When it comes to receiving top billing, these 25 players will duke it out this season

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

Now that Shark Week is over, it's time for College Football List Week. Every day this week, Pat Forde will provide a list previewing some element of the 2012 season. Today: Forde's 25 most intriguing players.

1. QB Matt Barkley, USC

He's positioned to become one of the most beloved Trojans of them all, and that's saying something. He turned down the NFL to play his senior season and conceivably lead USC to another national title. He would be the human bridge from the Carroll Era through the Probation Era into what looks like another sustained run of West Coast dominance.

2. QB Denard Robinson, Michigan

Trying to become the first normal-sized, dual-threat quarterback to lead his team to a national title since Tommie Frazier and Charlie Ward did it in the mid-1990s. Doesn't have the size and strength of Cam Newton, Tim Tebow or Vince Young, which adds to the difficulty and danger of doing what "Shoelace" does. Can he stay healthy and complete enough passes to hoist the Wolverines back on top?

3. RB De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon

The sophomore blur from Los Angeles will split carries with senior Kenjon Barner, but that will not limit his impact on games. Thomas caught 46 passes last season (nine for touchdowns) and also returned two kickoffs for scores. He is talented enough that the Ducks may not even miss the best back in school history, LaMichael James.

4. C Barrett Jones, Alabama

How intriguing can a center be? Pretty intriguing. Jones is bright and witty, a childhood violinist and Scrabble ace who is the anchor of what is by far the best offensive line in college football. He's also reverting back to his high school position after playing guard for two years and tackle for one at Alabama.

5. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State

He showed flashes of excellence last season as a true freshman – and then Urban Meyer arrived to plug him into what seems like an ideal offense for his talents. Whether Miller can become a big winner and first-round NFL draft pick like previous Meyer quarterbacks Alex Smith and Tim Tebow remains to be seen, but he should be fun to watch in 2012.

[Related: College football coaches who could spend more time in the spotlight in 2012]

6. TB Montee Ball, Wisconsin

He scored a whopping 39 touchdowns in 2011, putting points on the board once every nine times he touched the ball. But the offseason was less celebratory: Ball was beaten by a group of five assailants on Aug. 1, an attack that may have had some connection to a fight a few days earlier at a Wisconsin player's apartment that Ball said he was not a part of. Ball is fine now and expected to make another run at the Heisman this season.

7. LB Michael Mauti and FB Michael Zordich, Penn State

They were the two Nittany Lions who stood up and publicly rallied the team – and the entire fan base – in the wake of the crushing NCAA sanctions last month. They spoke from the heart (no prepared comments) and spoke with passion. Behind the scenes, they recruited as many of their teammates as possible to stay. Whatever success Penn State has this season will be in part attributable to the salvage mission of Zordich and Mauti during the dark days of July.

8. Kenny Stills, Oklahoma

He has been photographed wearing a purple dress. His hairstyle of choice is a Mohawk, which he's been known to bleach blond. He's tattooed to the extreme. And yet he will be counted on as the rock of stability and maturity in a Sooners receiving corps decimated by graduation and player dismissal. If QB Landry Jones is going to take Oklahoma to a Big 12 title and a shot at the national championship, he better find Stills often.

9. QB E.J. Manuel, Florida State

Is it finally time for Manuel to be the program-lifting leader he was hyped to be? Staying healthy all season would help provide an answer. On a team that has zero questions defensively, the Seminoles' offense must do its part. That means Manuel, a senior, must have his best season by far.

10. QB Collin Klein, Kansas State

How vital is Klein to the success of the Wildcats? He ran or passed 598 times last season in 13 games. By comparison, Cam Newton had 544 runs or passes for Auburn in 14 games in 2010. At 6 feet 5 and 226 pounds, Klein is nearly Newton's size. If he improves his passing, he could have an even better Cam Lite season and lift K-State into Big 12 title contention.

11. WR Tavon Austin, West Virginia

The nation's No. 1 all-purpose runner in 2011 caught 101 passes, ran the ball 16 times and returned 55 kicks. At 5-9 and 174 pounds, nobody did more, pound-for-pound, last season than Austin. If he can replicate that productivity in the Big 12 – and a lot of other things go right – the Mountaineers could be America's surprise team.

12. QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas

On paper, there is one team with a chance to take down twin SEC titans Alabama and LSU. That team is Arkansas. And there is one Razorback who will have to play like the best talent on the field in those games for that to happen. That player is Wilson, a senior who had a great season in 2011 but was merely good in losses to the Tide and Tigers.

