With 128 FBS teams each having upward of 80 scholarship athletes, on any given Saturday this fall there were nearly 10,000 college football players in action, working to be the best they could be.
But only 25 of them can make our list of the best players from the 2016 season.
This list is based not just on statistics, but also how valuable a player was to his team’s performance this past season. That doesn’t mean only players from good teams were eligible—though in most cases, those players’ efforts were why their teams ended the regular season at or near the top of the national rankings.
Did we miss someone or rank a player too high or low? Check out our list and give us your thoughts in the comments section.
East Carolina WR Zay Jones
25. John Ross, WR, Washington
One of the best deep threats in the game, John Ross can take it to the house every time he touches the ball. He did so 19 times in 2016. He grabbed 17 touchdowns on 76 catches and also scored on long runs and kickoff returns, showing no ill effects from missing the 2015 season with a knee injury.
24. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
No lead was safe against Texas Tech as long as Patrick Mahomes was out there slinging the ball around. He led the nation with 5,052 passing yards to go along with 41 touchdowns, not to mention 12 rushing scores. His signature game this season was when he set the FBS single-game record with 819 yards of total offense, including 734 passing yards, in a 66-59 loss to Oklahoma.
23. Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina
Zay Jones established two national receiving records in 2016. First, he became the FBS’ career receptions leader (passing former teammate Justin Hardy), and then he set the all-time single-season catch mark. Jones’ 158 receptions were 34 more than any other player and more than 13 entire teams this season. He ended up with 1,746 yards and eight TDs, giving him 399 catches in four seasons.
22. Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State
Ohio State’s sixth-ranked pass defense picked off 19 passes and allowed only a 47.3 percent completion rate, and teams foolish enough to throw it near Malik Hooker learned that was a bad idea. He had six interceptions and returned three of them for touchdowns, including one in the Buckeyes’ double-overtime win against rival Michigan.
21. Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State
Jeremy McNichols was a touchdown machine in 2016, finding the end zone more than any other player in the country. He scored 27 times, with 23 of those coming on the ground, along with 1,663 rushing yards. He also had 32 catches for 450 yards and four scores.
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
20. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Barrett accounted for half of Ohio State’s 66 touchdowns this season, throwing for 24 and rushing for nine. Seven of those came in the season opener against Bowling Green, and he contributed at least four TDs four other times along with 3,275 yards of total offense.
19. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Lewis sat out Michigan’s first three games but still managed to intercept two passes and break up eight more. Those numbers would have been higher had teams thrown more in his direction. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed only 10 receptions, and his assignments were targeted just 34 times.
18. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning’s 42 touchdown passes are second-most in the country and tied for second in Pac-12 conference history, as he helped Washington make the College Football Playoff for the first time. He also ran for four scores and had eight TDs in the Huskies’ streak-ending win over Oregon in October.
17. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
The most dominant freshman defensive player in the FBS, Oliver would likely have started on any team in the country. With Houston, he was the centerpiece, producing five sacks, 19 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. His breakout performance was in the Cougars’ win over Louisville, when he terrorized future Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
16. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
The leading tackler on the nation’s top defense, Foster had 94 takedowns, including four sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Amazingly, he didn’t cash in on one of the Crimson Tide’s 10 defensive touchdowns this season.
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey
15. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Derek Barnett anchored a Tennessee defense missing a lot of contributors due to injury, but he rarely left the field. His consistent performance culminated in 12 sacks with 18 tackles for loss along with two forced fumbles and an interception.
14. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Christian McCaffrey couldn’t match the production he had a year ago in setting the single-season FBS record for all-purpose yards, but he still managed to lead the country in 2016 by averaging 211.5 yards per game. That included 1,603 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns along with three receiving scores.
13. Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State
All of 5’9” and 180 pounds, Donnel Pumphrey might as well be six inches tall with the way he slips through holes and out of tackles. He ran for 2,018 yards and 16 touchdowns this season and has 6,290 yards for his career. Another 108 yards and he passes former Wisconsin great Ron Dayne for the FBS career record.
12. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
No college football player has gained more receiving yards in his career than Corey Davis, who, thanks to his 91 catches for 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2016, sits at 5,205 yards for his career. On 53 occasions, one of his receptions gave Western Michigan a first down during its 13-0 run to the Cotton Bowl.
