Many would argue that key game planning, preparation and determination are the biggest keys to winning football games at any level. That’s not wrong, per se. But explosive playmakers are often the difference between a win and a loss in any given contest.
While defenses can prepare and game plan religiously, if a team allows an offensive playmaker to hit open space, it could spell doom for a team with championship aspirations. Ball-hawking defensive backs are just as capable of changing the outcome of a game.
Nowhere is this more evident than in today’s college football game.
With the College Football Playoff fast approaching, here’s a look at the key playmakers for all four programs — young men that will make or break each team’s championship hopes.
Deon Cain, wide receiver
No list of explosive playmakers would be complete without Clemson sophomore wide receiver Deon Cain.
Cain, infamous for his suspension in last year’s title run that cost the Tigers arguably their best receiver, is by far the most explosive playmaker on this Clemson offense littered with them — as evidenced by his 19.4 yards per catch.
Not only does he have explosive receiving ability, but his versatility is key for this Tigers offense as he can line up anywhere on the field at any given time.
Cain, at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, is not only explosive but also shows a physicality that many other deep threat receivers seem to lack. Add in his ability to throw passes (former high school quarterback), and Cain has the potential to be a nightmare for any defensive coordinator tasked with stopping him.
What makes things even crazier is that Cain is the fourth option in a loaded Clemson offense. Regardless, Cain will make his impact known from the moment he steps onto the field.
Mike Williams, wide receiver
Expected to be a star in 2015 as well as a potential top-10 draft pick, Williams suffered a freak injury that caused him to fracture a bone in his neck while making his first touchdown catch of the season. This injury caused him to miss the rest of the 2015 campaign.
Utilizing a redshirt year, Williams has returned with a vengeance to the tune of over 1,100 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns.
Showing off his fantastic body control all season, Williams surprises with his explosiveness that’s packed into a lanky 6-foot-3 225 pound frame. Once the most explosive deep threat on the Clemson roster, Williams has evolved and polished his game, attacking the intermediate routes with precision and toughness.
Because of that, Williams is a handful for any defensive back lined up across from him and has been a tremendous weapon for the Tigers all year.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Calvin Ridley, wide receiver
A theme is starting to develop in this piece — dynamic wide receivers that can break a game wide open. And for good reason, as the evolution of the college game has given rise to explosive playmakers at the receiver position.
Few receivers in the playoff are as well renowned as Bama sophomore wideout Calvin Ridley.
Ridley, who stepped in last year as a true freshman to replace Oakland Raiders first-round draft pick Amari Cooper, has been one of the driving forces of an offense that lost a ton of firepower from last year’s title-winning squad.
With running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake in the NFL, as well as starting quarterback Jake Coker, Ridley became somewhat of an elder statesman alongside fellow receiver Ardarius Stewart on an offense that was starting true freshmen at multiple positions.
While Ridley has encountered some issue with drops, his usage as both a runner and receiver leads to defensive coordinators drawing up entire game plans to nullify the sophomore from Florida. This development has allowed Stewart to break out in a big way this season.
Despite a dip in production, which can be partially attributed to a true freshman quarterback and more conservative playcalling, Ridley is still extremely dangerous in the open field.
Josh Jacobs, running back
True freshman Josh Jacobs was a late add to the Crimson Tide recruiting class this past February, but he may end up being the best ball carrier on the team when it is all said and done.
Jacobs, a compact 5-foot-10, 204-pound runner, has fantastic quickness and explosion in the run game. Add in the fact that he catches the ball like a natural wide receiver and it’s easy to see why Alabama coaches are so excited to watch him grow over the next few seasons.
Averaging over 6.5 yards per carry and over 12 yards per catch in his first college season, Jacobs is the epitome of explosive and is a true home run threat for the Crimson Tide. Add in his ability to pass as a former high school quarterback, and you begin to see what makes Josh such a dangerous weapon for Alabama.
While Jacobs is merely third in carries in a loaded Bama backfield behind sophomores Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough, he is extremely effective with every touch. We expect him to be used in key moments as a change of pace threat and to make a big impact when he gets the call.
Budda Baker, safety
The first defensive player on the list, Baker is a playmaker in every sense of the word. From clutch tackles to key interceptions, when a big play is needed on defense one only needs to look for number 32.
An explosive athlete who was once recruited to Oregon as the next De’Anthony Thomas, Baker has taken to the defensive backfield like a fish to water. While his interception numbers aren’t overly impressive (only five in three years), Baker is constantly around the ball in every facet of the game.
On top of that, Washington has even dabbled with him on offense a la former Husky Shaq Thompson. Many feel Baker is the most explosive athlete to sign with Washington since the now-Carolina Panther linebacker did so in 2012.
If Washington is to have any chance to beat the Crimson Tide, the defense must play absolutely lights out. As the heart and soul of the Husky defense, expect Budda to be on another level as the playoff begins.
John Ross, wide receiver
We dip back into the deep well of explosive wide receivers here, and there may not be a better wideout in the entire College Football Playoff than Washington’s John Ross.
Averaging nearly 15 yards per touch in his three-year Husky career, Ross also averages a touchdown every 5.3 touches.
If you subtract the carries, that number drops to an insane 4.9 catches per touchdown — the epitome of a playmaker.
Ross, who missed the entire 2015 campaign due to a torn ACL, has been in prime form all season, torching every defensive back lined up across from him.
While he will face the best defense he’s faced all season in the Peach Bowl matchup against Alabama, one can fully expect Ross to easily surpass 100 yards receiving, if quarterback Jake Browning has the time to give him the ball, of course.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Curtis Samuel, running back
Listed as a running back, Samuel has home run ability at any position he lines up — be it running back, wide receiver or as a return man.
Samuel, who has over 700 yards rushing to go along with over 850 yards receiving, is the closest thing Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has had to Percy Harvin since the man himself. Fast (top speed of 22.8 mph), nimble, and reliable, Samuel is a nightmare for opposing defenses.
While starting running back Mike Weber is able to attack a defense on the ground, he brings little in the passing game outside of an emergency check-down option.
Samuel averages 9.2 yards per touch from scrimmage, fantastic for a primarily secondary running back option. A bit of a gadget player, he is the primary receiving target on a loaded Buckeye offense and has the ability to score at any given moment.
We could see Samuel line up anywhere from quarterback to slot receiver to running back this January. He is the most dangerous player on the field every time he steps out of the huddle.
Samuel will definitely be a huge key for the Buckeyes as they attempt to win their second national championship in three years.
Malik Hooker, safety
The only other defender on this list outside of Washington’s Budda Baker, Malik Hooker is a tremendous ball-hawking safety for Ohio State’s defense.
Evoking whispers of Ed Reed and Eric Berry, Hooker is a dangerous playmaker at the safety position who is gifted with the athleticism to play sideline to sideline. Add in his ball skills, as evidenced by his six interceptions alongside four pass deflections, and Hooker is a frightening player for any opposing quarterback to face.
But his real threat lies with the ball in his hands.
Of his six interceptions this season, Hooker has returned three for touchdowns and averages over thirty yards per return. As a point of reference, Tennessee legend, the aforementioned Berry averaged 35.3 yards per return, and future Hall of Famer Reed only averaged 18.5 yards per return.
With his instincts on the back end of the Buckeye defense, combined with the ability to pressure the quarterback in the front seven, Hooker is going to be the most dangerous defender in the game every time he steps on the field.