There isn’t much debate on which two teams project as the best in college football for the 2019 season — they’re the same two teams that have dominated the sport for the past four seasons — Alabama and Clemson. So, not surprisingly, our ranking of the best players in college football for the 2019 season also has a very distinct Alabama and Clemson flavor to it.
In fact, seven of the top 11 players on our list played for either the Crimson Tide or Tigers a year ago, and that’s including Jalen Hurts, who transferred from Alabama to Oklahoma and will replace Kyler Murray as the Sooners’ quarterback this season.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence checks in as the top overall player just ahead of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. Lawrence led the Tigers to the national championship a year ago as a true freshman and outdueled Tagovailoa in the title game. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm is fifth overall on the list.
Keep in mind that this is a projection of what players will do in 2019 and not necessarily a career achievement award of what they’ve done to this point. In other words, everybody will surely agree with our selections, and there won’t be any cries of favoritism for this conference or cries of bias against that conference. That said, 11 of the top 25 players are from the SEC, and only one player from a Group of 5 conference made the cut — Houston quarterback D’Eriq King.
To get the final ranking, we had our panel of CFB writers vote on pairs of players. Jonathan Taylor vs. Derrick Brown. Justin Herbert vs. Chase Young. We asked, “Which player will be better in 2019?” To decide, voters had to consider both the quality and the quantity of each player’s contributions to his team’s ability to win games. Then, we had them debate the list.
Here are the final rankings:
QB, Clemson Sophomore Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 30-4 TD-INT ratio
Lawrence didn’t win the starting job until Week 5, but once he was atop the Clemson depth chart, the only remaining question was — what took so long? Lawrence finished with 30 touchdown passes, just four picks and 3,280 yards passing to go with a national championship trophy. Not bad for a true freshman. Now the biggest question is how he can possibly top such an impressive debut campaign.
QB, Alabama Junior Last year’s ranking: 11 Key 2018 stat: No. 2 in Heisman Trophy voting
The lefty from Hawaii played quarterback like no one at Alabama ever had last season, throwing for 43 touchdowns and 3,966 yards and finishing No. 2 in the Heisman Trophy voting. Now he’s back, healthy and motivated, having lost 15 pounds over the summer.
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WR, Alabama Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: Biletnikoff Award winner
He’s No. 1 on Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board for a reason. Last season, despite competing with a crowded receiver room at Alabama, he hauled in 68 catches for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns, and won the Biletnikoff Award for the top receiver in the country.
S, LSU Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: Led SEC with five interceptions
It is hard to believe Delpit was just a sophomore last season when he emerged as one of the best defensive players in the country, earning unanimous All-America honors while becoming a finalist for the Nagurski Award. His versatility allows him to do so many things so well, and that shows on his stat line. Last season, he had 74 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, led the SEC with five interceptions, and added nine pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
QB, Georgia Junior Last year’s ranking: 30 Key 2018 stat: 171.2 passer rating
Fromm has already played in 29 games, starting in 28 of those, including two SEC championship games and a College Football Playoff national championship game. So he’s obviously used to the big stage and ranks second only to Tagovailoa nationally among returning quarterbacks in passer rating. Fromm finished with a 171.2 rating last season while throwing 30 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.
RB, Wisconsin Junior Last year’s ranking: 7 Key 2018 stat: Second straight year with 1,950 yards or more
No FBS player has ever had more rushing yards in two years than Taylor’s 4,171. He’s only the third rusher (LaDainian Tomlinson, Troy Davis) to record consecutive seasons of 1,950 yards or more. Fumbles have been an issue, but Taylor is durable, consistent and explosive (6.9 YPC career average).
QB, Oregon Senior Last year’s ranking: 14 Key 2018 stat: 3,151 yards passing
The 6-foot-6, 237-pound Herbert might have been one of the first QBs drafted this year if he had opted to leave school early. He’s back after his first full season as Oregon’s starter in which he threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
RB, Clemson Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 8.1 yards per rush
There may not be a better big-play threat in college football than Etienne, who averaged 8.1 yards per rush last season, including 23 carries that went for 20 yards or more. Overall, Etienne finished with 1,658 yards on the ground, a number made even more impressive considering he had more than 16 carries in a game just twice last year.
