20 college football players who will define rivalry week

By Ethan Sears

It’s Rivalry Week in college football, and it’s time to get excited. There are great games across the board — some with huge playoff consequences. We decided to take a look at 20 players who will define the best week in college football, one from each big game, with the exception of the Iron Bowl, from which we took two. Come Saturday, there’s nothing left to say. Time to leave it all out on the field. Here are Rivalry Week’s most important players.

Montez Sweat, defensive lineman, Mississippi State

If Sweat can wreak some havoc along the Ole Miss offensive line, the Egg Bowl will be over before it starts. The Runnin’ Rebels are playing backup QB Jordan Ta’amu. Though he’s been solid in six games, that’s been with solid protection. Against rivals Mississippi State, Ole Miss’ O-line could be overmatched. Sweat has nine sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this season. If he can bother Ta’amu, the Rebels will have a lot of trouble moving the ball.

Tre’Quan Smith, wide receiver, Central Florida

South Florida has a chance to derail UCF’s New Year’s Six bowl bid with a win, but they’ll have to slow down Smith to do it. The junior has an absurd 850 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 44 catches. Navy is the only team that’s been able to slow him this year, and it’s no coincidence that was one of the closest games the Knights played this year. The Bulls quietly have a great pass defense, ranking second in overall success rate and 16th in S&P+, per Football Study Hall. The secondary has to be at peak performance to pull off the upset Friday.

Akrum Wadley, running back, Iowa

As goes Wadley, so go the Hawkeyes. Iowa has won every game this year in which the senior has rushed for more than 100 yards. However, consistency has been an issue; Wadley is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry on the year. Against a run defense as poor as Nebraska’s, Wadley should go wild. That’s no guarantee, but if it happens, the Heroes Trophy will stay in Iowa City for a third straight season.

Kurt Benkert, quarterback, Virginia

Benkert balled out for the first 35 minutes against Miami last week, and the Cavaliers were on the verge of pulling off a massive upset. All it took for the Hurricanes to get back in the game, however, was a pick-six. Benkert and Virginia never recovered. The Hoos will be underdogs again this week with Virginia Tech coming to town, and they need 60 good minutes from Benkert. An upset is more than attainable, but not if Virginia struggles to throw the ball at any point.

Brandon Peters, quarterback, Michigan

Peters is in concussion protocol and his status for Saturday is unclear. If he isn’t playing, Michigan has little chance of beating arch-rival Ohio State. The Wolverines offense has been utterly anemic with John O’Korn in at quarterback. The fifth-year senior has thrown five picks compared to just one touchdown. He’s averaging only 4.5 adjusted yards per attempt to boot. Peters has yet to throw a pick and is averaging 8.8 adjusted yards per pass — nearly double O’Korn’s mark. Suffice it to say Peters’ presence is fairly important for the Wolverines.

Roquan Smith, linebacker, Georgia

To beat Georgia Tech, you have to stop the run. That’s not exactly a Herculean task for Georgia, which ranks seventh in rushing S&P+. Smith is a big reason why. The junior has 91 total tackles, including 5.5 for loss. Smith also leads the ‘Dawgs with nine run stuffs. He’ll be instrumental in slowing down the triple-option come Saturday.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, safety, Alabama

Minkah Fitzpatrick Alabama Arkansas

Monday, Fitzpatrick said he was ‘100 percent’ for Saturday, as questions surrounded the hamstring injury that caused the junior to sit out last week. If he was telling the truth, that is vital for the Tide. Fitzpatrick is a versatile safety who has 44 tackles, six pass breakups and one interception. At full health, he can practically eliminate Auburn’s desire to throw downfield, making things that much harder for quarterback Jarrett Stidham.

Jarrett Stidham, quarterback, Auburn

Stidham didn’t have his best statistical game of the year against Georgia, but that was perhaps his most impressive performance to date. Against one of the best defenses in the country, Stidham went 16-of-23, tossing three touchdowns without an interception for a 190.8 efficiency rating. He may need to replicate that against an even better defense in Alabama and in one of the most consequential Iron Bowls in history. In a close game, the result could hinge on whether Stidham can drive down the field against the defense which ranks second in the country in S&P+.

Jonathan Taylor, running back, Wisconsin

The Badgers shouldn’t have any trouble at all with Minnesota this week, especially if Taylor is playing well. Minnesota is unlikely to move the ball much against Wisconsin’s defense, so the Badgers need to avoid doing the same against the Gophers. Luckily, Minnesota is 115th in run defense S&P+ and Taylor looks like a superstar. He has 1,657 rushing yards, averaging 7.0 per carry, along with 12 touchdowns. He should add to that this week.

Austin Bryant, defensive end, Clemson

The Tigers front seven should be the difference in the Palmetto Bowl, and no individual more than Bryant. The junior edge-rusher has 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks this season. Per Football Study Hall, he also has 10 run stuffs on the year. South Carolina has an unreliable offensive line when it comes to pass blocking. Bryant and Co. should be able to bother quarterback Jake Bentley all day, sending Clemson into a must-win matchup against Miami with momentum.

