No player in America outside of College Station, Texas, is entering the season with as much hype as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
The junior from Rock Hill, S.C., finished last season with 54 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and a school-record 13 sacks; and his hit on Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl has been featured on highlight reels all winter and spring.
Where does the most dominant defender in the game place in terms of college football's best players in 2013?
Fourth, according to Matt Hayes of Sporting News.
Beng mentioned anywhere in the top 10 is an extremely high honor. But Clowney being ranked fourth is awfully low considering ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. told the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press that Clowney would have been the No. 1 pick in the most recent draft had he been eligible and in the top five after his true freshman season in Columbia.
I've seen enough on Clowney to know he would have been the guaranteed No. 1 pick this year. With another great year, he's the No. 1 pick next year. He would have been the No. 3 or No. 4 pick last year after his freshman season.
Despite being talented in their own right, none of the three players in front of him—Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and Georgia running back Todd Gurley—can come close to that kind of praise.
But therein lies the challenge.
How do you compare defensive ends to quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs? It's not even comparing apples to oranges because those positions aren't related at all. It's comparing apples to hamburgers.
Clowney's Outback Bowl performance versus Michigan is used as an example of why he's ranked "so low." His hit on Smith made highlights, but Hayes points out that he was held in check by Wolverines' offensive tackle Taylor Lewan.
That's fair, but it can work both ways.
Clowney finished the Georgia game with four tackles, two for a loss and one sack. But watch that game and you'll see that he was all over the field for the full 60 minutes, made a living in the backfield and made Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray's life difficult.
But to say that Clowney's "not close" to being the No. 1 player in college football?
That's a bit of a reach.
Whether he's shut down for most of a bowl game or harassing a quarterback for 60 minutes, Clowney demands an extraordinary amount of attention from the opposing offense. That's a huge benefit to the defense whether he makes a direct impact on the game or not.
In terms of pure talent, he's the best player in college football. Why else would he be almost universally regarded as the top pick in the draft, no matter which team has the pick?
Does he have the flash of Manziel? No. But you could make the argument that, as a defensive end, he's as close as you can get.
Does he have a direct impact on the scoreboard like Lee and Gurley? No. But one touchdown might drastically change that perception and cement him in the top spot.
It's an interesting debate, and one that doesn't have a real answer.
Ranking a quarterback No. 1—especially one as dynamic as Manziel—makes sense due to his impact on the game.
But defense wins championships, and a front four led by Clowney has a great chance to be a championship defense due to the attention he demands.
That's good enough for me.
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