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College Football Players with Most Pressure on Their Shoulders in 2014

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2014

College Football Players with Most Pressure on Their Shoulders in 2014

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Pressure is derived from stakes. The more you have at stake, the more pressure you are under; the more you have to lose, the more you need to win.

    Because of the way we talk about football, quarterbacks are almost always under more pressure than their counterparts at other positions. They are the ones whose legacies are tainted by the stain of non-accomplishment, who live with the burden of never having won "the big one" during college.

    I'll give you an example. Adrian Peterson was one of the best running backs in college football history. His numbers are deflated because he only played three years and suffered a couple of injuries, but when he was on the field, there was almost nothing like him.

    Because he played running back, though, we tend to forget that he was 0-2 in BCS bowl games, losing the national championship game by 36 points to USC as a freshman and the Fiesta Bowl against Boise State as a junior. But no one brings any of that up, and when he got to the NFL—where he has still yet to win anything of import—Peterson was not labeled someone with a monkey on his back.

    Compare this with how we talk about Peyton Manning. He always came up short in college, and if not for his one Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, he would still be regarded among the greatest losers of all-time, alongside other quarterbacks such as Dan Marino.

    Which is to say: There's a reason this list skews toward quarterbacks. They do not make up the entire list, but they make up most of the list, and they do so with purpose.

    In some cases, they need to justify their old recruiting ranking. In others, they already have by putting up big stats...but now only winning will ensure their name gets remembered fondly.

    The pressure has been cranked up to 10.

9. DE Vic Beasley, Clemson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Vic Beasley left some a lot of money on the table this winter, choosing to return for his senior season instead of declaring for the 2014 NFL draft (where he probably would have been a first-round pick).

    But the team Beasley returns to find is unlike any he has seen in Death Valley. Gone are Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, and replacing them are a cast of unproven players. Chad Morris is still roaming the sideline, but there is genuine reason to expect regression—in a big way—from this offense.

    For the first time in what seems like forever, Clemson's defense will need to be the unit that carries the team—and Beasley is the man who must carry the defense. Coming off an All-American season that saw him post 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss, even a modest dip in production might send Clemson down to eight or seven wins.

    If that is what happens, won't it make Beasley's return feel kind of moot? And that's without even mentioning the effect it could have on his draft stock, which will be harmed if he has trouble or posts unremarkable numbers against what are sure to be frequent double-teams.

    It wouldn't be the first time that's happened to a returning All-American defensive end from South Carolina.

8. QB Bo Wallace, Ole Miss

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Now is supposed to be a special era of Ole Miss football. Even after losing Jeff Scott and Donte Moncrief, and even with the legal issues surrounding the Nkemdiche brothers, 2014 is expected to be the year Hugh Freeze and his team jump from "competitive" to "contenders."

    The biggest aid to that leap would be improved play from quarterback Bo Wallace. Likewise, however, the biggest threat to that leap would be if Wallace has not improved.

    He has shown flashes of brilliant play and is the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, but Wallace has had trouble reeling in his accuracy and turns the ball over at a rate that is not conducive to winning 10-plus games. That can no longer be the case going forward.

    Has his bum shoulder indeed healed this offseason, as he suggested to ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff? (Wallace is, after all, a doctor of sorts, so it seems like he should know.) Or has that always been an excuse, and are the turnovers a product of his own inconsistent mechanics and carelessness when reading defenses?

    The answer might define Mississippi's season.

7. RB Duke Johnson, Miami

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Duke Johnson is the only non-quarterback offensive player on this list, and he may not have even been included here if not for something that happened to a quarterback on his team—specifically, the torn ACL of presumed starter Ryan Williams.

    Johnson will not be eased back from the ankle injury that cost him most of last season. Miami made that clear when it moved his backup, Dallas Crawford, to safety before spring practice. This is Johnson's position, Johnson's offense and, really, Johnson's team.

    That is a rare position for a running back to find himself in, which is why Johnson has been included on this list. If he stays healthy and plays like an older, more-seasoned version of the freshman who took college football by storm two seasons ago, Miami still has a chance to win the ACC Coastal. If he doesn't...well, the team has no shot.

    That's a lot to put on a 5'9'' player's shoulders. 

6. QB Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati

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    This won't be Gunner Kiel's last chance. If he plays decent enough but unremarkable football this season, he still has eligibility left to revive his career in 2015. Unless he bombs (or succeeds) in a noteworthy way, there will be at least one more season of Gunner.

    However, this might be the last time any of us will be paying attention, and Kiel cannot afford to fritter away that spotlight. One might even say we're expecting him to be great.

    That holds doubly true after watching him go 17-of-22 for 300 yards in the Bearcats' spring game. There is no reason to think someone with Kiel's arm talent—he was a top-30 overall prospect on the247Sports Composite three years ago—cannot find success for a team that has consistently been good since 2006 (save the one exception in 2010).

