The first 50 names on SI’s 2018 Top 100 Players list featured both quarterbacks on the field for the end of January’s national title game, last year’s national leader in tackles for loss and even a kicker with iconic rec specs and a booming right leg. As we move into the top half of our countdown, the résumés get even stronger, and the decisions get even tougher.
A reminder about our process: In constructing our rankings, the most important factor we assess is how significantly each player’s production will impact his team’s success this season—not how valuable he was to 2017’s team, where he sits on statistical leaderboards or what type of NFL draft prospect he is (although those other things often have a way of lining up). Put another way, this list is forward-looking, but not too forward-looking. If you don’t see your team’s rising star on this list, check out our breakdown of this year’s toughest snubs before you head for our mentions, and keep an eye out all week long as our countdown continues. And if you want some perspective on how accurate last year’s list was, take a look at our self-audit of the 2017 rankings.
50. Dalton Risner, OL, Kansas State
Risner’s accolades last season—a second consecutive first-team All-Big 12 nomination, plus a first-team All-America nod from Pro Football Focus, which described him in May as “one of the most productive offensive linemen in the PFF era”—make clear that he’s proven his ability as a pass protector and run blocker. But Risner decided to turn down the NFL draft in favor of returning to Kansas State for his senior season, during which he’ll have a chance to help the Wildcats mount a dark-horse run for the Big 12 title.
49. Iman Marshall, CB, USC
Marshall has been a staple of the Trojans’ secondary for the past three years, earning his first start in the third game of his true freshman season. After two straight years with three interceptions, he went pickless last fall in a junior campaign shortened by a knee injury that sidelined him for four games—although he still managed to lead all USC defensive backs with 10 pass breakups. Marshall will be relied upon along with fellow seniors Isaiah Langley and Marvell Tell as the leaders of a secondary that needs to match the level of production promised by the Trojans’ linebacking corps, which should be the strength of the defense.
48. Stanley Morgan Jr., WR, Nebraska
Whoever emerges from the ongoing quarterback battle between redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and true freshman Adrian Martinez will need a reliable target to connect with while settling into new head coach Scott Frost’s up-tempo offense. Morgan, a 6'1", 195-pound senior from New Orleans, fits the bill. Last season he set a program single-season record with 986 receiving yards and led all Big Ten wide receivers with 10 touchdown receptions. It would be a disappointment if he fails to eclipse either of those marks in his final college season.
47. D.K. Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss
Metcalf isn’t the last Rebels receiver you’ll see on this countdown, and senior DaMarkus Lodge could easily have slotted into this spot in his place. But it’s anyone’s guess which member of Ole Miss’s loaded receiving corps quarterback Jordan Ta’amu develops the best connection with. After a breakout sophomore year during which he posted 16.6 yards per catch and seven touchdowns (including a Randy Moss–style game-winner at Kentucky with five seconds left), Metcalf’s arrow is pointing up. He shined in the spring game with Lodge sidelined by a shoulder injury and No. 1 wideout A.J. Brown permitted only to catch punts. He looks ready to punish defenses for focusing too much on Brown as coordinator Phil Longo’s offense takes to the skies once again.
46. Deandre Baker, CB, Georgia
Baker is a key holdover from a smothering defense that powered Georgia’s charge to its first conference title in 12 years and a national championship game berth. Rather than jumping to the NFL after a stellar junior season, Baker opted to return to Athens to bolster his case as a first-round NFL draft prospect and lead a unit waving farewell to a handful of important contributors, including Butkus Award–winning linebacker Roquan Smith. The Bulldogs will need Baker to counter talented SEC quarterbacks like South Carolina’s Jake Bentley (Sept. 8), Missouri’s Drew Lock (Sept. 22) and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham (Nov. 10).
