One player on each top-25 college football team that must step up

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Chaos always reigns supreme in college football, but this year is shaping up to be even crazier than usual.

With independent Notre Dame looking a playoff lock if it runs the table — no easy feat with road games at undefeated Miami and Stanford still on the schedule — this may be the first year where two of the Power Five conferences miss out. However, with Georgia, Ohio State and Penn State all building compelling cases to make it even if they lose their conferences, the chaos meter is at an all-time high.

Without clear favorites to make it — Alabama looks like the only lock right now — everyone else is going to have to play at their absolute best for the next five weeks.

Here is one player from each current AP top-25 college football team that has to step up down the home stretch.

1. Alabama: Bo Scarbrough, running back

Scarbrough has split running back duties right down the middle with Damien Harris — the two each have 81 carries on the tear. Harris, however, is averaging a full 3.9 yards per carry more than his counterpart. Scarbrough is averaging a solid but uninspiring 4.7 yards per carry. Though Alabama still ranks top-35 in nearly every rushing category — you know, because it’s Alabama — this area is a weakness by default. If Scarbrough starts playing like he did at the end of last season, the Tide are nearly unbeatable.

2. Georgia: Jake Fromm, quarterback

Fromm, a true freshman, has done an incredible job stepping in for Jacob Eason. However, things will get harder for him. With the notable exception of Georgia’s Week 2 win at Notre Dame, the Bulldogs haven’t needed much from Fromm. He’s only thrown more than 15 times in a game twice. On Saturday against Florida, Fromm dropped back to pass just seven times. If Georgia is to win the SEC and leave no doubt to their playoff viability, Fromm won’t just need to drive down the field with the game on the line, he’ll need to do it against Alabama, the best defense in the country. That’s no easy thing to ask, but Fromm will have to do it come the SEC title game.

3. Ohio State: J.T. Barrett, quarterback

Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett reacts to go-ahead TD against Penn State in college football Week 9

If J.T. Barrett plays at the same level he did against Penn State for the rest of the season, the Buckeyes will take home the national championship. Simple as that. Barrett was 33/39 for 328 yards in the air and 95 on the ground with four touchdowns against the Nittany Lions. More importantly, he did what nobody thought he could, leading a comeback when Ohio State had no choice but throw the ball. It’s not an understatement to say Saturday was the best game Barrett played in his collegiate career. But he’ll have to keep playing at that level if Ohio State is to meet its goals.

4. Wisconsin: Bradrick Shaw, running back

We don’t yet know how badly Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor was injured on Saturday. It may be that Taylor — the Big Ten’s leading rusher heading into this week — is ready to go when Wisconsin takes on Indiana next week. However, if Taylor is not ready, Shaw will likely be taking his place. He split carries with Garrett Groshek on Saturday. That said, Shaw has been the clear backup all year. After an underwhelming win at Illinois this week, the Badgers will need to be more convincing in the future to make up for a cupcake schedule. Shaw could be key to that.

5. Notre Dame: Brandon Wimbush, quarterback

The Fighting Irish have safely been able to rely on the run game for offense thus far. Given that Josh Adams looks like one of the best backs in the country, it’s hard to fault them. But Notre Dame has played just one close game, a contest it lost to Georgia early in the season. The Irish haven’t needed Wimbush to string together a drive since that game. With road games against Miami and Stanford still on the slate, however, that will change. Whether Notre Dame makes the playoff will ultimately be determined by what Wimbush when that moment comes.

6. Clemson: Travis Etienne, running back

Quarterback Kelly Bryant has carried much of the load in Clemson’s ground game so far this season. Things were no different on Saturday against Georgia Tech, as Bryant led the Tigers in rushing while Etienne went for 43 yards on seven carries. However, Clemson will need greater contributions out of their running backs as the season wears on. Bryant can’t do it all, and there will be games in which the defense struggles. Etienne needs to carry more of the load, especially in the ACC Championship Game, should the Tigers make it.

7. Penn State: Mike Gesicki, tight end

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki

As opposing teams key in on running back Saquon Barkley, finding advantageous matchups in the passing game is all the more important to Penn State. Gesicki, a tight end, is key to that. As a 6-foot-6 tight end, he’ll always have a matchup advantage against man coverage and be able to find a hole against zone coverage. Although Gesicki tied his season-high with six receptions in the Nittany Lions’ loss at Ohio State, he has to do better than average 9.5 yards per reception. This isn’t just the number for that game, by the way, but for the year as a whole. He needs to be a perpetual big-play threat for Penn State.

8. Oklahoma: Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, defensive end

Okoronkwo has been a defensive star for the Sooners. Including Saturday against Texas Tech, the senior has 7.0 sacks and 13.0 tackles for a loss on the year. He’s also forced three fumbles to boot. For the Sooners to get into the playoff, they need to run the gauntlet against Oklahoma State and TCU in the next two weeks. Those are two explosive offensive teams, and Oklahoma will need all it can get from Okoronkwo and Co. on the defensive line to survive.

9. Miami: R.J. McIntosh, defensive lineman

The Hurricanes’ run defense has to get better if they’re going to make it through to the ACC title game. Miami is about to go through a gauntlet with Virginia Tech and Notre Dame coming to Hard Rock Stadium and it won’t survive unless its run defense steps up. Coming into this week, the ‘Canes were 77th in run defense S&P+. Then the Tar Heels put up 176 yards on the ground against them in a near-upset. McIntosh is one of the key pieces of their defensive line. He — and everyone playing alongside him — need to step up if Miami is to survive the coming weeks.

10. TCU: Darius Anderson, running back

Anderson hasn’t been bad by any standard, but TCU’s defense is too good for the Horned Frogs to do anything but win the Big 12. When surveying the offensive problems, well, we know that Kenny Hill is a limited passer and that probably won’t change. Anderson, however, is averaging 6.1 yards per carry, a stone’s throw away from stardom. If he can take that leap and be the guy who carries TCU’s offense, it’ll recover from the loss at Iowa State and win the conference.

11. Oklahoma State: Rodarius Williams, cornerback

The Cowboys need their pass defense to step it up a notch, especially as in-state rival Oklahoma comes to Stillwater next week. That means Williams isn’t the only player to whom this applies. However, the freshman is going to get tested in a big way over the coming weeks. He’s a linchpin of the defense and no doubt Oklahoma will test him at some point next week. Williams has to be up to the challenge.

12. Washington: Quinten Pounds, wide receiver

The Huskies have relied heavily on Dante Pettis and tight end Hunter Bryant in the passing game thus far. If anyone else is going to step up, now is the time and Pounds is the person. The redshirt sophomore has just 10 receptions on the year. However, his 155 receiving yards rank second on the team among wide receivers. Washington will need to make some noise to get back into the upper echelon of the playoff conversation, and that means dominating the rest of its schedule. Pounds can help them do it.

13. Virginia Tech: Josh Jackson, quarterback

Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson college football

Virginia Tech is not out of the playoff conversation yet. With just one loss to one of the country’s top teams in Clemson, the Hokies could still hypothetically make it if they run the table. Of course, that’s far from easy and would take a Herculean effort from Jackson. The freshman quarterback has done a solid job in Blacksburg, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt through Saturday. However, the Hokies need him to play the game of his life at Miami this coming week. Win there and the path to the coastal division title — and ACC championship game — gets a lot easier.

14. Iowa State: David Montgomery, running back

Although their two losses will keep them out of the playoff, the Cyclones are tied for the Big 12 lead with a 4-1 conference record. And Oklahoma State has yet to visit Ames. In other words, this chaos monster isn’t done wreaking havoc. However, Montgomery has to improve if Iowa State is to continue this run. Not only is the sophomore averaging just 4.6 yards per carry, but Montgomery has averaged below four yards per carry in four of his last five games. As good as quarterback Kyle Kempt has been, the Cyclones need a better run game to finish the year strong.

15. Central Florida: Taj McGowan, running back

UCF owns one of the best offenses in the country, but it’s more than a small problem that McGowan — their leading rusher — is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. In all fairness to the Knights, McGowan is their leading rusher by one carry, and Adrian Killins is averaging 8.1 yards per rush thanks to runs like this. However, Central Florida needs to run the tale to make a New Year’s Six bowl bid. That means playing at the highest level, and it won’t do that without McGowan.

16. Auburn: Jarrett Stidham, quarterback

We heard all offseason about how Stidham could elevate Auburn’s passing game to a new level. After eight games, he’s been, well, fine. The former Baylor passer has thrown for 1,728 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per attempt. That’s not bad by any means, but Auburn is far from national title contention, despite a top-five defense. Over the next few weeks, the Tigers could play spoiler to both Georgia and Alabama if Stidham starts living up to the hype in a bigger way.

