Defense may win championships, but offense has been prevalent in the last several college football championship games. High-octane offenses have become the norm in college football, and they come in a variety of ways. Spread offenses, big time running attacks and dual-threat quarterbacks are tucked away all over the country.
This year there are elite quarterbacks whom the NFL is keeping its eye on. There are running backs ready to take the torch of the many ball carriers who left for the NFL...and one who has been tearing up the gridiron in Madison. There also is a variety of outstanding receivers who keep making huge plays.
Some of college football's most feared weapons are already household names, while others may finally get some shine. Here are the players who will give defensive coordinators sleepless nights in 2019.
Before last season, many people wondered how Herm Edwards would fare as the new head coach of the Sun Devils. Benjamin turned into a successful campaign with one of the best seasons in the nation. He was a workhorse, carrying the ball 300 times for 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns. He will be relied on more this year with receiver N'Keal Harry gone to the NFL and the Sun Devils breaking in a new quarterback. Benjamin will be counted on to literally carry the load.
Dillon doesn't get as much publicity due to being tucked away in the Northeast for an Eagles program that hasn't had much to boast about. It definitely can scream about Dillon, though, a junior running back who has been a problem for ACC defenses since he set foot in Chestnut Hill. The ACC's Offensive Rookie of the year in 2017, Dillon suffered an ankle injury early in 2018 that hindered him the rest of the season. Despite the injury that cost him three games, he still rushed for over 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns. Boston College won't be at the forefront of many college football fans' thoughts (or televisions) but Dillon will certainly be on the minds of ACC defensive coordinators.
Ehlinger burst on the scene with his outstanding performance against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry (314 pass yards, two pass TDs, 72 rush yards, three rush TDs). Much of the rest of the season was pretty darn good too, including the Longhorns' rematch with the Sooners in the Big 12 title game (349 pass yards, four total TDs). Ehlinger would have some poor showings mixed in, but the potential is there to have a huge season.
While the Tigers' quarterback gets most of the publicity, Etienne put up a phenomenal season in 2018. He rushed for 1,658 yards and led the FBS with 24 rushing touchdowns. Etienne won the ACC's Offensive Player of the Year Award and was a second-team All-American. He came on strong at the end of the season with at least two rushing scores in four of his last five games, including a pair of rushing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown in the College Football Playoff Championship game against Alabama.
Fine enters his final season with the Mean Green determined to continue to put up big numbers. While his yardage and touchdowns took a small dip last year, his efficiency went way up as he threw 10 less interceptions in 2018 and his QB rating rose. Graham Harrell left North Texas to run USC's offense, so there will be some transition for Fine. But a guy who has put up 7,845 yards and 58 touchdowns over the last two seasons can play in any system.
Harris was one of the top recruits in 2017 and has done a nice job when he's had the opportunity. Last year he shared carries with Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs, but they are now in the NFL. Per usual at Alabama, there will be other backs ready to help carry the load but Harris should ascend to be the primary ball carrier. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry last year and was second on the Tide in rushing yards.
Alabama has produced some fine wide receivers over the last decade or so, and Jeudy looks to be the next in line. Last season he caught 68 passes for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns, which ranks as one of the best seasons in Crimson Tide history. Jeudy should improve on those numbers, as he and Tua Tagovailoa should be even more in sync. He even worked out with Raiders receiver Antonio Brown during the offseason.
Johnson is a big receiver who benefited from having Lil'Jordan Humphrey as the focal point of opposing defenses. Johnson, who stands at 6-foot-6, is a weapon on jump balls and took a big leap (no pun intended) in productivity last year. With Humphrey gone but quarterback Sam Ehlinger still there, Johnson should make another jump.
Johnson had a breakout season in 2018, leading the Gophers with 78 catches for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns. He tied a school record with six 100-yard games last year. Heading into his senior season, he is already among the statistical leaders in program history and returns with the hopes of making a run for the Big Ten West title.
D'Eriq King is one of the best hidden gems in college football. While Houston has struggled to get back to itslofty standing in the middle of 2016, King has had the offense balling. Last year, he threw for just under 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns while rushing for 674 yards and 14 TDs — all of that despite his season ending on Nov. 15 with a knee injury. If he can stay healthy for his final season, he should continue to make his mark on the AAC and in the Cougars' opener against Oklahoma.
What a charmed college career Lamb has had! As a freshman, he caught 46 passes and seven touchdowns from Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. As a sophomore, he caught 65 passes and 11 touchdowns from Heisman winner Kyler Murray. Now Alabama grad transfer Jalen Hurt comes to Norman with high expectations, and Lamb is set up for another big season. His last two games (the Big 12 championship against Texas and the College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama) saw him catch 14 passes for 276 yards and two TDs.
Did you see that College Football Playoff Championship game? Lawrence was a freshman playing against Nick Saban's Crimson Tide in a title game and just clowned them like they were The Citadel in September. I mean, this freshman would have been the top overall pick in the past NFL Draft — and he still has two more seasons before he can even declare. His poise and his ability to read defenses are stunning to see from someone this young. It will interesting to watch how he follows up that championship performance now that he is the starter from Day 1.
