July 1, 2017
By Brian Edwards
Note: My rankings are based on how I feel these players are going to perform at the collegiate level this year; NOT how they’re rated in terms of NFL potential.
1-Lamar Jackson (Louisville) – Even though U of L lost a slew of talented skill players, Bobby Petrino’s offense will thrive once against with the dynamic Jackson. He’ll have a difficult time producing the Heisman-winning stats he had last season, but his numbers will still be spectacular. As a true junior, I expect Jackson to be a better passer, and his running skills might already be on the level of Michael Vick’s in his prime. Jackson rushed for 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2016. He also threw for 3,543 yards with a 30/9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. If the Cardinals can win 8-9 games and their young wide receivers perform well, Jackson should be a candidate to become only the second player in college football history to win multiple Heisman Trophies (Ohio State RB Archie Griffin is the other).
2-Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) - Since now head coach Lincoln Riley arrived as OU’s offensive coordinator in 2015, Mayfield has a 76/15 TD-INT ratio. In 2016, Mayfield threw 40 TD passes compared to only eight interceptions. He led the nation in completion percentage (70.9%) and set a new NCAA FBS record in passing efficiency (196.4). Mayfield and OU’s offense lost some pivotal parts like WR Dede Westbrook, RB Joe Mixon and RB Samaje Perine, a trio that accounted for 2,435 rushing yards and 2,168 receiving yards last year. However, nine starters are back, including the entire offensive line. Mayfield is a threat with his legs also, rushing for 582 yards and 13 TDs over the last two seasons.
3-Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State) - Rudolph was sensational last year, throwing for 4,091 yards with a 28/4 TD-INT ratio. He also ran for six TDs while leading the Cowboys to its fifth 10-win season (or better) in the last seven years. While Mayfield lost his top three weapons, Rudolph returns his in RB Justice Hill, WR Jalen McCleskey and WR James Washington. With 8,714 career passing yards, Rudolph is already the school’s second all-time leading passer. He will likely surpass Brandon Weeden in the history books during a Week 2 trip to Mobile to face South Alabama.
4-Luke Falk (Washington State) - The senior QB has 10,888 career passing yards and will become the school’s all-time leader as quickly as Rudolph does at OSU in 2017. Since Washington State limped to a 3-9 record in 2014, Falk has led the Cougars to an 18-7 record in his 25 starts (he missed a loss at Washington in the ’15 regular-season finale due to a concussion). He’ll miss favorite target Gabe Marks, but there’s plenty of returning talent at the WR position that’s ranked 22nd in the nation according to Athlon’s preseason magazine. Falk completed 70.0 percent of his passes for 4,468 yards with a 38/11 TD-INT ratio last season. His career TD-INT ratio is 89/26.
5-Sam Darnold (Southern Cal) - Many think Darnold will be the top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. As a redshirt freshman last year, Darnold completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 3,086 yards and a 31/9 TD-INT ratio. USC went 9-1 in his 10 starts and capped a nine-game winning streak with a thrilling 52-49 win over Penn State at the Rose Bowl. Darnold’s offense brings back just four starters, but the third-year sophomore will have this unit thriving nonetheless.
6-Jake Browning (Washington) - The true junior has started 26 games since arriving on campus, missing only one outing. Browning enjoyed a breakout sophomore campaign, leading UW to a 12-2 record and a spot in the College Football Playoff. He threw for 3,430 yards with a 43/9 TD-INT ratio. Browning also ran for four TDs. The Cougars bring back seven starters on offense, including star WR Dane Pettis and RB Myles Gaskin, and this is a unit that finished tops in the Pac-12 and eighth in the country in scoring (41.8 PPG) last year.
