Most important players down the stretch for Top 25 teams

Roquan Smith is the heart of a Georgia defense that has the Bulldogs in playoff contention. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

Is there one player on each Top 25 team who will make the difference down the stretch?

Well, we think so.

For a lot of teams, that means getting star play from the quarterback (from Alabama's Jalen Hurts to Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and several others) or running back (Penn State's Saquon Barkley). But other teams' hopes hinge on the defense.

1. Alabama: QB Jalen Hurts

At some point, Hurts is going to be in a position where he has to throw the football. It hasn't come yet due to the nature of Alabama's lopsided wins, but the sophomore quarterback will have to show his improvement as a passer to help the Crimson Tide reach the College Football Playoff. -- Alex Scarborough

2. Clemson: QB Kelly Bryant

Our default answer here is Bryant, though it's possible the Tigers could find out what life without their starter might be like Friday at Syracuse. Bryant suffered an ankle injury last week against Wake Forest and is day-to-day. Really, though, Clemson is the rare team where -- should any one star go down -- it might not be enough to derail the season. Still, Bryant's success or failure is likely the biggest key to Clemson's run to a second straight national title. -- David M. Hale

3. Penn State: RB Saquon Barkley

Entirely too obvious, but Barkley leads Penn State in rushing yardage, receiving yardage and return yardage. And the Heisman Trophy front-runner has likely not hit his stride this season, rushing for less than 100 yards in four of the Nittany Lions' six games. Expect his workload to increase in consecutive divisional games to start next week against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. -- Mitch Sherman

4. Georgia: LB Roquan Smith

Smith has quietly become one of the best middle linebackers in the country, and his continued improvement will be key to the Bulldog defense, which has been the engine driving the program's success this season. -- Scarborough

5. Washington: WR Dante Pettis

Pettis might be one of the most exciting players we aren't talking enough about. Not only does he lead the Huskies with 37 catches, 416 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns, but he's a total game-changer on special teams with a nation-best three touchdowns on punt returns, and leads the country with a punt return average of 31.8 yards. -- Edward Aschoff

6. TCU: QB Kenny Hill

Hill is having his best season yet and it's a big reason why the Horned Frogs are undefeated. He's ranked 10th nationally in completion percentage (69 percent) and he has thrown 10 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Ball security and consistency are a must for Hill if the Horned Frogs are going to continue winning. -- Sam Khan Jr.

7. Wisconsin: S D'Cota Dixon

In lieu of selecting the Badgers' entire offensive line -- the key to Wisconsin's success in scoring points -- let's look to the defense, where Dixon impacts multiple facets of the game from his spot in the secondary. He regularly comes up big in key moments. Remember the game-sealing interception last season against LSU at Lambeau Field? More opportunities await in the Big Ten this year, likely to culminate with the conference title game. -- Sherman

8. Washington State: DL Hercules Mata'afa

You'd think it'd be quarterback Luke Falk because of those dazzling passing numbers, but even Tyler Hilinski threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns when he filled in for Falk against Boise State. Mata'afa is the glue to one of the West Coast's most ferocious defensive lines, and he's a major reason why Wazzu is near the top of the Pac-12. He leads the league with 10.5 tackles for loss and is tied for first with 4.5 sacks. -- Aschoff

9. Ohio State: QB J.T. Barrett

Which Barrett will we see in the key Big Ten East games, starting in two weeks against Penn State -- the guy who struggled early in the season against Oklahoma, or the record-setting QB who has thrown 13 touchdown passes without an interception since Week 2 on 69.2 percent passing? Barrett has done everything at Ohio State but lead the Buckeyes to a championship. Here's his chance. -- Sherman

10. Auburn: QB Jarrett Stidham

It's no surprise that Auburn's offensive resurgence is a result of a strong running game led by Kerryon Johnson, who has 12 touchdowns in three games this season. But against better defenses, Stidham will be tested and has to come through. -- Scarborough

11. Miami: RB Travis Homer

With leading rusher Mark Walton out for the season, the Hurricanes have just three scholarship running backs to rely on the rest of the way. The spotlight will be on Homer as the new starter to help keep Miami's championship hopes alive. Homer has 25 carries and three touchdowns this season and is best equipped to handle the heavier load right now. -- Andrea Adelson

12. Oklahoma: QB Baker Mayfield

The defense will have to get better, but the only way the Sooners get back into the playoff picture is if Mayfield takes them there. He was great in the win at Ohio State. Oklahoma will likely need a couple more magical Mayfield performances the rest of the way. -- Jake Trotter

