NCAAF
December 1, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

Ranking the 10 Most Improved CFB Players in 2020

It may have been an unusual and somewhat abbreviated college football season, but that hasn’t stopped players flying under the radar from making a name for themselves. In fact, with so many players choosing to opt-out of the season that has been played amidst an ongoing pandemic, the door has been opened for other players to get an opportunity. We’ve also seen plenty of players who we thought were good but not great emerge as bonafide stars. With that in mind, we thought it’d be appropriate to take a look at some of the most improved players in college football this season. Here are the top-10 players in the country who have surprised us this year, but in a good way.

10. Jermar Jefferson, RB, Oregon State

Jermar Jefferson is an interesting case because he rushed for over 1,300 yards as a freshman two seasons ago, and that was on a bad Oregon State team. However, he was forced to take a backseat to Artavis Pierce last year, in part because he missed most of October due to injury. Even when Jefferson played last year, it was clear that Jefferson wasn’t at his best. In nine games, he surpassed 100 yards just three times, all in games against truly dreadful defensive teams.

Jefferson has clearly turned things around in 2020, albeit in just four games thus far. He’s made full use of those games, though, running like a man possessed. Jefferson has already found the end zone seven times and has rushed for a minimum of 120 yards in every game. He saved his best performance for OSU’s rivalry game with Oregon, rushing for 226 yards against the Ducks to lead the Beavers to an upset win.

If this were a 12-game season, Jefferson would be on pace to eclipse 2,000 yards. When he rushed for over 1,300 yards, Jefferson averaged 5.8 yards per carry. But that’s nothing compared to the 7.4 yards per tote he’s averaging this season.

9. Jaelan Phillips, Edge, Miami

If you follow recruiting closely, you should know that it was only a matter of time until Phillips emerged as a difference-maker. After all, he was considered by many to be the top recruit in the country in 2017. Things didn’t work out for him early in his career at UCLA, but after coming to Miami, Phillips has breathed new life into his career and started to blossom into the kind of impact player most presumed he would become one day.

Phillips had only one sack during the 2018 season with UCLA. He then had to sit out the 2019 campaign after transferring. Before the season, the expectations for Phillips were rather modest, especially since he wasn’t even in line to start until Gregory Rousseau opted out of the season. But Phillips has done a great job of filling Rousseau’s shoes.

Through eight games, he’s nearly matched the number of tackles he had in two seasons at UCLA and already set a new career-high with five sacks, which leads the team. His transformation from the 2018 season with UCLA to this year with Miami has been nothing short of incredible.

8. Patrick Surtain II, DB, Alabama

The Alabama defense looked like it had some problems during the early part of the season. But the Crimson Tide has gotten its act together defensively over the last month or so, and Surtain has been a big part of that. The son of a former NFL player is doing the family name proud and putting himself in a position to be a first-round pick in the near future.

Surtain was a starter as a true freshman in 2018 and put together a solid campaign in 2019. However, he’s grown up a lot this season, becoming the undisputed leader of the Alabama secondary. His numbers on the season don’t do his play justice because teams have learned to stay away from him.

Over the past month, he’s more or less taken the opposing team’s best receiver out of the equation, which is a big reason why the Alabama defense has played at an elite level during that span.

7. Ty Fryfogle, WR, Indiana

There are a lot of reasons why Indiana has had such an impressive season, and Fryfogle is one of the biggest. He’s made an incredible leap in his senior season, emerging as Indiana’s best receiver. While quarterback Michael Penix Jr. deserves some of the credit, he’s still not the most accurate passer. However, Fryfogle has managed to make him look good with some spectacular catches that prove he’s a next-level talent.

A year ago, Fryfogle averaged a modest 13.4 yards per catch and scored a meager three touchdowns. This year, he’s already scored seven touchdowns while averaging nearly 20 yards per catch. Frankly, the only proof you need of his growth this season is the Ohio State game when he caught seven passes for 218 yards and three touchdowns. Each touchdown in that game was more impressive than the one that preceded it.

Even in a losing effort, it was an incredible performance by one of the Big Ten’s best receivers.

6. Azeez Ojulari, Edge, Georgia

A year ago, Ojulari was a redshirt freshman who was one of many good players on the Georgia defense. This year, he’s a driving force on one of the best defenses in the SEC. The sophomore has grown up in a hurry, already matching his sack total from last year in fewer games and against a more challenging schedule. On top of that, he’s receiving a lot more attention from opposing offenses but is still leading the Bulldogs in both sacks and quarterback hurries.

Of course, you have to watch the tape to see Ojulari’s full growth. In 2019, he was just a great athlete trying to beat tackles on the edge with his speed and flexibility. However, he’s now a more polished and refined pass rusher who has several maneuvers in his toolbox to get past offensive linemen and create havoc in the backfield.

Ojuliari is still a great athlete, but now he’s a great athlete who knows what he’s doing, which has made him stand out on a great Georgia defense.

5. Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa

Those who follow the AAC should have already been familiar with Collins. He’s been Tulsa’s second-leading tackler in each of the last two seasons, doing a lot of the dirty work for the Golden Hurricanes. But as a redshirt junior, he’s elevated his game to another level. He’s doing everything for a Tulsa defense that’s quietly been one of the best in the country this year.

Collins has stepped up as a pass rusher with four sacks, more than doubling his career total. He’s also shown that he can drop back in coverage, picking off four passes, including two that he’s returned for touchdowns.

Physically, Collins is a freak at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds because he runs like someone who’s two inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter. His unique combination of size and speed has enabled him to round out his game this season and become one of the best linebackers in the country.

A year ago, he was just a guy from a mid-major team who could rack up a lot of tackles. However, given all of the ways he’s improved this season, he’s likely to be an early-round draft pick next year.

4. Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

For the past two seasons, Wilson has looked like a solid game manager who’s capable of making some impressive throws on occasion. However, his 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions in 2019 were largely underwhelming. In other words, he wasn’t on anybody’s radar coming into 2020. But that hasn’t been the case at all this season.

Wilson has exploded onto the scene on an undefeated BYU team, throwing 26 touchdown passes to just two interceptions over nine games. On top of that, he’s improved his completion percentage from 62.4% last year to 74.3% this year. A year ago, he averaged 7.5 yards per pass and this year he’s averaging 11.5 yards per attempt.

Of course, the major caveat for Wilson this year has been BYU’s schedule. The Cougars have crushed everyone and are averaging over 47 points per game. But they’ve yet to face a power-conference team. Instead, they’ve had to impress folks with wins over Troy, UTSA and Texas State.

But if you watch Wilson, he’s making throws that would still cut it against most power-conferences defenses. He also threw for 360 yards and three touchdowns in a 51-17 win over a ranked Boise State team, which is strong evidence that Wilson’s growth in 2020 is for real.

3. Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati

There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Ridder heading into the 2020 season. While he was undoubtedly a gifted athlete, Ridder completed just 55% of his passes last season while averaging a meager 6.7 yards per attempt. Oddly enough, he was far more efficient as a freshman in 2018. However, he’s gotten back on track this season and surpassed his production during his freshman campaign. 

This year, Ridder has improved his completion percentage to 66.5%, doing so while throwing 16 touchdown passes and limiting his turnovers. He’s also an electric athlete who’s become more selective about when he takes off and runs.

A year ago, the Bearcats QB averaged over 10 rushing attempts per game. But in 2020, he’s averaging just over eight while nearly doubling his yards per rush average. There’s no question that he’s become a more mature quarterback, which has helped him become an extremely dangerous dual-threat quarterback.

He also has Cincinnati on track to finish 10-0 and make a case for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

2. Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State

In fairness, Hall had a nice freshman season in 2019. He was Iowa State’s leading rusher with nearly 900 yards, although he couldn’t quite fill the shoes of David Montgomery. However, Hall has taken his game to another level in 2020.

With quarterback Brock Purdy struggling to find consistency and take a step forward, Hall has been the one to step up and lead the Iowa State offense. Hall simply makes the Cyclones go, amassing over 1,200 yards in nine games while finding the end zone 16 times.

Heading into the season, it’d be foolish to think that any running back in the Big 12 would be able to outshine Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard. But Hall has done just that, leaving Hubbard and every other running back in the conference in the dust. He currently ranks second nationally in total rushing yards, making it difficult to find a running back who’s improved more than him.

1. Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Mac Jones is just a game manager who will never be able to match what Tua Tagovailoa did for the Crimson Tide. That’s what most people were saying about the Alabama quarterback before the season. Frankly, it’s a little insulting but it wouldn’t have been that off base. But fast forward a couple of months and Jones has proven all of his critics wrong to the extent that he’s a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.

It clearly helps that Jones has arguably the best wide receiving corps in the country at his disposal. But even after Alabama lost Jaylen Waddle to a season-ending injury, Jones and the Alabama offense haven’t skipped a beat.

To date, Jones is averaging more than 340 yards per game with 23 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. That’s some serious damage, especially when you consider that he’s averaging 12 yards per pass. Keep in mind Alabama has played an all-SEC schedule this season, so it’s not like he racked up yards against a couple of Sun Belt teams, either.

Jones has been sensational all season and is our choice for the most improved player in the country.

Photo: Getty Images