Come Saturday, college football fans really are going to see the best of the best in the College Football Playoff. While making the field as one of the final four teams always requires a bit of luck, it also doesn’t happen by accident. A lot of the players in the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl will be playing on Sundays soon, and right now, they have a laundry list of accolades and awards to their names.
Yet even within all of the great players on Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, there are even fewer who stand out above the rest. With the 2018 playoff on the horizon, here are the 18 impact players competing in the semifinals. Keep in mind that these aren’t rankings of the best players, although there is certainly a lot of overlap, rather a ranking of their impact on their respective games. And while the selections aren’t deliberately distributed evenly among the four teams, there was an effort to at least adequately represent all four.
With all of that in mind, here are the 18 for 2018 in this year’s playoff field.
18. Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown: Oklahoma may not have a good defense, but it doesn’t completely lack talent. Brown has come up big for the Sooners on a couple of occasions, including a huge game-changing safety off of a blitz in the Big 12 Championship Game win over Texas. He leads the Sooners with 12 pass break-ups and is their most aggressive guy on the outside. Quietly, he’ll make some big plays.
17. Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery: It’s taken some time, but Tillery has really blossomed into a fierce interior defensive presence. He’s been getting all kinds of pressure with eight sacks on the season, four of which came against Stanford. But he also gives the Irish traditional run-stuffing ability as well, occupying double teams and clearing the way for linebackers to make plays. His ability to do both will be key against a Clemson offense that ranks in the top five in yards per game.
16. Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy: He’s Tua Tagovailoa’s favorite target and one of only two receivers in the SEC to post 1,000 yards in 2018; plus, he leads the conference with 12 receiving touchdowns. Jeudy, this year’s Biletnikoff Award winner, has unreal speed that allows him to be a deep threat and pick up chunk yardage after the catch. He’s also a solid red zone threat with four touchdowns on nine grabs. That versatility makes him tough to defend.
15. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book: The transition from Brandon Wimbush to Book opened up way more possibilities on offense for the Fighting Irish. While Book may not have the same numbers as his playoff counterparts, that doesn’t diminish the impact he’s had for this team. He’s passed for at least 250 yards and two touchdowns in every game as a starter and brought to life a passing attack that had been lacking; when necessary, he can still pick up yards and points with his legs. With Notre Dame’s stifling defense, Book’s addition to the offense has raised the ceiling of what this team can be. Given Clemson’s questionable pass defense, Book could have a big game.
14. Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb: Oklahoma has two primary targets in the passing game: Lamb and Marquise Brown, who account for more than 51 percent of the catches in the receiving game. With Brown’s status for the Orange Bowl still a bit uncertain stemming from a lower leg injury suffered in the Big 12 Championship Game, Lamb may have to be the go-to guy through the air. He’s a legit big-play threat with five games this season in which he averaged more than 20 yards per reception.
13. Clemson running back Travis Etienne: With much of the focus in Clemson’s offense on Trevor Lawrence, Etienne’s role has been more of an unsung hero. But those who follow the Tigers know Etienne is every bit as valuable. He was the ACC’s leading rusher with 1,463 yards and had six 100-yard games. His best performance of the year (203 yards, three touchdowns) came when his team needed him most in a 27-23 thriller over Syracuse.
12. Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses: A Butkus Award finalist for top linebacker, Moses leads Alabama with 76 tackles and can play both inside and outside linebacker positions. He’s a freak athlete who can go sideline to sideline and make plays in space, but can also get north and south to make plays in the backfield (10 tackles for loss). Against Oklahoma, Moses will be a key piece in both run support and making one-on-one tackles as the Sooners try to spread the Crimson Tide as thin as possible.
11. Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins: An uber-athletic, veteran presence in the middle of Clemson’s vaunted defensive line, Wilkins is the centerpiece of it all. He’s still wildly productive for an interior lineman with 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, six QB hurries and a forced fumble, but above all, he’s an anchor for one of the most impressive units in all of college football.
10. Oklahoma guard Ben Powers: Honestly, the entire Oklahoma offensive line could get the nod here. They were, after all, the Joe Moore Award winners for best O-line in college football. (Related: Don’t think for a second that the Sooners are simply a finesse offense.) Powers was a consensus All-America selection, an Outland Trophy semifinalist, and he has a real nasty streak as evidenced by the pancakes he was handing out in the Big 12 Championship Game (No. 72 below). He clears out holes as well as any interior lineman in the game.
