It’s Friday, and you know what that means: time to look ahead to another weekend in college football. After a few weeks where the schedule didn’t look great, this Saturday’s slate picks up significantly, with a number of games (LSU-Auburn, Texas A&M-Florida, Ohio State-Nebraska) that will affect everything from the national championship race to the coaching carousel this offseason.
With so many big games, who are the players you need to watch both in the marquee games and the off-the-radar ones? Here are five guys to keep an eye on:
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn (opponent: LSU)
It feels like it’s the “year of the running back” in college football, with Saquon Barkley and Bryce Love sitting atop virtually everyone’s Heisman poll. Yet for all the Barkley hype and the Love love, Johnson leads college football with 12 rushing touchdowns. He’s coming off one of the best performances any running back has had all season, with 204 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Ole Miss.
Johnson is hitting his peak at the right time, for a 5-1 team that should be playing the perfect opponent to continue to bump up its numbers Saturday. Keep in mind that while LSU is coming off a win over Florida, its rush defense has still been abysmal this year (the Tigers rank 52nd nationally). It’s not like they were improved last week even in a win. The Gators still managed to go for over five yards a carry against LSU, even if they weren’t able to come out with a victory.
It should be a big day for Johnson and the Auburn rushing attack on Saturday.
Riley Ferguson, QB, Memphis (opponent: Navy)
Want a dark horse name that could potentially get to New York for the Heisman ceremony? Just keep “Riley Ferguson” in the back of your mind. He isn’t quite a “candidate” yet, but could be if he keeps playing the way he has. Remember, Ferguson has already outdueled Josh Rosen head-to-head, and is coming off a seven-touchdown performance against my beloved alma mater UConn last week. His 16 total touchdown passes are tied for third nationally.
What does Ferguson need to throw his name into the conversation for real? A big performance against a marquee opponent certainly would help. He’ll have that chance Saturday when he faces an undefeated and ranked Navy side. The Midshipmen still haven’t been challenged this year (of their five wins, only one opponent has a winning record), and if Ferguson can have a big day, he could be in the Heisman conversation Sunday morning.
Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas (opponent: Oklahoma)
When the Red River Rivalry kicks off Saturday afternoon at the Cotton Bowl, so much of the focus will be on Oklahoma’s quarterback, some guy named Baker Mayfield. Yet, as strange as it sounds, the result of the game will probably be dictated more by the quarterback on the other side of the field.
We know Mayfield will have a good day, that’s basically what he always does. The one thing we don’t know is whether Ehlinger can quietly continue to play as well as he has. Remember, the true freshman was phenomenal a few weeks ago at USC, and was nearly the difference in a near-upset of the Trojans. He was then benched for Shane Buechele two weeks ago. The Longhorns struggled before Ehlinger returned to the field in last week’s victory over Kansas State.
Texas has been a better team when Ehlinger has been on the field. If he can play the way he has the last few weeks, Texas could be in line for an upset of its most hated rival.
James Blackman, QB, Florida State (opponent: Duke)
I’ve written a lot the last few weeks about Blackman, and believe me, I feel bad picking on an 18-year-old true freshman. He wasn’t expected to be in this role, and it can’t be easy stepping onto a roster that has all the pieces (outside quarterback) to win a national championship. We understand Blackman is still young in his career and will only get better.
The problem is that after last week’s loss to Miami, Florida State is now 1-3 and it’s crisis time. At this point it’s fair to ask if the Seminoles will even make a bowl game. It sounds absurd, but keep in mind that with their game against Louisiana-Monroe cancelled, the Noles now have to win five out of their final seven games to guarantee a postseason berth. If you’re to assume that Clemson will be a loss later in the year, and Louisville likely will be as well, that makes every other game this season a “must-win.”
That starts Saturday against Duke. Blackman has been so-so this season, completing 57 percent of his passes in his four starts. He’ll need to be better for the Seminoles to pick up a much-needed win in Durham.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (opponent: Boston College)
If Louisville’s ACC Atlantic title hopes weren’t done before last week, they certainly are now after a second division loss to N.C. State last Thursday. At this point Louisville isn’t competing for a conference crown, but that doesn’t mean Jackson’s run at a second straight Heisman is over.
Keep in mind that despite Louisville’s struggles in the win-loss column, Jackson has been his usual brilliant self in 2017. His 1,990 yards passing are fourth in the country, and he ranks in the top 30 nationally in passing touchdowns (T-11), rushing yards (28th) and rushing touchdowns (T-19).
Jackson’s Heisman hopes are still very much alive, and when you consider that Louisville essentially has nothing more to play for than pride, it could allow Bobby Petrino to open up the playbook and enable Jackson to start padding his stats.
That’s a scary thought for college football, and a scary thought for this week’s opponent, Boston College.