Every college football team has personnel issues that will be a question mark going into the 2013 season. But some have national title implications.
Alabama has the nation’s best roster, but the Crimson Tide is replacing a couple of key starters on the offensive line. Ohio State’s defensive line lost all four starters from last season and will be relying on two sophomores to start at defensive end. Stanford won the Pac-12 title last year, but the Cardinal is picked behind Oregon in most preseason polls. If Stanford wants to win the national championship, it has to get more production from its passing attack.
What players could play a huge role in college football’s national championship picture? Athlon examined 10 key players to watch, along with a few extras to keep on the radar this year.
10 Players Who Will Decide College Football's 2013 National Title
1. Noah Spence/Adolphus Washington, DE, Ohio State
The Buckeyes are considered by most to be the top threat to Alabama this season. There are few questions about an offense that returns nine starters, but the defense will be a work in progress to start the year. The line was hit hardest by offseason departures, as the top four players from last season – John Simon, Nathan Willliams, Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel – are gone. While it will be difficult for Ohio State to match last year’s production from the line, there’s no shortage of talent. Sophomore ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were two of the top defensive linemen in the 2012 signing class and played sparingly last year. Spence recorded 12 stops in 11 games, while Washington had three sacks and nine tackles in 10 contests. The Buckeyes also need a big season from tackles Joel Hale and Michael Bennett, but Spence and Washington will be the key pieces in Ohio State’s chances of ranking in the top 15 of rush defense and averaging 2.5 sacks a game once again.
2. Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford
It’s no secret the Cardinal has one of the best defenses and offensive lines in college football. But the passing game is a concern, especially after the departure of tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo to the NFL. Quarterback Kevin Hogan should be better in his second year as a starter, but Stanford needs to find a few playmakers on the outside. Is Montgomery that player? After catching 24 passes (13 receptions over the final two games) in 2011, Montgomery appeared poised for a breakout year in 2012. However, injuries prevented the Texas native from getting on track, finishing with 26 catches for 213 yards. If Montgomery can stay healthy, he can be the threat Hogan needs on the outside to stretch opposing defenses. The Cardinal could also play a few young players at receiver, including Francis Owusu and sophomores Kodi Whitfield and Devon Cajuste.
3. Tommy Rees, QB, Notre Dame
After the summer departure of Everett Golson, Rees is set to be Notre Dame’s No. 1 quarterback once again. The senior has experienced plenty of ups and downs throughout his career in South Bend, throwing for 1,106 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman and then 2,871 yards and 20 scores in 2011. Rees lost the starting job to Golson last year but played relatively well in relief, throwing for 436 yards and two scores. With one of the nation’s best defenses at his disposal, Rees doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards each week. However, the senior needs to limit his mistakes (24 interceptions on 634 career passes). If Rees is solid and cuts down on the turnovers, the Fighting Irish will be back in the hunt for the national title once again.
4. Julien Obioha, DE, Texas A&M
Entering the second offseason under coordinator Mark Snyder, the Aggies should have a better grasp of the defensive scheme for 2013. But the front seven is undergoing a little bit of renovation, as end Damontre Moore and interior players Jonathan Mathis and Spencer Nealy are gone. Texas A&M has recruited well, so there’s plenty of talent ready to step into the lineup. However, Snyder may have to rely on some true freshmen – Justin Manning, Isaiah Golden and Daeshon Hall – to contribute significant snaps. But all eyes will be on Obioha to star the year, especially with a year of experience under his belt. Last season, Obioha started 12 games and recorded 25 tackles and one sack. Replacing Damontre Moore’s 12.5 sacks is no easy task, but the Aggies hope Obioha spends a lot of time in opposing backfields this fall.
5. LG Arie Kouandjio and RT Austin Shepherd, Alabama
The Crimson Tide coach staff should feel pretty good about three spots on their offensive line. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is a future NFL first-round draft pick, guard Anthony Steen has 25 starts in his career, and center Ryan Kelly impressed in limited action last year. But the other two spots were a concern this fall. Arie Kouandjio eventually settled at left guard and Austin Shepherd won the job at right tackle. Matching the dominance of last year’s offensive line will be difficult, and there’s a ton of pressure on the two new starters to perform at a high level right away. If Kouandjio and Shepherd are up to the task, Alabama’s offensive line will clear plenty of holes for the running backs, along with keeping quarterback AJ McCarron upright in the pocket. But if it struggles, Alabama becomes more vulnerable in key games against Texas A&M and LSU.
