They say that football is the ultimate team sport, and for the most part that’s true. With that said, one superstar player can be the difference between winning a championship and just missing out, and in college football heading into 2017, there are a handful of those players.
These title contenders could probably make it work if the below players couldn’t play for one reason or another, but ultimately, these players are as close to irreplaceable as they come.
Baker Mayfield, Quarterback, Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s quarterback was a Heisman finalist last season and there’s a very good chance he finds himself among the finalists for college football’s greatest individual award again this season.
Mayfield can simply do it all from the quarterback position, and with a new head coach calling the shots in Lincoln Riley, the Sooners are going to rely even more on Mayfield to be their rock in 2017.
This is an offense that lost running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine as well as star wideout Dede Westbrook, mind you. Riley was also promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach, so though is high-flying offense will still be a feature, it may look a bit different with him in a different role. At the very least, things will be far from normal without Bob Stoops roaming the sideline.
Oklahoma is going to need Mayfield to step up after losing his top offensive weapons. He’s going to have make those around him better and there may be times when he’ll have to put the team on his back.
The good news for the Sooners is he has a history of doing just that, and with him at quarterback, they have a chance at making another CFP run.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Defensive Back, Alabama
Jalen Hurts is perhaps Alabama’s most dynamic player right now, but if for some reason he can’t play the Crimson Tide can turn to talented freshman Tua Tagovailoa and they’d probably be just fine. Especially considering Nick Saban’s generally power heavy offense, we’ve seen that his teams can get away with less than Heisman-worthy play at quarterback.
Defensively, the Tide always play strong as a unit, so it’s hard to pick out one player for our purposes. Frankly, if someone goes down or can’t play, Saban could just turn to his stable of five-star recruits and the average college football fan may not even realize anything happened.
Still, it’s tough to deny how important Minkah Fitzpatrick is to this Alabama defense.
He’s an enigma of a defender, able to play corner, nickleback, and even safety. He’s an All-American who logged 66 tackles (5.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, and six interceptions, including two taken back for a touchdown, in 2016. In his first two seasons for the Tide, Fitzpatrick has notched eight interceptions — four total taken back to the house.
Especially with Marlon Humphrey, Jonathan Allen, Rueben Foster, Ryan Anderson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Tim Williams, and Eddie Jackson all now in the NFL, Alabama is going to lean heavily on Fitzpatrick in 2017.
Dexter Lawrence, Defensive Tackle, Clemson
The big story at Clemson is the quarterback position and who will end up replacing Deshaun Watson. It looks like junior Kelly Bryant may get the nod, but he has a former superstar recruit, Hunter Johnson, breathing down his neck.
That battle will be an important one in determining whether or not the Tigers can make it back to the CFP championship, but if Dexter Lawrence can’t go for any reason in 2017 — Clemson’s in trouble.
Lawrence is projected to be the heartbeat of Clemson’s defense. He’s a do-everything defensive lineman who is legitimately one of the best overall athletes in college football.
As a true freshman, Lawrence notched 62 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, a pass defended and two fumbles recovered. He can play anywhere along the defensive line for Clemson, and he’s the type of defender that offensive coordinators will have to game plan around. At 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, Lawrence is a defensive lineman with linebacker speed and intensity.
He can single-handedly change a game. Perhaps, he’s good enough to even impact a whole season.
Jake Browning, QB, Washington
If Washington has a shot at winning the Pac-12 for the second season in a row and doing the same for the CFP, Browning is going to have to be even better in 2017. He was one of college football’s top quarterbacks in 2016, throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns compared to just nine interceptions.
Washington’s offense is bolstered by talented and gritty running back Myles Gaskin, but if for some reason Gaskin couldn’t play, one gets the sense that the Huskies would be able to rely on Browning’s arm. If Browning can’t go, though, Washington’s 2017 hopes would probably be dashed. Chris Petersen is a terrific coach and recruiter so you never know, but Browning has the talent to elevate the Huskies back into the national title scene if everything goes according to plan.
They need him to live up to his potential in order for them to live up to theirs.
Sam Darnold, Quarterback, USC
Is Sam Darnold the next in a line of terrific USC quarterbacks? If his performance in 2016 is any indication, the answer to that question is a big, resounding yes.
USC looked destined for another disappointing season before turning to Darnold off the bench. Clay Helton brought Darnold in to start in Week 4, and after a hiccup against Utah, he never looked back.
Darnold helped USC win nine games in a row to end the season, including the Rose Bowl. He threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. In the Rose Bowl in a comeback win over Penn State, he threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns compared to just one interception.
He may be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, let alone in the Pac-12. If USC doesn’t have Darnold, all the hype heading into 2017 will be for naught.
Deondre Francois, Quarterback, Florida State
The 2017 season isn’t going to be an easy one for Florida State, but if the Seminoles can start the season with a win over Alabama, there’s a great chance they find themselves in the CFP come bowl season.
Quarterback Deondre Francois is going to be the main key to FSU’s success in 2017, especially with some question marks at running back now that Dalvin Cook is in the NFL.
Francois came into 2016 with a ton of hype, and for the most part, he delivered. He threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He also rushed for 198 yards and five touchdowns, playing at a high enough level to draw some comparisons to former FSU great Jameis Winston.
Francois is talented enough to beat Alabama, and if he can help FSU do so, there’s a great chance the Seminoles rip through the ACC behind his play. Without him playing at a high level, though, Florida State may once again be looking up to Clemson, and who knows who else, in the revived and tough ACC.
Also considered: Derrius Guice, Running Back, LSU; J.T. Barrett, Quarterback, Ohio State; Saquon Barkley, Running Back, Penn State; Lamar Jackson, Quarterback, Louisville