With players like Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette returning, it’s a crowded year at the top of the player rankings. Watson is Athlon’s No. 1 player for 2016, but the gap between the next set of players is pretty small. While Fournette checks in at No. 2, a strong case could be made for Cook, McCaffrey and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett at that spot. It’s a deep year for running backs and defensive linemen nationally, and there’s a good group of quarterbacks returning outside of Watson.
With the first full week of the season just a few days away, it’s time to take a look at the best 80 players in college football for the upcoming year.
How did we come up with these rankings? Many factors were considered. Overall talent, production, level of competition, pro potential, position importance and projected output in 2016 all factored into the rankings. These rankings reflect projection for 2016, not solely what players accomplished in 2015. Here’s a look at the top 80 players in the nation for 2016:
College Football's Top 80 Players for 2016
80. James Conner, RB, Pitt
Conner’s return to the field is one of college football’s best storylines in 2016. It shouldn’t take long for the junior to return to his 2014 form – 1,765 rushing yards and 26 scores.
79. Damontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State
Kazee nearly jumped to the NFL a year early, but the lockdown cover corner decided to return for his senior season. He has earned All-Mountain West honors in each of the last two years and was selected as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2015.
78. Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
With Mackensie Alexander off to the NFL, Tankersley will slide into the No. 1 cover role for coordinator Brent Venables. Tankersley earned third-team All-ACC honors last year and broke up nine passes over 15 games.
77. Arden Key, DL/LB, LSU
Under new coordinator Dave Aranda, Key is expected to work as the team’s buck linebacker, which is a hybrid end/edge rusher position. Key should excel in this role after recording 6.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2015. He should rank near the top of the SEC in sacks this fall.
76. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Jackson is a dynamic playmaker for coach Bobby Petrino and one of the nation’s rising stars at quarterback. As a true freshman last fall, Jackson threw for 1,840 yards and 12 scores, while leading the team with 960 yards and 11 touchdowns. With a full offseason to work as the starter, along with Petrino’s ability to build an offense around him, Jackson is in for a huge 2016 season.
75. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
With much of the focus on Clemson’s offense devoted to the receivers and quarterback Deshaun Watson, it’s not crazy to suggest Gallman is underrated nationally after recording 1,527 yards and 13 scores last year.
74. Adam Bisnowaty, OL, Pitt
Bisnowaty anchors a Pitt offensive line that should rank among the nation’s best this season. The senior has started 30 games in his career and is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2016.
73. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning showed glimpses of his ability as a true freshman last fall and is due for a breakout year in 2016. Browning started 12 games for the Huskies in 2015 and threw for 2,955 yards and 16 scores. With a full offseason to work as the starter, combined with the return of playmaker John Ross from injury at receiver, Browning should take a significant step forward in his development.
72. DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame
Pencil in Kizer or Malik Zaire at this spot. Coach Brian Kelly has already indicated both quarterbacks will play in the opener against Texas and the two-quarterback system could extend deep into the season. Kizer replaced Zaire after he was lost for the year in Week 2 last season and threw for 2,880 yards and 21 scores. While Kizer isn’t as dynamic on the ground as Zaire, he still rushed for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns.
71. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame
McGlinchey is set to become the new anchor for Notre Dame’s offensive line with Ronnie Stanley’s departure to the NFL. McGlinchey started all 13 games last season at right tackle and will shift to the left side in 2016.
70. Charles Walker, DL, Oklahoma
While the “starter” label doesn’t mean too much with line rotations for any defense, it’s notable Walker did not record an official start last season, yet earned second-team All-Big 12 honors. In 12 appearances, Walker recorded 36 stops (10 for a loss), six sacks and one forced fumble. He should be one of the nation’s top defensive linemen in 2016.
69. Jordan Thomas, CB, Oklahoma
Zack Sanchez garnered most of the attention in Oklahoma’s secondary last season, but Thomas was just as effective. The Texas native should be one of the nation’s top corners in 2016, as he returns to Norman with 25 career starts and intercepted five passes last year in his first as a full-time starter.
68. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
Big plays were the story of Washington’s 2015 season. He averaged 20.5 yards per catch – most by any Big 12 receiver with at least 40 receptions – and recorded 1,087 yards and 10 scores on 53 overall catches. Washington led all FBS receivers with four catches of 70 yards or more last fall. He will be the go-to target for quarterback Mason Rudolph and should produce another 1,000-yard season.
67. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
Davis is the only returning receiver with back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns in 2016. In three years at Western Michigan, Davis has caught 235 passes for 3,785 yards and 33 scores.