[Related: SEC once again likely to come down to winner of the west division]

13. QB Zach Mettenberger, LSU

Mettenberger has talent and baggage – he was kicked off the Georgia team two years ago before pleading guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery stemming from a bar incident in Valdosta, Ga. After going to junior college, he has emerged as the latest LSU hope for a quarterback who can make enough plays to get the otherwise flush Tigers their third national title in a decade.

14. LB Jarvis Jones, Georgia

Jones, a native of Columbus, Ga., originally went to USC, transferred to Georgia, sat out 2010, then blew up last season into a pass-rushing phenomenon. Jones was credited with an SEC-leading 13.5 sacks and a universe-leading 49 quarterback hurries – a credit to his high motor and an excitable Georgia stat crew. He will lead a defense that should be among the nation's best and could make the Bulldogs a national title contender.

15. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson

He'd rank higher on this list if he weren't suspended for the first two games after a spring bust for pot possession. Watkins is one of those guys who can hurt a defense from anywhere; he averaged 15 yards per reception, 7.2 yards per carry and 25 yards per kickoff return as a freshman, scoring 13 touchdowns, despite missing some time with injuries. Among the most exciting players in the country.

16. RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

If he can stay healthy all season, he'll be a serious player in the Heisman race. The fierce Lattimore never shies from contact and likes to win every collision; that makes him a great back but also an injury risk, and he has missed time in each of his two college seasons. He's coming off an ACL injury in the seventh game last season.

17. LB Shayne Skov, Stanford

Another player coming off an ACL tear – but Skov's happened just three games into last season. He's a hitter with a nose for the ball and the size to punish offensive players, and his return to full health this season will be key to Stanford mitigating the drop-off In Year One without Andrew Luck.

18. DE William Gholston, Michigan State

If the guy who terrorized Georgia in the Outback Bowl (seven tackles, five for loss, two sacks, one fumble recovery) shows up every Saturday, Gholston will be an All-American and a prime NFL draft commodity. If the guy who defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi characterized as an indifferent practice performer shows up, he'll just be a talented tease. Which will it be?

19. QB A.J. McCarron, Alabama

After spending much of last season as a caretaker quarterback, McCarron morphed into a star in the BCS championship game. He'll have to play like that regularly for the Crimson Tide to repeat. McCarron also brings some Stabler/Namath-type attitude to the position – he went after Florida defensive end Dominique Easley last season following a late hit, and he sparred this summer on Twitter with since-dismissed Tyrann Mathieu of LSU.

[Related: The top 10 coaching staffs: It shouldn't surprise anyone Alabama is No. 1]

20. QB Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech

Another massive quarterback out of the Cam Newton mold, the 6-6, 262-pound Thomas doesn't run it as well as Newton (469 yards last year) but gets into the end zone (11 touchdowns). And he did sling it for more than 3,000 yards and another 19 TDs last season. On an offense almost completely bereft of experienced talent, he'll have to do even more this season.

21. TE Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame

As tight ends become premium weapons in the NFL, Eifert could become the next hot property. At 6-6 and 251 pounds, the junior has the size. He also has the hands to catch 63 passes last season and the speed to average a team-high 12.7 yards per reception. Whoever is quarterbacking the Fighting Irish, Eifert will be his security blanket.

22. QB Wes Lunt, Oklahoma State

He will start in Mike Gundy's high-octane offense as a true freshman. Lunt will be shielded from the media all season, per Gundy's rules, but not from the scrutiny of fans wondering whether the Cowboys can go from 28-year-old Brandon Weeden to 18-year-old Lunt without falling off a cliff offensively.

23. QB Tyler Bray, Tennessee

A big, strong-armed talent with a knucklehead streak that could undermine all of it at any given time. In what could be a make-or-break season for coach Derek Dooley, he is entrusting his offense to a guy who can make all the throws and has the receivers to catch them. But Bray, a junior, has to prove his party-boy penchant will not get in the way of a potential breakout season and NFL career.

24. DT Star Lotulelei, Utah

Tucked away in the Mountain Time Zone and underrated nationally, some say he's the next Haloti Ngata – a massive run-stopper with surprising athleticism. Lotulelei signed with BYU out of high school but went to junior college and wound up with the archrival Utes, who have a chance to be the surprise team in the Pac-12.

25. QB Joe Southwick, Boise State

He's merely replacing the winningest quarterback in college football history, Kellen Moore (50 victories in four seasons as the Broncos' starter). Southwick was the designated fourth quarter mop-up guy, but now he gets to take meaningful snaps for a program that doesn't expect to take a major step back despite massive personnel losses.

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