College football's best players for 2018 season

Murray's Heisman season filled with highlights (1:15)

After throwing for 40 touchdowns and leading the Sooners to the Big 12 title, Kyler Murray got Oklahoma back to the CFP. (1:15)

Who were the best college football players in 2018?

It all starts with a pair of record-setting quarterbacks who came into the year with four combined starts between them. Oklahoma's Kyler Murray was No. 37 on the preseason list, while Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa was No. 11. To a lot of people, that was too high. Turns out, we weren't nearly optimistic enough. Here's the full preseason list.

And remember, this is about what players did in 2018, not their talent level or NFL draft prospects. So players like Nick Bosa, Ed Oliver and Rashan Gary do not appear.

To get the final ranking, we had our expert panel vote on pairs of players. Jonathan Taylor vs. Christian Wilkins. Will Grier vs. Quinnen Williams. We did this thousands of times, asking, "Which player was better in 2018?" To decide, voters had to consider both the quality and the quantity of each player's contributions to his team's ability to win games.

QB, Oklahoma
Class: Junior
Key stat: 4,053 passing yards and 40 touchdowns

Not only did Murray win the Heisman Trophy and lead Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff, he produced one of the best individual statistical seasons in recent college football history. Murray posted a QBR of 96.0, which is the highest rating of any FBS player since ESPN began tracking the statistic 14 years ago. Murray is also on pace to shatter Baker Mayfield's FBS passing efficiency record. If the Sooners have any chance of upsetting Alabama, it will be because of Murray, yet another special quarterback to pass through Norman.

QB, Alabama
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: 3,353 passing yards and a 94.2 QBR

With an undefeated record, 37 touchdowns and four interceptions, it's no wonder the sophomore quarterback won the Maxwell and Walter Camp awards. All season long, he was flawless, making pinpoint passes look routine. If not for a so-so performance against Georgia in the SEC championship game and a remarkable season by Murray, he might have taken the Heisman Trophy too.

QB, Ohio State
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: Big Ten-record 47 touchdown passes

Haskins broke the Big Ten single-season touchdown pass record that was set by Drew Brees and was named the conference's quarterback of the year and offensive player of the year. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy after throwing for 4,580 yards and 47 touchdowns with only eight interceptions.

DT, Alabama
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: 43 total QB pressures

You'll be forgiven if you didn't know his name prior to this season. The redshirt sophomore was in the shadow of Da'Ron Payne the last few years, but Williams didn't take long to become a household name this season. Inserted into the starting lineup, he made an immediate impact and didn't have a single game in which he didn't make a jaw-dropping play. His 18 tackles for loss and eight sacks only tell part of the story of college football's most disruptive defender.

DT, Clemson
Class: Senior
Key stat: 52 tackles, 2 rushing touchdowns

There might not be a freakier athlete in college football than Wilkins, the 300-pound defensive tackle who has lined up as an edge rusher, run for two touchdowns, been a lead blocker on goal-line packages, worked as a safety in Clemson's spring game and has lobbied his coach all season to play some quarterback. Of course, Wilkins' full-time gig is in the middle of the D-line, where he has been one of the most disruptive forces in the country for four years.

RB, Memphis
Class: Junior
Key stat: 1,909 rushing yards; 8.9 yards per carry

Henderson needs just 91 yards in the bowl game to reach 2,000 for the season, and that should come pretty easily -- if he plays. The Memphis junior has nine games with at least 130 yards on the ground this season already, and his 8.9 yards per carry is the best rate by any back in the nation. For the year, he has totaled 150 yards and multiple touchdowns in eight different games, tied for the most by any player in the past decade and three more than any other running back this season.

QB, West Virginia
Class: Senior
Key stat: 3,864 passing yards, 9.73 yards per attempt

Though he didn't get the invite to New York, Grier finished fourth in the Heisman voting after a spectacular final season with the Mountaineers. He ended the year third in the FBS with 351 passing yards per game, and despite playing in only 11 games, he tied for third with 37 touchdown passes. Grier passed for more than 300 yards in 10 of those 11 games, including 400 or more twice and a career-high 539 in a shootout loss against Oklahoma, his final game in Morgantown. Grier announced he would be skipping West Virginia's bowl game against Syracuse to begin preparing for the NFL draft.


Kentucky's Allen wins Bednarik Award for best defensive player

After registering 14 sacks and 84 tackles, Wildcats LB Josh Allen wins the Bednarik Award for Defensive Player of the Year.

