College football player rankings: Snubs, overrated, underrated and more

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Monday, August 12, 2019

Preseason college football rankings are an inexact science. So is analyzing them. (Last year, the two players consideredoverrated in our preseason top 50 wereKyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa. Whoops.)

But that's not going to stop us from breaking it down again. Which players in this year's preseason top 50 are going to make us look silly by the end of the season? Can a true freshman make aTrevor Lawrence-like leap? (Probably not, but let's find out.)

Here's a breakdown of who our experts think are overrated, underrated and more in the preseason player rankings.

Player ranked too low

Andrea Adelson: Oklahoma State WR Tylan Wallace

There is unquestioned star power at receiver across this country this year, and that includes Wallace, one of the most explosive returning wideouts in one of the most explosive offenses in college football. Wallace ranked No. 2 in the nation a year ago in total receiving yards, and though the Cowboys have a new starting quarterback, expectations for Wallace haven't changed. He's one of the top 15 players in the country.

Kyle Bonagura: Ohio State QB Justin Fields

That Fields is even on the list speaks to his remarkable potential because usually there is no room for players who haven't started a college game. Still, it's easy to look at Fields at No. 48 and have very little doubt he'll be much higher at the end of the season. The combination of his individual talent and Ohio State's offense under first-year coach Ryan Day could turn him into a top-five player by the end of the season.

Bill Connelly: Vanderbilt RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn

I'm a sucker for a Roman candle in the backfield, and Vaughn's late-2018 explosion was absurd. In his last five games, he carried the ball 85 times for 749 yards (8.8 per carry!) and seven touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, he could be the top running back in the country.

Adam Rittenberg: Michigan State DE Kenny Willekes

If Willekes played for Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State or even Michigan, there's no way he would barely crack the top 50. While the Big Ten is loaded with standout defensive ends, Willekes won the league's defensive lineman of the year award in 2018, earning second-team All-America honors. He has 35 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in his career. He's a top-25 national player, no doubt.

Mark Schlabach: Michigan State DE Kenny Willekes

It took Willekes a while to earn the respect of Michigan State's coaches, and the former walk-on is still being overlooked here. According to Pro Football Focus, he led all FBS edge rushers with 23 quarterback hits and was sixth with 39 quarterback hurries in 2018. He has 151 tackles, 35 tackles for loss and 15 sacks in 27 career games. In my opinion, he's one of the 25 best players in the country.

Player ranked too high

Adelson: Georgia QB Jake Fromm

Fromm has been incredibly successful as Georgia's quarterback, there's no arguing that. And he's a big reason why the Bulldogs are favored to make it to the College Football Playoff this season. He's one of the best players in the country, but is he the fifth-best player? You could make the argument Jonathan Taylor, Justin Herbert, Travis Etienne, Rondale Moore and Chase Young should all be ranked higher. Maybe even Sam Ehlinger, too.

Bonagura: Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez

He's fun to watch and a reason to look forward to seeing Nebraska early this year, but is he really the 30th best player in college football? It feels high. There were times last season, especially late in the year, when he made a strong case, but this feels more like a best-case-scenario, end-of-season rank for Martinez than where he should be going into his sophomore year.

Connelly: Oregon QB Justin Herbert

We're giving him the benefit of the doubt because of what he could be, but he hasn't consistently been that guy just yet. His passer rating over the past two seasons is a rock-solid 152.4, but that's more Brett Rypien than Tua Tagovailoa. His QBR was 24th last year, between Kelvin Hopkins Jr. and David Blough. (Also: Fellow Pac-12 QB K.J. Costello outplayed him last year.)

Rittenberg: Clemson WR Justyn Ross

I saw what happened in the playoff. Ross is a special talent, and coaches tell me he'll be a future first-round NFL draft pick. But top 10 preseason? Ahead of more accomplished receivers like Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb, Colorado's Laviska Shenault Jr., and Oklahoma State'sTylan Wallace(ranked way too low at 27)? This seems a bit presumptive. Ross also shares touches with so many other superstars at Clemson. Let's pump the brakes a bit.

Schlabach: Ohio State QB Justin Fields

What do the 10 quarterbacks ranked ahead of Fields on this list have in common? Oh, yeah, they've all guided their teams to a victory in college football. I think it's too early to anoint Fields as the next great quarterback. Sure, he was highly ranked coming out of high school, but he looked overwhelmed during his freshman season at Georgia. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day does a great job coaching the position and maybe Fields will perform better in Ohio State's offense. But I think there are still a lot of growing pains to come.

Unranked player who needs to be on list

Adelson: Arizona State RB Eno Benjamin

Benjamin might lack the name recognition of some others on this list, but he clearly deserves to be ranked among the top 50 players in the country. Benjamin set a school record with 1,642 yards rushing a season ago, ranking him fifth in the country in total rushing yards. Headed into Year 2 under coach Herm Edwards, he might not carry the same workload, but he could be used even more as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield.

