Dixon, Carptenter among 2007's most improved players
This week's list takes a look at the most improved players of the season. Since improving is part of the natural development process in college football, this list will focus on the most improved returning starters.
1. Dennis Dixon, Oregon, QB: After all of the wacky billboard ideas the Oregon marketing folks have cooked up, the one guy who didn't get any preseason hype is the Duck with the best shot of actually winning the Heisman. Go figure. Dixon's maturation over the course of a year has been amazing. New offensive coordinator Chip Kelly's tutelage has been key, but Dixon's ability to not revert to his old form or lose his head in a pressure spot has been impressive. He was almost flawless Saturday against a very good and very fast USC defense. On the year, his numbers are way up from 2006. Dixon is completing 69 percent of his passes (up from 61percent in 2006), has a16-3 TD-INT rate (up from 12-14) and his yards per attempt is at 8.42 (compared to 6.66.) Better still, with Dixon being such a dangerous run-pass threat (just ask USC), the Ducks lead the Pac-10 with a 51.3 third-down conversion percentage
2. George Selvie, USF, DE: Every year there is a defensive end who comes virtually from nowhere to put up eye-popping numbers and make a big name for himself. This year's version of former Louisville star Elvis Dumervil is Selvie. The sophomore showed lots of promise in 2006 with 5.5 sacks and 9 TFLs, but he's been off the charts this season. Selvie, who addd 20 pounds of bulk in the offseason, leads the nation with 13.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss.
3. Curtis Lofton, Oklahoma, LB: This is one of the next great Sooner defenders. Lofton flashed some potential with 37 tackles in 2006, but he's been everywhere this season. With a better understanding of his role in the defense, the junior is ranks seventh in the nation with 93 tackles. Lofton was at his best in the big game against Mizzou. He picked up 18 tackles, a fumble recovery and a touchdown -- and Big 12 defensive player of the week honors.
4. Jordy Nelson, Kansas State, WR: This guy is too big and has too much speed to have produced only one TD in 2006. His 39 catches for 547 yards were OK, but the 6-foot-3, 215-pound former sprinter is putting up stats that are worthy of All-American honors this season. The senior 76 catches for 1,008 yards and seven TDs. Nelson also has put up big numbers against some very formidable defenses, catching nine passes against Auburn, 12 against Texas and 10 against Kansas.
5. Matt Forte, Tulane, RB: Meet the Eddie George of Conference USA. Forte is pounding his way to 200-yard games at every turn. He ran for 859 yards in 2006, but in reality Forte wasn't near 100 percent for much of the season. He's been healthy this season for new coach Bob Toledo and is leading the nation in rushing with 1,539 yards. In the last six games, only LSU kept him under 200 yards, and Forte was still decent against the Tigers, picking up 73 yards on just 16 carries.
6. Brian Robiskie, Ohio State, WR: The son of the longtime NFL coach Terry has transitioned from being a promising complimentary player to a star this fall. Robiskie started six games in 2006 , catching 29 passes for 383 yards as a nice possession guy. This year with Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn Jr. gone to the NFL, he's become a big-play weapon, using his good size, long arms and excellent ball skills to haul in 41 passes for 787 yards and eight TDs.
7. Shawn Crable, Michigan, LB: He's one of those former blue-chippers who seems to wait forever to break through. But the light bulb finally came on this season. In 2006, Crable had 6 TFLs and was more of a guy in the shadows. Crable has taken on more of a leadership role and is taking advantage of his range to make a lot of plays. He is second only to Selvie in TFLs with 22.
8. Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois, RB: The junior has gone from being a pretty good player on a bad team to becoming an outstanding player on a pretty good team. Mendenhall ran for 640 yards and five TDs as a change-of-pace back in 2006. This fall, he has carried the Illini with 1,113 yards and 12 TDs. He's also caught 25 passes.
9. Rudy Carpenter, Arizona State, QB: The arrival of Dennis Erickson and his well-worn crew of assistants has meshed nicely for Carpenter to have a big bounce-back year. In 2006, Carpenter's stats were OK, as he completed 55 percent of his passes with 23 TDs and 14 picks. This season, the accurate QB from California has regained his 2005 form, completing 65 percent of his passes for 17 TDs and 1,949 yards with 7 INTs. Carpenter's improved decision-making and command of the offense has enabled ASU to lead the Pac-10 in red-zone offense with 31 scores in 34 trips (91 percent).
10. Hilee Taylor, UNC, DE: A 6-3, 240-pound senior, Taylor had 29 tackles and three sacks in 2006, but has emerged as a disruptive big-play man for the Heels this fall, wracking up 12.5 TFLs. Taylor also has forced three fumbles this season. (Taylor replaces Mizzou's Pig Brown, who was on this list but a ruptured right Achilles tendon suffered against Iowa State on Saturday will sideline him.)
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.