The college football season officially kicks off this Saturday, and football fans across the country are eagerly awaiting their programs’ season opener.
The 2016 season gave fans plenty of excitement with the emergence of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Lamar Jackson, and Clemson’s dethroning of Alabama in the National Championship.
There are plenty of talented players in multiple conferences to keep an eye out for this season, but Fourth & Goal has decided to take a closer look at the top 25 most exciting players to watch in 2017.
25. Washington State QB Luke Falk
Washington State’s offense makes the Cougars program one of the most exciting teams to watch in college football, and the return of senior quarterback Luke Falk should provide plenty of highlights for the 2017 season. The Cougars 6-foot-4, 223-pound quarterback threw the fourth most passing yards (4,468) in the FBS last season, and could play himself into a early-round selection with a solid senior season in the Pac-12.
24. Texas OT Connor Williams
Offensive tackles usually aren’t considered the most exciting players, but who doesn’t love a good pancake block or the complete domination of an outside linebacker of defensive end in pass protection. The Longhorns 6-foot-6, 310-pound junior tackle is quickly joining Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey as the top offensive tackle prospect to watch in 2017, and has the highest run blocking grade (84.5) of all returning FBS offensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
23. Oregon RB Royce Freeman
Ducks fans should expect a bounce-back year from Freeman in 2017. The 5-foot-11, 231-pound running back is healthy entering the upcoming season and is looking to return to his dominant form. Oregon’s senior running back recorded 3,201 rushing yard and scored 38 total touchdowns in his freshman and sophomore season, and is likely eager to prove himself one of the top running backs in the nation.
22. Ohio State DE Nick Bosa
Ohio State defensive coordinator and former NFL head coach Greg Schiano said earlier this month that the Buckeyes defensive line is the most talented he’s coached. Bosa, Tyquan Lewis, and Sam Hubbard could all potentially make this list, but the little brother of the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016, Joey Bosa, is sure to garner plenty of attention. As a true freshman, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound pass rusher recorded seven tackles for a loss and five sacks.
21. Florida State CB Tarvarus McFadden
The Seminoles 6-foot-2, 198-pound corner surely has the talent to be an elite defensive back, but struggled to stay consistent early in his sophomore season. McFadden led the nation with eight interceptions in 2016, and could easily play himself into a first-round selection with a breakout junior campaign.
20. Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence
The ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year made an immediate impact in the Tigers’ National Championship season, recording 40 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, and 6.5 sacks. Lawrence, 6-foot-5, 340-pound, is sure to shine in his second season and will greatly benefit from playing alongside fellow defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.
19. Iowa LB Josey Jewell
Iowa’s old-school hard-hitting linebacker is a force in the middle of the Hawkeyes defense that consistently creates havoc for opposing offenses. Through three seasons, the Hawkeyes defensive captain has amassed 301 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, four interceptions, and two forced fumbles.
18. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
Look for Ridley’s role to expand following the departure of wide receiver ArDarius Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver has caught 161 passes for 1,814 yards and has reached the end zone 15 times in his first two seasons. The Tide’s big-play receiver has already logged nine catches over 45 yards and is sure to provide some excitement in the Southeastern Conference.
17. UCLA QB Josh Rosen
Josh Rosen went from a sure-fire 2018 NFL Draft first-round draft pick to college football’s next Christian Hackenberg last season, but can surely change that opinion with a huge junior season. The Bruins 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback only played in six games in 2016 due to a shoulder injury, but when healthy, he’s considered one of the best arms in all of college football.
16. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
The SEC’s 2016 Offensive Player of the Year is looking to lead the Crimson Tide back to the College Football Playoff this season and should only feel more comfortable in Alabama’s offense this season. Hurts threw over 2,700 yards and picked up another 954 yards on the ground in his freshman year, and head coach Nick Saban said earlier this month Hurts has only “developed more confidence as a passer.”
15. Oklahoma State WR James Washington
The Cowboys star receiver is coming off his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season and should shine alongside senior quarterback Mason Rudolph this season. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound receiver is a big-play threat any time he steps on the field and posted 100-yards receiving in six games in 2016, including a 171-yard receiving performance in Oklahoma State’s Alamo Bowl win over Colorado.
14. Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough
The Tide’s 6-foot-2, 235-pound running back has the ability to become Alabama’s next dominant playmaker out of the backfield but will have to stay on the field to do so. Scarbrough carried the ball 125 times for 812 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in 2016, but saved his best performances for the brightest stage. In the SEC Championship game and Alabama’s two playoff games last season, Scarbrough rushed for 364 yards and scored six touchdowns.
13. N.C. State DE Bradley Chubb
The Wolfpack’s star defensive end is already drawing plenty of NFL attention and will only look to improve his play in his senior year. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive end recorded a whopping 21 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, and three forced fumbles in 2016 and is undoubtedly one of the most exciting players to watch this season.
