Thousands of athletes are ready for the first week of the 2017 college football season, but a select group of players will shape the biggest results.
We’re looking at the most-relevant games on the Week 1 slate and identifying which players will have the greatest impacts. No team can have more than one player considered for the list, though a high-profile matchup may include one from each side.
The list is organized chronologically based on kickoff date and time.
Richard Lagow, quarterback, Indiana
Ohio State is the clear favorite in the season-opening Big Ten matchup, but the overall quality of the Buckeyes makes it unfair to pick a singular player against average competition. On the other hand, Indiana won’t have a chance in this contest unless Richard Lagow puts together a mistake-free game. Last season, Lagow completed 14 of his 28 attempts, threw one interception and lost a fumble, while the Hoosiers were just 6-of-19 on third and fourth down. Lagow must handle a defensive line filled with NFL-caliber players, and he might be without Simmie Cobbs at receiver. This is an enormous challenge for Lagow.
Shane Buechele, quarterback, Texas
“I don’t know why we’re ranked in the top-25,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said, per Ezra Siegel of the Dallas Morning News. “I hope it’s not because of me. I think it’s more of because we’re Texas and we’re a national brand.”
Well, Tom, it’s because of you — and what we anticipate the offensive wizard will accomplish with Shane Buechele. He showed promise as a true freshman, and Herman’s arrival should only benefit the second-year starter’s development. Against a formidable Maryland defense, however, the hype and expectations will be tested. The Longhorns cannot afford to have Buechele fall short in this matchup.
Josh Allen, quarterback, Wyoming
Lauded as a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, Josh Allen will be on the national radar throughout the 2017 season. The spotlight may not be kind to the redshirt junior, who must carry a Wyoming offense that lost standout running back Brian Hill as well as key targets Tanner Gentry, Jake Maulhardt and Jacob Hollister. That’s a whole bunch of production out the door. Allen takes the Pokes into an unfavorable environment at Kinnick Stadium, where he’ll need an experienced offensive line to hold up against Iowa’s stout front seven. Allen averaged 0.4 interceptions during eight wins last season but threw two picks per game in six losses.
Akrum Wadley, running back, Iowa
On the other sideline, Akrum Wadley headlines an Iowa offense preparing to break in a new quarterback. Nathan Stanley earned the nod for the Hawkeyes, who needed to replace two-year starter C.J. Beathard. Wadley has already proved he’s an elite difference-maker, though. In the upset of Michigan last season, Wadley ran for 115 yards and caught five passes for 52 yards with a touchdown. Wyoming surrendered 5.31 rushing yards per carry in 2016 — which ranked 113th nationally. Though Nevada transfer James Butler should also contribute, Wadley could propel Iowa to a season-opening win.
Max Browne, quarterback, Pitt
Pitt must not overlook Youngstown State. The preseason FCS poll listed the Penguins at No. 9 in the nation, and the Panthers will be without a few important pieces due to suspension, including offensive lineman Alex Bookser and safety Jordan Whitehead. Pitt will lean on USC transfer Max Browne to play the biggest role in staving off an upset bid. Browne, who left Southern California after getting benched and replaced by Sam Darnold, needs to show he’s established a connection with Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson. Otherwise, Youngstown State will repeat the 2015 meeting where it stayed within one score for most of the fourth quarter.
Jake Bentley, quarterback, South Carolina
South Carolina handed the reins to Jake Bentley midway through 2016, and he responded by leading the program to victories in four games they were supposed to win. That doesn’t sound especially wonderful, but they weren’t favored to knock off any of Florida, Clemson or South Florida anyway. Now, is he ready to help the Gamecocks steal a game? North Carolina State is a potential sleeper in the ACC thanks to a terrific front seven. South Carolina likely won’t be able to establish a running game, so it’s even more critical than normal for Bentley to put together an efficient showing as a passer.
Rashan Gary, defensive line, Michigan
A consensus breakout choice for 2017, Rashan Gary will probably line up at both end and tackle in Michigan’s opener against Florida. The Wolverines need a fast start from Gary because the Gators are most successful when their rushing attack is working. During nine wins in 2016, Florida posted 4.3 yards per carry. In four losses, that average plummeted to a horrendous 1.7. Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst is an established run-stopping force, so a second elite lineman would put Michigan in position to completely neutralize the Gators on the ground. Considering UF’s uncertainty at quarterback, that would be a huge bonus for the Wolverines.
The Florida quarterbacks
Maybe only one quarterback will play. But it could be two or three. We have little idea about the situation other than Florida has Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and incumbent starter Luke Del Rio fighting for snaps. Michigan is reloading in the secondary, but Gary and Co. will put constant pressure on the Florida signal-caller — whomever it may be at a given time. And it’s not like the Gators have an established arsenal on the outside, since the only receiver who has tallied more than 400 yards in a season, Antonio Callaway, is suspended. This is a tough situation for Florida’s quarterbacks. As of right now, Franks will get the first shot against Michigan. But he could very well be benched early if he struggles.
