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John Raoux/Associated Press
Several weeks into the college football season, the stars of 2020 are separating themselves from the rest of the pack, just like the championship contenders.
With the Big Ten and Pac-12 set to join the fray soon, other big names will begin to surge to the top of the stat sheets. But for now, it’s an early season dominated by SEC, Big 12 and ACC playmakers.
In some cases, like for Clemson quarterback and Heisman Trophy front-runner Trevor Lawrence, it’s expected. Other surprises are playing their way into superstardom, and some elite players are still having big seasons for teams off to subpar starts.
A few sets of teammates are on here, too, but that’s just the way the stats are shaking out so far this season.
With eligibility essentially out the door this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s going to be exciting to see which guys play their way into the top end of the conversation for the NFL draft. For others, it’s about building their reputation on the college gridiron. Plenty of guys on this list have national championship hopes remaining this year, as well.
Let’s take a look at some college football stars putting up ridiculous numbers in the early season.
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L.G. Patterson/Associated Press
Georgia is the nation’s top defensive unit, full of difference-making playmakers who don’t pile up the stats but just embarrass opponents in the box scores. Alabama has a slew of former elite prospects all over its defense. LSU and Florida are off to awful starts but are known as mass producers of defensive talent.
But the best defensive player in the SEC hails from unheralded Missouri.
That would be hard-hitting linebacker Nick Bolton, who was a first-team All-SEC selection a year ago as a sophomore and is off to yet another dominating start.
After a relatively quiet 25 tackles through his first two games, he was still third nationally in that category entering Saturday’s massive showdown against defending national champion LSU. What did he do in such a big game? He had one of the best performances of his collegiate career.
The 6’0″, 232-pound Texas native finished the game with 11 tackles and three pass deflections against the Bayou Bengals.
With the game on the line and the Tigers needing a miracle goal-line stand to pull off the win, Bolton and crew got it. He was playing with an injury, but he helped get a stop on first down. On third down, he anticipated a quick throw to Terrace Marshall Jr. and batted the pass to the ground.
Mizzou got another deflection on fourth down and secured an unbelievable 45-41 upset. Bolton personified the grit of the team playing despite an undisclosed injury, according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Dave Matter.
“I’m going through a little pain here and there,” he told Matter. “But pain’s only temporary. Wins are forever.”
Bolton is a winner and a stat-hog, to boot.
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Roger Steinman/Associated Press
With an off day Saturday, SMU quarterback Shane Buechele got to sit and watch other college quarterbacks trying to post the kind of numbers he already has in four games.
As he anxiously awaits injury news on the nation’s second-leading receiver, Reggie Roberson Jr., Buechele at least got to have some time off to rest his arm. After a rousing 30-27 win over Memphis on Oct. 3 and with UCF’s loss to Tulsa, he may be leading the AAC’s top team.
How he goes, they go.
So far this season, the Texas transfer is second nationally with 1,326 passing yards and has thrown 10 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. When you factor in the fact he’s already played the Tigers, those numbers are even better.
Of course, losing Roberson could hurt his statistics moving forward. But head coach Sonny Dykes’ team revolves around the quarterback, who has enjoyed his career resurrection after losing his job to Sam Ehlinger in Austin. All he’s done is become a household name in the nation’s top Group of Five conference.
He has also meant a ton to Dykes’ program.
“He’s meant credibility, really. He had a really good start to his career at Texas, won some football games, started as a true freshman,” Dykes said on AM 1300 The Zone’s The Bottom Line (h/t 247Sports’ Billy Embody). “I don’t know how many times that’s happened in Texas history at that position. My guess is, you know, not very often. There was some turmoil in the program at the time, but his play was really steady, his play was really consistent, think his leadership is really strong.”
Look for him to be near the top of the leaderboard in several statistical categories throughout the season. As of now, he’s one of the most prolific players in all of college football, regardless of conference.
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Gerry Broome/Associated Press
Take one look at North Carolina’s outcomes so far this year—and the offensive explosion during Saturday’s 56-point outbreak in a win over Virginia Tech—and you’d think quarterback Sam Howell was flinging darts.
Actually, that’s not quite true.
The sophomore has been up and down for Mack Brown’s team so far, but thankfully for the undefeated Tar Heels, the running game was been among the nation’s best. That was the case again against the Hokies as Javonte Williams and Michael Carter had huge games.
Carter’s was a continuation of an unbelievable season.
He had an incredible 214 rushing yards on just 17 carries against Tech, bringing his season total to 413 yards. Though the scores were his first of the season, Carter has been the big-play back for the Heels while Williams does the tough duty.
