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Midseason Madness: 10 players to watch over the second half of the season

Frank Schwab
Dr. Saturday

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The first half of the season is over, which means the best half is yet to come.

The second half of the season will take many crazy twists and turns, just like the first half when a quarterback from West Virginia put up numbers that didn't seem possible, a linebacker from Notre Dame overcame tragedy and led the Irish back to an elite spot in college football, and a freshman quarterback nicknamed "Johnny Football" broke some records with his eyes on some more longstanding marks.

It feels like the college football season is just getting revved up, and here are the 10 players to watch as things get really crazy:

Manti Te'o
Linebacker, Notre Dame
Stats: 59 tackles, 3 interceptions, 6 passes defended

Te'o is perhaps the best known non-quarterback in college football. He is a likeable, productive player who is the headliner on a Notre Dame team (he has 22 more tackles than any other Irish player, and leads the team in passes defended) that could loom large in the national title picture well into November. Notre Dame is winning because of defense. The Irish have allowed just 52 points in six games, the second-best scoring defense in the nation behind Alabama. Te'o is a classic inside linebacker with great recognition, athletic skills and he always seems to be around the ball.

Geno Smith
Quarterback, West Virginia
Stats: 2,271 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, 0 interceptions.

Smith might have been the biggest story in college football in the first half. He's the clear frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, and there's one stat that could create a historic buzz: his touchdown-to-interception ratio. The best ratio for a season in FBS history, with at least 40 touchdowns, is Omar Jacobs' 41-to-4 (10.25 touchdowns per interception) for Bowling Green in 2004. The largest ratio is Colt Brennan's plus-46 (58 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) for Hawaii in 2006. Smith, at 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions, could pass both those marks. As Smith chases some records, he could be the biggest story of the second half of the season too. And every time you watch Smith, there's that chance he repeats the eight-touchdown performance he had against Baylor:

Johnny Manziel
Quarterback, Texas A&M
Stats: 1.680 yards, 14 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 676 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns

If there's someone who could challenge Smith's spot in the Heisman race, this is the best bet. Manziel has the ridiculous running stats (112.7 yards per game and 10 touchdowns) to go along with 280 passing yards per game. Being a freshman could affect his chances, considering a freshman has never won the award, but he might make it hard for voters to deny him if he keeps putting up ridiculous numbers in the second half. Barring injury, he looks like a lock to break Jared Lorenzen's FBS record for total offensive yardage (3,827) as a freshman. Especially if he has more games like last week's SEC-record 576 yards of total offense against Louisiana Tech:

Matt Elam
Safety, Florida
Stats: 33 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble

Elam had one of the best games any defensive player had in the first half of the season, when he was all over the field against LSU, even blasting his teammates to the ground. He couldn't help it. Florida beat LSU 14-6, a result that will have long-lasting implications in the SEC and BCS standings. The Gators are second in the BCS standings, and while quarterback Jeff Driskel is their most important piece on offense, the defense is what makes Florida go. Elam is a huge piece of that unit.

Braxton Miller
Quarterback, Ohio State
Stats: 1,271 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 912 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns

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The Buckeyes are in a highly unusual position, at 7-0 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten but ineligible for the Big Ten championship game or a bowl game. So they're the biggest spoilers for the second half, and Miller is the key figure for Ohio State. Miller has become an all-around threat as a sophomore, developing into a capable passer to go with his ankle-breaking running skills. Perhaps his Heisman candidacy can be another rallying point for the Buckeyes over the second half. With 912 rushing yards already, he also has a chance to break Denard Robinson's record of 1,702 rushing yards by a quarterback — and Ohio State fans would certainly love one of their own to take down a Michigan record.

Star Lotulelei
Defensive tackle, Utah
Stats: 24 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 tackles for loss

There aren't many defensive tackles we'd tune in to see, especially if they're on a 2-4 team. But Lotulelei is a physical freak at 6-4, 320 pounds, a force in the middle of Utah's defense. He became better known by college football fans during a Thursday night performance against USC, when the Trojans had a ton of trouble blocking him early in the game. He'll have plenty more standout performances on his way to being a top 5 NFL draft pick next spring.

Jeremy Hill
Running back, LSU
Stats: 30 carries, 195 yards, 4 touchdowns

Jeremy Hill was a virtual unknown, unless you were aware of the legal issues in his past, for most of the first half of the season. Suddenly, he might be the most important player for a national title contender over the second half of the season. LSU's offense had been sputtering until Hill, a 235-pound bull of a tailback, was given a chance against South Carolina. He had 13 carries for 71 yards in his career before breaking out for 124 yards on 17 carries against South Carolina. If he can maintain that production, LSU is a different team.

Dorial Green-Beckham
Wide receiver, Missouri
Stats: 7 catches, 128 yards, 1 touchdown

Another freshman will be interesting to watch, to see if he can salvage what has been a disappointing year to this point. Green-Beckham was the No. 1 recruit in the country and a physical freak who was going to be an instant star. Instead, aside from an 80-yard touchdown against Central Florida, he has had almost no impact. He was arrested and suspended for the Vanderbilt game two weeks ago. He didn't play much against Alabama last week and didn't have a catch. It would be good for him and the program if he can have a breakout second half and build some momentum toward his sophomore year.

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Jadeveon Clowney
Defensive end, South Carolina
Stats: 31 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss

This is how a former No. 1 recruit should look. Clowney is a specimen, and 12 of his 31 tackles have been for loss. He has 6.5 sacks and forces opposing teams to change their game plans. The sophomore is strong against the run, great against the pass, and looks like a great bet to be the first pick of the 2014 NFL draft. Enjoy him in college while you can.

Marcus Mariota
Quarterback, Oregon
Stats: 1,301 passing yards, 15 passing touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 221 rushing yards

Mariota has been very efficient for the Ducks, another dual-threat quarterback who fits perfectly in the Oregon offense. But he is a freshman who has yet to experience what it's like in the second half of a college football season, especially leading a team that has a great chance of playing for a BCS championship if it wins out. Whether Mariota is up to that challenge as a first-time starter will go a long way in determining who plays for the national title in January.

And Plus-one ...

Nick Saban
Coach, Alabama

OK, we're reaching to put him on this list, but everyone will be watching Saban and his No. 1 Alabama team over the second half of the season, to see if another crystal trophy is coming to Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide haven't shown any cracks yet. But there's still the whole second half of the season to go.

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