6. Mike Thornton, DT, Georgia
We could list a few defensive players here for Georgia, but the success of any 3-4 defense starts in the trenches at nose tackle. The Bulldogs have a huge void with the departure of John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers on the interior, and Thornton is slated to start at nose tackle in the season opener at Clemson. The junior checks in at 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds, which is a stark difference to the 6-foot-3 and 358-pound frame of Jenkins last year. However, Thornton is capable of holding down the middle of the line, and his quickness will allow him to create problems off the snap for opposing quarterbacks. If Thornton struggles, Georgia has plenty of linemen ready to rotate into the game. However, the coaching staff would like to see the junior anchor the line this year and lead a rush defense that needs to improve after allowing 182.1 yards per game on the ground last season.
7. Tony Washington, DE/LB, Oregon
The Ducks return a loaded roster, so it’s hard to pinpoint a weakness for 2013. The defense does have a few holes to fill in the front seven, especially at linebacker/rush end where Dion Jordan is off to the NFL. Washington is slated to fill Jordan’s role, and the junior recorded 20 tackles in 13 contests last year. The junior isn’t as dynamic or athletic as Jordan is, but he is more than capable of keeping Oregon’s defense among the best in the Pac-12.
8. Bashaud Breeland/Darius Robinson, CB, Clemson
The Tigers’ first depth chart of 2013 didn’t reveal much about the cornerback position. Garry Peters and Bashaud Breeland are listed as co-starters at one spot, while Darius Robinson and Martin Jenkins share the other side. Clemson’s pass defense is a concern heading into 2013, especially after finishing sixth in the conference last year. Sophomore safety Travis Blanks is a rising star, but the Tigers are still searching for the right mix at cornerback. True freshman Mackensie Alexander was slowed in fall camp due to an injury, so it may be a few weeks before he makes a significant impact. Whether it’s Breeland, Robinson, Jenkins or Peters, Clemson has to find two players it feels comfortable with to start at cornerback, especially with a huge test against Georgia in Week 1.
9. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
The Gamecocks finished 2012 ranked 13th in the SEC in rushing offense, and their leading rusher – running back Marcus Lattimore – left for the NFL after a season-ending injury against Tennessee. Quarterback Connor Shaw ranked second on the team with 435 rushing yards, while Davis finished last season with 275 yards and two touchdowns. Although Shaw has good mobility, South Carolina would like to keep him healthy for a full season, which means one of the running backs needs to step up. Davis was a big-time recruit for the Gamecocks in the 2012 signing class, ranking as a four-star prospect and the No. 63 overall player in the nation according to Rivals.com. Brandon Wilds will also see plenty of carries, but South Carolina needs Davis to be a go-to back that can handle 25 touches a game and take some of the pressure off of Shaw or Dylan Thompson at quarterback.
10. Big 12 Quarterbacks
Yes, we are cheating just a bit with this selection. However, most of the Big 12 is dealing with uncertainty at quarterback this year. Will Clint Chelf hold off J.W. Walsh for the starting job at Oklahoma State ? Is it Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin at TCU? Is Trevor Knight ready for the spotlight at Oklahoma? What about David Ash at Texas? There are question marks abound at the quarterback position in this conference, which is a big reason why no Big 12 team was picked in the top 15 of Athlon’s projected 125 for the 2013 season. If Knight, Chelf or Pachall has a big season, the Big 12 could have a team in the national title hunt.
Others to Watch
Dan Hicks/Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State
Hicks and Edwards will be tasked with replacing Tank Carradine and Bjoern Werner.
Zach Mettenberger, QB LSU
Will Mettenberger thrive under new coordinator Cam Cameron?
Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida
Can Florida find a go-to target for quarterback Jeff Driskel?
Jake Smith, C, Louisville
Smith has the tough task of replacing Mario Benavides at center this year.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Michigan
Toussaint held off freshman Derrick Green for the starting job, but the senior is coming off a significant leg injury suffered late in the 2012 season.
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