QB: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma, Sr.
Mayfield flourished in his second year running Lincoln Riley’s spread attack, leading the nation in completion percentage (71.0%) and earning himself a Heisman Trophy ceremony invitation. Now that Riley has been elevated to head coach, more responsibility falls on the Sooners’ QB.
RB: Derrius Guice, LSU, Jr.
As Leonard Fournette limped through his final season in Baton Rouge, Guice took the reins of the Tigers’ offense a year ahead of schedule and punished opposing defenses. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada plans to open up LSU’s attack, but Guice remains the team’s great equalizer with the vaunted defenses looming in SEC play.
RB: Saquon Barkley, Penn State, Jr.*
Once Barkley gets going, it’s hard to bring him down—ask any defender who has tried to stop the momentum of his tree-trunk legs, or the four teams that each gave up more than 200 all-purpose yards to him in 2016. Even if his Heisman campaign falls short, he should be the first back off the board in next spring’s draft.
WR: James Washington, Oklahoma State, Sr.
The Cowboys’ gun-slinging offense is going to threaten half a hundred in nearly every game on the schedule this fall, and as quarterback Mason Rudolph’s favorite target, Washington will be expected to find the end zone more than anyone else. His 19.4 yards per catch a year ago is silly high compared with most primary receivers asked to handle his volume of targets.
WR: Calvin Ridley, Alabama, Jr.
After topping 1,000 yards as a freshman, Ridley’s numbers dipped in his sophomore season as the Crimson Tide adjusted their offense to fit newcomer Jalen Hurts’s talents. Now Ridley the only proven returnee in a passing game that should produce plenty of big plays as defenses press forward to stop the run.
TE: Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin, Sr.
The 6' 6", 248-pound senior only found the end zone twice in 2016, but he delivered in the Badgers’ biggest games of the year, and he has the soft hands and body control of a much slighter target. He will be invaluable to sophomore QB Alex Hornibrook, who needs reliable options as he reassumes starting duties.
OT: Connor Williams, Texas, Jr.
Williams is well on his way to becoming the first Longhorn O-lineman selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 2002 (and the first drafted at all since '08). For now, he’s focused on holding down the blind side for a Texas line trying to get back to respectability in Tom Herman’s first year in Austin.
G: Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame, Sr.*
After deferring his NFL future for one final year in South Bend, Nelson was SI’s only unanimous first-teamer on the offensive line. With he and tackle Mike McGlinchey manning the left side, it should be no secret where the Irish would prefer to direct their run game.
C: Billy Price, Ohio State, Sr.
Pat Elflein earned postseason All-America honors from SI after moving from guard to center for the Buckeyes in 2016, and Price is projected to follow his lead after starting every game of the past three seasons at guard. He’s on pace to break former Ohio State assistant and current Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell’s school records for career starts and consecutive starts if he stays healthy.
G: Cody O’Connell, Washington State, RS Sr.
There's nothing like a good guard controversy in postseason awards balloting: O’Connell garnered All-America nods from SI, the Associated Press and other outlets but was slapped with Honorable Mention status on the All-Pac-12 teams. That mistake won’t be made twice—he’s a big reason the Cougars have built up a dangerous running game to pair with Mike Leach’s Air Raid sensibilities.
OT: Orlando Brown, Oklahoma, RS Jr.
After helping pave the way for an offense that produced two Heisman finalists and two 1,000-yard rushers last fall, Brown enters his third year as the Sooners’ starting left tackle. Anyone trying to test Baker Mayfield’s blind side in 2017 will have a 6' 8", 345-pound behemoth to deal with.
DL: Harold Landry, Boston College, Sr.
The Eagles aren’t known as a sexy television draw, but Landry’s pursuit of unsuspecting quarterbacks has become appointment viewing for the discerning college football fan. His 17 sacks in 2016 both led the nation, and he was one of two players in the country to force six fumbles.
DL: Ed Oliver, Houston, Soph.*
Oliver wasted no time asserting his dominance as a five-star freshman, tearing up the AAC to the tune of 23 tackles for loss (second in the nation) and nine pass breakups (the most among defensive linemen). Head coach Tom Herman may be gone, but Oliver still has a statement to make about the relevance and relative power of the Group of Five conferences.
DL: Dexter Lawrence, Clemson, Soph.
All but one of SI’s All-America voters had Clemson represented in some way on their defensive line ballots. Alongside fellow sophomore Clelin Ferrell and second-team selection Christian Wilkins, Lawrence is the most dominant member of one of the deepest position groups in the country. His seven sacks are the most coming back on a Tigers defense that finished third nationally with 49 a year ago.