LB, Kentucky
Class: Senior
Key stat: 84 tackles and 14 sacks

Unquestionably one of the nation's best defensive players this season, Allen took home both the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy. He led the SEC in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (18.5), and he forced five fumbles, broke up four passes and had six tackles for loss. He was the anchor for a good Kentucky defense that was the biggest reason for the Wildcats' special season.

QB, Washington State
Class: Senior
Key stat: 4,477 passing yards

At one point Minshew appeared on his way to Alabama to sit behind Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts and prepare for a career in coaching. Instead, he went to Wazzu, where he led the nation in passing in the regular season, finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and turned into an NFL prospect.

DT, Clemson
Class: Junior
Key stat: No. 5 pick in Todd McShay's first mock draft

At 350 pounds, it's almost unfair the way Lawrence can move. He's a force in the middle of Clemson's star-studded D-line, racking up 37 tackles -- including 7.5 for a loss -- and seven QB hurries to go with three pass breakups. That his numbers aren't more eye-popping is a credit to the talent around him, but on pure size and ability, there might not be an interior lineman in the country with more upside than Lawrence.

OT, Alabama
Class: Junior
Key stat: No. 6 pick in McShay's first mock draft

Right-handed quarterback? Left-handed quarterback? Running game? Passing game? It doesn't matter. Williams has blocked for Tagovailoa and Hurts and paved the way for 20 single-game 100-yard rushers in his three seasons at Alabama. And he has started all 42 games in his career. This season, the Outland Trophy finalist was the anchor of a line that ranks 10th in the FBS in sacks allowed at just 1.0 per game.

DE, Clemson
Class: Junior
Key stat: 10.5 sacks; No. 4 in McShay's mock

Few pass-rushers have tormented opposing QBs as often or with such ferocity as Ferrell, the Tigers' standout defensive end. Ferrell's 10.5 sacks rank eighth nationally, while his 17 tackles for loss tied for the ACC lead. He also broke up three passes, forced two fumbles and had seven QB hurries to round out his stat line. His 26 sacks over the past three seasons ranks as the second most by a Power 5 defender.

WR, Alabama
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: 1,103 receiving yards and 12 TDs

First there was Amari Cooper. Then Calvin Ridley. And now it's Jerry Jeudy's turn to fill the role of Alabama's top receiver from South Florida. The sophomore who grew up in the same area as Cooper and Ridley is every bit the same caliber player, with 59 receptions for 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has only dropped five passes all season and is averaging nearly 8 yards after the catch.

RB, Clemson
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: 1,463 rushing yards and 21 TDs

In his sophomore season, Etienne dominated the competition, running for 1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns despite having 12 or fewer carries in nine of the Tigers' 13 games. His 8.3 yards-per-rush average was among the best in the nation, nearly one in 10 carries went for 25 yards or more, and his touchdown rate of one for every 8.4 carries was the best by any qualified running back this season.

Class: Sophomore
Key stat: No. 8 pick in McShay's mock draft

The All-American and future first-round NFL draft pick was stellar in coverage this year, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete a meager 32 percent of their pass attempts against him. He had two interceptions, nine pass breakups and was part of yet another exceptional Tigers secondary.

RB, Wisconsin
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: 1,989 rushing yards

All Taylor has done in two seasons at Wisconsin is rush for 3,966 yards, more than any player ahead of his junior season in FBS history. He leads the FBS this year with 165.8 rushing yards per game and needs 11 yards to reach 2,000 this season after he became the third sophomore to win the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back. And Taylor is nothing if not consistent, topping 100 yards in 21 of 26 career games.

Class: Junior
Key stat: 115 tackles; No. 11 in McShay's mock

The Tigers' best player was also one of the nation's best, taking home the Butkus Award. He finished second in the SEC with 115 tackles and had 12 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries, 5 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles and was the unquestioned leader of a stellar Tigers defense.

DE, Mississippi State
Class: Senior
Key stat: 11 sacks; No. 15 in McShay's mock

If not for the star turn of Kentucky's Josh Allen, we might have been discussing Sweat as the most disruptive pass-rusher in the SEC. Over the last two seasons, you could argue that he has actually been slightly better, with 21.5 sacks to Allen's 21. Sweat made a habit out of living in opponents' backfields this season with 13.5 tackles for loss. His 11 sacks ranked sixth among all players in the FBS.

