Sporting News’ top 40 college football players for 2020

Sporting News’ top 40 players list for 2020 reveals a few interesting surprises.  

But first, more of the same. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence — who was the No. 1 player in 2019 — is back at the top for the second straight season. Alabama leads all schools with six players in the top 40, and Ohio State is second with three players. Most of that is expected.  

The surprise? The ACC leads all conferences with 12 players. That’s more than the SEC; which had 11 players. The Big Ten had seven players; followed by the Big 12 and Pac-12 with four players each. There was one independent player and one more player from the American Athletic Conference.  

How did that top 40 shake out? Here’s a closer look at the rankings.

Surtain is another well-rounded defensive back who continues to shine in Nick Saban’s defense. He averaged almost 40 tackles over the past two seasons, and he’s been consistent with forcing turnovers and pass breakups. Will he join Minkah Fitzpatrick as Alabama’s next Thorpe Award winner?

Ford enjoyed a breakout season for the Panthers in 2019. He finished with 90 total tackles, three interceptions and three forced fumbles.That production matches the best safeties in college football, and Ford has room to improve, too.

Cisco is a more-known commodity in the ACC based on a two-year track record that comes with 12 interceptions and 14 pass breakups. He’s a rangy safety who averages more than 40 tackles per game for the Orange, and there is a first-round potential for the 2021 NFL Draft.

Gainwell was selected as the FWAA freshman of the year after a season in which he totaled 2,069 yards from scrimmage with 16 TDs. The Tulane game — in which he had 27 touches for 104 rushing yards, 203 receiving yards and three TDs — showed just how dynamic he can be on the field.

Atwell made a significant jump in Scott Satterfield’s first year with the Cardinals. Atwell finished with 69 catches for 1,272 yards — and averaged 18.4 yards per catch — with 12 TDs. Atwell led the ACC in yards and TDs last season and should be the same home run hitter for Louisville in 2020.

Hill took a stand this offseason that helped prompt the state of Mississippi to change its state flag — which showed his leadership and social awareness on the field. He’s pretty good on the field, too. Hill rushed for 1,350 yards and 10 TDs last season and should be a valuable piece in Mike Leach’s new-look offense in Starkville.

LeCounte is one of the mainstays in Georgia’s defense. He’s averaged 50 tackles per season, and last season he became a game-changer with four interceptions and three fumble recoveries. The five-star safety continues to live up to expectations heading into his senior season.

Basham elevated his play as a junior for the Demon Deacons. He had 18 tackles for loss; the second season with double-digit TFLs. He now has 18 straight games with at least one tackle for loss. Basham added 10 sacks and figures to be among the best edge rushers in the FBS in 2020.

Smith overcame blood clotting issues that threatened his career and returned as a force on the Vols’ offensive line last season. He’s versatile, with the ability to play either tackle or guard. He will anchor what should be one of the better offensive lines in the country this season.

Wallace was among the favorites for the Biletnikoff Award before he suffered a torn ACL last season. He’s a key piece in Oklahoma State’s offense; one that scored 20 TDs the past two seasons and averages 17.2 yards per catch for his career. The bounce-back potential is real.

Hawkins rushed for 1,525 yards and nine TDs for the Cardinals last season. He is an elusive running back who found his stride in Louisville’s last three games with 480 rushing yards. He is an under-the-radar Doak Walker Award candidate with upside.

Penn State has an elite tight end in Freiermuth, a 6-5, 250-pound mismatch in the middle of the field. He averaged 11.8 yards per catch, and his three-TD performance against Michigan State was the highlight of a breakout season. He will be in the mix for the Mackey Award in 2020.

Moses missed last season with a knee injury, but his presence will be welcomed back as the leader of Alabama’s defense. Moses led the Crimson Tide in tackles in 2018 and added 10 tackles for loss. That steady presence in the middle of the field will make a difference in the big SEC West showdowns.