Harrison Phillips, defensive tackle, Stanford

Phillips has flown under the radar this season, but the senior has some impressive numbers: Five sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 70 total tackles and 17 run stuffs, the latter of those via Football Study Hall. Stanford’s run defense has been lackluster for most of the year, but if the Cardinal are going to pull an upset over Notre Dame, they have to slow down running back Josh Adams. Phillips is the most important player when it comes to doing that. He has to cause some wreckage on the line of scrimmage or Adams could run wild on Stanford.

Luke Falk, quarterback, Washington State

Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk

Falk’s struggles have been the biggest reason for the Cougars’ two losses, both to inferior teams. That isn’t the case this week. Washington is no pushover — especially in Seattle — and the Huskies could prevent their rivals from winning the Pac-12 North crown. Falk has to face the third-ranked defense in the country by S&P+ and come out with a win. He’s never triumphed in in the Apple Cup, but this being a strong Wazzu squad and Falk’s senior year, it’s his best chance. Falk just has to put his struggles aside and play to his potential.

Zack Moss, running back, Utah

The calculus for Utah this week should be simple: run the ball, then run it some more. A bowl berth is on the line in The Rumble in the Rockies, but the Utes are at home. If Moss has it going, Colorado won’t stop him. The Buffs rank 99th in run defense S&P+. Moss is no Saquon Barkley, but at 4.9 yards per carry, he’s led Utah to 43rd in rushing S&P+. That’s still a lopsided matchup. Should Utah exploit it, they’ll go bowling.

Christian Kirk, wide receiver, Texas A&M

Texas A&M receiver Christian Kirk

Against LSU, you can win if you can score. Kirk is the key to the Aggies getting in the end zone Saturday. The likely high-round draft pick has 51 catches for 652 yards and six touchdowns — a down year compared to 2015 and 2016. The Tigers have a strong pass defense, but Kirk is the type of player who can get behind any secondary. A&M can get ahead in this game and force Danny Etling to make throws if Kirk has a strong day. Expect the Aggies to feed him early.

Ryan Nall, running back, Oregon State

The Beavers’ season has been an abject failure; They’re 1-10 and head coach Gary Andersen resigned midseason. But winning the Civil War against Oregon would be a massive step and though Oregon State is a 25-point underdog, it’s not impossible. Nall is the type of player who can carry his team to victory on a good day. He hasn’t had a ton of those this year, with just three games of over 100 yards rushing. But if the Beavers have any chance at all of salvaging something from this season, it rests on Nall’s shoulders.

Nate Hall, linebacker, Northwestern

If the Wildcats manhandle Illinois, as expected, Hall will have a big day. The junior linebacker has 14.5 TFLs, two interceptions and 3.5 sacks on the year. Per Football Study Hall, he also has 11 run stuffs and six pass breakups. Against the Illini, Northwestern shouldn’t have any trouble at all, but Hall could really stuff the statsheet. Lovie Smith’s offense ranks 122nd in S&P+. Don’t expect Illinois to move the ball much.

Chris Chugunov, quarterback, West Virginia

Last week, the Mountaineers offense died after Will Grier’s injury. Chugunov was 14-of-26 for 189 yards and just one touchdown, which wasn’t enough to keep up with Texas. Given how bad West Virginia’s defense is, suffice it to say they’ll need something more out of Chugunov this week unless Baker Mayfield is benched for a significant portion of the game. (If you think he’s sitting out for more than one drive, you’re just being naive.) In the Big 12, you have to be able to win shootouts. If Chugunov can’t get the Mountaineers down the field consistently, they’ll get blown out by Oklahoma.

KeeSean Johnson, wide receiver, Fresno State

The Bulldogs are engaged in a quietly consequential matchup for Mountain West supremacy with Boise State this weekend. This game essentially functions as a preview of the conference championship game next week, and the Broncos will have their hands full trying to cover Johnson. The junior has 741 yards on 58 receptions this season for an average of 12.8 per catch. Fresno’s defense has been its strength in 2017, but Johnson’s explosiveness has carried the passing game. Limiting his impact makes the Bulldogs a lot easier to beat.

Simmie Cobbs Jr., wide receiver, Indiana

Slow down Cobbs and it’s hard to see how the Hoosiers score any points at all. Their only success on the ground has come with Peyton Ramsey at quarterback, but Richard Lagow is clearly the better passer and played last week against Rutgers. With both Indiana and Purdue at 5-6, a bowl berth is on the line. For all Jeff Brohm has done in reworking the Boilermakers offense, their 27th-ranked defense by S&P+ is a bigger reason for success. However, much of that success has come in run defense. Keeping Cobbs quiet will be the biggest defensive focus for Purdue. If it wants to go bowling, that’s what it has to do.

Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville

As long as Louisville avoids another Week 13 meltdown against Kentucky and moves to 8-4 heading into a bowl game, it’s probably fair to call 2017 a success. Obviously there’s no player more important to the Cardinals than Jackson. Louisville is the better team on paper and he’s the reason why. A big game against the Wildcats could be what gets Jackson invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and no doubt he’ll be motivated to beat Kentucky after last season’s loss. As far as any game this weekend without playoff or bowl implications go, this might be the biggest must-win.