LB, Washington
Class: Senior
Key stat: 165 total tackles

On the nation's No. 5-ranked scoring defense, Burr-Kirven was everywhere. He led the Pac-12 with an astonishing 165 tackles and forced four fumbles, recovered three fumbles and intercepted a pair of passes. An ESPN All-American, he was named both the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year and the conference's football Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Class: Junior
Key stat: 2,663 passing yards and 34 total touchdowns

Though Milton sustained a devastating leg injury in the regular-season finale, he had another incredible season. Milton became the first two-time American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 2,663 yards and 25 touchdowns, while adding 307 yards rushing and nine touchdowns on the ground (tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns). He made the transition under new coach Josh Heupel look easy, and he won all 10 of his starts and was instrumental in helping the Knights extend their nation-leading win streak to 25 games.

CB, Notre Dame
Class: Junior
Key stat: Set Notre Dame record for pass breakups

The Chicago native is one of just three cornerbacks in Notre Dame history to be named a consensus All-American. He set the school record for career pass breakups earlier this year and is the frontman for a secondary that has allowed only seven passing touchdowns this season.

LB, Michigan
Class: Junior
Key stat: 80 tackles and 5 sacks; No. 21 in McShay's mock

Bush was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year after an outstanding season, tallying 80 tackles and five sacks. He was a standout on one of the top defenses in the nation and an emotional leader for the team. Bush's aggressive style and hard-hitting mentality fit right in with defensive coordinator Don Brown's blitzing defense.

WR, Purdue
Class: Freshman
Key stat: FBS-high 103 receptions

The most decorated freshman nationally, Moore leads the FBS with 103 receptions, the second-highest figure ever for a Big Ten player. His 1,164 receiving yards also led the Big Ten. A threat to score from anywhere on the field, Moore got his hands on the ball 162 times in 2018, averaging 12.6 yards per touch with 30 plays that went for 20 yards or more en route to winning the Paul Hornung Award.

CB, Georgia
Class: Senior
Key stat: 31 tackles, two INTs; No. 16 in McShay mock

The Thorpe Award winner consistently blanketed opposing teams' top receivers and did it well. Opposing quarterbacks completed only 45.5 percent of their passes against Baker, and he yielded no touchdowns. He intercepted two passes, defended 12, forced a fumble, had 31 tackles and two for losses.

WR, Oklahoma
Class: Junior
Key stat: 1,318 receiving yards; No. 18 in McShay mock

Nicknamed "Hollywood" for his Florida hometown, Brown has been college football's pre-eminent speed receiver over the last two seasons. This year, he's averaging 8.7 yards after the catch, which tops the Big 12's loaded receiving contingent, to go along with 75 receptions, 1,318 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, while excelling as the top playmaker alongside Murray for the nation's No. 1 offense. Coming off a lower-leg injury in the Big 12 title game, Brown will need to be his blazing self for the Sooners to have a chance at knocking off Alabama.

DB, Alabama
Class: Junior
Key stat: 63 tackles; No. 25 in McShay mock

No one was going to replace Minkah Fitzpatrick single-handedly, but Thompson came as close as anyone in Tuscaloosa could have hoped for. The first-time starter didn't play like one, showing the range and ball skills that make him a possible first-round pick. He has certainly been an All-SEC- and All-America-caliber safety this season, with 63 tackles, 3 forced fumbles and 5 pass breakups.

Class: Sophomore
Key stat: 5 sacks and 5 interceptions

The sophomore had a breakout season, drawing comparisons to former LSU safety great Jamal Adams. Delpit found himself in the right place at the right time most of the time, leading the SEC in interceptions with 5, and he had 73 tackles, 9 for losses, 5 sacks, 9 pass breakups, 4 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

DT, Mississippi State
Class: Junior
Key stat: 14.5 tackles for loss; No. 24 in McShay mock

Don't let the lack of sacks fool you. Getting to the quarterback as he has done six times over the last two seasons is just part of Simmons' job at defensive tackle. You have to register his impact in other ways. You can see it in his 26.5 tackles for loss the last two seasons or the fact that he was the anchor of the No. 1 scoring defense in the FBS this season.