Hawaii has had some stat-stuffing quarterbacks in the past, and McDonald has firmly placed his name on that list. Last season, he finished eighth nationally in passing yards and sixth in passing touchdowns (36). As a junior he must work on being more consistent game to game, as he had some real stinkers mixed in. The Warriors won eight games last year and could be a dark horse in the Mountain West Western division, so another year of McDonald slingin' it all over the place could do the trick.
Unlike most on this list, Mond doesn't wow you with his stats...though they are impressive. He is a dual-threat quarterback who is entering his second year with Jimbo Fisher (the guy who had a similar talent in Jameis Winston win a Heisman for him). He showed his ability to dominate with solid games against Alabama and Clemson (both losses). The Aggies are ready to make that jump into elite status, and Mond's performance this season will go a long way to achieving that.
Moore led all of FBS with 114 receptions in 2018 as a freshman, including six games with at least 11 catches. In his first-ever game with the Boilermakers, he tallied a school record 313 all-purpose yards. He even performed well on the biggest stages, highlighted by his 12 catches for 170 yards and two TDs in Purdue's blowout of Ohio State. With Moore as a receiver, returner and rusher, the Boilermakers can find many ways to make sure he has opportunities to make plays.
A tight end who plays for Missouri usually doesn't move any needles, but Albert Okwuegbunam is a name you need to know. He's played in only 18 games since arriving to Missouri, but he's caught 17 TD passes. Not only is he a great drop-off option, but he also runs great routes and is a beast in the red zone. Drew Lock is now in the NFL, but Clemson-transfer Kelly Bryant takes over and will rely on Okwuegbunam to move the ball down the field.
Proche led the American Athletic Conference with 93 catches last season (good for fourth nationally) and 12 receiving touchdowns. He averaged 99.9 yards per game last year and can take a short pass and turn it into a huge gain. SMU is bringing in Shane Buechele — the Texas transfer who lost his job to Sam Ehlinger — so Proche could have an even bigger season in 2019.
TCU greatly relies on Reagor for success in the passing game. He caught 72 passes last season (the next-highest total was 29 by KaVontae Turpin) for 1,061 yards. (Turpin finished second with 410.) He caught at least one touchdown in each of his final seven regular-season games in 2018. Reagor runs tight routes, and he's tough to bring down. He will be a major part of how the Horned Frogs' season turns out.
Shenault was sensational during the first half of the 2018 season, but injuries slowed him down as the season wound to a close. Still, he caught 86 passes for 1,011 yards and 11 touchdowns (six receiving, five rushing). You may not know much about him, but Pac 12 coaches and NFL scouts certainly do. It isn't just that he catches passes, but it's also the fact that he moves around the field like a running back once he gets the ball. He's tough to bring down.
Swift is a shifty runner whose ability to make cuts on a dime makes defenders look foolish. Last year he got out of the shadow of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to rush for over 1,000 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns (he also caught three TD passes) despite sharing carries with Elijah Holyfield. Holyfield is in the NFL now, and Swift will be counted on to be a greater part of the offense.
Heading into last season, Tagovailoa was deemed the Heisman front-runner, and many felt he would lead the Crimson Tide to consecutive national championships. It certainly looked that way most of the year before some struggles late in the season and in the College Football Playoff Championship game. Expect a motivated and an even better Tua in 2019. His arm and his legs are already feared, but he should figure out the best way to use them more efficiently. Nick Saban's teams rarely get run over in the way Clemson did to the Tide in the championship, so it could be quite a big year for Tua and Alabama.
This time last year, many experts had Tate on their Heisman lists. After a rocky start to 2018 and some injury issues, he and the Wildcats fell off most people's radars. What you missed was Tate becoming a more impactful passer (he threw for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns), though his elite running prowess (1,411 rush yards in 2017) took a hit (224 in 2018). He was set to transfer from Kevin Sumlin's program this spring but decided to stick it out. If there is a happy medium between Tate's running and his passing this year (plus good health) then Arizona could be a dark horse in the Pac-12.
Taylor followed up one of the greatest freshman seasons for a running back with an even better year. He rushed for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns and won the Doak Walker Award despite the Badgers having an uncharacteristically off year. Everyone knows he is the focal point of Wisconsin's offense, yet he is so tough to stop. If he ever becomes part of the pass offense (just eight receptions in each of his first two seasons) then he would be lethal.
The Illinois transfer had 1,244 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first season with the Commodores and stunned some by waiting on the NFL and returning to Vanderbilt. That's a big deal to Vandy fans, who lost quarterback Kyle Shurmur and know that the offense will rely on Vaughn's running. He's a power back who is tough to bring down in space.
Wallace's fantastic 2018 season was outshined by the headlines of Oklahoma's electric offense, but the Oklahoma State receiver should receive his due this year across the state. Wallace caught 86 passes for 1,491 yards and 12 touchdowns for the season with his game against the rival Sooners (10 receptions, 220 yards, two TDs) being his peak performance.