LB: Arden Key, LSU, Jr.
Ahead of his sophomore season, Key switched from end to linebacker within first-year coordinator Dave Aranda’s defense and responded with a school-record 12 sacks, one shy of the SEC lead. Offseason shoulder surgery has put his status for the start of the 2017 season in doubt, but when he’s on the field he demands that quarterbacks account for him.
LB: Cameron Smith, USC, Jr.
The lone Trojan on our first team, Smith is the prototypical inside linebacker and the heartbeat of a defense that will be in the spotlight all season in support of quarterback Sam Darnold’s Heisman campaign and USC’s push for the playoff.
LB: Azeem Victor, Washington, RS Sr.
Victor finished third on last year’s team in tackles despite missing the final four games of the season with a broken leg. The Huskies’ vaunted defense was hit hard by draft attrition, but Victor’s return to full strength is a central reason why expectations remain high in Seattle.
LB: Jerome Baker, Ohio State, Jr.
Baker played his best in the Buckeyes’ marquee wins (Michigan, Wisconsin, Oklahoma) upon stepping into a starting role last season. His sub-4.4 speed sets him up to compare favorably to hyperathletic star linebackers of Ohio State’s recent past such as Ryan Shazier and Darron Lee.
CB: Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State, Jr.
McFadden tied with West Virginia’s Rasul Douglas for the national lead with eight interceptions a season ago, and at 6’ 2” and 198 pounds, he can body up even the most physical No. 1 receivers. It’s not too early to get excited for his impending Week 1 duel with fellow SI All-America pick Calvin Ridley in Atlanta.
CB: Jaire Alexander, Louisville, Jr.
Quarterbacks test Alexander so rarely it feels like a mistake when the ball does come his way—he led Louisville with five picks and nine pass breakups in 2016, and his swagger sets the tone for the Cardinals’ defense the way Heisman winner Lamar Jackson embodies the offense.
S: Derwin James, Florida State, Jr.
Will James be the next defensive player to score a Heisman ceremony invite? His sophomore campaign only barely got off the ground before a left knee injury shut it down, but when healthy he can be the most dominant player at his position in the country.
S: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama, Jr.
Fitzpatrick has played everywhere in the secondary for the Crimson Tide and enters this year as the veteran leader of another loaded Nick Saban defense that will be replacing early-round NFL talent all over the front seven. Fitzpatrick has one more season to build upon his school-record four pick-sixes before the pros come calling.
K: Daniel Carlson, Auburn, Sr.
Carlson has a big-time leg (he’s one of only two kickers who hit four 50-plus-yard field goals in 2016) and unflappable consistency (he has never missed an extra point in 141 college tries, and his 83.1% career field goal percentage sits fourth in SEC history). He missed only four kicks all of last season, and with 354 points in three years he could even threaten the NCAA’s all-time individual scoring record with a stellar send-off.
P: Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah, Jr.
A 2016 SI All-America selection, Wishnowsky averaged 47.7 yards per punt as a sophomore (second in the nation among full-time starters) and led the country in punts inside the 10-yard line.
All-Purpose: Jaylen Samuels, NC State, Sr.
What are we supposed to call Samuels? A freakishly athletic tight end? A gadget wideout? A fullback? Whatever he is, he’s nearly impossible to gameplan for when the Wolfpack offense is feeding him the ball. The 5' 11", 223 pound hybrid weapon has tallied 14 receiving touchdowns and 15 rushing touchdowns over the past two years.
Return Man: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M, Jr.
Kirk has taken five punts back for touchdowns in his career, including three last year to lead the nation. He also caught more passes than any other SEC receiver in 2016 and made first-team all-conference at three different positions.
QB: Sam Darnold, USC; RB: Royce Freeman, Oregon; RB: Myles Gaskin, Washington; WR: Courtland Sutton, SMU; WR: Richie James, Middle Tennessee; TE: Mike Gesicki, Penn State; OT: Mitch Hyatt, Clemson; OT: Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame; G: Tyrone Crowder, Clemson; G: Sean Welsh, Iowa; C: Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
DL: Christian Wilkins, Clemson; DL: Rashan Gary, Michigan; DL: Bradley Chubb, NC State; LB: Josey Jewell, Iowa; LB: Tegray Scales, Indiana; LB: Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech; LB: Malik Jefferson, Texas; CB: D.J. Reed, Kansas State; CB: Jordan Thomas, Oklahoma; S: Armani Watts, Texas A&M; S: Quin Blanding, Virginia
K: Gary Wunderlich, Ole Miss; P: J.K. Scott, Alabama; All-Purpose: Richie James, Middle Tennessee; Return: Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh