The realm of college football is foreign to me. As an NFL writer, my Sundays are consumed by watching games, so in an effort to preserve my sanity (and to ensure that I see the occasional movie), Saturdays in the fall tend to be football-free zones. There are exceptions, of course — Louisville sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson entranced me just as he did everyone else — but for the most part the superstars at the college level are just whispers, tall tales of a faraway world.
This year, though, these Saturday siren songs have called to me louder than they have in seasons past. Before catching the Vikings in their current swoon in Week 8, my beloved Chicago Bears sat at 1–6, a contender in the race for the no. 1 draft pick far more than for a playoff berth. Even if Jay Cutler’s return and a suddenly capable defense mean that the Bears’ foray into competency isn’t a mirage, the damage this fall has already been done.
To soothe the pain, I started to scour way-too-early stabs at big boards for the 2017 NFL draft. If the Bears were toast, I thought, I might as well start dreaming of what some of the nation’s best prospects would look like in blue and orange. Digging through YouTube highlights and catching the occasional quarter on TV, I made a promising discovery: It helped! Watching the best the college game had to offer and knowing that soon I might get to root for one of these guys every week eased the sting of Sundays.
With that in mind, as the NFL passes its midway point and the college season enters its home stretch, it feels like a good time to identify which Saturday superstars could lessen the ache that fans of the Bears, Browns, Jets, and 49ers (any team that’s decidedly out of contention) might be feeling every week. So take it from a college football tourist: Here are eight guys who could save your football-watching season.
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound 20-year-old (he was born on December 29, 1995; think about that for a second) is widely considered the best player available in this draft. He also might be the next step in human evolution.
Garrett hasn’t been the destroyer of worlds this season that he was during his first two years at Texas A&M, when he totaled a combined 24 (!) sacks, but he’s still done plenty of ridiculous shit. He’s everything an NFL defensive coordinator could want: flexible, powerful, and varied as a pass rusher. He often makes plays that you can rewatch only by looking through your fingers — there’s so much carnage.
If that’s not enough, the dude might be the most interesting man in the world. That starts with his decision to not wear gloves, which is the only aesthetic choice that can make an already terrifying man even more nightmarish. He also loves comics (his favorite superhero is Wally West; these are deep fucking cuts), says his first memory of his grandmother is her giving him a copy of Banjo-Kazooie for Nintendo 64, and, relative to most college juniors, is a pretty capable poet. (All of these tidbits come from Sam Fortier’s October profile of Garrett on The Ringer, which you should all check out.)
Garrett will likely be the no. 1 pick based on his otherworldly athletic gifts, and the chance to root for someone who is at once inhuman and more human than most football players will ever admit to being sounds pretty damn good.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette was the type of half-man, half-myth prospect that even casual college football watchers heard about long before he arrived on LSU’s campus in 2014. He was anointed as the Next Big Thing at running back, the rightful heir to the throne abdicated by Adrian Peterson as a phenom who would never break stride in his march to NFL domination. For the most part, Fournette hasn’t disappointed.
This season’s numbers (only 705 yards on 100 carries, with injuries limiting him to five games) don’t compare to the absurd 1,953 yards with 22 touchdowns that he tallied as a sophomore, but Fournette’s still shown off the traits that had everyone losing their minds a year ago. He runs like a Coke machine in a bad mood. Would-be tacklers are less an impediment than an inconvenience, and typically he treats them as such. Any draft-day tumble he takes would be the result of two questions: whether running backs are valuable enough in today’s NFL to warrant high first-round picks (see: Elliott, Ezekiel), and whether Fournette can develop into a reliable pass catcher at the next level. Now go watch this clip and tell me if you still care about either.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
In any other draft, Cook would be the back worth salivating over. He’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry this season and has rushed for 12 touchdowns in nine games, and nearly everything written about him has pointed out that he’s having a down year.
Cook averaged a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry last fall on his way to 1,691 yards with 19 touchdowns; in many ways, he looks like the perfect back. Where Fournette is brutal, Cook is beautiful. His balance is what jumps off the screen, the ability to take a shot below the waist and keep moving like nothing happened. He’s smooth in the way that many great backs are, more scalpel than sledgehammer.
With Fournette lurking in Louisiana and do-it-all Stanford back Christian McCaffrey shattering records on the West Coast last season, Cook hasn’t become the sort of household name that he should be. When he’s ripping off 5 yards per carry and winning your fantasy league next season, though, don’t be surprised.
Jabrill Peppers, LB/CB/S/KR/PR/Hero, Michigan
I remember hearing Peppers’s name a few years ago, when I went to a recruiting event in Oregon for reasons that remain unclear. He was a cornerback then, and ranked among the best high school players in the country. Well, all he’s done since coming to Ann Arbor in 2014 is play about 17 more positions and prove that he’s one of the most versatile talents that college football has seen in years.
Let’s consider for a second that the guy returning the punt in that clip is a linebacker in Michigan’s defense this season. I’m not even sure how to process that. He has 13 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks, and he can make tacklers reconsider everything about their lives. I don’t care if this play was called back due to a penalty; if my fate was to have my eyes wedged open Clockwork Orange–style and watch that duck move at the 27-yard line for all of eternity, I’d be OK with it.
The conversation about Peppers come draft time is sure to involve the “Well, what position is he?” hand-wringing that becomes prevalent every spring. Come on, people. Aren’t we past that? The last stud defensive back-punt returner that fell between positions but destroyed the college game to come along worked out just fine in the NFL. Some guys can just play, no matter where they’re lined up. Peppers fits that bill.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Add Watson to the group of players on this list who, given the expectations, have disappointed a bit this season. After turning in a monster sophomore campaign that culminated with him piling up 478 yards of total offense against Alabama in the national title game, Watson headed into this fall pegged as the 2017 draft’s tank-worthy QB. But after throwing 10 interceptions (and tossing 13 last season), Watson’s accuracy and decision-making have been questioned.
I’m not going to pretend to be an authority on which college quarterbacks succeed in the NFL and why. And since this is exercise is more about pleasing the soul than breaking down film, I’ll say there’s still plenty to like about Watson. He vanquished Syracuse in about a quarter and a half last weekend and remains a threat to drop multiple Holy Shit throws per game. Clemson’s simplistic offense and Watson’s pick problems are likely to come under scrutiny next spring, but if you’re a fan of a team likely targeting a QB (me; I am one of those), there are worse places to look for hope.
DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame
It’s been a rough season for 3–6 Notre Dame, to the point that I feel ba — sorry, I can’t even make a joke about it. It’s been amazing. As a Chicago resident who’s spent a bizarre amount of time in South Bend and counts several Notre Dame alumni among his friends, I can tell those of you unfamiliar with Domers that when things are going well for the Fighting Irish, they’re a distinctly vile fan base.
The saving grace for Notre Dame this fall has been Kizer, now in his first full season as a starter after being forced into action last year to replace the injured Malik Zaire. He’s had some rough patches (he was yanked in the second half against Stanford on October 15), but his talent is undeniable. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he looks every bit the part of an NFL quarterback, and with touch throws like this one against Texas, it’s easy to understand how a team could fall in love with his potential.
If you want to get an in-depth look at Kizer at some point, I can’t in good conscience recommend watching a Notre Dame game, but YouTube has plenty of material. Aside from enjoying a bucket of ridiculous plays, finding out that the Irish have a wide receiver named Equanimeous St. Brown has already made it worth the time.
John Ross, WR, Washington
Full disclosure: I hadn’t heard of Ross before this week. But that’s why we’re here! Also, if I had omitted him from this list, I’m pretty sure my editor, Ben Glicksman, would have booked a flight to the Midwest and straight-up ended me. The love he has for Ross is the type that most reserve for their immediate family — and I’m talking about the family they actually like.
Digging into what the internet has to offer, I can’t blame him. This guy turns every secondary he touches into a smoldering pile of ash. The Huskies are averaging a silly 48.3 points per game, second in the nation, and Ross’s ability to obliterate defenses in an instant has a lot to do with it. He’s averaging 16.9 yards per reception and has 14 touchdowns on 44 freaking catches.
I mean, what is that? In a league that has become increasingly dink-and-dunk — and has often been mind-numbing in the process — the dynamic that Ross brings is the most thrilling element imaginable. Eagles fans, just think about your offense with this guy.
I know. Feel free to take a minute.
Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
I figured that this endeavor may end with me finding a new favorite player in college football, and, what do you know, here we are.
Allen is a defensive line nerd’s dream. At 6-foot-3 and 292 pounds, he has the frame to play anywhere up front, and he also happens to be one of the more gifted college pass rushers you’ll come across. After recording 12 sacks last season, he already has seven this fall. And that’s with nearly all his snaps coming on the interior of the defensive line.
He uses his hands extremely well and, after ruining an offensive lineman’s life, he has the ability to actually levitate.
They just don’t make defensive linemen like this very often. Given the impact that we’ve seen from explosive, game-wrecking interior players in recent years (i.e., Aaron Donald), picturing Allen destroying an NFL backfield next fall isn’t hard. So, if your team is already out of it — and you’re not in the mood for three hours of self-flagellation this Sunday — consider queuing up this video instead. You owe it to yourself. It’s already been a long season. Let the possibilities wash over you. You’ll be glad you did.