7-J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) - My issue with Barrett has always been that he’s not a productive passer from the pocket, which can be a big-time issue when a team is trying to rally from a significant deficit. But obviously, if you rarely find yourself losing like Ohio St. in recent years, you’re in good shape with Barrett under center thanks to his dynamic scrambling skills. Despite missing the last three games of his freshman season and only starting five of 13 games in his sophomore year, Barrett’s career numbers are amazing: 26-4 record in 30 starts, a 69/21 TD-INT ratio, 6,381 passing yards, 2,465 rushing yards and 31 rushing TDs. He’s already the school’s third all-time leading passer and will pass Art Schlichter, the career convict/felon/con-man/scumbag who might be the worst gambler ever, atop the school’s record books with 1,167 more passing yards. Like his predecessor Braxton Miller, Barrett might have to change positions in the NFL but before doing so, he’s poised for another banner campaign running the show for the Buckeyes.
8-Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State) – Dan Mullen knows how to find and develop a QB. And yes, Fitzgerald is a better athlete than Dak Prescott. Hell, he might be more athletic than Lamar Jackson, who certainly moves quicker laterally but might not quite have Fitzgerald’s take-it-to-the-house speed thanks to the long strides on his tall frame. If Fitzgerald has a step on a defender in the open field, he’s not going to be tracked down. Fitzgerald finished second in the SEC in rushing yards with 1,375 last year. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry while rushing for 16 TDs and producing eight games with 100-plus rushing yards. Fitzgerald’s completion percentage (54.3%) clearly needs to improve, but he still threw for 2,423 yards in his first 13 starts as a true sophomore in ’16. He has a 24/10 career TD-INT ratio. I’m not sure Mississippi St. will be good enough to win nine games but if it does, here’s your sleeper Heisman candidate who currently has 100/1 odds at 5Dimes.eu.
9-Quinton Flowers (South Florida) – USF returns seven starters from an offense that finished fourth in the nation in scoring (43.8 PPG) last season. The Bulls, who finished 11-2 to earn their coach Willie Taggart a new gig at Oregon, scored 35 points vs. Florida St. and 46 vs. South Carolina. As a junior, Flowers connected on 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,812 yards with a 24/7 TD-INT ratio. Most notably, he rushed for 1,530 yards and 18 TDs while averaging an eye-opening 7.7 YPC. His 1,530 rushing yards were the fourth-most in a season by a QB in FBS history. Flowers threw for 2,290 yards with a 22/8 TD-INT ratio in ’15, when he also ran for 991 yards and 12 TDs while averaging 5.2 YPC. RB Marlon Mack, the school’s all-time leading rusher, opted to skip his senior season and go pro a year early. Nevertheless, D’Ernest Johnson is ready to fill Mack’s role and the WR corps is talented and deep. With FSU off the schedule in favor of Illinois (at home) and AAC foes Temple, Cincinnati, Tulsa and Houston coming to Tampa, Charlie Strong’s team could be a real dark horse to crash the CFP. 5Dimes has Flowers with 75/1 odds to win the Heisman.
10-Jalen Hurts (Alabama) – I found it extremely difficult to rank Hurts, who led Alabama to a 14-1 record as a true freshman. On one hand, it was evident the coaching staff didn’t completely trust Hurts not to make mistakes in the passing game. He also had great players everywhere around him and was only asked not to screw things up. Furthermore, Hurts had six games where he threw for 138 yards or fewer. And finally, he completed only 13-of-31 passes (41.9%) for 131 yards in the loss to Clemson. On the flip side, Hurts’s passing yards can be misleading because of how many lopsided games Alabama played. And guess what? He didn’t screw it up unless you’re going to blame the Clemson loss on him, but isn’t 31 points enough to get a victory with an elite defense? Hurts completed 62.8 percent of his (mostly high-percentage) passes for 2,780 yards with a 23/9 TD-INT ratio. His biggest asset is his elusiveness in the pocket and ability to turn a potentially negative play into a positive. Hurts rushed for 954 yards and 13 TDs, averaging 4.9 YPC.
Just missed: Tanner Mangum (BYU), Deondre Francois (FSU), Trace McSorley (Penn State), Jarrett Stidham (Auburn), Riley Ferguson (Memphis) and Shea Patterson (Ole Miss).