11. D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas
D’Onta Foreman played in 11 games this season and gained at least 100 rushing yards every time. As a result, he finished with 2,028 yards to lead the nation while also scoring 15 times. He was able to hit the 200-yard mark on three occasions, and he notched 341 yards and three scores in a November win over Texas Tech.
Florida State’s defense is usually among the best in the country, though in its season opener against Ole Miss, the Seminoles were getting torched on the scoreboard. It might have been worse had DeMarcus Walker not recorded 4.5 sacks in that 45-34 victory.
It was just the start of a tremendous year for the senior, whose effort helped FSU overcome the loss of several key defenders to injury. His 15 sacks tied with Boston College’s Harold Landry for the national lead and resulted in 115 yards lost by FSU’s opponents.
Walker had five games with at least two sacks, including four times in the Seminoles’ last six games, with two (as well as a fumble return) in the finale win over rival Florida.
He hasn’t made it official yet, but there’s little doubt Dalvin Cook will be headed to the NFL draft after he and Florida State face Michigan in the Orange Bowl in a few weeks. That final game will provide him a chance to break his own school single-season rushing record while adding to the career mark he’s already established.
The junior has run for 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, giving him 4,319 yards with 45 scores for his career, including a 1,691-yard, 19-TD performance in 2015. This season, Cook also has 30 catches for 426 yards and a TD. He’s totaled eight 100-yard rushing games in 2016, along with 100-yard receiving efforts against Ole Miss and North Carolina.
Of his 268 carries in 2016, 47 went for at least 10 yards, and 73 went for first downs.
Raw statistics don’t always tell the full story of how big a role someone plays for a team. Myles Garrett is Exhibit A for this argument, as his injury-plagued 2016 season was one in which he didn’t put up big numbers yet still managed to make an impact whenever he was on the field. And just as significant, when he wasn’t able to go—he missed two games and was limited in several others—Texas A&M struggled without him.
Garrett still managed 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss along with two forced fumbles and 10 quarterback hurries in his 10 games. He had two sacks in a September win at Auburn that was part of the Aggies’ 6-0 start and recorded 3.5 tackles for loss against top-ranked Alabama.
Pro Football Focus, which bases its rankings on standard stats as well as advanced metrics, tabbed Garrett as one of its All-American selections at the edge-rusher position despite being hobbled for much of his junior year.
His Twitter handle is @AdoreeKnows, but it would make just as much sense for him to change that to “AdoreeCan” since there’s little the junior hasn’t been able to do at USC.
A starter in the Trojans secondary each of the past three seasons, Jackson also regularly plays on offense and is USC’s top return man. In 2016, he was integral in all three areas and often did something big in each in the same game.
Jackson scored five touchdowns this season, with three coming in the regular-season finale against Notre Dame, each of a different variety. He had a 52-yard TD catch, a 55-yard punt return score and brought back a kickoff 97 yards for a TD.
Defense is still where Jackson is most important to USC. He had four interceptions with 11 pass breakups this season, and he was named the Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back.
Many other receivers had more catches than Dede Westbrook, and a few tallied more yards than the Oklahoma senior. His 16 touchdowns weren’t first nationally, either, but when it came to choosing the top wideout in FBS, it wasn’t difficult.
Only Westbrook had the potential to create a big play every time he touched the ball, and quite often it was just when the Sooners needed him to do so. And for that, he won the Biletnikoff Award, given to college football’s top receiver.
Of his 74 receptions for 1,465 yards and 16 scores, every TD came in Big 12 play, as did 57 of his catches and 89.5 percent of his yardage. He had no fewer than 88 yards in any conference game, and while he had just two receptions in a big November win at West Virginia, one of those was a 75-yard TD catch. It began behind the line of scrimmage but went the distance after he raced through the defense and stiff-armed a Mountaineers player into the snowy ground on his way to the end zone.
He didn’t play on the offensive line or attempt to kick a field goal, but Jabrill Peppers did play nearly every other position on the field for Michigan this season. And these weren’t token appearances, either. If Peppers was out there, he was making plays for the Wolverines, usually big ones.
The redshirt sophomore began 2016 getting moved from defensive back to linebacker—a switch that tapped into his ability to defend the run and the pass. He led Michigan with 48 solo tackles and tied with linebacker Ben Gedeon with 15 tackles for loss. Peppers also tallied 3.5 sacks as well as an interception and a forced fumble.
