incompletions. Any improvement whatsoever might make him the scariest pass rusher in the country in one of the most havoc-friendly defensive schemes in the country. OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is one of the most aggressive play-callers you’ll see, and Bonitto and tackles Isaiah Thomas and Jalen Redmond turn risk into reward at an alarming rate.

Other candidates: OLB Will Anderson Jr. (Alabama, No. 19 last year), RB Tank Bigsby (Auburn), CB Ahmad Gardner (Cincinnati), CB Josh Jobe (Alabama), QB D’Eriq King (Miami), DE Will McDonald (Iowa State), CB Tiawan Mullen (Indiana), WR Chris Olave (Ohio State), G/C Jamaree Salyer (Georgia), WR Garrett Wilson (Ohio State)

Spoiler quarterbacks

Plenty of quarterbacks could pilot an upset that turns the title race, even if they and/or their teams aren’t quite strong enough to do it repeatedly.

19. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska (No. 9 in 2019)

Martinez is better than you think, but he’s also not McKenzie Milton, the quarterback Nebraska head coach Scott Frost led to glory at UCF. But oh, the opportunity that awaits Martinez as a senior. Not only does he get another chance to deliver on his promise, but he also gets shots at the teams ranked second (Oklahoma), fourth (Ohio State), 12th (Wisconsin) and 18th (Iowa) in the preseason AP poll. Nebraska won’t win the Big Ten, but the Huskers could play a role in who does.

18. Matt Corral, Ole Miss

Ole Miss’ fortunes will be dictated by if (and how much) a dismal defense can improve, but the offense is capable of winning a game by itself, and Corral, like his head coach Lane Kiffin, absolutely knows it. He averaged 334 passing yards per game in 2020, threw at least two TDs in nine games … and threw at least five INTs in two. Ole Miss gets shots at Alabama and Texas A&M this year, and both the Tide and Aggies better put their track shoes on.

17. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

Here’s a different definition of “spoiler”: After last year’s success, and with huge games against both Indiana and Notre Dame in non-conference play, an unbeaten Bearcats squad could spoil the party by giving the CFP committee no choice but to rank them in the top four at the end of the season. Ridder leaped to 12th in Total QBR last season, combining 2,296 passing yards with 703 pre-sack rushing yards. If he’s top-five this year, Cincinnati could be, too.

Other candidates: KJ Jefferson (Arkansas), Cade McNamara (Michigan), Bo Nix (Auburn, No. 2 last year), Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana), Jeff Sims (Georgia Tech), [whoever] (Purdue)

Key supporting cast members

These players will serve as key security blankets for either new starting QBs or QBs in need of a breakthrough in 2021.

16. RB Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M

A&M brings both top-10 expectations and a new starting quarterback to the table this fall, and while we don’t know yet whether Haynes King or Zach Calzada will win the job — the tea leaves suggest King, but we’ll see — said new starter will have one of the steadiest RBs in the country next to him in the backfield. Even with exciting players like Ainias Smith and Devon Achane commanding carries, Spiller rushed for 104 yards per game while serving as a solid bailout passing option.

15. WR John Metchie, Alabama

DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Jaylen Waddle, Mac Jones and three all-conference linemen are all gone, but it’s hard to even pretend to worry about Bama. The Tide will still begin the season atop the polls, and Metchie is one of the primary reasons why. He was the No. 3 option for half the season but still caught 55 balls for 916 yards and six TDs, and now he’s Bryce Young‘s likely go-to guy.

14. WR Justyn Ross, Clemson (No. 18 in 2019)

New Tiger starting QB D.J. Uiagalelei needed a new No. 1 receiver after losing both Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, and a former star just reappeared on the depth-chart. The 6-4 Ross missed 2020 with a serious neck injury — one of the scariest phrases in any sport — but he has been fully cleared for contact this fall, and if he’s anywhere close to his previous self, Clemson’s offensive ceiling just got higher.