How torrid has he been? Carter is averaging an eye-popping 10.3 yards per carry (third nationally), and that’s even more impressive considering just how improved the ACC is this season. He’s also second in the nation in yards per game behind only Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert.
When Carter gets his hands on the ball, big things normally happen.
If Brown’s team is going to continue making noise in the league (and it certainly has the firepower to do so), Howell, receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown and Co. will need to continue putting up big numbers. But this offense goes how Carter and Williams go.
Despite Clemson running back Travis Etienne’s back-to-back ACC Player of the Year awards and the big-play ability of Louisville’s Javian Hawkins, Carter has been the best running back in a conference full of standout players at the position.
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
This has not been the kind of start Texas and embattled head coach Tom Herman expected this season, and Saturday’s wild-and-wacky Red River Rivalry loss to Oklahoma didn’t help.
But senior signal-caller Sam Ehlinger has done it all this year, even if he has made plenty of mistakes in the losses.
While he’d probably tell you it hasn’t been a great year during the 2-2 start, his numbers are still incredibly impressive. Yes, he threw a pair of costly picks against the Sooners, but so far this year, he’s accounted for 21 total touchdowns.
Where would the Longhorns be without him?
Perhaps the most impressive thing for the Texas native on Saturday was that he nearly beat OU with his feet. He finished the game with 112 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground and also threw for 287 yards and a pair of scores.
With so much inconsistency in the running game and an awful defense, Texas has to put the entire game on Ehlinger’s shoulders every weekend, and he is often up to the challenge. Does he try to do too much sometimes? Absolutely. But he almost has to try.
Despite the struggles against TCU and the turnover issues against Oklahoma, he’s only thrown four interceptions while putting the ball in the air 162 times. Defenses know what’s coming, and they can gear up for a unit that has been far too one-dimensional.
That one dimension is Ehlinger, who has thrown 16 scoring passes and run for five more to lead the nation in total trips to the end zone. Unfortunately for Herman, he doesn’t have many other players in Autin on whom he can rely.
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Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
Sam Ehlinger may have posted the best numbers so far, and Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard has the most jam-packed resume, but the best player in the Big 12 has been Iowa State sophomore running back Breece Hall.
If you’re looking for “flashy,” you can stick in Stillwater with Hubbard, though the absence of starting quarterback Spencer Sanders for much of the year has hampered the Heisman Trophy hopeful’s numbers. But the most steadily spectacular runner in the conference—and maybe even the country—is Hall.
He has teamed with quarterback Brock Purdy to help the Cyclones shrug off a season-opening shocking loss to Louisiana and put Iowa State quietly back in the Big 12 picture, especially after it upset Oklahoma on Oct. 3.
As a matter of fact, the Cyclones may stand alongside Mike Gundy’s Cowboys as the favorites right now.
The 6’1″, 215-pound Hall has yet to have a game with fewer than 100 rushing yards and has scored in every contest. After the loss to the Ragin’ Cajuns, in which he had just 103 yards on the ground and a single score, he has gone for more than 130 yards and posted multiple touchdowns in every outing. He’s now third nationally in rushing yards per game.
Though Hall isn’t the biggest receiving threat out of the backfield, he has six grabs and can change the game in that facet.
Hall has 531 rushing yards this season (second nationally) and is going to be a key part of every game plan head coach Matt Campbell draws up in Ames. Everybody seemed to give up on Iowa State after that first game, but Hall and Co. have stayed the course and are doing exciting things on both sides of the ball.
This is an underrated team, and Hall might be the most unassuming superstar in college football. His numbers are backing that up.
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Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
One good game can catapult you onto this list; that’s the joy of it being so early in the season.
When Najee Harris returned to Alabama for his senior season rather than heading to the NFL, it was to try to hone his skills, prove to the pros he’s more than just a “big back” and polish other parts of his game. Throughout the first couple of contests, he again was a victim of the Crimson Tide’s prolific passing attack.
But Harris continued to do his job, racking up five rushing touchdowns through two blowout Bama wins.
In a barn-burning 63-48 win over Ole Miss on Saturday, though, the Tide needed him to carry the load, and, oh, did he ever. The former top prospect from California rolled up 206 yards on 23 carries (9.0 yards per carry) against a suspect Rebels defense.
He torched head coach Lane Kiffin’s porous unit on that side of the ball for five touchdowns, doubling his total for the season.
Now, he leads the nation with 10 rushing touchdowns, and he has piled up 347 rushing yards. Plenty of guys are ahead of him nationally in yards, but he’s even better than Breece Hall in the scoring category.