But that was just the start of his impact for Michigan. On offense, Peppers frequently worked out of the Wildcat. He ran for three touchdowns, and as a special teams standout, he averaged 14.8 yards on punt returns (with a touchdown) and 26.0 yards on kickoffs. He also scooped up a fumble on a late two-point conversion against rival Michigan State and returned it for two.
Peppers’ all-around versatility was essential to the Wolverines winning 10 games and being in the playoff hunt until the final week of the regular season.
Players with consecutive top-five Heisman finishes are rare enough to begin with, but Baker Mayfield raises the bar for impressive feats by doing so as a player who walked on to two different Power Five conference football teams. He wasn’t on scholarship when he began his career at Texas Tech in 2013, and the same was the case when he transferred to Oklahoma a year later.
Mayfield is finishing up a second straight year as the Sooners’ star quarterback, throwing for 3,669 yards and 38 touchdowns while completing 71.2 percent of his passes. His QB rating of 197.75 is well above the FBS single-season record of 191.78 set by Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson in 2011, and only a career-worst performance against Auburn in next month’s Sugar Bowl would prevent him from breaking that mark.
The junior also ran for six TDs, with two each coming in road wins at TCU and West Virginia, though most of the year he used his legs to get extra time to find his targets. He threw at least three TD passes in seven games, including a school-record seven (along with 545 yards on 27-of-36 passing) in Oklahoma’s 66-59 shootout win at Texas Tech.
Under Mayfield, Oklahoma became the first team to go unbeaten in Big 12 play since Texas in 2009.
He wasn’t a Heisman finalist—which many college football experts considered a major snub—but there’s no denying how important Jonathan Allen was to defending national champion Alabama’s incredible defense in 2016 and its pursuit of a second consecutive title.
“As the best player on the best team in college football, he should have at least been invited [to the Heisman ceremony],” ESPN.com’s Alex Scarborough wrote. “Regardless, Allen had one of the best seasons of any player in college football. And most important, it’s not over yet.”
A senior who likely would have been a high draft choice had he left school after helping the Crimson Tide win it all last season, Allen racked up 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss as well as 15 quarterback hurries and a blocked kick. He also had a pair of fumble recoveries that he returned for touchdowns in signature wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M—plays that helped him win both the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, which are given to the nation’s top defensive player.
Allen’s ability to stuff run holes and impact the passing game helped Alabama lead FBS in scoring defense at 11.8 points per game. That includes a run of four consecutive games in November without allowing a TD.
After becoming the first player in FBS history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for another 1,000 in one season, all while leading Clemson to the national championship game, it was going to be hard for Deshaun Watson to match or surpass that performance.
He came pretty darn close and once again has the Tigers in the playoff after falling just short in January.
Watson—a junior who will turn pro after this season is over, as Dabo Swinney told reporters—has thrown for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns on 67.6 percent passing. He’s also run for 529 yards and six scores, including 85 yards and two TDs in the ACC Championship Game win over Virginia Tech.
While Watson also threw 15 interceptions, two more than all of last season, he tended to pull himself and Clemson out of the trouble he’d caused. He had three picks apiece against Louisville and Pittsburgh yet had five TD passes against the Cardinals and threw for an ACC-record 580 yards and three scores in the loss to Pitt.
The justification for Lamar Jackson topping our list can be found in the mission statement for the Heisman Trophy, which Louisville’s quarterback won on Saturday night. It “annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”
Translation: He’s really good and really fun to watch, and he did it with a smile.
It was hard to watch a college football game this season without a mention of Jackson, either via a game break to show the latest big play he’d made for Louisville or just through conversation about the best players in the country. An explosive September accentuated by big numbers set the stage for him becoming the must-see player of 2016, and he rarely disappointed.
Jackson has tallied 4,928 yards of total offense with 51 total touchdowns, more than 85 FBS teams managed this season. His numbers include 1,538 rushing yards and 21 TDs, making him just the second player to throw for 3,000 and rush for 1,500 in a season.
And maybe the best thing about Jackson is he’s just getting started. As a sophomore, he isn’t eligible to enter the NFL draft until after the 2017 season, so we get at least one more year of his highlight-reel play.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.