J.T. Daniels’ injury opened the door for Slovis, and Daniels transferred to Georgia in the offseason. That tells you how good Slovis was in his place. He passed for 3,502 yards, 30 TDs and nine interceptions. Slovis also had four games with 400 or more passing yards. Now comes the task of bringing USC back to the top of the Pac-12.

Book returns for his senior season, and he brings a 20-3 record as Notre Dame’s starter with him. He has 57 career TD passes, and the next step is carrying the Irish in those big games. Book’s play in those three losses (Clemson, Georgia, Michigan) gets more run than anything else. That’s life as the Irish’s starting quarterback.

Waddle remains one of the most electrifying players in college football. He averages 18.1 yards per catch with one TD every six catches for his career. It’s his mark as a returner — he averages 20.0 yards per punt return — that makes him that much more dangerous on the field.

The converted quarterback found a place with the Tar Heels at linebacker, and he emerged as an impact player under defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. Surratt finished with 115 tackles, 15 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. That’s the type of difference-maker who could be in the hunt for the Butkus Award this season.

Wilson is a locker room leader who bypassed the NFL Draft in an effort to get the Seminoles back into ACC contention. He’s one of the best interior linemen in the FBS, and the numbers back that up. Wilson posted 85 tackles and 8.5 sacks the past two seasons.

Minnesota has a big-play receiver in Bateman, who averaged 20.3 yards per catch with 11 TDs in 2019. He showed up in big games, with 350 receiving yards and two TDs over two games with Penn State and Wisconsin. That’s a reliable target for Tanner Morgan to work with again.

Alabama will have a new starting quarterback in 2020, but Harris is a familiar reliable face in the backfield. He totaled 1,224 yards and 13 TDs on the ground last season, but his development as a pass-catcher (27 catches, 304 yards, 7 TDs) was a bonus in the backfield. He could be a Heisman sleeper that follows the path set by Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry.

Leatherwood, a 6-6, 310-pound tackle, is the next first-round pick at the position for the Crimson Tide. He’s made 28 starts and has the added versatility of being dominant at either left tackle or right guard. He is the anchor of what should be a dominating unit up front.

Oregon State boasts one of the most disruptive players in the country in Rashed, who broke out with 14 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss in 2019. He had consecutive three-sack performances against Cal and Arizona. That kind of edge-rushing talent is hardto find.

Moore battled injuries last season, but his all-around play-making ability is the focal point of Purdue’s offense. With Moore healthy again, he should be a force as a receiver — where he has 143 catches and 14 TDs the past two seasons — and in the return game, where he averages 19.4 yards per punt return.

The standard for defensive tackles is high at Pitt, but Twyman is doing his part. He finished with 10.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss as a sophomore, and the 6-2, 290-pound interior defender finished with 41 tackles total. He will continue to develop as a pass rusher, too.

Wade is Ohio State’s next first-round cornerback, and he can build on a solid redshirt sophomore season. He’s a consistent tackler with the potential to be a lock-down corner, and the return of assistant coach Kerry Coombs will only help Wade get ready for the next level.

Smith is the highest-ranked Crimson Tide player on this list. He carved out a role as Alabama’s deep-threat receiver, and he averages 17.9 yards per carry. Now, he will be the No. 1 option in the Crimson Tide’s passing attack, and that should lead to more receptions and yardage. He will always have a place in Alabama lore for his game-winning TD against Georgia in the CFP championship game. Now, he can build on that by becoming a Biletnikoff Award contender.

Davis and center Josh Myers decided to return to school, and that gives the Buckeyes a dominant interior that should continue to pave the way for one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. Davis started in all 14 games last season and will continue to be a reliable force in the running game and in pass protection.

Humphrey was a Rimington Award finalist last season, an award given to the nation’s top center. He started in all 14 games for the Sooners, and he did not allow a sack. Humphrey played 799 snaps last season and will continue to be that team leader for Oklahoma’s offense, and that will help first-time starter Spencer Rattler.

Ehlinger is back for his senior season, and Texas has the same old expectations in the Big 12. Ehlinger has the stats. He’s piled up 68 passing TDs and 25 rushing TDs while improving his accuracy with each season. He’s a big-game-tested quarterback, and this is his chance to take the Longhorns to the top of the Big 12 once and for all.

The momentum in Chapel Hill is real under Mack Brown, and Howell is a huge piece of that resurgence. He passed for a true-freshman record 38 TDs last season. Howell had a full season to work with offensive coordinator Phil Long, too. Howell had six games with at least 300 yards passing last season, and he should be more involved in the running game as a sophomore. The ceiling is indeed the roof.

Thibodeaux made the move from five-star recruit to impact player for the Ducks in 2019. He registered nine sacks and 14 TFLs off the edge, and he made that leap in the second half of the season. A full season under Mario Cristobal should translate into more elite production. Thibodeaux could be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft if this trend continues.

Rousseau returns to the Hurricanes after compiling 15.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season. He is a 6-6, 251 game-changer, and the addition of Temple transfer Quincy Roche should create even more 1-on-1 pass-rush opportunities. He had 10 sacks in Miami’s last six games. He is on pace to be the Hurricanes’ first defensive lineman taken in the first round since 2003.

Etienne is one of the most efficient playmakers at running back in college football history. That is not an overstatement. He averages 7.8 yards per carry and has scored a TD once every 9.3 carries for his career. He has not been overworked, and the emergence as a pass-catching threat has made him the complete running back. He is the perfect running mate for Trevor Lawrence.

Hubbard rushed for 2,094 yards and 21 TDs last season, and that includes a streak of 11 straight games with at least 100 yards. He is a dynamic running back who will be the focal point of a high-scoring Oklahoma State offense. Hubbard is a leader on and off the field, and that goes a long in determining whether the Cowboys can win the Big 12.

Parsons is the most complete linebacker in college football, and he has lived up to expectations at a school that has produced some of the best at the position. Parsons compiled 109 tackles and 14 tackles for loss, but he also had five pass breakups and four forced fumbles last season. Can Parsons elevate this defense to Big Ten championship status?

Chase, a 6-1, 200-pound receiver who won the Biletnikoff Award last season, is the prototype big-time playmaker at receiver. He finished with 84 catches, 1,780 yards and 20 TDs, and he did that in spectacular fashion for one of the best offenses of all time. Chase is an outstanding route runner, and that will be the key for first-time starter Myles Brennan’s development early in the season.

Stingley is the highest-ranked defensive player on this list, and he is only a sophomore. The five-star recruit backed up the hype with six interceptions and 15 pass breakups, and he was a factor in the return game for the Tigers. LSU has a history of producing elite cornerbacks, and Stingley has the potential to be the best one yet.

Sewell won the Outland Trophy and was a Unanimous All-American selection last season, and he is a building block with a bright NFL future on the offensive line. The 6-6, 330-pound tackle allowed just one sack in 1,376 snaps so far. He will be one of the biggest pieces in the Ducks’ Pac-12 championship defense.

Fields made a seamless transition to Ryan Day’s offense at Ohio State as a first-time starter, and that was evident from the first snap. The Heisman Trophy finalist finished with 41 TD passes and just three interceptions, and he added 484 rushing yards and 10 TDs. It is reasonable to expect even more production after a full offseason in Columbus, and that is bad news for the rest of the Big Ten. Thequestion now is whether Fields can lead the Buckeyes to a national championship. There is one quarterback standing in his way.

Lawrence was the No. 1 player on this list last year, and he holds that label heading into this junior season. Lawrence is 25-1 as a starter, and he has led the Tigers to back-to-back College Football Playoff championship appearances. He shook off a slow start last season, and he has 66 TDs and 12 interceptions. Lawrence can run, too, and he has 10 rushing TDs to prove it. The skillset has led many to believe he’s the undisputed No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Will Lawrence put together the Heisman Trophy season to go with it?

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