As for those other parts of his game? Well, Harris can benefit from Mac Jones spraying the ball all around the field and guys like Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith (all of whom could be on this list) spreading the defense thin. He had three catches for 42 yards against Ole Miss and now has seven grabs for 76 yards this season.
With a massive game against Georgia’s vaunted defense coming up next weekend, the Tide need to establish some semblance of offensive balance against the nation’s best unit. Harris should be a pivotal part of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s game plan.
If he has another big game next weekend, Harris could see his name surge to the top of the Doak Walker Award list and possibly into Heisman consideration. He’s a major part of Nick Saban’s offense.
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Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
It’s difficult to sort out a lot of the defensive players this year because very few have separated themselves statistically.
Pittsburgh senior edge-rusher Patrick Jones II is one who has.
Entering the year, he didn’t get the same publicity as teammate Jaylen Twyman, who is widely regarded as one of the top pass-rushers coming out for the 2020 NFL draft. Twyman opted out of the season to focus on gearing up for the next level.
But all Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi does is develop elite defenders, and Jones is one of the next great ones to come out of that linemen factory. The Panthers have difference-makers like Rashad Weaver and SirVocea Dennis on that side of the ball, but Jones is the best.
As a redshirt junior, Jones was one of the top defensive ends in the ACC, registering 43 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 18 quarterback hurries. He tied for the team lead in tackles for loss, forced fumbles and hurries while ranking second in sacks.
This year, with Twyman out of the picture, he’s even better. He leads the nation with seven sacks, including an outstanding three-sack effort in a win over Louisville and another day with three quarterback takedowns in a loss to Boston College this past weekend.
At 6’5″, 260 pounds, he has the size and speed NFL teams covet coming off the edge. Every year, college players surge to the top of the draft board, and Jones is that guy this season as a player whose production could catapult him into the earlier rounds.
With a torrid start that also has him fourth in the nation in tackles for loss (seven), Jones is entering the conversation with guys like Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr., Iowa State’s JaQuan Bailey, Miami’s Quincy Roche and Gregory Rousseau.
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
“I’ll take ‘Players Who Don’t Belong on this List, At Least on the Surface’ for $1,000, Alex.”
You can’t make one of these lists without a player who is stunning everybody right now. And if you had to pick that guy at this stage of the season, it would be Boston College first-year starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec.
You may not think he’s a star, but you should watch him play before making that judgment.
The former Notre Dame Fighting Irish 4-star, top-100 commitment was a big deal when he signed with head coach Brian Kelly as a U.S. Army All-American, but with his path blocked in South Bend, he transferred to Chestnut Hill to play for first-year coach Jeff Hafley.
The 6’5″, 226-pound redshirt sophomore has set the ACC on fire so far during the Eagles’ surprising 3-1 start, and he was at his best in Saturday’s upset of Pittsburgh, rolling up 358 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 31-30 overtime win.
Just how close are the Eagles from being a spotless 4-0? They lined up for a game-tying two-point conversion late against then-No. 12 North Carolina on Oct. 3, but Jurkovec made one of his few mistakes of the season when Trey Morrison intercepted it and returned it all the way for two points, giving the Heels a 26-22 escape.
In that game, though, Jurkovec outperformed North Carolina star sophomore Sam Howell, and that has become the norm. He did it again Saturday against Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett.
The only ACC signal-caller who has had a better start to the season is Trevor Lawrence, who is college football’s top player. Jurkovec has completed 99 of 152 passes for 1,181 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. He has three rushing touchdowns, too.
Most importantly, he has helped turn around Boston College’s offense, transforming sophomore receiver Zay Flowers and junior tight end Hunter Long into two of the top five pass-catchers in the conference while making the Eagles a legitimate threat to beat almost anyone.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
The least surprising name on this list is the Heisman Trophy front-runner, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
But don’t take it for granted. Remember, at this point last year, there were grumbles about the 6’6″ elite signal-caller having a bit of a sophomore slump and him being turnover-prone. Lawrence rebounded from that slow start a season ago and had the Tigers right back in the national championship game.
There is no such slow start this year.
With the Tigers off to a 4-0 start, Lawrence has been sterling. Even though running back Travis Etienne didn’t really get cranked up until Saturday night’s domination of seventh-ranked Miami, Clemson had no trouble putting anybody away. It’s clear head coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers are the cream of the ACC crop again.
In a battle of elite quarterbacks Saturday, Lawrence soared while Miami’s D’Eriq King sputtered. The sophomore from Cartersville, Georgia, completed 29 of 41 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns in the biggest win of the season so far.