17. USC: Sam Darnold, quarterback

Sam Darnold

Darnold’s inconsistency has been nothing short of maddening. For every game in which he lives up to his reputation and looks like the next No. 1 overall pick, there are two in which he looks like someone who needs to stay in school next year (which is rumored to be his preferred course of action). What Darnold does in USC’s final four games of the year (including their eventual bowl game) won’t just determine his draft stock, but it could have a huge impact on the Trojans’ future. Remember, prior to last year, USC hadn’t been in a Rose Bowl since 2008. They won’t make it to Pasadena this year, but if they can build some momentum heading into 2018, it will make a huge difference.

18. Stanford: Harrison Phillips, defensive tackle

The biggest struggle for the Cardinal this season has not been replacing Christian McCaffrey, but replacing Solomon Thomas. Especially in run defense. Stanford has allowed over 100 yards on the ground and at least one rushing touchdown in every game this season. Phillips has been their most impactful run defender, with eight run stuffs prior to Friday’s game, per Football Study Hall. However, the Cardinal will need big performances from him in the coming weeks. Stanford’s schedule is about to get really tough, with Washington State, Washington and Notre Dame all on the slate. They won’t win a single one of those games if their run defense doesn’t get better.

19. LSU: Danny Etling, quarterback

The story is always the same with the Tigers: a quarterback away. Thus far this season, it’s been pretty clear that Etling isn’t that quarterback. However, there’s still time left and he can still prove everybody wrong. It’s not easy, especially with a visit to Tuscaloosa on the slate next week, but it’s still possible that LSU has a role to play in the coming weeks. It all depends on Etling.

20. NC State: Reggie Gallaspy, running back

With primary back Nyheim Hines’ status unclear for next week after he went down with a leg injury against Notre Dame, Gallaspy’s role could get a lot bigger. The junior back has been largely underwhelming this season, averaging 4.0 yards per carry. Against Notre Dame, when he was the lead ballcarrier for most of the game, Gallaspy averaged just 4.3 yards per carry. That won’t cut it against Clemson’s juggernaut front seven next week. If the Wolfpack are to survive with their season on the line, they’ll need more from Gallaspy.

21. Mississippi State: Nick Fitzgerald, quarterback

Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith

Fitzgerald has shown improvement from a middling sophomore season in some areas. However, the overall numbers still paint an ugly picture. Fitzgerald is averaging a piddly 5.8 adjusted yards per attempt and completing just 56.9 percent of his passes through Saturday. Though Fitzgerald is a threat on the ground, the Bulldogs’ offense is holding them back. They rank 56th in offensive S&P+ at the moment. What Fitzgerald does over the next few weeks will determine the course of this program over the next year.

22. Memphis: Genard Avery, linebacker

If the Tigers need one thing, it’s a better pass rush. Avery is the guy who can deliver it. The senior linebacker had 3.5 sacks against Tulane this week. He’s also posted at least 0.5 sacks in three of his last four games. If that snowballs into some momentum, watch out. Memphis could make some noise toward the end of the year.

23. Arizona: Kylan Wilborn, defensive end

After it tossed up a 50-burger on Washington State, suffice it to say that Arizona’s offense isn’t holding back the team. Its defense, however, ranks 92nd in S&P+. Wilborn can help change that. He leads the team in both sacks and tackles for loss. The Wildcats still have a chance to make noise — if they win at the Coliseum next week, they’ll be in the Pac-12 lead — but that’s contingent on the defense stopping Darnold. If Wilborn can get to the quarterback, an upset may be in the cards.

24. Michigan State: LJ Scott, running back

We know what Scott is capable of because we’ve seen him do it. At Minnesota, he went for nearly 200 yards and looked like the player Michigan State needed. Other than that game, however, it’s been the opposite. Things reached a low point this week as Scott ran for just 16 yards on eight attempts at Northwestern. The Spartans won’t get much out of what was an encouraging start if that continues.

25. Washington State: Luke Falk, quarterback

Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk

Simply put, Falk wasn’t good enough on Saturday. He threw for a paltry 93 yards on 23 attempts and was benched for Tyler Hilisinki. Giving up 58 points to Arizona notwithstanding, this is one of the better defenses a Mike Leach-coached team has had in years. They may be out of the playoff discussion, but Wazzu still has a chance to put together its best season in years. The last time it was 10-2 or better was 2001. Without Falk playing at his best, however, that’s a pipe dream.