45. Greg Little, OL, Ole Miss
Jordan Ta’amu can beat defenses with his feet, but Ole Miss’s high-flying passing attack won’t reach its full potential if the line leaves him running for his life on every play. Little arrived in Oxford two years ago as the No. 3 overall recruit in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite, behind only Rashan Gary and Dexter Lawrence. He can follow Laremy Tunsil’s path to the top of mock drafts everywhere by neutralizing the SEC West’s best edge rushers.
44. Chase Young, DL, Ohio State
Young was the talk of Ohio State’s spring workouts, and the hype wasn’t misplaced: The 6'5" end is a good bet to make a major sophomore leap this fall. In limited action over 10 games last season, he flashed the blend of quickness and power that made him a five-star recruit in the class of 2017 coming out of DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High. Opponents who watched Young as a true freshman know he’ll be a handful, but they can’t focus on containing him without risking getting burned by the top-shelf pass rusher on the other end of Ohio State’s defensive line, junior Nick Bosa.
43. Te'Von Coney, LB, Notre Dame
As long as the final legal loose ends from Coney’s arrest for possession of marijuana two summers ago are addressed by the start of fall camp, the Irish’s leading tackler from 2017 is expected to lead the Notre Dame defense from the middle of the front seven once again. Linebackers coach Clark Lea was promoted to replace Mike Elko as defensive coordinator, and his working relationship with Coney will be key to the continuity on a unit that did the heavy lifting as Notre Dame jumped out to an 8–1 start last year.
42. David Edwards, OL, Wisconsin
When Edwards arrived in Madison as a member of Wisconsin’s 2015 recruiting class, he was a three-star prospect rated the No. 21 tight end in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite. He even spent time running the option as a quarterback at Downers Grove (Ill.) North High School. Edwards’s evolution into a top-line offensive tackle marks yet another triumph for Wisconsin’s heralded player development pipeline, and this season it will provide the Badgers with an All-America honoree and potential first-round draft pick on the right edge of a loaded offensive line.
41. Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
Dan Mullen was the coach who believed Fitzgerald could make the transition from high school triple-option QB to starting quarterback in the SEC, but new Mississippi State head man Joe Moorhead could be the coach who unlocks Fitzgerald’s full potential as a passer, having just done so with Trace McSorley as the architect of Penn State’s offense over the last two years. The Bulldogs have the talent in place to be SEC West party-crashers, and if Fitzgerald can return fully from the grisly dislocated ankle he suffered in the Egg Bowl, he could stake a claim to being the SEC’s best quarterback in 2018.
40. Dre’Mont Jones, DL, Ohio State
The loss of three draft picks—junior end Sam Hubbard (third round) and senior ends Jalyn Holmes (fourth round) and Tyquan Lewis (second round)—won’t prevent the Buckeyes from suiting up a dominant defensive line this season. Jones will be the interior linchpin. Although he may not be garnering as much praise this offseason as some of the other names being floated as possible first-round picks in a stacked 2019 DL draft class, Jones is a constant threat to short-circuit drives with his ability to occupy blockers and apply pressure.
39. Troy Dye, LB, Oregon
Dye, the third and final Duck defender to make this year’s Top 100, was Oregon’s leading tackler in 2016 and ’17 and brings a 20-game start streak into his junior season. The 6'4", 221-pounder showed off the open-field speed that makes him such a terror in pursuit on a 93-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the Las Vegas Bowl, and if the Ducks make noise in the Pac-12 North, he should be in line for serious conference defensive player of the year consideration.
38. David Sills V, WR, West Virginia
Sills’s remarkable transformation from an elite quarterback recruit headed to a Pac-12 program to a go-to wide receiver in a Big 12 offense should generate more headlines this season than it did in 2017, when he tied Memphis’s Anthony Miller with a nation-leading 18 touchdown receptions to go along with 980 receiving yards. With a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender in Will Grier back at quarterback and another dangerous pass catcher in Gary Jennings lining up alongside him, Sills could become one of the leading faces of a Mountaineers squad that looks capable of pushing Oklahoma at the top of the Big 12.