Equanimeous St. Brown, wide receiver, Notre Dame
Notre Dame would love to forget last year’s 4-8 finish. Head coach Brian Kelly said he believes things will be drastically different in 2017, but that pressure falls on new quarterback Brandon Wimbush. He’ll make his starting debut at home against Temple, which is rebuilding on both sides of the ball. Wimbush needs a reliable target, though, and Equanimeous St. Brown is currently the only proven one now that Kevin Stepherson’s role is a big question mark. Perhaps graduate transfers Cam Smith and Freddy Canteen emerge quickly or C.J. Sanders stands out. But for Wimbush’s sake, St. Brown can’t be a maybe.
Jordan Chunn, running back, Troy
Lost in the commotion of high-profile neutral-site clashes is a wonderful matchup between top Group of Five teams. Troy and Boise State are highly respected in their respective conferences entering 2017, and the Broncos will host the underrated showdown. Last season, Boise State’s defense did a tremendous job refocusing in the red zone, forcing the eighth-best rate of field-goal attempts. Jordan Chunn absolutely must exhibit his short-yardage prowess for Troy to snatch a road victory. All but two of his 37 career touchdowns have come from inside the 20.
Deondre Francois, quarterback, Florida State
We can all agree Alabama is really good, right? OK. Like Washington in 2016, Florida State has the defense necessary to compete. The problem for the Huskies was that Jake Browning only led one scoring drive and couldn’t do much else while the running game stalled. Might the same thing happen to the Seminoles? Deondre Francois will provide the answer to that question. His offensive line is far from perfect, which will affect the running game. The receivers are talented but are also shifting from complementary roles to featured spots. Francois must be a guiding force for the FSU offense; otherwise, Alabama will run all over the ‘Noles.
Robert Foster, wide receiver, Alabama
College football fans know about Jalen Hurts, Bo Scarbrough and Calvin Ridley. The game-defining player on Alabama’s attack, however, may be Robert Foster. Two years ago, the wideout caught 10 passes and two touchdowns in three appearances before an injury ended his season. Then, Foster didn’t make a significant impact in 2016. But the redshirt senior has returned to the starting lineup, where he’ll provide a downfield threat opposite Ridley. If Foster makes the Seminoles respect him as a vertical threat, it’ll open up a little more space for Hurts and the Alabama running game. And in a matchup like this, “every yard counts” truly applies.
Brent Stockstill, wide receiver, Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee can garner some extra attention with a victory over Vanderbilt. That’s not going to happen unless Brent Stockstill assembles a cleaner performance compared to the 2016 matchup. He threw for three touchdowns and nearly 400 yards, but the little mistakes doomed Middle Tennessee. An interception led to seven points for the Commodores. Three drives stalled on Vandy’s side of the field. Another possession ended in a missed field goal. Perfection is unattainable, but Stockstill had the Blue Raiders in position to score throughout the game. He needs those empty drives to be scoring possessions this weekend.
Josh Rosen, quarterback, UCLA
Last season, Josh Rosen led a 15-point fourth-quarter comeback on the road before falling to Texas A&M in overtime. While the loss itself is motivation enough, Rosen tossed three interceptions and later missed the final six games of UCLA’s disappointing 2016 campaign due to a hurt shoulder. And, not only does Sunday mark his return from injury, it’s the Bruins’ first game with new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. The personal and external factors have undoubtedly created a pressure to excel, but Rosen must stay composed and avoid the desire to force passes.
Will Grier, quarterback, West Virginia
Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson has a distinct advantage thanks to his team’s defense, which will relentlessly pressure Will Grier in his return to a starting job. The Florida transfer has a pair of superb running backs at his disposal, but Ka’Raun White is the leading returning receiver. West Virginia desperately needs Gary Jennings and David Sills to contribute immediately. But that’s where Grier comes in. He’s the type of quarterback who can elevate an offense with efficiency and, when necessary, mobility. In what should be a tight margin, Grier’s performance will shape the outcome.
Clinton Lynch, running back, Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech knew senior quarterback Justin Thomas would be gone in 2017. What the Yellow Jackets didn’t expect was Marcus Marshall would transfer and they’d have to dismiss Dedrick Mills, who led the team in rushing during the last two seasons, respectively. Suddenly, Clinton Lynch is the featured playmaker of a retooling offense. The A-back tallied 415 rushing yards and two touchdowns last season, adding 16 receptions for a Tech-high 490 yards and six scores. Georgia Tech, which listed four potential starting quarterbacks for the opener against Tennessee, could use some stability. If Lynch isn’t a factor, the Jackets will struggle to stay with the Vols.