NCAAF
August 29, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

Who Will Be This Year's Breakout Stars in College Football?

One of the amazing things about college football is that the rosters are in a constant state of flux from one season to the next. When players graduate or move onto the NFL, they open up opportunities for new players to make a name for themselves. The result is in a crop of new star players.

Even with a few conferences suspending action during this fall, there will be no shortage of young players who blossom into stars seemingly overnight. For the moment, a lot of these players aren’t household names, but let’s check out 10 college football players who figure to be the breakout stars of the 2020 campaign.

David Bailey, Boston College

Between Andre Williams and AJ Dillon, Boston College is quietly becoming a haven for outstanding running backs. Bailey scared teams as Dillon’s backup last year, rushing for 844 yards and seven touchdowns.

Bailey projects to do a ton of damage as he moves into the starting lineup and becomes the focal point of the Boston College offense. 

There will be some changes to the offense with Jeff Hafley taking over for Steve Addazio, a coach who loved to establish the run. But with the Eagles bringing back one of the best offensive lines in the ACC, Bailey will get plenty of touches. He has an opportunity to become one of the league’s top playmakers.

Sam Howell, North Carolina

Most of the ACC was introduced to Howell last year, as he made waves as a true freshman while throwing for over 3,600 yards and 38 touchdowns. He also limited himself to just seven interceptions, helping the Tar Heels turn things around in Mack Brown’s first season back in Chapel Hill.

Howell didn’t look like a true freshman who was over his head last year. He and the Tar Heels played a lot of close games and found a way to win a few of them. There’s no doubting Howell’s talent, and now he brings a fair amount of experience to the table. 

The Tar Heels are projected to be one of the better teams in the nation this year, largely because Howell could be the best quarterback in the ACC this side of Trevor Lawrence.

If that’s the case, he’ll emerge as a star on the national stage.

Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss

Lane Kiffin has a ton of work to do at Ole Miss, but he’ll at least have one star he can give the ball to time after time. Ealy was a five-star running back prospect coming out of high school and led the Rebels in rushing as a true freshman last season. He also showed the ability to make plays as a receiver.

With John Rhys Plumlee at quarterback, the Ole Miss offense is going to focus heavily on the running game, which should lead to Ealy getting a ton of touches. After experiencing some success as a freshman, he’ll be ready to announce himself as one of the best running backs in the SEC in 2020.

John Metchie, Alabama

The conveyor belt of wide receivers at Alabama isn’t stopping any time soon, with Metchie being the next in line. With Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs in the NFL, it’ll be Metchie joining the starting lineup alongside Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. 

The sophomore from Canada was the MVP of Alabama’s spring game in 2019, which tells you everything you need to know about his talent.

It also proves that he’ll be ready when his opportunity comes.

While not a speedster, he’s a physical receiver who can make catches in traffic. More than anything, Metchie’s skillset will be a great complement to Smith and Waddle. The Crimson Tide will need him in 2020, making it only a matter of time until he becomes a household name like some of the other great Alabama receivers of the past decade.

Eric Gray, Tennessee

The talent at Tennessee among underclassmen is off the charts, and that includes Gray. While still listed as the backup to senior Ty Chandler, it might be only a matter of time until Gray is the starting running back in Knoxville. He finished his freshman season with 539 rushing yards, although he did most of his damage late in the season. He tallied 246 rushing yards to close out the regular season against Vanderbilt and added 86 more in the Gator Bowl against Indiana.

Talent-wise, he’s the best option Tennessee has a running back this year. With the Vols having one of the best offensive lines in the SEC, the stars are aligned for Gray to have a breakout season.

Sam Hartman, Wake Forest

Hartman has an interesting story. He was pressed into duty as a true freshman in 2018, holding his own with 16 touchdown passes. Ultimately, he helped the Demon Deacons qualify for a bowl game before suffering a season-ending injury. However, he was Jamie Newman’s backup last season after Newman impressed late in 2018 and remained the starter in 2019.

Hartman played in just four games, allowing him to take a redshirt season. Now, he’s back in the starting lineup and should be ready to pick up where he left off in 2018. Hartman will miss star receiver Sage Surratt, who opted out of the current campaign. 

Joseph Ossai, Texas

It’s been a while since Texas had a truly dominant linebacker, but Ossai could be just that. As a sophomore last year, he amassed 90 tackles and five sacks for a defense that had plenty of ups and downs. After a standout performance against Utah in the Alamo Bowl, picking up six tackles for loss, Ossai is on the radar as one of the best linebackers in the Big 12.

As a unit, the Texas defense is expected to be much-improved in 2020. If that happens, expect Ossai to be a big part of that.

Henry To’o To’o, Tennessee

This may not be the easiest name to say, but it’s one you’ll want to learn. The sophomore linebacker was one of the best true freshman defensive players in the country last year, starting 12 games and finishing second on Tennessee in tackles.  

True freshmen don't usually start at linebacker for Tennessee, so you know To’o To’o is something special.

Between stopping the run and handling himself in coverage, he can do it all, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be even better this season. In fact, To’o To’o is one of the biggest reasons why Tennessee could take a big step forward in 2020.

George Pickens, Georgia

Quietly, Pickens was Georgia’s leading receiver last season, catching 49 passes for 727 yards and eight touchdowns. Of course, it’s easy for the passing game to be overlooked on such a high-powered rushing attack. However, with Jamie Newman set to be the starting quarterback and D’Andre Swift no longer in the backfield, the Bulldogs are likely to throw the ball a lot more in 2020. That should open the door for Pickens to step to the forefront as one of the top wide receivers in the SEC.

As a freshman, Pickens showed that he catches everything thrown to him and is capable of making spectacular plays. With a quarterback who'll push the ball down the field, Pickens is in line to make a ton of plays and put up some impressive numbers this season.

Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma

To be fair, a lot of people have heard Rattler’s name. But most have yet to see him play, as he threw just seven passes in mop-up duty while redshirting last season. Despite having massive shoes to fill with Oklahoma producing two of the last three Heisman Trophy winners, the hype train for the young quarterback is moving full steam ahead.  

By all accounts, Rattler has the talent to be as good as any of his predecessors.

Plus, in Lincoln Riley’s offense, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be able to post some impressive numbers. Whether he’s good enough to bring Oklahoma another Big 12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff remains to be seen. But he’s undoubtedly someone with star potential who college football fans should make it a point of watching early in the season.

Photo: Getty Images