9. Alabama safety Deionte Thompson: The junior safety has all the accolades you’d want — he was a consensus All-America and All-SEC selection, plus he’s considered the top safety for the upcoming draft — but he’s also going to play an important role against Oklahoma’s high-powered offense. The Crimson Tide will need playmakers on the back end to prevent the Sooners from getting those big passing plays. Thompson is the type of defensive back who can not only keep those plays from happening but also be a disruption and ball hawk as he has a team-best three forced fumbles on the year.
8. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence Does Clemson make the playoff with Kelly Bryant? Maybe, sure, but Lawrence elevates the Tigers from a playoff contender to a national title contender as a true freshman. Lawrence throws some darts down the field and he’s opened up the vertical passing game since becoming the full-time starter in Week 5. He still makes some freshman mistakes, but he has a natural release and the ball really pops out of his hand. The next two years are going to be a lot of fun to watch.
7. Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love: Here’s your shutdown corner for the playoff. Love was a Thorpe Award finalist and had a good case to win the thing. He’s Notre Dame’s career leader in pass break-ups with 15 alone this season. Cornerback is one of those positions defined by the lack of production, though, and Love is a good tactician of the position. He’ll draw the toughest assignments in the Cotton Bowl, and history says he’ll have a lot of success.
6. Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams: NFL draft potential doesn’t influence these rankings too much, but Williams is among the best prospects on the field during the semifinals. CBS Sports has Williams projected as a high first-round selection and the top tackle available. He doesn’t protect Tagovailoa’s blind side, but left tackles are important and he’s a tactician with how consistent he is from snap to snap with his hands and footwork. He’s a neutralizer for a lot of pass rushes.
5. Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell: As you can see, Clemson’s defensive line has a few impact players. They’re all good in their own way, but none were as productive as Ferrell, who had 17 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, both of which ranked in the top 25 nationally. The Cotton Bowl is going to present a fun matchup in the trenches as Notre Dame’s offensive line battles Clemson’s pass rush, and Ferrell is the player to watch coming off the edge.
4. Notre Dame defensive end Julian Okwara: The Irish have a lot of dudes on defense, but Okwara might be the team’s MVP after coming on strong this past season. His plays in the backfield are certainly good (11.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks) but his 21 quarterback hurries really tell the story of how disruptive he is coming off the edge. No one else on the team has more than six. He’s a huge reason why Notre Dame ranks in the top 10 in yards per play allowed (4.53), and is responsible for a large part of their defensive front seven havoc rating.
3. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa: Jalen Hurts may have been the hero of the SEC Championship Game, but let’s not forget which quarterback gives Alabama the best chance to win. Remember, Tagovailoa was the clear-cut Heisman favorite for most of the season and his numbers (3,353 yards passing, 11.4 yards per attempt, 37 touchdowns, 202.3 passer rating) were just as efficient as those of Kyler Murray. You can’t blame Tagovailoa for only attempting eight passes in the fourth quarter this season, but he’ll likely get more opportunities in the Orange Bowl.
2. Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams: Of all the players on this list, Williams has had one of the fastest ascensions and now he’s one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the country. The first-team All-SEC selection and Outland Trophy winner leads the team and is tied for 15th nationally with 18.5 tackles for loss — at the nose guard position, no less. He’s an absolute stud.
1. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray: What continues to stand out about the Heisman winner is how close to perfect he had to be for most of the season. Yes, Murray’s numbers stand up by themselves: 4,053 yards passing, 70.9 completion percentage at 11.9 yards per attempt with 40 touchdowns to just seven interceptions — plus 892 yards rushing and 11 scores on the ground to boot. His passer rating of 205.72 lead the nation and is insane, historically speaking, but he’s had to put up those numbers. The Sooners defense ranked 101st in the nation in yards per play allowed and 107th in points per drive allowed. Murray operated at almost zero margin for error, and he was still ridiculously great.
Honorable mentions: Notre Dame LB Drue Tranquill, Alabama RB Damien Harris, Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence (expected to be suspended), Clemson WR Tee Higgins, Oklahoma WR Marquise Brown (lower leg injury), Alabama DE Raekwon Davis, Oklahoma OL Cody Ford