Just how good was he? A targeting call on Amari Carter could have rattled Lawrence, but he rebounded with a rushing touchdown and finished with eight carries for 34 yards on the ground. He has impressive mobility for a guy his height.
So far this season, Lawrence has done it all. He has thrown for 1,140 yards and 10 touchdowns with zero interceptions. He’s added four rushing scores to that and is the clear-cut favorite for college football’s top individual honor. The turnover talk? A thing of the past.
Simply put: He’s the best player on what looks like potentially the nation’s best team. Until somebody proves otherwise, Lawrence’s junior season (and likely last) is shaping up to be his best. And this is a guy who has already had one of the most impressive seasons of any quarterback in history.
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L.G. Patterson/Associated Press
The LSU Tigers are sputtering their way to a 1-2 start with embarrassing losses to Mississippi State and Missouri, but it certainly doesn’t have much to do with the passing attack.
Despite Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase opting out of this season to focus on the NFL draft and Justin Jefferson catching passes for the Minnesota Vikings, the Bayou Bengals still have some weaponry for new quarterback Myles Brennan.
None is better than junior Terrace Marshall Jr., who is probably the nation’s top pass-catcher right now.
Mizzou couldn’t stop him as he rolled up 11 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday’s loss. So far this season, he has 21 catches for 424 yards and seven touchdowns in just three games.
According to the Advocate‘s Jeff Nowak, the junior is on pace to break the school record for scoring catches despite the 10-game schedule. Chase has that one, set in last year’s historic campaign with 20. That’s how incredible Marshall’s start has been.
Nowak wrote Marshall is on pace for 77 catches, 1,554 yards and 25 touchdowns. Of course, it’s too early to project that to happen, but it’s fun nonetheless. If he did hit those marks, the Tigers would have consecutive Biletnikoff Award winners because he’d obviously be the nation’s top pass-catcher.
But just how far up the draft board can he go?
Pro Football Network’s Matthew Valdovinos refers to Marshall as an “elite physical specimen” with ideal size to be an NFL receiver and an “elite athlete” who can play the position, but he admits Marshall was just a “[complementary] piece” on LSU’s championship team a year ago.
That isn’t the case this year. And while the Bayou Bengals aren’t as good as a season ago, Marshall is proving to be a star. And actually, his dominance goes back to last season when he was playing alongside Chase.
Saturday marked his sixth consecutive game with a receiving touchdown, and he has 20 scoring grabs in his past 15 games.
The Tigers have a world of defensive issues, and there are major holes in the running game, too. But thanks to Marshall, they are a force that can beat anybody they play through the air.
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Thomas Graning/Associated Press
This slide was supposed to belong to Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who has become upstart quarterback Mac Jones’ top target this season on a team that includes DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III.
But then Ole Miss slot receiver Elijah Moore went out and proved what he can do in a head-to-head matchup with the Crimson Tide’s electric star.
That’s no slight to Waddle, who belongs just on the cusp of this list and could battle for the Heisman Trophy this year given how many ways he can impact a game. But what Moore is doing is elite. He is the ideal target for head coach Lane Kiffin’s offense, and he is a truly elite slot receiver.
Everybody expected a guy like Waddle to go out and pile up 120 receiving yards against Ole Miss’ porous defense, but Moore grabbing 11 catches for 143 yards against Nick Saban’s Alabama defense was impressive.
“He’s very quick, very explosive and very sudden,” Saban said, per the Chattanooga Times-Free Press‘ David Paschall before the game. “He’s hard to tackle, even though he’s not a great big guy. He’s very well put together and is hard to cover, and it’s going to be a matchup we’ve got to pay a lot of attention to.”
They knew what was coming, and they still couldn’t stop it.
In three games, he already has an impressive 31 catches for 462 yards. He leads the nation in yards per game and is proving to be an elite playmaker.
Though he has only found the end zone once, he is doing exactly what you want your slot receiver to do. He’s getting open, making plays and serving as a weapon who can do big things at any spot on the field.
Among players who have logged just three games, only UCF’s Marlon Williams has more receptions. But in a league with standout pass-catchers all over the place, Moore is making a name for himself.
That’s huge considering he was known most before this season for hiking his leg up in a urinating-dog celebration during last year’s Egg Bowl, a decision that ultimately led to a Rebels loss.
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Sam Craft/Associated Press
Florida’s rich offensive history has produced tons of pass-catchers with pinball-wizard receiving numbers.
But when you factor in that Kyle Pitts is a tight end, it makes his start to the 2020 season as astounding as any of the big names in the Gators’ Fun ‘N’ Gun history. The Pennsylvania native is an absolute matchup nightmare for anybody who lines up against him.
