17 most important college football players in Week 2

After a weekend littered with expected results and only a few upsets, Week 2 of the 2017 college football season will bring out the heavyweights.

Highlighted by a matchup between the Big Ten and Big 12 favorites, eight of the country’s Top 25 schools will be facing another ranked program. Several other power-conference teams face a challenging opponent, including a couple of league openers.

Although football is a team sport, some individuals need to make a larger impact for that team to accomplish its goal of victory. The list is organized chronologically based on kickoff time.

Justin Jackson, running back, Northwestern

Northwestern won the 2016 matchup 24-13, but quarterback Clayton Thorson took advantage of two breakdowns in the Duke secondary for long touchdowns. Those two plays atoned for an uneven effort from the Wildcats, who faced an average third-down distance of 8.6 yards in the meeting. That’s not a sustainable way to win, and the primary fix is a more efficient rushing attack on early downs. Justin Jackson will likely be asked to serve as a workhorse Saturday afternoon. Last year, he churned out 94 yards on 28 carries despite 18 of those covering three yards or fewer. More efficiency on the ground should result in a successful road trip for the ‘Cats.

Brandon Harris and Chazz Surratt, quarterbacks, UNC

Brandon Harris’ debut with North Carolina did not go as planned. The LSU transfer completed just seven of his 16 passes for 60 yards, also throwing two interceptions in a 35-30 loss to Cal. Harris shared time with Chazz Surratt, who accounted for 227 yards and two scores. Plus, even excluding the short touchdown drive after an interception, Surratt led all three possessions that ended with seven points. Harris only guided the offense to one field goal. The decision may seem obvious for the Tar Heels entering a matchup with Lamar Jackson and Louisville, but it’s possible Harris and Surratt will both play in the ACC opener. No matter the snap share, the Heels will need a mistake-free performance to compete with Louisville.

Jacob Park, quarterback, Iowa State

Last season, Jacob Park made his first career appearance for Iowa State on the road against rival Iowa. That’s a pretty tough environment for a debut, no? He only completed six of his 15 attempts, managing 79 yards in a 42-3 loss. Fast-forward a year, however, and Park has taken command of the offense. He’s thrown for 200 yards in five of Iowa State’s last six games dating back to 2016. The challenge is sustaining that improvement opposite an Iowa defense that just ceded 3.3 yards per play to Josh Allen and Wyoming in the opener. If he does, the Cyclones will reclaim the Cy-Hawk Trophy.

Quadree Henderson, wide receiver/returner, Pitt

Pitt may labor to keep up with Penn State, given the combination of injuries and suspensions affecting an average roster. But this is the kind of matchup where a playmaker can provide the difference, turning a potential blowout into a nail-biting finish. Quadree Henderson piled up 201 all-purpose yards in Pitt’s 42-39 victory over Penn State last season, and he notched a career-high 47 receiving yards while contributing as a runner and on special teams. The Panthers need a repeat performance from Henderson, who mustered one catch for seven yards last week in an overtime win over FCS foe Youngstown State.

Kenny Hill, quarterback, TCU

Kenny Hill accounted for 470 yards and four touchdowns against Arkansas in 2016, but a fumble near the end zone, a pick-six and a missed field goal afforded the Razorbacks an opportunity to force overtime. TCU came up short in the extra period. There’s no doubt Hill is looking for retribution in the matchup, and he’s coming off a solid performance to begin 2017. Hill completed 18-of-23 passes for 206 yards and four touchdowns during a blowout of Jackson State. Arkansas should string together a handful of scoring drives, so the pressure is on Hill to finish opportunities.

Tanner Lee, quarterback, Nebraska

Can the Huskers match Oregon’s frenetic scoring pace? It’s highly probable the Ducks will hang 35-plus points on Nebraska, so Tanner Lee and the offense must be able to take advantage of a mediocre defense. Lee and Co. did exactly that against Arkansas State in the season opener, piling up 463 yards during a 43-36 triumph. But the visiting Red Wolves almost reached the 500-yard mark of total offense. Nebraska doesn’t have a convincing reason why we should expect a faster, stronger Oregon attack to encounter any more difficulty. Lee executed admirably in his team debut, but — fair or not — the Huskers need an even better performance from him to upset the Ducks.

Jarrett Stidham, quarterback, Auburn

The reviews of Jarrett Stidham’s first game as Auburn’s starter were unanimously positive. The Baylor transfer hit 14 of his 24 attempts for 185 yards, two touchdowns and one interception while guiding his new team to a 41-7 victory over Georgia Southern. Now comes the revealing matchup. Auburn will travel to Clemson, which boasts one of college football’s best defensive lines. Two premier defensive tackles, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, highlight the unit. Auburn will attempt to establish the running game, but in the foreseeable event Clemson doesn’t let that happen, the burden to succeed as a one-dimensional offense will fall on Stidham.