Other candidates: RB Jalen Berger (Wisconsin), RB Kennedy Brooks (Oklahoma), RB Lyn-J Dixon (Clemson), T Kenyon Green (Texas A&M), WR Kearis Jackson (Georgia), WR Drake London (USC), WR Marvin Mims (Oklahoma), RB Master Teague III (Ohio State), WR Parker Washington (Penn State), WR Devon Williams (Oregon), RB Kyren Williams (Notre Dame), RB [whoever] (North Carolina)

Key defenders with a possible leap in them

These players could transform their respective defenses with a huge breakthrough.

13. CB Sevyn Banks, Ohio State

The Ohio State pass defense was a massive disappointment in 2020, allowing a 66% completion rate and 143.1 passer rating and struggling to adapt to defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs’ more conservative and zone-heavy approach. We’ll see what changes Coombs has in store with an offseason to react and prepare, but a big step forward from Banks his fellow Buckeye corners would make a potentially massive difference, especially if the pass rush also improves.

12. [Insert defensive end here], Miami

Few positions get the benefit of the doubt more than “Miami defensive end” at this point. Star ends Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips are gone after combining for 12.5 sacks and 16 run stuffs. But it’s easy to assume that some combination of Tennessee transfer Deandre Johnson, Zach McCloud and youngsters Jahfari Harvey and Chantz Williams will pick up the slack and produce big TFL numbers. Still, they have to go and do it for Manny Diaz’s Hurricanes to live up to top-10 potential.

11. CB Kaiir Elam, Florida

Florida went just 8-4 despite a killer offense, thanks primarily to an all-or-nothing defense that allowed an average of 46 points in losses. With three of last year’s top four linemen and five of six DBs gone, a rebound will be difficult, but coordinator Todd Grantham still has Elam, who picked off two passes, broke up 10 others and allowed a QBR of just 42.9 in coverage. He’ll have to be 2019 Derek Stingley Jr.-level good for the Gators to contend, but it’s not impossible.

10. DT Bryan Bresee, Clemson

He might have been the best defensive lineman on a playoff team as a true freshman last year and now the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2020 class has experience under his belt, not to mention a loaded supporting cast. The 300-pounder moves like an end and gives coordinator Brent Venables infinite ways to attack up front. He and end Myles Murphy (the No. 13 prospect in 2020) will be the anchors of this attack for a couple more years.

9. DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon

He’s so close. The No. 1 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class recorded 9.5 tackles for loss, stopped six rushes at or behind the line and even dropped into coverage 20 times. He’s already one of the best all-around linemen in the country, and if his 14% pressure rate and 15 forced incompletions (in seven games) are any indication, he’s not far away from a huge sacks number as well. That could send Oregon’s defense soaring.

Other candidates: DE Zach Harrison (Ohio State), DE Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan), DE George Karlaftis (Purdue), DE Drake Jackson (USC), DE DeMarvin Leal (Texas A&M, No. 17 last year), DT Phidarian Mathis (Alabama), DT Myles Murphy (Clemson), DT Derrick Tangelo (Penn State)

Quarterbacks with a potential game-changing leap in them

This is for QBs who could clearly take another step forward … and would completely transform their team’s outlook if they did so.

8. Sean Clifford, Penn State (No. 7 last year, No. 5 in 2019)

This isn’t Clifford’s first time on the “potential leap?” list, which is a reminder that he hasn’t leaped yet. He ranked 38th in Total QBR last season, and if James Franklin’s Nittany Lions are to return to top-10 status, he’s got to make a jump. But with former Texas and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich taking over the play-calling, and an experienced and exciting skill corps at his disposal, that’s not out of the realm of possibility.

7. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma (No. 3 last year)

Fourth, third, first, first, second. That’s where OU quarterbacks ranked in the Heisman voting from 2015-19 before Lincoln Riley handed the reins to a redshirt freshman last fall. And now that he has had a year to gain his footing, we’re assuming great things from Rattler in 2021. With the supporting cast around him — receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease, running back Kennedy Brooks, a couple of key transfers and one of the nation’s best lines — it’s hard not to see him as a Heisman favorite.

Other candidates: Graham Mertz (Wisconsin), Dylan Morris (Washington), Kedon Slovis (USC), Dorian Thompson-Robinson (UCLA)

New starting quarterbacks for potential contenders

These new starters need to play at a high level immediately.

6. Haynes King or Zach Calzada, Texas A&M

A&M’s got a loaded skill corps and a potential top-10 defense, but we won’t quite know what we need to know about the Aggies until we’ve seen both the remodeled line and the guy who lines up behind it. King is a runner-gunner play-maker, and Calzada had one of the best arms in the 2019 recruiting class, and if A&M is to threaten for a CFP spot, one of them will probably have to do something predecessor Kellen Mond couldn’t: hang 30-plus on Bama.

5. C.J. Stroud (or Jack Miller III, or Kyle McCord, or Quinn Ewers), Ohio State

The bar is even higher than normal for the Buckeyes after they posted an offensive SP+ rating of 47.0 adjusted points per game, second in FBS and their best rating since 2013. Justin Fields’ arm and play-making ability allowed OSU to space the field perfectly, and while his replacement will be any number of recent blue-chippers — it appears Stroud is in the lead — there’s almost nowhere to go but down, at least temporarily. But how many glitches will the new QB suffer?

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As D.J. Uiagalelei gets set to replace Trevor Lawrence, relive the Clemson QB’s top moments from last season.

4. D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson

Uiagalelei shined in a two-week starting audition last season, completing 69% of his passes with no picks and, at 250-pounds, showing decent short-yardage rushing potential as well. But now the training wheels are off. He not only has to look the part of a CFP quarterback, he has to do so (a) without security blanket Travis Etienne and (b) from the start of the season: The Tigers’ toughest regular season game is against Georgia in Charlotte in Week 1.

3. Bryce Young, Alabama

The No. 5 prospect in the 2020 class faces no pressure whatsoever. All he’s got to do in his first season as Bama’s starting quarterback is reproduce the numbers of maybe the greatest Crimson Tide offense ever — and evidently live up to the hundreds of thousands of NIL dollars coming his way — without the services of four first-rounders from last year’s supporting cast. It says a lot about Nick Saban’s Bama machine that we almost unanimously assume he’ll do it.

Other candidates: Anthony Brown (No. 5 last year) or Ty Thompson (Oregon), Jack Coan (Notre Dame), Emory Jones (Florida), Casey Thompson or Hudson Card, Texas

Quarterbacks with both a potential game-changing leap in them and a shot at lots of contenders

2. Max Johnson, LSU

It’s hard to know what Johnson is capable of after a scattershot half-season piloting the LSU attack (59% completion rate, 72nd in Total QBR). Is he a genuine breakthrough guy, or should he have been listed among merely the potential spoilers instead? But when you’ve got talent like Derek Stingley Jr. and Kayshon Boutte on your team, we’re going to assume the ceiling’s high. Johnson is a runner and improviser, and if the run game and defense are both more consistent, he could be in a favorable position. If not, then he could be forced to improvise a little too much.

1. JT Daniels, Georgia (No. 1 last year, No. 8 in 2019)

I already declared Daniels the most likely Next Mac Jones (and named Georgia as the most likely Next Clemson) earlier in the offseason, so it was pretty obvious that he would end up the No. 1 name here. As I wrote last year, “With great quarterback play, the Dawgs go from SEC East co-favorites to, potentially, national title co-favorites.” The only thing that changed since then is that we got a brief, four-game glimpse of what Daniels was capable of late last season. If Daniels turns small-sample dominance into large-sample prowess, the Dawgs have everything they need.

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