With fall camps opening around the country this week, here's a look at my ranking of the 25 college football programs with the most NFL-caliber talent heading into the 2015 season. I list the top talents to watch for each team in this breakdown, along with a player entering his first year with the program who is worthy of attention.
Here are the teams I have ranked 1-5, concluding the countdown.
1. Ohio State
Players to watch: WR/H-back Braxton Miller, QB Cardale Jones, QB J.T. Barrett, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Mike Thomas, DE Joey Bosa, DT Adolphus Washington and OT Taylor Decker.
The outlook: The Buckeyes will remain a perennial power under Urban Meyer due to his tireless work on the recruiting trail. The roster is full of four- and five-star talents on each side of the ball. Meyer isn't afraid to put his young guys on the field in starring roles. Thus, scouts are very comfortable with the Buckeyes' top prospects due to their experiences playing in elite competitions. Bosa might be the headliner of the group as the destructive force along the Buckeyes' defensive line. He is an active edge rusher with a non-stop motor and sneaky first-step quickness. Although his character will be questioned now that he's been suspended for the first game of the season, scouts are certainly smitten with his ability to get after the passer. Offensively, the Buckeyes trot out one of the best lineups in college football. The unit features three dynamic quarterbacks (Miller, Jones and Barrett), yet the offense flows through an old-school running back (Elliott) with exceptional qualities as a runner-receiver. With the additional contributions from Thomas on the perimeter, the Buckeyes' loaded lineup will keep scouts busy this fall.
Newcomer in the spotlight: ATH/QB Torrance Gibson. Meyer will certainly give Gibson a shot to play quarterback down the road, but the ultra-explosive athlete could step onto the field as one of the Buckeyes' designated playmakers at wide receiver right away. The 6-foot-5, 207-pounder shows extraordinary skill with the ball in his hands, which should lead Meyer to give his talented freshman a few touches early in the season to see if he can add a spark to the offense. If Gibson flashes during the Buckeyes' non-conference games, he could carve out a significant role as a versatile weapon on the perimeter.
Players to watch: RB Derrick Henry, TE O.J. Howard, ILB Reggie Ragland, DT Jarran Reed and DT A'Shawn Robinson.
The outlook: The Crimson Tide's extraordinary collection of talent makes them legitimate title contenders every year. Nick Saban and his staff turn four- and five-star recruits into standout NFL prospects through superb teaching and development. Given the pro-style nature of the entire program, it is no surprise NFL scouts consider Tuscaloosa a must-stop on the scouting trail. Henry and Howard will command a lot of attention from evaluators this fall due to their prototypical physical dimensions and immense potential. Despite limited production from each player to this point, scouts are expecting a major jump in their output this season. Ragland, Reed and Robinson headline a defense that's loaded with talent along the front line. Considering Saban's experience developing dominant playmakers on that side of the ball, scouts are taking a long, hard look at defenders poised to blossom under his tutelage.
Newcomer in the spotlight: WR Calvin Ridley. The loss of Amari Cooper leaves the Crimson Tide without a proven No. 1 WR heading into the 2015 campaign. Ridley could fill the void, despite his youth and inexperience. The 6-foot-1, 189-pound playmaker is an explosive athlete with exceptional hands and running skills. He isn't a polished route runner at the point, but his ability to deliver explosive plays on the perimeter could make him Lane Kiffin's guinea pig this fall.
3. Florida State
Players to watch: S Jalen Ramsey, OLB Reggie Northup, OLB Terrance Smith, QB Everett Golson, OT Roderick Johnson, RB Dalvin Cook and WR Travis Rudolph.
The outlook: Whenever a program produces 29 total draft picks in a three-year span, as FSU did from 2013-15, NFL scouts take notice and make it a point to investigate the roster from top to bottom. Although the mass exodus of talent forces the Seminoles to rely on their young players at several key spots, the overall talent trotting onto the field at Doak Campbell Stadium has NFL evaluators salivating over the possibilities. Ramsey is a dominant defensive playmaker with the grit, athleticism and versatile skills scouts covet in the defensive backfield. He could shine at any secondary position as a pro, but scouts could view him as a rare commodity at safety. Cook, who was charged with misdemeanor battery last month, is currently suspended indefinitely. Cook and Rudolph are at least a couple of seasons away from making the jump to the NFL, but scouts already recognize their talents and have started compiling notes on the qualities they bring to the table as potential difference makers down the line. Cook's off-field issues will require scrutiny, though.
Newcomer in the spotlight: S Derwin James. It is uncommon for a five-star recruit's talent and potential to exceed the hype that precedes his arrival on campus, but that's definitely the case with James. The 6-2, 212-pound safety is a "can't-miss" prospect with a game that's ideally suited for the next level. James exhibits rare instincts, awareness and ball skills at the position, yet he is at his best when serving as the enforcer between the hashes. His presence as a "MOF" (middle of the field) will change the way opponents attack the Seminoles and pique the interest of scouts immediately when they glance at the tape.
Players to watch: OT Vadal Alexander, TE Dillon Gordon, S Jalen Mills, WR Travin Dural, S Jamal Adams, WR Malachi Dupre, CB Tre'Davious White and RB Leonard Fournette.
The outlook: At LSU, Les Miles simply reloads when his roster loses a number of blue-chip players to the NFL draft each year. With the Tigers producing at least one first-round selection in 10 of the last 12 drafts, there is no disputing his ability to groom and develop premier players at every position. Alexander could become the next Tiger to emerge as a top NFL prospect under Miles' tutelage. The 6-foot-5, 326-pounder is a rock-solid run blocker with size and strength to move defenders off the ball. If Alexander can shine on the outside at right tackle, he could climb up the charts into Round 1 consideration. The Tigers' offense features a ton of impressive young prospects (including Dupre and Fournette), but scouts are paying close attention to the defensive side of the ball and the continued development of Adams. The sensational sophomore quietly contributed as a first-year player, but scouts are already buzzing about his potential as a "MOF" playmaker at the next level.
Newcomer in the spotlight: CB Kevin Toliver II. The Tigers have quite the reputation for producing NFL defensive backs. The tradition will certainly continue if Toliver develops into the kind of No. 1 CB that observers around the program envision. The 6-foot-2, 193-pounder possesses the long, rangy frame and explosive athleticism to shine as a "bump-and-run" specialist in Death Valley.
5. Notre Dame
Players to watch: OT Ronnie Stanley, DT Sheldon Day, G/C Nick Martin, LB Jaylon Smith, WR Chris Brown, WR Corey Robinson, SS Elijah Shumate and CB KeiVarae Russell.
The outlook: Credit Brian Kelly and his staff for hitting it hard on the recruiting trail to upgrade the talent in the program. The Fighting Irish could trot out a number of future All-Pros when they take the field this fall due to the impressive efforts of the coaching staff. Smith is arguably the best linebacker in the country, exhibiting remarkable instincts and awareness at the point of attack. He dominates the action as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, yet rarely looks out of control when playing in space. Considering his exceptional athletic attributes, Smith is on the fast track to stardom at the next level. Robinson is starting to garner attention as a potential No. 1 WR. He is a natural red-zone threat at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, but is quickly developing into a polished route runner and playmaker. With continued development, Robinson could carve out a niche as a lead receiver in a pro-style offense.
Newcomer in the spotlight: TE Alizè Jones. The tight end position at Notre Dame has yielded some standout pros in recent years. Jones could join the fraternity in a few years if he plays up to his potential as a playmaker in Kelly's offense. Measuring 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Jones needs to bulk up a bit, but his athleticism, hands and ball skills could make him a star in Kelly's spread offense.