He’s physical enough to be a decent blocker in the run game, but he really makes his money on the perimeter and in the red zone. He is quarterback Kyle Trask’s biggest weapon and unquestionably the nation’s top tight end—if not overall pass-catcher.
The 6’6″, 240-pound target has blossomed under head coach Dan Mullen, going from a nice year as a hybrid during his sophomore season to this campaign’s true breakout. During the Gators’ 2-1 start, he has 17 catches for 274 yards and seven touchdowns.
He is going to be a guy who makes plays for an NFL team a year from now and has all the size and ability to become an All-Pro before long.
Per a SportsCenter broadcast, Pitts is the fourth player in Florida history to have seven scoring grabs over a three-game stretch. And though he had just 47 receiving yards in a loss to Texas A&M on Saturday, he found the end zone yet again.
Just how good is he? According to one Hall of Fame former head coach, he’s as good as they come. Former Gators and Ohio State coach and current FOX Sports analyst Urban Meyer told Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel last week, “I think they have the best player in America, at least non-quarterback. He’s a matchup nightmare.”
It’s going to be interesting to see if Pitts comes back down to earth anytime soon. But right now, it doesn’t look like he’s going to slow down at all.
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Sam Craft/Associated Press
Let’s stick with the Florida Gators. Before Saturday’s disappointing road loss to Texas A&M, it could be argued quarterback Kyle Trask had a good case to be this year’s Joe Burrow.
Now, he may just have to settle for being a poor man’s version after the Gators lost their first game of the year since they now face an uphill battle to get through Georgia and advance to the College Football Playoff.
The loss wasn’t because of Trask, though.
The Gators signal-caller completed 23 of 32 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns. He was flawless, and on a day the Aggies did a good job neutralizing Kyle Pitts and not getting crushed by him, he found other targets such as Kadarius Toney, Malik Davis and Trevon Grimes.
It’s been that way all year for the 6’5″, 240-pound senior from Manvel, Texas, who took over for Feleipe Franks a year ago and has never looked back, forcing head coach Dan Mullen to tailor his offensive scheme to a more traditional dropback passer and leading the Gators on a run back to relevance.
There’s still plenty of time for Florida to rebound from the disappointing loss to A&M and play for big things, too. At this point, there’s nothing at all wrong with the offense.
So far this season, Trask has thrown for 996 yards, 14 touchdowns and just one interception. He’s also completing a remarkable 71.8 percent of his passes. He is efficient, he’s effective, and he can dominate games at times, too. He’s sixth nationally with 332 passing yards per game.
The way he’s playing is forcing analysts to step up and take notice. ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay tweeted during Saturday’s game, “Love Trask’s awareness in the pocket.”
That is one of the many traits that make him a valuable commodity whose stock has to be surging. He is a big-armed, NFL-sized quarterback posting big-time numbers for a title contender. This isn’t just the Kyle Pitts show.
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Orlin Wagner/Associated Press
There are receivers in the nation with better numbers than Oklahoma State star senior Tylan Wallace’s 19 catches for 320 yards and a pair of touchdowns, though his yards-per-game average is by far the best in the Big 12.
Still, those numbers are absurd for a couple of different—and very important—reasons, neither of which is Wallace’s lack of ability.
The last time he played a full season in 2018, Wallace was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award along with eventual winner Jerry Jeudy and former UMass star Andy Isabella, who is now in the NFL, as well.
All Wallace does when healthy is produce, and he was doing just that a season ago, leading the Big 12 with 903 receiving yards in late October, which brings us to our first reason why his numbers this year are so impressive.
He’s basically just now a full season removed from tearing his ACL in a non-contact injury suffered in practice. While some players take much longer to recover and many are a shell of their former selves when they do come back, the 6’0″, 190-pound team leader is hitting his status quo.
That means he’s one of the game’s best pass-catchers.
What else is remarkable about Wallace’s start to the season for the Big 12’s only remaining undefeated team? He’s only had starting quarterback Spencer Sanders throwing him the ball for one full drive. Sanders went down in the first quarter of the West Virginia game and hasn’t returned.
With Sanders expected back Saturday, replacing freshman Shane Illingworth, the Cowboys will become much more dangerous and balanced offensively, and Wallace should have more chances thanks to the rapport the two have built. Sanders was his quarterback a season ago, too.
If you’re looking for a guy who has posted quality numbers and is a “buy” bet for even bigger ones as the season progresses, Wallace is your man. He’s bound for a big season.