37. Mitch Hyatt, OL, Clemson
Hyatt withdrew from the NFL draft to return at left tackle for a Clemson O-line that helped pave the way for 40 rushing touchdowns a season ago. If he maintains his high standard of performance on Kelly Bryant’s (or Trevor Lawrence’s) blind side, he should become the first offensive lineman in school history to make the All-ACC first team three times.
36. Cam Akers, RB, Florida State
The pressure of living up to the expectations stemming from his ranking as the No. 2 running back and No. 3 overall player in the 2017 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite, didn’t seem to faze Akers last fall. His true freshman season made clear why recruiting analysts were so optimistic about his future. Akers stepped in as Florida State’s leading running back following the departure of star Dalvin Cook by carrying a team-high 194 times for 1,025 yards with seven rushing touchdowns. The installation of new head coach Willie Taggart’s spread offense could set the stage for Akers to have a Cook-like sophomore bump in production (1,008 rushing yards to 1,691).
35. Devin Singletary, RB, Florida Atlantic
“Motor” was always running for the Owls in 2017, finishing fourth in the FBS with 1,796 rushing yards and lapping the field with 32 touchdowns on the ground during FAU’s breakthrough season. As long as Lane Kiffin is calling the shots, Singletary should have plenty of room to work and an abundance of carries to help support Kiffin’s new starting quarterback. His last sub-100-yard game came against Wisconsin in Week 2 of last year; Oklahoma’s defense should be a little more compliant on Labor Day weekend as he gets another shot at a Power 5 proving ground.
34. N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
Any path to a successful debut season for new Sun Devils head coach Herm Edwards—as well as promoted offensive coordinator Rob Likens—should involve frequent throws to Harry, a former top-60 recruit out of Chandler (Ariz.) High coming off a breakout sophomore season in which he recorded eight receiving touchdowns and 1,142 receiving yards, the most of any wideout returning to the Pac-12. With redshirt senior Manny Wilkins back at quarterback after throwing for 3,270 yards last season and an experienced offensive line protecting him, Arizona State shouldn’t have any trouble delivering Harry the ball.
33. Drew Lock, QB, Missouri
Will offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s departure for the top job at UCF take the rocket boosters out of Mizzou’s passing game, which saved a season that was circling the drain six games in? New OC Derek Dooley and the rest of the offensive staff would be wise to trust in Lock’s cannon arm and figure out everything else later. His 43 regular-season touchdown passes led the nation, and his top four targets after leading receiver J’Mon Moore are all back for a year that NFL scouts will be watching closely. Lock’s accuracy is a work in progress, but his completion rate has gradually crept toward 60% in his three seasons of action.
32. Austin Bryant, DL, Clemson
One of several Tigers defensive linemen who spurned the NFL draft to prolong their college careers another season, Bryant is a 6'5", 265-pound terror with the speed and power to wreak havoc on opponents’ offensive gameplans. He earned second-team All-ACC honors last season after tallying 58 tackles, including 15.5 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks. Traditional stats may not be the best way to gauge Bryant’s impact this season. There are only so many backfield takedowns to go around for Bryant and his three fellow projected early-round picks in the same position group: end Clelin Ferrell and tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.
31. Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State
Mason Rudolph, James Washington and Marcell Ateman are gone, but attrition won’t stop Mike Gundy from expecting his Cowboys offense to score at will. After leading all freshmen with 1,142 rushing yards during the 2016 regular season and topping the Big 12 with 1,347 yards and 14 TDs on the ground during the ’17 regular season, Hill will be called upon to pop big plays with regularity even if J.D. King steps into a larger backfield role. Hill runs with a creativity and an anger that most defenses on Oklahoma State’s schedule won’t have an answer for, and with runs of more than 30 yards in seven of 13 games last year, he may be this year’s best proof that you don't need to take to the air to pick up chunks of yards at a time.
Check back later this week for the rest of the countdown.