    Kiel has taken a long, tedious journey to get here, committing to Indiana and LSU before enrolling in and transferring from Notre Dame, but he finally has what appears to be a starting job (depending on the health of Munchie Legaux) at the FBS level.

    Now, pray, what will he be able to do with it?

5. QB Trevor Knight, Oklahoma

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    Alonzo Adams

    Trevor Knight did not look good in Oklahoma's spring game Saturday, completing just 5 of 14 passes for 53 yards.

    In most cases, that is not a huge problem for a returning starting quarterback, as the spring game is merely a glorified scrimmage held four months before the season. However, Knight also did not look good in many of OU's games last season, losing his job more than once to Blake Bell—who is now at tight end—before ending on a (disproportionately) high note against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

    With so much talent returning on defense, Oklahoma has hopes of making the College Football Playoff. Knight is the key to getting it there: If he turns out to be a one-game wonder—the college football version of Right Said Fred—the Sooners will be hard-pressed to even win the conference, much less finish with the no- or one-loss record it will probably take to reach their goals.

    And with spring game star Baker Mayfield, who threw for more than 2,300 yards at Texas Tech as a walk-on freshman last season, waiting in the wings behind him, anything other than a Big-12 title might thrust Knight into another QB battle next spring.

4. QB Jeff Driskel, Florida

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    USA TODAY Sports

    We—or at least I—have been content to blame Jeff Driskel's failures on the offense. It was Will Muschamp and Brent Pease's fault for using him wrong, not his own.

    But now, with Pease out and former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper in, the former top-16 overall recruit in the country (per the 247Sports Composite) has no more excuses remaining. It's time for him to stop being so...whatever he's been to date.

    The early returns from spring camp sound good. The offense has been faster, and Driskel has gotten to play from the shotgun, where he belongs. "We did have a great spring," Driskel said, according to Jeff Barlis of ESPN.com. "We felt like it's a new start, and there's something about [the offense] where you can get rolling."

    That's all honky dory, but until we see it play out in fall, the world won't believe in a revitalized Gators offense—or quarterback. We've seen and heard this dance and song before. Driskel and his teammates have a whole mess of proving left to do.

3. Unnamed Alabama Starting Quarterback

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    USA TODAY Sports

    This slide is a bit of a copout and will not come with a prediction on who will win the job between (primarily) Jacob Coker, Blake Sims, Alec Morris and Cooper Bateman.

    With respect to this list, it doesn't matter a lick either way.

    What matters is who that guy will be replacing, namely AJ McCarron. What matters is who that guy will have around him, namely Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. What matters is who that guy will be coached by, namely Nick Saban and (yes, even) Lane Kiffin.

    Whoever wins this job will be a first-time starter with the expectations of a veteran. A good veteran. Nothing less than a championship is ever tolerated in T-Town, so the guy who starts at quarterback, by definition, will be expected to win a title in his first year on the job.

    McCarron, in this respect, is the kid who threw the curve.

2. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The legacy of Braxton Miller feels hollow.

    On the outside, it is bright and pretty. He has already won two Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards and is a heavy favorite to win a third in 2014. That would be an all-time first and solidify Miller, on paper, as one of the great offensive players of our generation.

    The inside, however, is a cavernous chamber of nothing. His Buckeyes went undefeated two years ago, but they were ineligible for the postseason. His Buckeyes started 12-0 last season, but they sputtered down the stretch and lost to Michigan State and Clemson.

    The numbers are there for Miller to be considered one of the great Ohio State quarterbacks. So are the personal accolades. The only thing missing is the genuine team achievement—the thing OSU's (and head coach Urban Meyer's) reputation has been founded on.

    No player more desperately needs to make the playoff.

1. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

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    Eric Gay

    The NFL draft process is fickle. For proof of this, look no further than Teddy Bridgewater, who has apparently—though not definitely—soured on professional scouts despite playing near-perfect football for most of his college career. No one has ever been a lock to be drafted in the top 10 or even the first round.

    But Marcus Mariota was close.

    Still, the now redshirt junior forewent the NFL draft to return for (at least) one more season of college ball, and the resultant pressure of that decision will weigh on him all year. He has another whole fall to improve under Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost, but he also has another whole fall to put nit-picky flaws onto tape.

    Another whole fall to get hurt. [Knocks on wood.]

    Throw on top of this the non-NFL related pressure—the need to finally get Oregon over the hump: to beat Stanford, to win the Pac-12, to play in the College Football Playoff—and you have the player whose season will most define his legacy. He could end 2014 on top, having just won a national title and set up to be the top overall draft pick. He could also end 2014 a flop, having just endured the same exact season as last year and set up to fall from the first round entirely.

    Only time will tell.

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