1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina DE. Unless something goes terribly awry, he will be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. But can he win a Heisman Trophy and lift the Gamecocks to an SEC title along the way? Popular mythology says a defensive player has no chance to win the Heisman, but one has finished in the top five of the voting three of the last four years (Manti Te’o last year, Tyrann Mathieu in 2011, Ndomakung Suh in ’09). And none of them started the season with the hype Clowney has.
2. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama RB. The Crimson Tide is loaded at wide receiver and has a three-year starter at quarterback, but Yeldon figures to be the centerpiece of the offense. He got 15 or more carries in a game only four times last year – and went over 100 yards every time. Feed him 20-25 touches per game this season and watch the guy who is a little like a young Adrian Peterson produce a Heisman finalist-type season, following in the footsteps of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.
3. Marqise Lee, USC WR/KR. The most gifted and pro-ready receiver in America has caught 191 passes and scored 31 touchdowns in two seasons as a collegian. His big-play ability makes finding the right quarterback a matter of highest urgency for the Trojans, who don’t want to leave their Lamborghini wideout in the parking lot all fall. Lane Kiffin’s employment status could depend on it.
4. De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon RB/WR/KR. At a place where speed is the coin of the realm, he’s the rarest and most valuable coin. The ultimate Oregon weapon scored touchdowns last year running (11 of them), receiving (five), on a punt return (one) and a kickoff return (one). Averaging 8.8 yards per carry in his college career, which is just silly. And more carries should be coming his way this year with Kenjon Barner gone to the NFL.
5. Louis Nix III, Notre Dame NT. Big man (357 pounds) with a big personality (@1irishchocolate is a quality Twitter follow) is a big reason why Manti Te’o got free run to make so many tackles – because Nix was occupying so many blockers up front. Bypassed the NFL draft in part as a gift to his mom, but it’s also a huge gift to Brian Kelly and all Fighting Irish fans. Notre Dame defense should be tremendous again this year.
24. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State LB. Just four starters return on the Buckeyes’ defense, and one of them – star cornerback Bradley Roby – is suspended for the season opener. Which means linebacker Shazier will probably have to be even better than he was last year, when he made a team-high 115 tackles and was second in the Big Ten in tackles per game. Shazier can also cover, breaking up 11 passes and intercepting one. He’s just a junior, but expect to see him shaking Roger Goodell’s hand next April as a first-round pick.