66. Marcus Maye, DB, Florida
Vernon Hargreaves and safety Keanu Neal will be missed, but Florida’s secondary is still in great shape. Maye emerged as one of the nation’s top safeties last year, recording 82 stops, eight passes defended, five forced fumbles and two interceptions.
65. Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
LSU’s secondary ranked No. 1 in Athlon Sports’ top defensive backfields for 2016. White is a big reason for that ranking, as the Shreveport native is a lockdown corner for coordinator Dave Aranda. White has started 35 games over the last three years, recording four picks and 20 pass breakups.
64. Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida
In his first year as a starter in 2015, Davis emerged as one of the SEC’s top linebackers and anchored a rush defense that limited opponents to only 128.1 yards per game. Davis recorded 98 stops (11 for a loss), 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 14 games.
63. Eddie Jackson, S, Alabama
Jackson made a flawless transition from cornerback to safety last season and tied for the SEC lead with six interceptions
62. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, Tennessee
With the emergence of Darrin Kirkland and Reeves-Maybin’s standout play, Tennesssee’s linebacker group should be among the nation’s best in 2016. Reeves-Maybin has exceeded 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons, while also accumulating 25 stops for a loss and two forced fumbles.
61. Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
Derek Mason’s decision to handle the play-calling duties for Vanderbilt’s defense paid dividends in 2015. The Commodores ranked sixth in the SEC in fewest points allowed per game (21) and return a strong foundation for 2016. Cunningham thrived under Mason’s direction, recording 103 tackles, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. His 16.5 tackles for a loss tied for fourth among SEC defenders last year.
60. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
Russell’s 2015 season was cut short by a neck injury in late October. But prior to the injury, Russell was one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, throwing for 2,104 yards and 29 scores in seven appearances. Russell is back to full strength and will participate in fall practice. His return is a huge boost for coordinator Kendal Briles and new coach Jim Grobe.
59. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Considering the uncertainty surrounding Baylor’s offense after the firing of coach Art Briles, let's give Rudolph a slight edge over Baylor's Seth Russell for the No. 3 spot. Rudolph struggled with a foot injury late in the 2015 campaign but still threw for 3,770 yards and 21 scores last season. With J.W. Walsh out of eligibility, Rudolph is poised for his best all-around year in Stillwater.
58. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
Proven quarterbacks are in short supply around the SEC this year, but it’s no secret Tennessee has one of the best with Dobbs returning for his senior year. Dobbs is a dynamic runner (671 yards and 11 scores) and threw for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first full year as Tennessee’s starter. Dobbs needs to continue to show improvement as a passer for the Volunteers to make the College Football Playoff.
57. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pitt
Whitehead earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors after a standout freshman season in 2015. The Pennsylvania native played in all 13 games, recording 109 tackles (six for a loss), one interception and six pass breakups. Not only is Whitehead one of the nation’s best safeties, but he’s also going to see time in a limited stint on offense. Whitehead’s versatility and all-around ability is a huge asset for coach Pat Narduzzi.
56. Chris Wormley, DL, Michigan
Michigan’s defensive line is among the nation’s best for 2016. Wormley shared the team lead in sacks (6.5) but led all Wolverine defenders with 14.5 tackles for a loss. The senior is an All-America candidate this fall.
55. Jake Butt, TE, Michigan
Butt was a semifinalist for the Mackey Award (nation’s top tight end) last year after catching 51 passes for 654 yards and three scores. The senior is due for another standout year and is a second-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2016.
54. Eddie Vanderdoes, DL, UCLA
Vanderdoes suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year’s opener. His presence was clearly missed by UCLA’s defensive front, as the Bruins surrendered 198.5 yards per game on the ground. Vanderdoes is back at full strength and poised to build off his promising 2014 campaign (5.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks).
53. Conor McDermott, OL, UCLA
Keeping quarterback Josh Rosen healthy and upright in the pocket is priority No. 1 for UCLA’s offensive line. McDermott is the anchor for this unit and one of the nation’s top linemen. The Tennessee native has started 19 games at left tackle and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2015.
52. Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech
Ford was the only ACC receiver to reach 1,000 yards last season and finished 2015 by torching the Tulsa secondary for 227 yards in the Independence Bowl. Ford is one of the nation’s top receivers and needs 1,012 yards to set the new school record for most career receiving yards.
51. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Penn State’s ground game is in good hands with Barkley leading the way over the next couple of years. The Pennsylvania native emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top running backs as a true freshman in 2015, ending the year with 1,076 yards and seven scores.
50. Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State
After taking a redshirt year in 2014, Marks announced his return to the field in a big way last season. Marks led all Pac-12 receivers with 104 receptions and tacked on 1,192 receiving yards and 15 scores. He’s the go-to target for quarterback Luke Falk and one of the nation’s best overall receivers.
49. Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC
Jackson is not only one of the Pac-12’s best all-around athletes, but he’s also one of the league’s top playmakers. Jackson scored twice on punt returns and ranked second on the team with 414 receiving yards last season. The scary thought for Pac-12 coaches? That’s not Jackson’s primary role. He’s an emerging star at cornerback, recording eight pass breakups and one interception in 14 games last year.
48. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
Injuries have limited Lawson to just seven games over the last two years. If he can stay healthy, Lawson should rank among the nation’s best at defensive end in 2016.
47. Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas
Wise finished 2015 on a tear, recording seven of his eight sacks over Arkansas’ final five games. Additionally, Wise’s eight sacks in SEC contests tied for second among league defenders.
46. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Hood possesses a good blend of size, speed and power and emerged as one of the nation’s top running backs after recording 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first year as the starter in 2015. Hood could easily exceed those totals in 2016.
45. Tim Williams, LB, Alabama
Few players in the nation possess the explosiveness and first-step quickness that Williams brings off the edge for the Crimson Tide. He ranked second on the team with 10.5 sacks in 2015.
44. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
With Reggie Ragland off to the NFL, Foster is the new leader for the interior of Alabama’s linebacking corps. He ranked second on the team with 73 stops in 2015 and is due for his best all-around season as a senior.
43. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
It didn’t take long for Kirk to emerge as one of the SEC’s top playmakers as a true freshman in 2015. Kirk recorded 106 receiving yards in the opener against Arizona State and finished the year with 1,009 yards on 80 catches. He also scored twice on punt returns.
42. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
Hurd has only been on campus for two seasons, but he’s already on the verge of setting a new school record for most career rushing yards. The 6-foot-4 back has recorded 2,187 rushing yards on 467 carries since 2014.
41. Dan Feeney, OL, Indiana
Feeney has started every game in his Indiana career and has been a model of consistency and standout play for coach Kevin Wilson. According to the Hoosiers’ sports information department, Feeney has allowed just one sack in his career.
40. Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
Budda Baker is the headliner for Washington’s secondary, but Jones is also among the nation’s best at his position. The California native has played in 26 games since stepping onto campus and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after a standout 2015 season. Jones defended 14 passes and intercepted four throws last year.
39. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Jefferson wasted no time making an impact in his true freshman campaign last fall. He played in all 11 games for the Longhorns, recording 61 stops (seven for a loss), 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble. He was voted as the Big 12’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year in July and is primed for a breakout season as the leader on coach Charlie Strong’s defense.
38. Budda Baker, S, Washington
Baker battled an ankle injury early in the 2015 season but still finished the year with first-team All-Pac-12 honors. In 12 appearances last season, Baker recorded 49 stops, nine passes defended and two interceptions. The junior’s coverage skills are a big reason why Washington allowed only 11 passing scores in 2015. Look for Baker’s junior season to be the best of his career in Seattle.
37. Zach Banner, OL, USC
All of the pieces are in place for USC’s offensive line to rank among the nation’s best in 2016. Banner is the anchor for the Trojans’ front five, as the Washington native enters this fall with 27 overall starts. He’s a candidate for first-team All-America honors.
36. Lowell Lotulelei, DL, Utah
At 6-foot-2 and 310 pounds, Lotulelei is the perfect option to anchor the interior of Utah’s defensive line. The Utah native isn’t going to post huge stats (five tackles for a loss in 2015) but his ability to hold the point of attack and wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage is a big reason why Utah’s line is the best in the Pac-12.
35. Roderick Johnson, OL, Florida State
Florida State’s offensive line should take a significant step forward in 2016, with Johnson leading the way as the anchor for coach Jimbo Fisher. Johnson earned the Jacobs Blocking Trophy in 2015, which is awarded to the ACC’s top offensive lineman.The junior is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2016.
34. DeMarcus Walker, DL, Florida State
One of college football’s most underrated assistant hires of 2015 was Florida State’s addition of Brad Lawing as the program’s defensive line coach. Lawing has a track record of developing talent in the trenches, and he was instrumental in pushing Walker to a breakout 2015 season. In 13 games, Walker accumulated 58 tackles (15.5 for a loss), 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
33. Devonte Fields, LB, Louisville
Fields needed a few games to regain the form that earned him Associated Press Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors at TCU in 2012. However, Fields quickly knocked off the rust and returned to form by midseason, finishing 2015 with 8.5 sacks over Louisville’s last four games. He also finished third among ACC defenders with 22.5 tackles for a loss.
32. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
Perine enters 2016 with his sights set on a third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign. As a freshman in 2014, Perine gashed opponents for 1,713 yards and 21 scores and posted another standout year (1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns) as a sophomore last year. Perine also still holds the FBS single-game rushing mark (427 against Kansas in 2014).
31. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
New coach Mark Richt knows a thing or two about quarterback play, and the former Georgia coach should help Kaaya take the next step in his development this fall. After throwing for 3,198 yards and 26 scores as a freshman in 2014, Kaaya passed for 3,238 yards and 16 touchdowns last year.
30. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
Falk is the catalyst for Washington State’s high-powered offense. In his first full year under center, Falk passed for 4,561 yards and 38 scores and guided the Cougars’ attack to an average of 389.2 passing yards per game (ranked No. 1 nationally).
29. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Rosen delivered a standout freshman campaign in 2015 and is just scratching the surface of his potential at UCLA. Rosen started all 13 games and threw for 3,669 yards and 23 scores last fall and is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in 2016.
28. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Mahomes guided Texas Tech’s high-powered offense to an average of 45.1 points a game in 2015. In 13 games, Mahomes passed for 4,653 yards and 36 scores and rushed for 456 yards and 10 touchdowns. But here’s the scary thought for defensive coordinators in the Big 12: 2015 was just his first year as the full-time starter. Mahomes should be even more dangerous (and productive) for coach Kliff Kingsbury in 2016.
27. Pat Elflein, OL, Ohio State
Elflein has been a stalwart on Ohio State’s offensive line since the end of the 2013 season. After starting all 28 games at guard over the last two years, Elflein is moving to center for 2016.
26. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Adams is the physical enforcer on the back end of LSU’s defense and a first-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2016. The Texas native started 12 games for the Tigers last season and recorded 67 tackles (five for a loss), six pass breakups and four interceptions.
25. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defense returns only three starters, but new play-caller Greg Schiano isn’t hurting for talent. One of the returning starters is McMillan, who emerged as one of the nation’s top linebackers in 2015. In 13 appearances, McMillan recorded 119 stops, 1.5 sacks and four pass breakups. He also earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media last year.
24. Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern
Walker experienced a breakout year in his first season as a full-time starter. The Miami native ranked third among Big Ten defenders with 120 tackles and registered 20.5 of those stops for a loss. He’s one of the nation’s top returning linebackers for 2016.
23. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Ridley led the Alabama offense with 89 catches for 1,045 yards and seven scores as a true freshman last fall. He’s an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2016.
22. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb was off to a fantastic start (747 yards and seven scores) before a season-ending knee injury in Georgia’s sixth game of 2015. All signs point to a return to full strength for Chubb this fall.
21. Charles Harris, DL, Missouri
Harris is the next in a line of standouts on the defensive line for Missouri. In his first year as a starter, Harris wreaked havoc against opposing offensive linemen with seven sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss.
20. Cam Robinson, OL, Alabama
Robinson has started all 29 games in his career and possesses all of the necessary tools to be college football’s top offensive lineman.
19. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
Tabor was overshadowed by Vernon Hargreaves last year, but the junior cemented a place among the nation’s best cornerbacks in 2015. In 13 appearances, Tabor recorded 40 stops, four interceptions and 18 passes defended.
18. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
After recording 10 sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss as a true freshman in 2014, Barnett delivered another strong season as a sophomore. In 13 appearances, Barnett registered 10 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss.
17. Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama
Allen has been a key cog on Alabama’s defensive line over the last three years and steps into the spotlight as the anchor with A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway departing Tuscaloosa. Allen recorded 14.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks in 15 games last season.
16. Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
Kelly delivered a standout season in his debut at Ole Miss and is easily the SEC’s top returning quarterback for 2016. In 13 starts, Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 scores and rushed for 500 yards and 10 touchdowns. Kelly’s 65.1 completion percentage ranked fourth among SEC passers, while his 8.8 yards per attempt ranked second behind Arkansas’ Brandon Allen. Additionally, Kelly connected on 25 passes of 30 yards or more – the most in the SEC. Even though receiver Laquon Treadwell will be missed, Kelly should push for All-America honors this fall.
15. Greg Ward, Houston
The combination of coach Tom Herman and Greg Ward guided the Cougars to a 13-1 record last season. High expectations surround this duo once again, as Herman has molded Ward into one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and a dark horse Heisman candidate for 2016. Ward averaged 281.1 total yards per game last season and scored 38 overall touchdowns.