QB, Penn State
Class: Senior
Key stat: 2,284 passing yards; 27 total TDs

It's far less exhausting to recite the QB standards at Penn State that McSorley didn't redefine than to review his rewriting of the record books -- headlined by his school marks for wins, passing yardage and total offense. A finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors for a third straight season, a first for a PSU quarterback, and led the league as a senior in yards per completion at 13.1.

WR, UMass
Class: Senior
Key stat: FBS-best 1,698 receiving yards

The talented slot receiver, perhaps an inch or so short of his listed 5-foot-10, played like a giant for the 4-8 Minutemen. He caught at least four passes in every game as a senior, including a 45-yard touchdown at Georgia for his last collegiate catch. Isabella's 1,698 yards led the FBS on 102 receptions with 13 scores. He was a second-team All-America selection by the AP and earned his spot as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award.

Class: Senior
Key stat: 14.5 tackles for loss

Winovich made his presence felt on the field, and he didn't shy away from talking about it off the field either. The senior dubbed this season the "Revenge Tour" for the Wolverines, and despite not being named a captain, he was certainly one of the team's leaders. He came off the edge in Michigan's defense and finished the season with 62 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. He was disruptive in the backfield and tormented quarterbacks throughout the entire season.

WR, West Virginia
Class: Senior
Key stat: Power 5-best 15 TD receptions

Once again, Sills was a touchdown-catching machine for one of college football's top passing attacks. An All-Big 12 selection by both ESPN and the league's coaches, Sills led all Power 5 players with 15 touchdown receptions, to go with 61 catches and 896 receiving yards. Over the last two seasons, Sills has produced 33 receiving touchdowns; no other FBS player has more than 25 over the same span.

WR, Oklahoma State
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: Third-most receiving yards in FBS at 1,408

Wallace established himself as one of the top pass-catchers in college football with a monster finish to the season. Over four consecutive weeks against then-No. 6 Texas, Baylor, No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 9 West Virginia, Wallace put up 35 catches for 626 yards and 7 touchdowns, including the winner against the Mountaineers. After ending the regular season third nationally with 117 receiving yards per game, Wallace will open next year as a favorite to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's most outstanding receiver.

S, Washington
Class: Junior
Key stat: 59 tackles and five sacks

An ESPN All-American, Rapp has been a dominant force in the Huskies' secondary for three seasons. After being named the conference's Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2016, he was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2017 before turning in another outstanding season this year as part of one of the best defenses in the country. Rapp has 59 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries this season.

QB, Georgia
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: 27 TDs and just 5 INTs

A steady hand at the game's most important position, Fromm did exactly what the Bulldogs needed him to: He was accurate (SEC-best 68.4 percent completion rate), he made big throws (his 27 touchdowns were second-most in the SEC; his 9.3-yards-per-attempt average was third in the conference), and he took care of the ball (only five interceptions).

DE, Florida State
Class: Junior
Key stat: 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss

Even though the Seminoles had a disappointing season, Burns was a dominant force on the defensive line, tying for ninth in the nation with 10 sacks while adding 15.5 tackles for loss. Both were career highs. In addition, Burns had three forced fumbles and became a standout in a league filled with top-tier talent at defensive end.

QB, Notre Dame
Class: Junior
Key stat: Threw for at least 260 yards in every start

The quarterback change that landed Book in the starting lineup transformed the Irish from a good team to a playoff team. He opened up new options for Chip Long's offense while finishing the season ranked in the top 10 nationally in completion percentage (70.4), yards per attempt (8.8) and passer rating (162.5).

DT, Miami
Class: Senior
Key stat: ACC-best 18 tackles for loss

Willis transferred from Florida to Miami a few seasons ago and had mostly made headlines for all the wrong reasons. But coaches saw a more focused, committed Willis starting in the spring and projected a big season. What they ended up getting was a force on the interior of their line, starting in the opener against LSU. Willis led the ACC with 18 tackles for loss and finished fourth on his team with 59 tackles.

WR, Arizona State
Class: Junior
Key stat: 1,088 receiving yards and eight TDs

Arguably the most talented receiver in the country, Harry was a human highlight reel, catching 73 passes for 1,088 yards with 8 touchdowns. He will skip the Sun Devils' appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl to avoid risk of injury ahead of the NFL draft, in which he has the potential to be a first-round pick and possibly the top receiver selected.