12. Texas A&M WR/PR Christian Kirk
The Aggies junior receiver is lightning rod with the ball in space and has already scored five touchdowns on punt returns in his first two seasons. Look for Kirk to only expand his role in 2017 and potentially play himself into a first-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound explosive receiver caught 83 passes for 928 yards and scored 12 total touchdowns as a sophomore.
11. Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick may be the most versatile defensive player in college football and is only looking to improve in his junior season. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound defensive back spent time at both cornerback and safety in 2016 and racked up 66 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, six interceptions, seven passes defended, and one forced fumble. Defensive backs tend to go overlooked when talking about the most exciting players in college football but that is clearly not the case in Tuscaloosa.
10. Wyoming QB Josh Allen
Wyoming’s star quarterback has quickly become of the most talked about quarterbacks ahead of the 2017 season, but Allen only has one goal for the upcoming season and that’s to lead the Cowboys to a Fiesta Bowl win. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound NFL-bound quarterback will be tested early, as Wyoming faces Power-Five programs Iowa and Oregon within the first three weeks. The Cowboys are without their lead running back and top three receivers from a year ago, but that should only make watching Allen in 2017 that much more intriguing.
9. Texas LB Malik Jefferson
The Longhorns were unable to live up to their talent level under head coach Charlie Strong, but that surely wasn’t due to the play of Jefferson. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker recorded 60 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, and 6.5 sacks last season and is surely the leader of Texas’ defense. Jefferson immediately jumps out when watching the Longhorns play, as he has the rare combination of speed and size that NFL franchises look for in a sideline-to-sideline linebacker.
8. LSU RB Derrius Guice
Guice may not garner the same hype as Leonard Fournette, but that doesn’t mean the Tigers running back doesn’t deserve the attention. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound running back averaged 7.6 yards per carry and recorded 1,387 rushing yards and scored 16 total touchdowns in his sophomore season. Guice posted over 130 rushing yards in six games last season and is only expected to see an increased workload in 2017.
7. Houston DT Ed Oliver
Oliver takes the top spot for a player outside the Power Five, as he is coming off an All-American freshman season in which he recorded 65 tackles, 22 tackles for a loss, five sacks, and two forced fumbles. The Cougars 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive tackle sheds opposing offensive linemen like paper bags and is clearly one of the top talents to watching this season.
6. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
The Sooners versatile quarterback was compared to Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre by an opposing defensive coordinator last season and surely deserves a place on this list. Mayfield is coming off another dominant season in Norman, throwing 358 passes for 3,965 yards. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound quarterback scored 46 touchdowns both through the air and on the ground last season and is looking to lead Oklahoma to a third consecutive Big 12 title in 2017.
5. LSU LB Arden Key
It’s unlikely Key will be ready for the start of the season, but the 6-foot-6, 265-pound edge rusher is undoubtedly one of the best players in college football when healthy. The Tigers All-American junior racked up 55 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, 11 sacks, and two forced fumbles in 11 games last season.
4. Florida State S Derwin James
James is the second Florida State defensive back on this list, and the top ranked defensive player despite only playing in two games last season. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound safety recorded 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, four passes defended, and two forced fumbles as a freshman, and is likely looking to prove in 2017 that he is the best defensive back in all of college football.
3. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
Barkley has already become a household name with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Penn State and is set to join Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette as college football’s latest NFL-bound running back. The Nittany Lions dual-threat running back recorded 1,496 rushing yards, 402 receiving yards, and scored 22 touchdowns in his sophomore season. Barkley helped Penn State claim its first Big Ten title since 2008 last season, and is the top ranked FBS running back in terms of forced missed tackles (60) against Power Five opponents, according to Pro Football Focus.
2. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
Jackson became the youngest player to win the Heisman Trophy last season and is arguably the most electrifying player in college football. Former NFL quarterback and human highlight reel Michael Vick said in July that Louisville’s 6-foot-3, 211-pound quarterback reminds him of himself, but even Vick couldn’t but up the jaw-dropping numbers Jackson did in his sophomore season. The Cardinals star quarterback scored a whopping 51 touchdowns and accounted for 5,114 total yards in 2016.
1. USC QB Sam Darnold
The Trojans 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback may not shake defenders in the open field like Barkley and Jackson, but there is no denying the talent of USC’s redshirt sophomore quarterback. Darnold skyrocketed to the top of NFL analysts’ big boards despite not logging his first start till the fourth game of the 2016 season, as he led the Trojans on nine-game winning streak, which included a Rose Bowl win over Penn State. USC’s star quarterback threw over 450 yards and five touchdowns in the Rose Bowl, and tops Fourth & Goal’s list as the most exciting college football player to watch in 2017.