14. Jabrill Peppers, LB, Michigan
Peppers is one of the nation’s best all-around players and is slated to slide to linebacker from safety under new coordinator Don Brown. In 12 appearances last season, Peppers recorded 45 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and 10 pass breakups. Peppers is a two-way threat for coach Jim Harbaugh and will once again see time on offense after a limited package of plays last fall.
13. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
Smith-Schuster is the nation’s top returning receiver for 2016 and should help to ease the transition of new quarterback Max Browne into the starting lineup. Smith-Schuster dominated opposing defensive backs last year, grabbing 89 receptions for 1,454 yards and 10 scores. He also tied for third nationally with six receptions of 50 yards or more.
12. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Despite rushing for 1,836 yards and 17 scores last year, Freeman flew largely under the national radar. The junior should get his credit nationally in 2016, as Freeman is one of the nation’s best running backs and an Athlon Sports second-team All-American. Freeman’s 6.49 yards per-carry average was the highest mark of any Pac-12 starting running back last fall, while his nine runs of 30 yards or more ranked first in the conference.
11. Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
McDowell is the next star for coach Mark Dantonio’s defensive line at Michigan State. The Detroit native checks in at 6-foot-6 and 276 pounds but is versatile and athletic enough to play on the edge or on the interior. After recording 41 stops (13 for a loss) and 4.5 sacks last year, McDowell is primed for an even better 2016 campaign.
10 J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
After splitting time with Cardale Jones in 2015, Barrett is back as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the Buckeyes. And now that Barrett is a full year removed from the leg injury that ended his 2014 campaign early, the junior is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks once again. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Barrett accounted for 3,772 yards and 45 overall scores and finished fifth in the Heisman voting.
9. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
The combination of Mayfield and coordinator Lincoln Riley helped to spark Oklahoma’s offense last season, guiding the Sooners to the Big 12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Mayfield earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors after throwing for 3,700 yards and 36 scores and running for 405 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. Mayfield is the catalyst for the dynamic Sooner offense and is one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
8. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Lewis started all 13 games for the Wolverines last year and earned second-team All-America honors after accounting for 52 tackles, 20 passes defended and two interceptions. The Detroit native also excelled in coverage, as Pro Football Focus indicated he allowed just 33 completions on 90 targets in pass coverage last year.
7. Desmond King, CB, Iowa
King filled the trophy case in Iowa City last year with a plethora of postseason honors, including first-team All-America honors and the Jim Thorpe Award, which is awarded to the nation’s best defensive back. King is a lockdown corner for coach Kirk Ferentz and finished 2015 with 72 tackles and eight interceptions.
6. Derwin James, DB, Florida State
James had a monster freshman season (91 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles) and is only scratching the surface of his potential. Even though James is one of the starting safeties, his versatility will allow coordinator Charles Kelly to use him in a variety of roles.
5. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
After setting the NCAA record for most all-purpose yards (3,864) and a new school mark for rushing yards (2,019) last year, the bar is set high for McCaffrey in 2016. High expectations won’t be a problem for McCaffrey, as the junior is a big reason why Stanford will remain in the mix for the Pac-12 title despite key personnel concerns on both sides of the ball. McCaffrey is college football’s best all-around player for 2016.
4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Cook overcame a few nagging injuries last year to set a new school record (1,691) in rushing yards and averaged a whopping 7.4 yards per rush on 229 carries. Not only is Cook the nation’s best big-play back, but he also possesses good power and was a factor (24 receptions) out of the backfield.
3. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Garrett is the nation’s top returning defensive player for 2016, possessing a unique blend of athleticism, power, speed and quickness off the edge. After recording 14 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks as a true freshman in 2014, Garrett was even better as a sophomore. He played in all 13 games and finished with 19.5 tackles for a loss, 12.5 sacks and five forced fumbles.
2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette’s 2015 season was one of the best individual seasons by a running back in SEC history. The New Orleans native earned first-team All-America honors, averaged 162.8 rushing yards per game (best in the nation), set a SEC single-season record with 1,953 yards and posted four 200-yard efforts last year. Fournette is one of the front-runners to win the Heisman and gets the nod as Athlon’s top returning SEC player in 2016.
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson set the bar high in his first full season as the starter. However, the junior is capable of elevating his game just a notch higher in 2016. That won’t be easy for a quarterback that accounted for 5,209 total yards and 47 overall scores, but Watson is capable of inching those numbers even higher with one of the nation’s top receiving corps in place, and the junior could lower his interceptions (13) just a bit. Of course, that’s just being picky for a quarterback that finished third in the Heisman voting in his first year as the starter. Watson should be the frontrunner to claim college football’s top honor and is easily the No. 1 overall player returning for the 2016 season.