The college football season has reached halftime, but before you break for the bathroom or the beer line, check out the players who have most stood out during the first six games.
Introducing ESPN’s midseason All-America team, which features some familiar faces from the preseason squad, as well as several new ones. The incredible depth at linebacker required a 3-4 defensive alignment, which, not surprisingly, is the favored look of several elite units around college football.
QB: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Despite losing to Iowa State, Mayfield plants his flag here, thanks largely to his second-half brilliance at Ohio State. The Oklahoma senior maintains his record-setting pace for accuracy (74.6 percent completions), passing yards (1,635) and passing touchdowns (15). He’s the model for efficiency, leading the FBS by a wide margin after setting a single-season record with a 196.4 rating in 2016. Whether you love Mayfield or love to hate him — he welcomes both — you will continue watching his push for the Heisman and the College Football Playoff.
RB: Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Before the season, many would qualify their quarterback-centric Heisman predictions with, “But Saquon Barkley could be the nation’s best player.” Well, halfway through the season, Barkley is the nation’s best player, and he’s also getting the Heisman love he deserves. A national audience witnessed his 43-touch, 357-yard performance at Iowa, and he has done something to dazzle every time he steps on the field. From running to receiving to returning to pass blocking, Barkley does it all, as evidenced by his 1,318 all-purpose yards.
RB: Bryce Love, Stanford
Remember when running backs labored the whole season to reach the 1,000-yard milestone? It took Love fewer than five games. Christian McCaffrey’s speedy successor is forging his own path on The Farm, setting a team record with 301 rushing yards against Arizona State and joining Reggie Bush as the only Pac-12 players to eclipse 250 rushing yards in consecutive games. A 62-yard run on Stanford’s first play from scrimmage this season set the tone, and Love hasn’t stopped gashing defenses.
The one-time 13-year-old Lane Kiffin quarterback recruit has blossomed into a productive receiver at the end of his wild career. Sills has multiple touchdown catches in four of five games (nine total touchdowns) and has eclipsed 100 receiving yards in three of them. He made life difficult for TCU’s defense on Saturday and has established a great connection with quarterback Will Grier. Sills is averaging 15.5 yards per catch.
WR: James Washington, Oklahoma State
The Pokes’ wide receiver depth is almost as glorious as Mike Gundy’s mullet, but everyone knows who leads the group. Washington has touchdown catches in four of five games, four games of at least 120 receiving yards and receptions in 37 consecutive games. The big-play numbers are staggering as he has averaged at least 24 yards per catch in four games. Oh, and he hasn’t dropped a single pass when targeted. Washington is the clear favorite for the Biletnikoff Award.
TE: Jaylen Samuels, NC State
While Samuels’ position is a bit hazy — he’s classified as an H-back — his inclusion on this list shouldn’t be. The nation’s only player with at least 15 career rushing touchdowns and at least 15 career receiving touchdowns has scored at least one way in all six games (and in both ways against Florida State). He has a reception in 34 consecutive games and has at least five receptions in every game, to go along with three games of five or more rushes.
C: Bradley Bozeman, Alabama
Bozeman anchors a Crimson Tide line that is bullying opponents nearly every time out. After a modest rushing output against Florida State, Alabama’s ground game has surged, eclipsing 300 yards twice and recording a record 496-yard output at Vanderbilt. The Tide have 19 rushing touchdowns in their past five games. Bozeman, in his second year as the starting center, is a leading contender for the Rimington Trophy.
T: Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
The man who protects Baker Mayfield’s blind side has kept the Heisman candidate clean. Perhaps more important, he has helped spark a running attack that some questioned after the loss of two backs (Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon) to the NFL. Oklahoma averages 202.6 rush yards per game as Abdul Adams and Trey Sermon have emerged. Brown helped hold Ohio State’s deep and dangerous defensive line in check as Oklahoma pulled away in the second half in Columbus.
T: David Edwards, Wisconsin
It has taken a few years of development, but Wisconsin’s offensive line is close to regaining its form as one of the nation’s best units. Edwards is among the underclassman standouts for the Badgers, and the sophomore earned very high marks from the coaches in the first half. He has sparked a rushing attack that has eclipsed 230 yards in four of five games and twice exceeded 350 yards. After starting seven games as a freshman, Edwards is well on his way to becoming a premier lineman in college football.
G: Cody O’Connell, Washington State
“The Continent” is more than a big body on the left side of the Cougars’ offensive line. He’s impossible to move and does a good job of moving others out of the way for Jamal Morrow and Washington State’s running backs. Washington State set a team scoring record in 2016 and could be on its way to breaking it after scoring 30 points or more in six straight games for the first time since 2001.
G: Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
Notre Dame is capitalizing on a line featuring two likely high draft picks in Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey. The Irish have revved up the rushing attack under new coordinator Chip Long, eclipsing 300 rush yards in four games after failing to do so once last season. Notre Dame’s 10.1 yards per carry at Boston College set a modern-era record. Nelson is a preseason All-American who has done nothing to diminish lofty predictions.
DE: Austin Bryant, Clemson
Bryant might have been Clemson’s fourth- or fifth-most-heralded lineman entering the season, and not even the team’s most significant Bryant (that would be Kelly, Clemson’s starting quarterback). But he broke out in the first half, starting with a four-sack performance in Clemson’s defense-driven win over Auburn in Week 2. Bryant finished the first half with a team-high 10.5 tackles for loss, including five sacks, to go along with a forced fumble and an interception. He had multiple tackles for loss in four of six games.