DL, Ohio State Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 10 sacks
He already has a pro body (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) and led Ohio State in both sacks (10) and tackles for loss (15.5) as a true sophomore. A potential top-five draft pick next spring, Young aims to become just the second Buckeye (Mike Vrabel) to record 10 or more sacks in multiple seasons.
WR, Clemson Sophomore Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 1,000 receiving yards
Entering October, Ross had just nine catches on the year, which seemed about right for a true freshman in a crowded receiving corps. After that though? He did a little better. Ross finished the year with 1,000 receiving yards on the nose, including 12 catches for 301 yards and three touchdowns in the College Football Playoff. The only thing holding him back this season is that there’s only one football to go around on Clemson’s offense.
QB, Oklahoma Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 72.9 CMP%
After amassing 7,602 yards of total offense and accounting for 71 total touchdowns, Hurts has traded Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for Norman, Oklahoma. With Lincoln Riley in charge, Hurts will be running an offense that has produced the past two Heisman winners and is better suited for his uber-athletic skill set.
WR, Purdue Sophomore Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 114 receptions, 2,215 all-purpose yards
The Big Ten’s first-ever freshman to earn consensus All-America honors broke Purdue’s all-purpose yards record (313) in his Boilermakers debut. He set the team single-season all-purpose yards mark (2,215), while tying the record for most 100-yard receiving performances (7). Moore’s 114 receptions in 2018 ranked second in league history.
QB, Texas Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 25-5 TD-INT ratio
After a decade of searching, the Longhorns have finally found their quarterback. The junior has brought much-needed productivity and stability to the position, and he embodies the qualities coach Tom Herman desires: toughness, competitive fire and leadership. Whether it’s throwing the ball or running it, Ehlinger plays winning football.
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RB, Georgia Junior Last year’s ranking: 33 Key 2018 stat: 1,049 rushing yards
Swift is the latest in a long line of explosive Georgia running backs. The 5-foot-9, 215-pound junior rushed for a team-high 1,049 yards and 10 touchdowns last season while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Swift had 15 plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or longer and is excellent when it comes to catching the ball out of the backfield. He also caught 35 passes a year ago, including three that went for touchdowns.
OT, Georgia Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: First team All-American
Georgia should have one of the best offensive lines in the country in 2019, and a big reason why is Thomas, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound junior who shifted over to left tackle a year ago to protect Jake Fromm’s blind side. Thomas started every game at right tackle as a true freshman and has the combination of size and footwork that could make him a top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
WR, Oklahoma Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 1,158 yards, 11 TDs
The junior has done nothing but produce since donning a Sooners jersey, compiling nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 18 touchdown catches in his first two seasons in Norman. He has the speed to run away from defenders and the leaping ability to make the highlight-reel catch. No active Big 12 receiver has more career receiving yards (1,965) or touchdowns than Lamb.
DT, Auburn Senior Last year’s ranking: 41 Key 2018 stat: 25 solo tackles
This time a year ago, Brown was being touted as one of the top interior defensive linemen in the country. In a bit of a surprise, he decided to return for his senior season and will anchor an Auburn defensive line that will again be loaded. The 6-foot-5, 318-pound Brown has 21 career tackles for loss and specializes in collapsing pockets. His length, size and athleticism make him virtually unblockable at times.
WR, Colorado Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 112.3 receiving YPG (led Pac-12)
A foot injury limited him to nine games last year, but he was still able to lead the Pac-12 in receptions (86) and receiving YPG (112.3). He added on 1,011 receiving yards and set 12 school records — nine outright and three tied in 2018, including the most 10-reception games in a season (five).
