Every college football team has personnel issues or question marks entering the 2015 season. But some concerns are bigger than others for teams in the national title or playoff mix. Whether it’s a quarterback battle, an open spot at defensive tackle or cornerback, every personnel concern is magnified in the race to win a national championship.
Which players could shape the national title emergence this season? We’ve compiled 10 names to watch this fall, with a small caveat. It’s no secret quarterback play is critical to winning a national championship or earning a spot in the four-team playoff. However, it’s the player development and emergence of new stars at other positions that can also make-or-break a team’s playoff chances. We could list a quarterback for several of Athlon's projected top 10-15 teams this season but attempted to identify players at positions with question marks as much as possible.
10 Players Who Will Decide College Football's 2015 National Title
Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon
Life after Marcus Mariota begins in Eugene this fall, with Jeff Lockie and Adams locked into a tight battle to replace the Heisman Trophy winner. Lockie’s experience within the offense and spring stint as the starter certainly bolsters his case to open the year as the No. 1 quarterback. However, Adams is more dynamic and brings more of a big-play element to the offense. How quickly will the Eastern Washington transfer pickup the offense and supplant Lockie as the starter? Or could coach Mark Helfrich play both quarterbacks all season? Oregon has a solid supporting cast and enough talent to return to the College Football Playoff if Adams or Lockie takes the quarterback spot from a question mark to a strength.
Vayante Copeland, CB, Michigan State
Copeland, Arjen Colquhoun, Darian Hicks and Demetrious Cox are fighting for two open cornerback spots in Michigan State’s secondary. Pass defense has been a strength in East Lansing in recent years, but the Spartans “No Fly Zone” may take a step back if this position spot remains unsettled. Copeland redshirted in his first season on campus and is making a strong push for a starting job. His emergence is critical for a secondary that held opponents to just six passing scores in Big Ten games last year.
Mike Freeze, LB, TCU
Scoring points won’t be a problem for the Horned Frogs this fall. While the defense is usually a strength under coach Gary Patterson, there are holes to fill in the back seven with the departure of four All-Big 12 performers. Freeze enrolled early and competed in spring practice, stating a strong case to earn a starting job this fall. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound linebacker has big shoes to fill after the departure of Paul Dawson. Can this freshman ensure there’s no drop off in production at linebacker this season? Cornerback Ranthony Texada and safety Kenny Iloka are also worth a mention as key defenders in TCU’s remodeled back seven.
Everett Golson/Sean Maguire, QB, Florida State
Florida State has several players we could mention here, but the quarterback position is under the biggest microscope after Jameis Winston’s departure to the NFL. Maguire has one start under his belt (Clemson, 2014), while Golson transferred to the Seminoles after spring practice at Notre Dame. Coach Jimbo Fisher hasn’t picked a starter yet, but it’s not out of the question both quarterbacks start a game this year. Even though Florida State has concerns outside of the quarterback spot on offense, as well as question marks on defense, a young Seminoles’ roster can compete for a playoff spot if Golson or Maguire solidifies the position.
Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
A receiver – Robert Foster or ArDarius Stewart – is worth a mention here, but Alabama’s secondary is a preseason concern for the second year in a row. The Crimson Tide ranked 11th in the SEC after allowing 10 passing plays of 40 yards or more last season. Senior Cyrus Jones has one cornerback spot locked down, but Humphrey and sophomore Tony Brown are competing for the other. Humphrey redshirted last season, and the former five-star recruit could provide an upgrade at cornerback and help a secondary already replacing standout safety Landon Collins.
Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Keeping quarterback Deshaun Watson healthy is essential for Clemson to contend for the ACC title or a playoff bid. The offensive line lost starting left tackle Isaiah Battle to the NFL’s supplemental draft this summer, leaving senior Ryan Norton as the lone returning starter. Hyatt – a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class – is slated to protect Watson’s blindside this fall. The true freshman is a future star for coach Dabo Swinney, but he has a huge test early in the year with a road trip to Louisville in Week 3.
Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
Lawson missed last season due to injury after recording 7.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks as a true freshman in 2013. All signs point to the sophomore returning at full strength in 2015, which is a huge boost for an Auburn defense that managed only 10 sacks in SEC play last season. With Lawson poised to jumpstart the pass rush and the addition of coordinator Will Muschamp, the Tigers have reasons to be optimistic about improving a defense that allowed 26.7 points per game and 5.7 yards per play last year.
Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State
The Buckeyes know what they have on one side of the defensive line in Joey Bosa. But who will emerge at the other end spot? As good as Bosa is, Ohio State needs more than just one player to generate a pass rush. All signs point to Lewis as the starter opposite of Bosa, as the North Carolina native looks to build off a promising 2014 campaign. In 15 games, Lewis recorded nine tackles (2.5 for a loss) and one quarterback hurry. The sophomore’s emergence is critical to keep opposing offenses from consistently sending double teams in Bosa’s direction.
Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
We tried to avoid quarterbacks in this article, but it’s hard to finding a glaring concern on Baylor’s roster. Sure, the Bears have to defend the pass better and replace Bryce Hager at linebacker. However, it’s the play of Russell that could be the difference in Baylor winning the Big 12 or finishing second to TCU. Russell has been solid in limited action, completing 74 of 128 passes for 1,231 yards and 11 scores. Coach Art Briles has a strong track record of finding the next star at quarterback. All signs point to Russell emerging as one of the Big 12’s top passers this season.
Delvon Simmons, DE, USC
Leonard Williams wreaked havoc on opposing Pac-12 offensive lines last season, and the first-round NFL draft pick won’t be easy to replace. USC may not have a difference maker like Williams this season, but there’s a collection of linemen ready to pickup the slack in the trenches. Simmons – a Texas Tech transfer – recorded 44 tackles and one sack last season and is expected to be a bigger piece of the puzzle up front in 2015.
5 Other Players to Watch
Brandon Harris, QB, LSU
LSU isn’t hurting for talent and has the necessary pieces to push for the SEC West title. Will Harris provide an upgrade for a passing attack that struggled mightily in 2014?
Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia
Georgia’s quarterback situation remains unsettled, but the passing attack could use a healthy Mitchell to stretch the field. After battling injuries the last two years, can Mitchell regain his 2012 form (40 catches for 572 yards)?
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
How far can the talented true freshman take the Bruins in 2015?
Jerry Tillery, DT, Notre Dame
True freshman is expected to start after Jarron Jones was lost for the year due to a knee injury.
Jaylen Walton/Akeem Judd/Jordan Wilkins, RB, Ole Miss
The quarterback battle is getting most of the preseason attention in Oxford, but the Rebels have to run the ball better in 2015.