College football: Six of the best duo tandems returning in 2017-18
Every star needs a complementary piece, whether it's a quarterback and his go-to receiver or a linebacker lining up side by side with his counterpart. Luckily for these teams, they have the best of the bunch.
Here are some of the top dynamic duos in college football returning in 2017-18:
Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley | Penn State
Penn State has two preseason Heisman candidates in its gun-slinging quarterback and multi-dimensional running back, who are both entering their junior seasons in 2017.
McSorley broke onto the scene in his first year as a starter, finishing with 3,614 passing yards and 36 total touchdowns. In his final three games last year — including a Big Ten title game win and a Rose Bowl loss — McSorley averaged 338 yards per game through the air and scored 13 touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Barkley bounced back from an injury-shortened 2015 campaign to establish himself as one of the top backs in the nation last year. The Pennsylvania native fell just short of a 1,500-yard season and accounted for 22 touchdowns.
With both Michigan and Ohio State reloading this summer, Penn State now enters a year filled with soaring expectations for a second-straight conference title and a shot at the College Football Playoff. Penn State returns all but two offensive starters from last season.
McSorley has a knack for the home run play, which he regularly tops off with a suitable "home run swing" celebration. He can escape pressure in the pocket and has top-tier arm strength that results in plenty of huge gains and momentum-shifting plays. The key for him in 2017 will be limiting turnovers — he had eight interceptions last year, including three in the Rose Bowl.
Barkley's been a consistent workhorse for the Nittany Lions. He averaged more than a touchdown per game last season while adding 28 receptions and providing solid pass blocking out of the backfield.
These two should be a scary pair for Big Ten defenses next season.
Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell | Clemson
Clemson had so many offensive weapons last year that a group of Tigers could have made last year's list. But now that Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams and Artavis Scott are all wearing new threads in the NFL, look for the other side of the ball to be a focal point in Clemson's title defense.
In particular, Clemson's defensive line will wreak havoc this season with three returning starters and two dominant edge pass rushers in Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell. The two defensive ends accounted for 106 tackles and 9.5 sacks last year, including nine and one respectively in the Tigers' two Playoff wins.
Ferrell, a rising sophomore, stood out in Clemson's 31-0 semifinal win over Ohio State with three tackles for loss and a sack. The 6-5 Richmond native improved as the season went along and will be a heavily-leaned on defensive leader this year. Wilkins is a steady force opposite Ferrell and is also sparsely used on offense due to his athleticism.
Last year, Carlos Watkins was the standout on the line with a team-high 10.5 sacks at defensive tackle. Without him on the inside anymore, it'll be especially crucial for this duo of defensive ends to take the next step this year.
Mason Rudolph and James Washington | Oklahoma State
Cowboy fans didn't even have to wait for the conclusion of last year's Alamo Bowl to be reassured that Oklahoma State's dynamic quarterback-wide receiver connection was returning in 2017.
In the week prior to the bowl game, Mason Rudolph and James Washington stood together in a Twitter video and officially announced their plans to stay in Stillwater for their senior seasons. Days later, they connected nine times for 171 yards and a touchdown in a 38-8 Alamo Bowl rout over Colorado.
Perhaps overshadowed by the Heisman candidacy seasons of Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook last season, Rudolph and Washington not only enter 2017 as the most dynamic duo in the Big 12 now, but arguably the top pass game tandem across the FBS. Rudolph threw 28 touchdowns and surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in his career last year while Washington caught 10 of those scores en route to finishing with 1,380 receiving yards.
The pair has united for 10 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons while averaging 20 yards per connection.
Washington's speed and impressive jump ball ability for his 6-1 frame makes him an electric weapon downfield, which was no more evident than in the Cowboys' win against Pittsburgh in Week 3. Rudolph finished with a career-high 540 yards with Washington on the receiving end for 296 of them. The highlight of the record-breaking day came on an early 91-yard touchdown when Washington simply burned the defensive back on a fly route.
Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough | Alabama
From Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, Alabama has thrived with a two-back system this past decade. The pair of Harris and Scarbrough is the latest, as the two-headed monster heads into their second year as feature rushers.
Last year's splits were close to even with Harris getting 145 carries and Scarbrough with 125. Harris finished the year with four 100-yard games and was the leading rusher with 1,040 yards. At 5-11, Harris was the shiftier back, more consistent and was also used out of the passing game with 14 receptions and two touchdowns.
Then there's Scarbrough, a 6-2, 228-pound specimen that could simply bulldoze past opponents. Harris was the table setter, Scarbrough was the finisher with 11 touchdowns.
As Harris battled injury problems in the second half of last season, Scarbrough emerged as a game-breaker with six touchdowns in the final three games. The rising junior haunted Washington in the CFP semifinals with 180 yards and a pair of highlight reel touchdowns and looked to be having an encore performance against Clemson in the title game before breaking a bone in his foot.
Both running backs missed Alabama's spring game this year but should be ready for the fall. Add quarterback Jalen Hurts' running ability into the mix and the Crimson Tide should cause fits for SEC front sevens.
Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson | Notre Dame
It was a lost 2016 season for Notre Dame, who finished 4-8 despite lofty preseason expectations. Along with a lackluster defense, perhaps the biggest disappointment came from its highly-touted offensive line.
Look for a return to form in the trenches this season, at least on the left side.
Four seniors are expected to start on the offensive line in 2017, including two of the best in left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson. Both had their fair share of struggles last season but have All-American potential.
McGlinchey moved from right tackle to left before last season, a move that saw some growing pains. But now with a full season under his belt at the new spot, McGlinchey should be primed for an improved showing.
With quarterback DeShone Kizer leaving for the NFL, the quarterback picture remains unclear entering 2017, although Brandon Wimbush may get the first shot. Whoever is under center, he won't have to worry too much about the protection on his blind side.
Jack Cichy and TJ Edwards | Wisconsin
Linebackers Jack Cichy and TJ Watt formed an imposing duo in 2016 for the seventh best defense in the nation. Now as Watt moves on with the Pittsburgh Steelers organization, another linebacker named TJ will step into a larger role besides the returning senior Cichy.
Cichy, a Wisconsin native, joined the Badgers as a walk-on before emerging as a defensive leader in 2015. Last season he finished with 60 tackles and 1.5 sacks before missing the final seven games due to a torn pectoral muscle. His toughness at the middle linebacker position will return this year to provide steadiness as the Badgers try to replace Watt and Vince Biegel on the outside.
Lining up beside Cichy on the inside will be Edwards, who had four double-digit tackle games last season, including 10 in Wisconsin's Cotton Bowl win over Western Michigan.
Middle linebacker is the Badgers' deepest position, which may ultimately allow coach Paul Chryst to experiment moving either Cichy or Edwards outside to provide depth there.