Who’s the Toughest Player to Plan for on Every Ranked Team

Imagine you are the offensive or defensive coordinator for your favorite team.

Besides making hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even millions) every season, you will work long hours getting your players ready. However, you’ll also be game-planning for your opponent’s best player every week.

That task gets even tougher when you play the top teams in the nation because those teams usually have more than one talented player.

Try getting ready for Alabama or Oklahoma. Those two teams are stacked.

So let’s take a look at The Sporting News‘ most recent top 25 and predict the toughest player to stop on each of those teams.

25. USC (Matt Barkley, QB)

There is a strong possibility Matt Barkley is playing his final season at USC; the only reason he may return for his senior year is the opportunity to play in the postseason again.

Barkley has shown a great deal of maturity through the turmoil at USC. He’s always a threat to lead the offense down the field for a score against the best of defenses, and he has a strong arm and the confidence to complete any pass.

Barkley throws too many interceptions, and he should complete more passes. But you have no choice but to prepare for him each week.

24. Penn State (Jack Crawford, DE)

Jack Crawford played just two seasons of high school football, but he has played regularly for Penn State for three straight seasons. He has become one of the more dominant defensive ends in the Big Ten and is a likely high draft pick in 2012.

Crawford is a physical force at 6’5″ and 275 pounds. He wreaks havoc on the running game, but is also one of the Nittany Lions’ better pass-rushers.

Teams double-team Crawford to slow him down, which hopefully opens up opportunities for the Penn State linebackers.

23. Arizona State (Vontaze Burfict, DE)

Vontaze Burfict is one of the least-recognizable superstars in the game.

It has a lot to do with the fact Arizona State has not been relevant the past two seasons. But everyone in the Pac-10 (soon-to-be Pac-12) is well aware of the impact Burfict has on a game.

He has also been labeled a cheap-shot artist, but reports are he’s showing signs of maturing this summer.

If he harnesses his potential and the Sun Devils have a big season, Burfict could be that defensive player that is mentioned in the Heisman hype.

22. West Virginia (Bruce Irvin, DE)

It would be easy to pick quarterback Geno Smith, but if you watched Bruce Irvin pressure quarterbacks last fall, it is easy to see how offensive coordinators must figure out a way to stop this beast.

West Virginia plans to use Irvin much more than it did last season when he was mainly a third-down specialist. Irvin led the Mountaineers with 14 sacks, and he quickly became a fan favorite.

He is easily the most dangerous player the Mountaineers have in 2011.

21. Utah (Jordan Wynn, QB)

A late-season shoulder injury forced Utah’s Jordan Wynn to miss the MAACO Bowl against Boise State, and he sat out the spring.

As the Utes enter the Pac-12, opponents may want to look at some game tape on this guy.

Wynn’s 2010 was not overwhelming, but you could see the signs of a future star. He threw 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, including 2,334 yards.

His two best career games include a 362-yard performance against San Diego State and a 321-yard game against Colorado State.

20. Mississippi State (Vick Ballard, RB)

Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf is a special talent, but the Bulldogs prefer to run the ball.

So the nod goes to Vick Ballard, who put up some nice numbers while splitting time in the backfield. He finished with 981 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.

His numbers could be even more ridiculous as a featured back.

Dan Mullen is one of the best offensive coaches in the country, so he recognizes the talent of Ballard, and he won’t miss taking advantage of it.

19. TCU (Tank Carder, LB)

With the graduation of quarterback Andy Dalton, Tank Carder becomes the face of the TCU program in 2011.

He’s garnering all kinds of preseason awards because of his physical play at linebacker. Carder had some big games last year, but the one that created the most interest was his emotional play in a big win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

Mountain West teams will spend a lot of time figuring out ways to block Carder or run away from him this fall.

18. South Carolina (Marcus Lattimore, RB)

If Stephen Garcia was more consistent at quarterback, the pick might be receiver Alshon Jeffery.

However, it became evident last season as the year went on that Steve Spurrier gained more and more confidence in Marcus Lattimore.

It should be pretty obvious that Lattimore’s production will increase as the Gamecocks look to improve upon winning the SEC East last season.

If his freshman season is a gauge for what is to come (nearly 1,200 yards rushing), Lattimore is going to be the man to stop at South Carolina.

17. Notre Dame (Michael Floyd, WR)

If Michael Floyd can stay out of any future trouble, he will be one of the more dangerous receivers in the game. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has made it clear Floyd can’t slip up a bit if he wants to play this fall.

Floyd is fast and physical, both great attributes for a receiver. He is tough to cover, and Kelly’s offense can really exploit a player with his skill set.

The fact that Floyd is willing to go over the middle also proves his toughness.

16. Michigan State (Kirk Cousins, QB)

Kirk Cousins, a starter since 2009, is Michigan State’s leader.

He guided the Spartans to an 11-2 record in 2010 and a share of the Big Ten Championship.

Now he’s trying to keep the Spartans from slipping out of the title chase.

Cousins has completed nearly 65 percent of his career passes. If Michigan State is going to reach the first Big Ten Championship game, Cousins will need to have another stellar season.

15. Auburn (Michael Dyer, RB)

Michael Dyer, one of the nation’s top recruits in 2009, is going to factor into Gus Malzahn’s offensive game plan much more this year.

Dyer rushed for close to 1,100 yards as a true freshman, and he wasn’t even the featured guy for Malzahn. He should get around 250-300 carries, which should up his totals.

Dyer is tough to bring down, and he has home run speed as well.

14. Wisconsin (James White, RB)

James White is almost the perfect running back.

