With the 2023 college football season beginning this week with seven FBS games featured on the Week 0 slate, FOX Sports NFL Draft analyst Rob Rang took a look back at the five most talented college football teams of all time.
Slated at No. 5 on Rang’s list is the 2006 Oklahoma Sooners, a loaded team that included stars Adrian Peterson, Sam Bradford, Gerald McCoy and Trent Williams. As Rang points out, Bradford, McCoy and Williams were three of the first four selections of the 2010 NFL Draft — a level of draft-day dominance not seen before or since. Meanwhile, Peterson was the No. 7 selection in the 2007 draft.
As great as Peterson was for that 2006 team, his best season actually came in 2004 during his freshman year, when he shattered program rushing records. Bradford, who redshirted during that 2006 season, also put up eye-popping numbers in his first season at Oklahoma.
But where do they rank among the top individual freshman seasons in recent memory?
Here is a look at the 10 best seasons by freshmen — redshirt freshmen included — since 2000, counting down 10-to-1.
10. Derek Stingley, LSU
Stingley arrived at LSU as a highly touted prospect who played high school football in LSU’s backyard at Dunham School in Baton Rouge. The talented cornerback lived up to expectations immediately. Stingley started all 15 games for the 2019 LSU Tigers, recording an SEC-leading six interceptions and locking down some of the top receivers in the country en route to helping the Tigers to a 15-0 season and a national championship. Stingley registered 38 tackles and ranked No. 2 in the nation in passes defended with 21 while being named a consensus All-American. He is considered among the most decorated freshmen in program history.
9. Maurice Clarett, Ohio State
The former Buckeye standout played one season in Columbus, but it was certainly a memorable one. Clarett appeared in 11 games in his freshman campaign, rushing for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns while helping the Buckeyes to a 14-0 record and the 2002 BCS National Championship. Clarett rushed for two scores in the national title game, including the game-winning touchdown in the second overtime to lead the Buckeyes to a memorable 31-24 win over the Miami Hurricanes. Clarett became the first freshman to lead a national championship team in rushing since Nebraska’s Ahman Green back in 1995.
8. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
Taylor came to Wisconsin as a three-star prospect coming out of Salem, New Jersey. It became very apparent to the Badgers’ coaching staff that they had a special player who was going to play well above his modest recruiting ranking. In just his second game of his collegiate career, Taylor carried the ball 26 times for a jaw-dropping 223 yards and three touchdowns in a dominant win over Florida Atlantic. From that point on, it was the Jonathan Taylor show in Madison. The talented back finished his freshman season with 1,977 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry en route to being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-Big Ten selection. Taylor finished second all-time in rushing yards for a FBS freshmen, trailing only former Badger great Ron Dayne.
7. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma
After redshirting his freshman season, Bradford was named Oklahoma’s starting quarterback ahead of the 2007 campaign. He then kicked off his college career with a bang, completing 21 of 23 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns in just over two quarters, breaking the program record for the most passing yards in a half. He didn’t slow down after that, completing 19 of 25 passes for 205 yards and five touchdowns against Miami. His five touchdown passes tied the school record for most TD passes in a game. Bradford finished the 2007 campaign with 3,121 passing yards and 36 touchdowns. He completed 69.5% of his passes while leading the Sooners to an 11-3 record and a Big 12 title.
6. Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech
Crabtree’s 2007 campaign will go down as one of the greatest seasons by a wide receiver in college football history. The fact that it came during his redshirt freshman year makes it even more impressive. Just how good was Crabtree’s first season? He broke the FBS record for touchdown receptions in a season by a freshman receiver by Week 6. Crabtree went on to finish 2007 with 134 receptions for 1,962 yards and 22 receiving touchdowns. He broke eight NCAA records that season, including the most catches by a freshman, the most yards gained by a freshman, the most 100-yard receiving games by a freshman, and the most touchdown receptions by a freshman. Crabtree would be named a first-team All-American and the winner of the Biletnikoff Award, becoming the first and only freshman to win the prestigious award.
5. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
When you throw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns as a true freshman at Clemson, you’re going to find your way onto this list. When you put up those stats while leading your team to a 14-0 record and a national championship, you’re going to find yourself near the top of this list. Lawrence recorded one of the most celebrated careers by a QB in college football history, and it started with an unforgettable freshman campaign in 2018. The top-ranked recruit arrived at Clemson with sky-high expectations and immediately lived up to the hype, setting school freshman records in passing yards, passing touchdowns and wins. He was named an All-American and became the first freshman QB to lead his team to a national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985. Lawrence saved his best for last, throwing for 347 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-16 blowout of Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
4. Luke Kuechly, Boston College
Kuechly is in the discussion for the most-accomplished linebacker in college football history. The Boston College standout put up eye-popping numbers the second he stepped on campus, concluding his freshman campaign with 158 tackles, a sack and an interception. Kuechly led the ACC and ranked second nationally in tackles that season, first among freshmen. He became the first freshman to lead Boston College in tackles en route to being named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Kuechly left Boston College having recorded 10 or more tackles in 34 of his 38 career games, including a streak of 33 straight games from his freshman season to his junior season. He finished his collegiate career with 532 tackles in three years.
3. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma
Peterson looked like an NFL running back the second he stepped on campus in Norman in 2004. The Sooners standout broke several NCAA freshman records, rushing for a jaw-dropping 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns. He topped the 100-yard rushing mark in each of the first nine games that season, also a freshman record. Peterson rushed for 200-plus yards in three separate games during his freshman year, including a 249-yard performance in a 38-35 win over rival Oklahoma State. He led the Sooners to a 12-1 record and became the first freshman to be recognized as a first-team AP All-American. Peterson was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind USC QB Matt Leinart.
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2. Jameis Winston, Florida State
Winston’s 2013 redshirt freshman season will go down as one of the greatest in college football history, and it started in his very first start against Pitt, in which he completed 25 of 27 pass attempts for 356 yards and four touchdowns, while also adding another score on the ground in a win. Winston went on to lead the Seminoles to a 14-0 record and a national championship. The redshirt freshman signal-caller threw for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns en route to becoming the second freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
To say “Johnny Football” took the college football world by storm in 2012 would be putting it lightly. Manziel was the biggest name in sports during his freshman year, dazzling with his play on the field and captivating fans with his celebratory antics as well. The signal-caller thrived in Kevin Sumlin’s Air Raid offense, shattering numerous NCAA records, including becoming the first freshman in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Manziel led the Aggies to an 11-2 season, including a 29-24 win over No. 1 Alabama, in which he accounted for 345 of Texas A&M’s 415 yards of offense. He finished his redshirt freshman season by passing for 3,706 yards and 26 touchdowns, while adding 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground. Manziel broke the single-season record for offensive production in the SEC en route to becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
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