DL, Notre Dame
Class: Senior
Key stat: 10.5 tackles for loss; No. 28 in McShay mock

The 305-pound senior embodies the growth and maturity of a Notre Dame defensive line that has improved as much as any group in South Bend during the last couple years. Tillery's team-leading eight sacks from an interior position make it hard for opponents to scheme against a pass rush that rarely needs to send more than four players after the quarterback.

LB, Boston College
Class: Senior
Key stat: 15 tackles for loss; No. 31 in McShay mock

Allen had a standout performance on a defense filled with playmakers, leading his team with 15 tackles for loss while finishing second on his team with 6.5 sacks and adding 11 quarterback hurries. His big-time performance is not isolated to this season: Allen ranks in the top 10 in school history in career tackles for loss and sacks. He earned second-team All-ACC honors this season.

RB, Kentucky
Class: Junior
Key stat: 1,305 rushing yards and 14 TDs

The Wildcats' best offensive player and one of the key pieces to their stellar season, Snell was second in the SEC in rushing (1,305 yards, 14 touchdowns). He ran for more than 100 yards six times and was a workhorse, averaging 21.9 carries per game, the highest such average in the conference.

OT, Kansas State
Class: Senior
Key stat: Started 50 of K-State's last 51 games

Risner is one of the most accomplished offensive linemen in college football. A four-year starter for the Wildcats, Risner was named a first-team All-American by ESPN and was also named the co-Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year by the league's coaches. With Risner anchoring the right bookend, the Wildcats finished second only to Oklahoma in Big 12 play with 184 rushing yards per game.

QB, Oregon
Class: Junior
Key stat: 2,985 passing yards; No. 7 in McShay mock

Herbert has yet to declare for the NFL draft, but if he does, he will likely position himself to be the first quarterback selected. Though he fought bouts of inconsistency, Herbert finished tied for 10th nationally with 28 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions, while throwing for 2,985 yards.

DT, Auburn
Class: Junior
Key stat: 9.5 tackles for loss; No. 22 in McShay mock

If you want to know why Auburn had a top-20 scoring defense this season, look no further than Brown, who is as good against the run as he is rushing the passer. The star defensive lineman anchors the unit, registering the most tackles among linemen on the team (45). His 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks are only part of why he's considered a likely first-round draft pick.

RB, Georgia
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: 1,037 rushing yards, 10 TDs

The aptly named running back was a difficult one to catch for opposing defenses, averaging 6.69 yards per rush and finishing third in the conference with 1,037 yards and 10 touchdowns. Swift even attained those numbers despite battling various injuries throughout the first half of the season. He was a key part of the Bulldogs' stretch run to the SEC championship game, rushing for 100-plus yards in four of Georgia's last five regular-season games.

OT, Clemson
Class: Senior
Key stat: More career snaps than anyone in Clemson history

There has been no steadier force on the Clemson offensive line the last four seasons than Hyatt, who won the ACC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy for the second straight year as the league's most outstanding blocker. Hyatt has played in more snaps from scrimmage than any player in school history and made the All-ACC first team for the third straight season.

WR, Ohio State
Class: Senior
Key stat: 992 receiving yards and 11 TDs

Campbell was a reliable outlet for quarterback Dwayne Haskins throughout the season, averaging 12.5 yards per reception. The senior had 992 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, which is tied for the most receiving scores on the team. Campbell's most productive game of the season came against rival Michigan, when he caught six passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns in the 62-39 win.

CB, Washington
Class: Sophomore
Key stat: Four interceptions, 13 pass breakups

Throwing in Murphy's direction was a rarity this season, but he still finished with four interceptions, including one he returned 66 yards for the only touchdown in the Pac-12 title game. He ranks sixth nationally with 13 pass breakups and helped anchor a defense that allowed just nine passing touchdowns all season (only three teams allowed fewer).

RB, Notre Dame
Class: Senior
Key stat: 941 rushing yards in eight games

After missing the first four games of the season, Williams added an extra burst to Notre Dame's offense thanks to his mixture of speed and power that can turn any of his carries into a big play. During a breakout season that was far from guaranteed, Williams ran for 941 yards and 12 touchdowns to keep pace with some of the nation's best backs once he got back on the field.

Writeups by Andrea Adelson, Kyle Bonagura, David M. Hale, Sam Khan Jr., Dan Murphy, Alex Scarborough, Mitch Sherman, Jake Trotter and Tom VanHaaren. Balloting conducted by Etan Green, Assistant Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions at the Wharton School.