Okay, he’s not the normal Wisconsin back—big and bruising. Instead, White is athletic, quick and strong. He also has a knack for the game. He developed those instincts as a star for prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Last year he was a change-of-pace back for the Badgers. This year he has a chance to be the featured back.

13. Virginia Tech (Logan Thomas, QB)

Well, Logan Thomas is still a bit of an unknown as he takes over for Tyrod Taylor as Virginia Tech’s quarterback this fall.

Thomas is another dual-threat quarterback who will make the Hokies’ offense go. Experience may work against him, but once he gets a few starts under his belt…watch out.

12. Texas A&M (Ryan Tannehill, QB)

Ryan Tannehill was supposed to be a wide receiver at Texas A&M.

Instead, he became one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. He’s even considered a potential first-round draft pick in 2012.

Tannehill’s time at receiver proves he has the speed to escape the pocket if it collapses, but he also has shown great arm strength and accuracy. He was the key component to the Aggies’ turnaround during the second half of the season, which resulted in a Cotton Bowl appearance.

11. Arkansas (Knile Davis, RB)

He’s no Darren McFadden, but Arkansas’ Knile Davis is still a special player.

Davis runs the 40 in sub-4.4 seconds, so he just might be the most explosive back in the SEC.

Last year he ran for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns on an Arkansas team that loved to throw the ball with Ryan Mallett. There’s no Mallett this year, so Davis becomes the main focus of the offense, even with Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright forming one of the most formidable receiving corps in the nation.

10. Nebraska (Jared Crick, DE)

Jared Crick could be this year’s Nick Fairley; he has the potential to be the best defensive lineman in the country.

Crick blows up blocking schemes. Last year he made 14.5 tackles for a loss and had 9.5 sacks. He will fit right into the Big Ten, but opponents are not familiar with his reputation.

It’s that’s simple—Crick is nasty and good.

9. Oklahoma State (Justin Blackmon, WR)

This is a tough one.

Quarterback Brandon Weeden had a break-out season in 2010, and he’s one of the best in the Big 12.

But Justin Blackmon elevating his game to one of the elite receivers is what makes him the Cowboys’ toughest player to defend.

The 2010 Biletnikoff Award-winner opens things up for the rest of the offense because he can catch anything. Big 12 defenders also struggle to cover Blackmon because of his size and speed.

8. Ohio State (Dan Herron, RB)

Between graduation, the NFL Draft and suspensions, it’s hard to narrow down a top guy at Ohio State.

So even though Dan “Boom” Herron is out for the first five games of the season, he’s still the man in Columbus.

Herron showed his speed and shiftiness in last year’s Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas. Big Ten foes are well aware of Herron’s skill and with Terrelle Pryor gone, Herron is going to get his fair share of carries once he returns from the suspension.

7. Florida State (E.J. Manuel, QB)

Jimbo Fisher has worked hard to improve the overall talent at Florida State, so there are plenty of guys who could garner this spot for the Seminoles.

E.J. Manuel gets the nod since FSU’s shot at winning the ACC will rely heavily on him becoming a consistent performer.

One thing he doesn’t have to worry about is overall athleticism. Manuel is an athletic freak with a strong arm. If he improves his accuracy and doesn’t throw as many interceptions, Manuel could become a Heisman candidate quickly.

6. Boise State (Kellen Moore, QB)

Critics say Kellen Moore doesn’t have a strong arm, and he piles up big numbers against weaker competition.

One thing no one can overlook though is the fact that Moore is 38-2 as a starter.

His accuracy and football knowledge give him an advantage on every opponent. Just when someone underestimates Moore, he leads Boise to another late score for a win or simply another blowout win.

Who cares if he never makes it big in the NFL, Moore is going down as one of the best ever in college.

5. Oregon (LaMichael James, RB)

Oregon is loaded with talent, but it’s hard to argue with LaMichael James in this spot.

He’s a Heisman favorite, and he excels in Chip Kelly’s spread offense.

If James plays anything like last season (1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns), the Ducks just might get that elusive BCS Championship.

James is diminutive, but explosive. If you don’t stop him, you aren’t going to beat Oregon.

4. Stanford (Andrew Luck, QB)

Andrew Luck is the early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and he’s considered the most talented college quarterback since John Elway played at Stanford.

Luck is a student of the game who has a rifle of a right arm. He’s also athletic enough to run the ball when needed. Stanford has a balanced offensive attack, but everything is predicated on Luck.

It’s going to be interesting to see how he responds to not having Jim Harbaugh around any longer, as well as the pressure of being the top player going into the 2012 NFL Draft.

3. Alabama (Dont’a Hightower, LB)

Alabama returns a boatload of talent on the defensive side of the ball in 2011.

Nick Saban has to love that.

SEC teams have to hate that Dont’a Hightower, a physical freak, is back at linebacker. The 6’4″, 260-pound Hightower is a devastating defender who loves to hit opponents.

Hightower is one of those defenders who fans of any team just love to see run from sideline to sideline making plays.

2. Oklahoma (Landry Jones, QB)

The higher you get up the rankings, the tougher it gets to pick just one player. Oklahoma is a top-three team by almost all preseason predictions, and the big reason why is because the Sooners are loaded.

At Oklahoma, you could go with wide receiver Ryan Broyles or linebacker Travis Lewis.

But Landry Jones put up some serious numbers last year (4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns), and if a team wants to knock the Sooners out of the championship hunt, they’ll have to figure out a way to stop Jones.

Good luck!

1. LSU (Morris Claiborne, CB)

LSU returns a bunch of young, but talented defensive players.

So who do you stop?

“Stop” may not be the goal with corner Morris Claiborne, who inherits the Patrick Peterson role. Claiborne is a shut-down corner, who is fast and will put a hit on a receiver.