Overrated: Josh Allen (Wyoming), Jacob Eason (Georgia) and Josh Rosen (UCLA).
Underrated: Logan Woodside (Toledo), Austin Allen (Arkansas), Ryan Finley (N.C. State) and Brandon Silvers (Troy).
Transfers to Watch: Brandon Harris (North Carolina via LSU), Thomas Sirk (East Carolina via Duke and Fresno State), Max Browne (Pittsburgh via Southern Cal), Kyle Allen (Houston via Texas A&M), Tanner Lee (Nebraska via Tulane), Jacob Park (Iowa State via Georgia) and Will Grier (West Virginia via Florida).
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
-- Why do I call Wyoming’s Allen overrated even though many 2018 mock drafts have him poised to be a top-five selection? That’s easy. In a 52-17 loss at Nebraska last year, he was intercepted five times. For the ’16 season, he completed only 56.0 percent of his passes. Allen had an 8/10 TD-INT ratio in the Cowboys’ five defeats. In a stunning loss at UNLV, Allen completed just 14-of-31 throws (45.2%) and was intercepted twice. Those were his numbers when had an elite RB in Brian Hill, who won’t be around this year after getting drafted by the Atlanta Falcons.
-- What about UCLA’s Rosen? Well, there have been whispers that he isn’t exactly the most popular player in the locker room. Also, he’s coming off a serious shoulder injury that caused him to miss most of last year. He has all the tools and many NFL scouts are high on him, but let’s see if he can produce for his head coach who is on the hot seat.
-- And UGA’s Eason? With this rising true sophomore, his lack of commitment and passion for the game is more than just whispers in SEC circles. Some might call that unfair, especially for a kid his age, but he’s known to hit the town and knock down a few beverages in Athens. Without a doubt, he has great height (and I’ll refrain from using the word “size” because dropping a few pounds would help his quickness) and perhaps the best arm in the country. Yes, he came through in the clutch in huge games at Missouri and vs. Tennessee, but he was mostly inconsistent in ’16. In fairness, that’s not abnormal for any freshman QB, but Eason’s reputation was so high that it isn’t unfair to say he didn’t quite live up to expectations.
-- Quick Side Note regarding Eason: I’m not judging him for enjoying his social life! Athens might be the best college town in America, one I’ve enjoyed while smashing Budweisers galore on many occasions. The eye candy is off the charts as well, so all males 18-21 (and beyond) are understandably tempted to constantly go out in Athens. But the QB for UGA has to be held to a different standard, especially one that’s on the radar of all NFL scouts for a contract worth many millions of dollars. Finally, he can easily change any negative connotations associated with his name by lighting it up this year and in ’18.
-- I didn’t put Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook in my list of overrated because he isn’t thought of highly enough by many pundits. However, if there’s one team (other than Florida with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks) poised for a big season that can’t trust their signal caller, I think it’s the Badgers.
-- As I mentioned UF’s Franks above, I’m obligated to note the Gators’ recent addition of Malik Zaire, the grad transfer from Notre Dame who looked outstanding in leading the Fighting Irish to wins over LSU (’14 bowl game) and Texas (’15 season opener) in two of his three career starts. Zaire will compete with Franks for the starting job and whether or not he wins the job, the Gators add least add some depth. Redshirt freshman Kyle Trask and veteran Luke Del Rio are still around, but both are coming off of offseason surgeries.
-- WVU’s Grier still hasn’t been cleared to play in the Mountaineers’ first six games stemming from his one-year suspension dating back to ’15 when he led the Gators to a 6-0 start. WVU is optimistic about its chances on appeal, however.
-- QBs on the rise not previously mentioned: South Carolina’s Jake Bentley, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Western Kentucky’s Mike White.
-- Another transfer to watch that I didn’t mention is former Texas A&M QB Kyler Murray. I left out the former five-star recruit because unless Mayfield gets injured, he’s only going to see mop-up duty this year. But he’s more than capable of performing at a very high level if Mayfield does go down.
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