This story appears in ESPN College Football 2016, on newsstands June 7. Order online today!
Good luck finding a more talented quarterback in the country than Clemson star Deshaun Watson.
But is he the Tigers' most important player?
In Watson's case, yes, he happens to be both the best and most crucial Tiger. But setting aside pure talent, who's the single most important player on each ACC team?
Watson leads the list, but he's one of many ACC game-breakers to watch in 2016.
Cook's accomplishments in his sophomore season make for quite a list: No. 6 in the nation with 1,691 rush yards; tied for No. 8 with 19 rush TDs; tops in the Power 5 with 7.38 yards per carry (minimum 100 rushes); a unanimous All-ACC pick by the media. In all, Cook was the only player to rank top 10 in the nation in yards per carry, rush yards per game, all-purpose yards, total rush yards, rush touchdowns and scoring. Even more amazing? FSU coach Jimbo Fisher says Cook looks better this offseason than he ever has.
The 2015 Heisman finalist can do it all: He amassed 5,209 yards of total offense (becoming the first player in FBS history with 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a season) just a year after an ACL injury. Late in the season, he showed how effective he can be in the run game, finishing with three 100-yard rushing performances in his final four games. He also had a hand in 478 of Clemson's 550 yards in the national championship game, carrying the then-undefeated Tigers to within points of a title.
His bowl performance against Texas A&M -- he threw for 227 yards and ran for 226 more in the 27-21 win -- sent expectations for 2016 soaring. Before that game, Jackson threw for 12 TDs and averaged more than 150 passing yards as he split time (and starts) with then-sophomore Kyle Bolin. Now entering his sophomore year, Jackson appears entrenched as the starter -- and that gives Louisville stability at quarterback heading into a season for the first time since Bobby Petrino returned as coach.
The team's leading rusher a year ago, Dayes would have cleared 1,000 yards if he hadn't missed the final five games of the season with turf toe (an injury that also ended his musings about declaring for the NFL draft as a junior). He averaged a team-high 108.1 yards per game in 2015 and 6.5 yards per carry. NC State has depth in the backfield with the return of hybrid TE Jaylen Samuels and RB Reggie Gallaspy II, but the strength of its run game centers on a healthy Dayes.
As a sophomore, Landry had 15.5 TFLs last season off the edge, using his combination of speed and power -- plus his 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame -- to create matchup advantages. He was tied for fourth on the team with 4.5 sacks in 2015, and this year the goal is to reach double digits. Landry is one of an impressive seven starters returning on defense for Boston College, including three of its five leaders in tackles for loss.
Wake Forest's offense was among the worst in the nation in 2015, ranking 119th in points (17.4) and 113th in yards per game (333.4) -- though both were improvements from 2014. Wolford has never thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in a season, and his nine passing TDs last year ranked just 15th among ACC QBs. But now is the time for that to change, with sophomore Kendall Hinton pushing him for the starting job. Whoever is under center will be aided by receiver Cortez Lewis, who had 611 yards and four touchdowns as a redshirt freshman last year.
Dungey is the favorite to win the quarterback competition and orchestrate Babers' desired offensive transformation. In eight games as a true freshman last fall, he was responsible for 16 touchdowns and 1,649 yards of offense. Good news for Cuse: Dungey will run less in the new scheme-which means fewer chances for hits like the one that caused the ugly head injury that cost him the final four games in 2015. But junior backup Zack Mahoney and early enrollee Rex Culpepper should stay ready: Due to injuries, Syracuse has used six different quarterbacks over the past two seasons.
The run-pass and option responsibilities in Fedora's spread offense can load a quarterback's plate, but starter Trubisky is in his fourth year in this system. The junior has never started, but he nearly won the job in 2014 over Marquise Williams and even replaced an ineffective Williams for a game in 2015. He completed 40 of 47 attempts last season, and his 93.3 QBR was first nationally among quarterbacks with at least 40 attempts.
Kaaya, a junior, has started since his freshman season and is one of the ACC's best players -- and maybe even one of the country's best quarterbacks. Last year he threw for 16 TDs and just 5 INTs (tied for third best in the ACC), and he should excel under Richt, who uses more traditional pocket passers. Last season Kaaya was second in the ACC behind Watson in total pass yards and completions of more than 20 yards.
In his first season at Pitt as a graduate transfer from Tennessee, Peterman was solid but unspectacular. Yes, he threw for 20 TDs, but his yards per attempt and yards per completion were both in the bottom half of ACC QBs. Peterman will have more pressure on him with top receiver Tyler Boyd (926 yards in 12 games) off to the NFL, so he'll need to find ways to make plays downfield to complement Pitt's top rushing attack.
Who will emerge as the starting quarterback is anyone's guess, but at least the Hokies have one constant in the backfield in McMillian, a sophomore. Though the running back averaged only 8.4 carries through the first seven games in 2015, he caught fire over the final six contests, getting the ball 23.5 times per game and becoming the first Hokie since 2011 to gain 96 yards or more in five straight games.
Thomas was a Heisman Trophy dark horse after an impressive 2014 in which he was the third-best rushing quarterback in the FBS. But last year Thomas finished the season with 972 fewer total yards than he accumulated in 2014. That's in large part due to reduced production rushing the ball: His 488 yards last year was less than half of his 2014 total on just 45 fewer attempts. Georgia Tech can't win the ACC without Thomas re-emerging as one of the conference's best players and nearing 1,000 rushing yards again.
With QB Thomas Sirk out indefinitely (ruptured left Achilles), the Blue Devils will expect greater contributions from their running backs, giving ample opportunity for Wilson to break big gains. The Pinstripe Bowl co-MVP had Duke's longest run of the season and averaged 5.9 ypc. The junior showed he's capable of scoring from anywhere on the field in the Blue Devils' 2015 finale, with an 85-yard rushing TD in the first quarter and a 98-yard kickoff TD return near game's end.
Mizzell led FBS backs with 75 catches and 721 yards. But Mendenhall teams like to hand the ball off; they're almost always in the top half of the FBS in rush attempts. So this fall, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior will need to prove he can increase his workload. (He's never averaged more than 14 carries per game in a season.) He'll have the benefit of an experienced offensive line, so expect him to improve on last season's 671 rushing yards (12th in the ACC) and 4.1 yards per carry (19th).