13. USC: QB Sam Darnold

As Darnold goes, so go the Trojans. When he's on, USC looks unbeatable. But when he struggles, this team just can't do enough on offense to put fear in opponents. Darnold has all of the talent to lead the Trojans to the College Football Playoff, but he's still working to develop better chemistry with his young receiving corps. He has forced more passes than usual this season, but as defensive coordinators have said, once he gets into a rhythm, it's hard to slow him down. -- Aschoff

14. Oklahoma State: QB Mason Rudolph

The Cowboys haven't had a Heisman finalist since Barry Sanders won the award in 1988. But Rudolph remains firmly in the conversation, ranking second nationally in QBR just behind Mayfield. If Rudolph continues to put up big numbers through the air, Oklahoma State will be a dangerous team and will hold an outside shot to hop back into playoff consideration. --Trotter

15. Virginia Tech: LB Tremaine Edmunds

Quarterback Josh Jackson has played exceptionally well midway through his first season, but the most invaluable player might be Edmunds, who is the unquestioned leader of the Virginia Tech defense. Edmunds leads the way with 50 tackles and two forced fumbles and makes everything go for the Hokies. -- Adelson

16. Notre Dame: QB Brandon Wimbush

The Irish hardly missed a beat offensively without Wimbush against North Carolina. But much bigger tasks loom, including USC next week, NC State, Miami and Stanford. Wimbush, expected to return to practice this week from an ankle injury, diversifies the Notre Dame offense as a more dangerous running threat than his backup, Ian Book. But Wimbush needs to take a step forward as a passer over the next six weeks. -- Sherman

17. Michigan: QB John O'Korn

O'Korn must improve on last week's performance, his first start at Michigan Stadium. The senior threw three interceptions in a 14-10 loss to Michigan State. He has tossed just one touchdown pass in two games since taking over for the injured Wilton Speight, who's out long-term with a broken vertebrae in his back. The Wolverines' defense can't do it all. -- Sherman

18. USF: QB Quinton Flowers

It's no secret that the Bulls' chances start and stop with Flowers, who has adjusted well to a new scheme from coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. Flowers has the USF offense ranked No. 5 nationally in scoring (44.8 points per game), No. 5 in rushing (309.2 YPG) and No. 10 in total offense (510.0 YPG). -- Adelson

19. San Diego State: RB Rashaad Penny

If you're looking for one of the toughest runners to stop in the country, you're probably overlooking Penny. That isn't wise, but he isn't getting enough national publicity with the Aztecs. Still, he's the best player on that team and he's second in the country with 993 rushing yards and has nine touchdowns. He also leads the country with 1,325 all-purpose yards through six games. -- Aschoff

20. NC State: DE Bradley Chubb

The entirety of NC State's defensive line is good, but Chubb is at another level. Arguably the best defensive player in the country, Chubb has been a monster for the upstart Wolfpack, and while they'd likely still be a solid defense without him, it's hard to think they'd be real players for the ACC Atlantic. -- Hale

21. Michigan State: LB Joe Bachie

You know how the Spartans are going to win more games like the victory Saturday at Michigan? Just like they did Saturday -- with defense and by limiting mistakes. Bachie, a sophomore, leads the MSU defense from his spot in the middle. On Saturday, he contributed 10 tackles, a sack, an interception and broke up the final Michigan pass in the end zone. More of that might help MSU regain past glory. -- Sherman

22. UCF: QB McKenzie Milton

The engine that makes UCF go is Milton, who has been spectacular this year, completing 68 percent of his throws with 13 TDs and just two interceptions. Given that his backup is a true freshman, Milton is indispensable, and if he continues to play at this level, the Knights are going to make a real run at a New Year's Six berth. -- Hale

23. Stanford: RB Bryce Love

Saquon Barkley might be receiving the most attention at running back this season, but you're crazy if you don't acknowledge the greatness of Love. All he has done is lead the country with 1,240 rushing yards (206.7 YPG), 30 rushes of 10-plus yards -- 20 of which have gone for 20-plus yards (six more than anyone else in the country) -- and have eight of his nine rushing touchdowns come from 20-plus yards out. He's also second nationally with 390 yards after contact. -- Aschoff

24. Texas Tech: WR Keke Coutee

Coutee is the Red Raiders' best playmaker and their top receiver (he leads the Big 12 with 137 all-purpose yards per game), and his absence was felt late in Texas Tech's lone loss to Oklahoma State, when he departed in the third quarter with an injury. He was back in the lineup last week against Kansas, and the Red Raiders will need him to continue his productive ways the rest of the season. -- Khan Jr.

25. Navy: QB Zach Abey

Navy's defense needs major improvement, but as long as Abey keeps playing the way he has, the Midshipmen will have a shot to win every game they play. Abey ranks second nationally in rushing (174.0 yards per game), behind Bryce Love (206.7 YPG), and is the only quarterback among the top seven rushers. -- Adelson