DE: Bradley Chubb, NC State
No FBS defender has caused more backfield havoc than Chubb, who leads the FBS with 14 tackles for loss through the first six games. Anchoring one of the nation’s top defensive lines, Chubb has surged in ACC play, collecting five sacks in the first three games. He shined against Florida State, stifling two Seminoles drives near the end of the first half. Opponents knew Chubb could hurt them entering the season, but no one has been able to stop No. 9.
DT: Hercules Mata’afa, Washington State
At 252 pounds, Mata’afa isn’t a typical defensive tackle. He doesn’t produce like one, either. Mata’afa leads the Pac-12 in both sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (10). He has been involved in multiple tackles for loss in all six games. USC coach Clay Helton raved about Mata’afa after the Trojans’ loss in Pullman, and others around the league respect one of the best linemen in team history.
LB: Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma
The veteran edge rusher has been a menace for opposing offenses. Just ask Ohio State, which he tormented to the tune of 2.5 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks. Okoronkwo finished the first half leading Oklahoma in tackles for loss (9), sacks (5) and forced fumbles (2), while ranking second in total tackles (31). Opposing coaches are very much aware of No. 31, who should be in the mix for national honors.
LB: Roquan Smith, Georgia
Smith could be the closest thing to Reuben Foster this season: a fast, rangy, punishing linebacker who affects almost every play. The team’s tackles leader in 2016 once again sits at the top with 38 stops. Along with fellow linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, Smith has consistently pressured the pocket. Every offensive coordinator Georgia faces the rest of the season will have to plan for Smith.
LB: Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson
Many continue to marvel at how Clemson reloads along the defensive line, but the same thing is happening at linebacker. O’Daniel, known mostly for his success on special teams before this season, has become a star on a defense filled with them. He had interception returns for touchdowns in Clemson’s road wins against Louisville and Virginia Tech, becoming the first linebacker in team history with two pick-sixes in a season. O’Daniel leads the Tigers with 41 tackles and has five tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery.
LB: Josey Jewell, Iowa
The Big Ten’s leader in total tackles (70; the next closest has 44) also has 9.5 tackles for loss and has been one of the nation’s most productive defenders. He reached 60 tackles on the season faster than any Big Ten player reached 40. While Barkley justifiably got the praise in the Penn State-Iowa game, Jewell was excellent, too, in limiting Penn State’s potent offense. He not only raids opposing backfields but also stands out in pass coverage.
CB: Carlton Davis, Auburn
Auburn’s defense has become its signature unit this season, and Davis’ resurgence is helping to propel the Tigers. A freshman All-America selection in 2015, Davis is once again showing high-level skills in the secondary, recording seven pass breakups and an interception in the first six games. He’s an excellent open-field tackler — all 16 of his tackles are solo stops — and gives coordinator Kevin Steele confidence against top opposing receivers.
SS: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
Few college players on either side of the ball carry more respect than Fitzpatrick, whose impact goes far beyond his individual numbers. Whether he’s playing safety or cornerback, making plays or preventing opponents from making them, his presence is clear every time Alabama takes the field. Fitzpatrick can pressure the quarterback, shut down pass routes and excel on special teams, where he has a blocked kick this season. He remains a top candidate for national defensive player of the year honors.
FS: DeShon Elliott, Texas
Texas is starting to win with defense again, and Elliott has taken a leading role in the turnaround. The junior earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors in a loss (at USC) after recording two interceptions, and then followed with two more picks in Texas’ win at Iowa State. He became the first Longhorn since 2000 to record multiple interceptions in consecutive games. Elliott also has broken up three passes and has 3.5 tackles for loss.
CB: Jalen Davis, Utah State
It took more than one game for Davis to make the list, but that one game, woo boy. It’s hard to imagine any defender doing more than Davis did Sept. 29 against BYU. He had three interceptions, returning two for touchdowns from 50 and 30 yards out. Davis, the first FBS player with three interceptions and two scoring returns in a game since 2012, also became Utah State’s career leader for pass breakups.
PK: Matt Gay, Utah
While most of the country deals with the perils of #collegekickers, Utah keeps producing star specialists or, in Gay’s case, lucking into them. Gay walked onto the team in preseason camp, last having played football as a high school senior in Orem, Utah (he played soccer in 2014 and 2016 at Utah Valley University). What comes next? Gay has missed only one field goal attempt this year (from 50 yards against Stanford), going 16-for-17 on the season with a 56-yarder at San Jose State, the longest kick in the FBS this fall. He ranks first nationally in made field goals and field goals per game.
P: Mike Knoll, Boston College
Knoll is a great example of how placement trumps distance with punting. He ranks 56th nationally in net punting but leads the FBS in punts placed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line (22, five more than any other FBS punter) and is second in punts placed inside the opponent’s 10-yard line (nine). He has had a lot of opportunities, given Boston College’s struggles on offense, but he has made the most of those in tilting field position in the Eagles’ favor.
AP: Dante Pettis, Washington
If we know anything after the first half of the season, it’s that punting the ball to Pettis is a very bad idea. He returned punts for touchdowns in each of Washington’s first three games, tying NCAA records for career return touchdowns (eight) and most consecutive games with a punt return score. Not surprisingly, Pettis leads the nation by a wide margin in punt return average (31.8). He remains Washington’s No. 1 wide receiver as well and has six touchdowns on the season.