Bonagura: Stanford QBK.J. Costello

Justin Herbert at No. 7 is understandable considering his stature as an NFL prospect, but it was Costello, not Herbert, voted second-team All-Pac-12 last season (behind first-teamerGardner Minshewof Washington State). It was for good reason, too: Costello was ranked No. 6 nationally in Total QBR, behind two first-round picks (Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins) and three of the 11 quarterbacks on this list (Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm, D'Eriq King).

Connelly: Iowa State QB Brock Purdy

He had a higher QBR than Herbert last year, and the Cyclones were 7-2 with him behind center. They averaged 18 points per game without him and 31 points per game with him. He's a potential sophomore-slump guy -- opponents had to adjust to him on the fly when he started playing in October, and now they've had a whole offseason to prepare -- but he gets the benefit of the doubt for now.

Rittenberg: Arizona State RBEno Benjamin

Several Pac-12 players fit this category, including Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae, but Benjamin is undoubtedly a top-50 player. Last fall, he set ASU's single-season records for rushing yards (1,642), carries (300) and 100-yard rushing performances (9). Benjamin is both elusive (94 missed tackles, third in the FBS) and explosive (47 runs of 10 yards or longer, fourth nationally).

Schlabach: Virginia CB Bryce Hall

How is Hall not on the list? Last season, while leading the Cavaliers to their first eight-win season since 2011, he led the FBS with 22 pass breakups and was tied for first with 24 passes defended. He had 62 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 fumble recovery and 2 interceptions. He's as good as any cornerback in the country.

Group of 5 player who should be ranked

Adelson: UCF S Richie Grant

Grant had a breakout season in 2018, leading the Knights with 109 total tackles and six interceptions in his first year as a starter. He should be even better this year, as coaches rave about his work ethic, athleticism and penchant for always being around the ball. Grant has huge upside as a pro prospect, too, and is a difference-maker on UCF's defense.

Bonagura: Utah State QB Jordan Love

As a sophomore, Love guided Utah State to one of its best seasons in school history. He threw for 3,567 yards and 32 touchdowns as the Aggies won a school-record 11 games and finished ranked in the final AP poll, at No. 22, for just the third time in history. In a blowout win against North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl, Love outplayed another strong Group of 5 candidate, QB Mason Fine.

Connelly: Boise State DE Curtis Weaver

He's an absolutely dynamite edge rusher, and new defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding should know exactly how to get the most out of him. (Also, shout-out to Utah State's Jordan Love, whom I would have mentioned here instead had I trusted that he had any receivers to throw to this year.)

Rittenberg: Utah State QB Jordan Love

Where's the Love? I'll show myself out. Seriously, Love is one of the most dynamic young quarterbacks in college football. He had an incredible 2018 season, eclipsing 3,500 passing yards with 32 touchdowns against just six interceptions for an 11-win Utah State squad. He had seven 300-yard passing performances and two 400-yard games. He joins another Mountain West star, Boise State defenderCurtis Weaver, as notable Group of 5 snubs.

Schlabach: Utah State QB Jordan Love Love was one of the most accurate passers in college football in 2018. He completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,567 yards with 32 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He threw for 300 yards or more in seven games. He'll have a couple of chances to prove his worth against Power 5 opponents; the Aggies open the season at Wake Forest and play at LSU on Oct. 5.

True freshman who will make end-of-year list

Adelson: LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.

The Tigers traditionally produce exceptional players in the secondary, and Stingley appears to be next in line to fill that role. LSU has a massive need at the position, too, which only increases the opportunity and potential for a breakout season for the true freshman, ranked No. 18 on the ESPN 300. LSU is also expected to use him to return punts, counting on him to significantly upgrade its return game.

Bonagura: Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux

He arrived as ESPN's No. 1 ranked overall player in the Class of 2019 and figures to have a chance to play a big role from day one for the Ducks. Landing a player of his stature was important for the Pac-12, but he'll be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and the clear expectation is he won't need much time to get up to speed.

Connelly: Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux

A boring choice, really, but he could fill an immediate need for a Pac-12 contender. If the Ducks can unearth a bit more of a pass rush, they could be top-10 worthy. This wasn't a big year for immediate-impact QB recruits, so we'll just go with maybe the best player overall.

Rittenberg: Auburn LB Owen Pappoe

Impact freshmen have both unique talent and plenty of opportunity, and Pappoe checks both boxes. ESPN's top-rated linebacker and No. 8 overall player in the 2019 class will be an immediate contributor for Auburn, which brings back one of the nation's best defensive lines but loses Deshaun Davis and others at linebacker. Playing behind Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, Nick Coe and others will allow Pappoe to showcase his tremendous ability from Game 1.

Schlabach: Georgia LB Nolan Smith

If Georgia is going to get back to the SEC championship game, Smith is going to have to emerge as a legitimate pass-rusher. As good as the Bulldogs have been under coach Kirby Smart the previous two seasons, they struggled to get pressure on the quarterback. In 2018, they had only 24 sacks in 14 games, which ranked tied for 103rd in the FBS. Freshman outside linebacker Nolan Smith, the No. 2 prospect in the ESPN 300, could help change that right away.