WR, Clemson Junior Last year’s ranking: 40 Key 2018 stat: 12 TDs
If Ross is the rising star on Clemson’s receiver depth chart, Higgins is the grizzled vet. Never mind that he’s just a junior. Higgins’ 12 touchdown grabs made him one of the most prolific red zone targets in the nation last season, while he led Clemson with 59 grabs. Higgins had at least one TD catch in eight of Clemson’s final 10 games, including four combined in the ACC title game and College Football Playoff.
CB, Florida Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 38 tackles, five for loss
Florida has a history of producing talented cornerbacks, so it comes as no surprise that expectations are high for Henderson to have an All-America type season. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said Henderson is the best player he’s ever coached at the position. There is no doubt Florida will rely on Henderson to set the tone and build on his 2018 season, when he finished with 38 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions and seven pass breakups.
DE, Clemson Sophomore Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 10.5 tackles for loss
What happens when a team’s entire starting defensive line gets drafted? If that team is Clemson, it’s on to the next stud. Thomas was a five-star recruit who showed his immense talent in reserve duty last year, including a highlight-reel sack of Syracuse’s Eric Dungey to seal a Tigers win in the season’s closest call. Now he’ll be in a starting role and figures to build on his 3.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries and 10.5 tackles for loss.
LB, Alabama Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 45 solo tackles
Being a Butkus Award finalist last year wasn’t enough for Moses, who might be the most athletic linebacker in the country. The former phenom who garnered Alabama and LSU offers in the eighth grade is now a junior and stepping into the middle linebacker role, where he’ll be the tip of the spear of Nick Saban’s defense.
LB, Clemson Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 89 tackles, three forced fumbles
No player is more critical to what Clemson does on defense than Simmons, who thrives in coverage but also brings the physicality needed to stuff the run. Simmons led the Tigers in tackles last season with 89 while adding six pass breakups, an interception, three forced fumbles and 9.5 tackles for loss.
WR, Alabama Sophomore Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 848 receiving yards
He may have started out as the fourth of Alabama’s receivers last year, behind sophomores Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith. But forget depth charts. Waddle broke out as a true freshman and was electric with the ball in his hands, gaining 848 yards receiving and 233 yards and a touchdown on punt returns.
DT, Alabama Senior Last year’s ranking: 17 Key 2018 stat: 55 tackles
With star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams off to the NFL, it’s Davis’ turn to step into the spotlight. And he certainly looks the part as an athletic 6-foot-7, 316-pound senior. Last season he had 55 tackles, including 5.5 behind the line of scrimmage. This year he’s expected to be even more disruptive.
QB, Michigan Junior Last year’s ranking: 25 Key 2018 stat: 22 TDs
Patterson had success in 2018 and will now be leading an offense that better suits his ability and style of play in 2019. Having a system that fits will help, but having more time in the program and a higher level of comfort and knowledge than last season should all equate to a successful season for Patterson.
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WR, Oklahoma State Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 1,491 yards
His breakout sophomore season had jaws dropping across the country as Wallace made numerous gasp-worthy plays. The 2018 Biletnikoff Award finalist hauled in 86 passes for 1,491 yards last season (both tops among returning Big 12 receivers) and saved his best work for the biggest games, averaging 168 yards and two touchdowns in three games against top-10 teams.
LB, Miami Senior Last year’s ranking: 48 Key 2018 stat: 82 tackles
Quarterman has been the anchor of the Miami defense since he arrived on campus, starting every game for the Hurricanes over the past three seasons. Quarterman could have left school early for the NFL draft but decided to come back, hoping to get Miami back on track under new coach Manny Diaz — the coordinator who groomed him. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior is known as a sure tackler but added another dimension to his game a year ago as he made more plays behind the line.
RB, Boston College Junior Last year’s ranking: 36 Key 2018 stat: 1,108 yards rushing
When Dillon was healthy to start last season, he was virtually unstoppable, using his rare gift of both size (6 feet, 245 pounds) and speed to either bulldoze or run past opponents. But a high ankle sprain suffered in Week 5 hampered him the rest of the season, as he just couldn’t get himself completely pain-free. He still rushed for over 1,000 yards and earned All-ACC first-team honors, so imagine what a full, injury-free season could mean in 2019 — not just for Dillon but the Eagles.