Kelly Bryant, quarterback, Clemson

Stidham’s counterpart faces a similarly challenging task, since Auburn’s defense did not allow a touchdown in Week 1. Georgia Southern’s only score happened on a fumble return. Kelly Bryant, meanwhile, accounted for 313 yards of total offense while Clemson dismantled Kent State. Though the competition level certainly wasn’t high, the junior complemented his running ability with downfield accuracy. It was exactly what the Tigers should’ve been hoping for in his first career start with a monster matchup looming. Bryant doesn’t need to be perfect, but avoiding turnovers will be key against Auburn’s aggressive defense.

Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma

Baker Mayfield only tossed eight interceptions in 2016. Two of them happened against Ohio State, and both led to a Buckeyes touchdown. Considering the final score of 45-24, two critical mistakes pushed the margin from seven points — a one-possession game — to 21. Turnovers are almost always a contributing factor in a showdown of this magnitude. Oklahoma still has plenty of talent at the skill positions, but Mayfield had a poor showing opposite Ohio State when the Sooners boasted Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook. Mayfield has more responsibility this season and a less experienced supporting cast. He’ll shape whether Oklahoma competes with the Buckeyes.

Deebo Samuel, wide receiver, South Carolina

South Carolina has a simple game plan: Get Deebo the ball. It worked to perfection in a 35-28 victory over North Carolina State, a team expected to perform considerably better this season. Samuel caught five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns — highlighted by a dazzling one-handed catch — and returned a kickoff 97 yards to pay dirt. The Gamecocks now shift to their SEC premiere against Missouri, which has a dynamic offense but an exploitable defense. The unit surrendered 492 points and 43 points to Missouri State last week. Samuel has a terrific chance to shine Saturday night.

Nick Fitzgerald, quarterback, Mississippi State

Sure, it’s only Week 2, but fringe bowl teams cannot waste opportunities. Nick Fitzgerald and Mississippi State are one Saturday away from a savage three-week stretch against LSU, Georgia and Auburn — each of which are currently ranked in the top 15. But Dan Mullen’s squad must stay focused on Louisiana Tech, because the fellow Bulldogs have a dangerous dual-threat quarterback in J’Mar Smith. Mississippi State needs Fitzgerald, who gathered 280 total yards and three touchdowns in the opener, to steady the offense on the road, dispatch LA Tech and move one step closer to six wins.

Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, running backs, Georgia

Caption: Dec 30, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back Nick Chubb (27) before the game against the TCU Horned Frogs at Liberty Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia is playing a ranked team, on the road, starting a true freshman. How should the Dawgs approach this? Let Nick Chubb get to work. He and fellow back Sony Michel should combine for no fewer than 40 touches during Georgia’s trip to Notre Dame. Jake Fromm may become a great college quarterback, but he was supposed to be the backup to Jacob Eason for at least one season and probably two. Eason’s injury has changed the timeline. There is some concern for the Bulldogs, since the Irish limited Temple to 2.3 yards per carry last week and UGA’s offensive line was only decent against Appalachian State. But the wisest course of action is trusting Chubb and Michel to work around any problems up front instead of putting that pressure on Fromm.

Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett, running backs, Stanford

If the opener against Rice was any indication, Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett will share the backfield like Christian McCaffrey and Remound Wright did in 2015. McCaffrey did the heavy lifting before Wright finished off drives. None of his 13 rushing scores covered more than two yards. It cost McCaffrey the Heisman, but it worked for a 12-2, Pac-12 champion Stanford. Back to the present, Love torched Rice for 180 yards and one touchdown, while Scarlett scored three times in just eight carries. And they just watched USC surrender 263 rushing yards to Western Michigan. Everyone involved knows Stanford wants to run the ball. Can the Trojans stop Love from setting up Scarlett?

Darren Carrington, wide receiver, Utah

In his debut for Utah, Darren Carrington reeled in 10 passes for 127 yards. No Utes receiver reached those single-game marks at any point last season. The Oregon transfer is an essential piece for the program’s revamped offense under first-year coordinator Troy Taylor. Carrington also was the only Utah pass-catcher with more than two receptions in a 37-16 triumph over last week. New starter Tyler Huntley will be looking Carrington’s way early and often during the 92nd edition of the Holy War with BYU. The Cougars have already allowed a 70-yard receiver to run-focused Portland State and LSU offenses, so Carrington could put together a huge day.