QB, Nebraska Sophomore Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 2,617 passing yards
Martinez and Nebraska took their lumps early in the year as the Scott Frost era began, but the true freshman — and his team — steadily improved to generate plenty of hype headed into 2019. He’ll be one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
LB, Alabama Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 11 pass breakups
As a junior last season, Jennings led the team in pass breakups (11) and finished second in tackles for loss (14). But what’s scary is that he might not have been healthy the whole time as he was recovering from a serious knee injury. A disruptive pass-rusher, he’s also the alpha dog of Nick Saban’s defense.
CB, LSU Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: Allowed just six first downs or TDs in coverage
There’s a reason LSU has branded itself as Defensive Back U. The Tigers just keep churning out great secondary players, and Fulton is the kind of lockdown cornerback any team would love to have. The 6-foot, 192-pound senior has tremendous speed and instincts and allowed just six first downs or touchdowns in coverage for all of the 2018 season. Fulton missed the 2017 season while serving an NCAA-mandated suspension, but quickly reasserted himself as one of the SEC’s top corners a year ago.
QB, Notre Dame Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 19 TD passes, 4 rushing TDs
After Book took over as the starting quarterback in the fourth game of the season, Notre Dame’s offense took off and the Irish went on to finish the regular season 12-0 before losing to Clemson in the College Football Playoff. Book completed 70.4% of his passes, threw 19 touchdown passes and rushed for four more.
OL, Stanford Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: All-Pac-12
A first-team All-Pac-12 selection as a sophomore in 2018, Little is a strong All-American candidate and has the ability to be an early NFL draft pick following the season. At 6-foot-7, 313 pounds, his combination of size and athleticism makes him one of the most dominant offensive linemen in the country.
RB, Ohio State Junior Last year’s ranking: 23 Key 2018 stat: 1,053 rushing yards
Over the past two years, Dobbins has rushed for 2,456 yards, including 1,053 last year to become the first Ohio State back ever to have 1,000-yard seasons as a freshman and a sophomore. Another 1,000-yard year would match him with Archie Griffin as the only Buckeyes with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
OLB, LSU RS Sophomore Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2017 stat (sat out most of 2018 with torn ACL): 27 tackles
After suffering a torn ACL in the season opener a year ago against Miami, Chaisson is back and ready to prove he’s one of the best edge pass-rushers in the college game. The 6-foot-4, 238-pound redshirt sophomore showed all kinds of promise as a true freshman before going down in the opener last season. If he stays healthy, Chaisson will be a force in Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense.
LB, Michigan State Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 102 tackles
The Michigan State defense was the bright spot last season for this program and Bachie is one of the leaders. He returns after starting all 13 games for Michigan State and leading the team in tackles for his second year. Bachie is primed for another outstanding season and should be even better than he was in 2018.
WR, Alabama Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 747 yards, 11 TDs
This 6-footer oozes athleticism. He reportedly runs a sub-4.0 40-yard dash and can jump out of the gym. And all you need to know about his hands is the one-handed grab he had against LSU. He’s no second fiddle to Jerry Jeudy; Ruggs hauled in 741 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
DE, Penn State Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 12 nationally in tackles per loss
His stock is surging after a huge sophomore season where he finished second in the Big Ten and 12th nationally in tackles per loss (20 total, 1.5 per game). At 6-foot-5 and 264 pounds, Matos has ideal NFL edge-rusher size after recording eight sacks and two forced fumbles in 2018.
QB, Houston Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 219 completions in 11 games
The latest in a long line of great Cougars quarterbacks, King is particularly astute at finding the end zone. He was responsible for more touchdowns last season (50) than any returning player in the country despite playing only 11 games. In addition to his strong arm and superior instincts, his elusiveness on the ground make him a hard player to stop.
DE, Iowa Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 10.5 sacks
He didn’t even start last season but still earned All-Big Ten honors after leading Iowa in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (16.5), while forcing four fumbles, breaking up four passes and blocking a punt. A natural playmaker, the 6-foot-6 Epenesa is very much on the NFL radar in 2019.
CB, Alabama Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: Broke up a team-high six passes before foot injury
A healthy Diggs might have changed Alabama’s defensive outlook late last season. Before he broke his foot, he looked like one of the SEC’s best corners, breaking up a team-high six passes. Tall (6-foot-2), athletic and healthy once again, he’ll be counted on to return Nick Saban’s secondary to its former standard.
RB, Alabama Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 812 yards rushing
He was technically Damien Harris’ backup last season, but Najee got his too, rushing for 812 yards. And now that Damien and Josh Jacobs are gone, expect even more. While Najee has to work on the little things (blocking, namely), there’s no doubt he can run the football, having averaged 6.48 yards per carry in his career.
OL, Oklahoma Sophomore Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: Played 14 games and started 12 as a freshman
He’s got the strength to dominate at the line of scrimmage and the athleticism to get out into the secondary for game-changing blocks downfield. Humphrey, the Sooners’ center, was a vital piece to a group that won the 2018 Joe Moore Award for the nation’s best offensive line. And he’s the most important piece to this year’s line, which is without four starters who are now in the NFL.
DE, Michigan State Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 78 tackles
Willekes had an outstanding performance in 2018 and very well could have entered this past NFL draft. He elected to stay at Michigan State, though, and is now primed to be one of the best defensive ends in the country. He was a staple of the Spartans’ defense last season and will be once again in 2019.
WR, TCU Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 1,061 yards receiving
The Horned Frogs’ Swiss Army knife is a threat in multiple facets. He’s a top-flight receiver (he caught 72 passes for 1,061 yards and nine touchdowns last season), a ground threat (he rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns) and a return ace (he averaged 12 yards per punt return and 30 yards per kick return in ’18). However it can, TCU will get him the ball.
OL, Washington Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2016 stat (missed first 10 games of 2018 and part of 2017): First-team All-Pac-12
Adams missed the Huskies’ first 10 games in 2018 due to an injury suffered late in 2017 before easing his way back to start at left tackle in the Pac-12 title game and Rose Bowl. He has been one of the Pac-12’s best offensive linemen since his true freshman season, when he started nine regular-season games.
LB, Alabama RS Junior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2017 stat (missed all of 2018, part of 2017): 16 tackles
Alabama’s defense is different when Lewis is on the field. Long, lean and exceptionally quick, his ability to rush off the edge is capable of changing the complexion of games. So why don’t more people know him? Well, because there have only been flashes of his brilliance, as he has missed 25 games the past two years, including all of last season.
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QB, Ohio State Sophomore Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: No. 1-ranked prospect
Fields was the No. 1-ranked prospect in the 2018 class and showed an unbelievable amount of talent in high school. He was used sparingly as a passer in his first season at Georgia, but is now playing in a passer-friendly Ohio State offense. He has the talent to be successful as a Buckeye — it’s just now a matter of showing it.
RB, Vanderbilt Senior Last year’s ranking: NR Key 2018 stat: 1,244 yards rushing
Name the top returning rusher in the SEC for 2019 … It’s this guy. Vaughn had a breakout season a year ago after transferring to Vanderbilt from Illinois, rushing for 1,244 yards — the second-highest single-season total in school history. His 7.9 yards per carry led the SEC, and so did his 10 rushes for 40 or more yards. Oh, and he set a Texas Bowl record with 243 yards against Baylor (averaging a jaw-dropping 18.7 yards per carry). So to say bigger expectations are in store would be an understatement.
ESPN’s Andrea Adelson, Edward Aschoff, Kyle Bonagura, David Hale, Sam Khan, Chris Low, Adam Rittenberg, Alex Scarborough and Tom VanHaaren contributed to this story.