Beard or no beard, Andrew Luck is the marquee player in college football in 2011. Last year at this point, the Stanford Cardinal QB was viewed as a rising star. In his first season as a starter (2009), he had been very good, backing up much of the hype his then-coach Jim Harbaugh had heaped upon him before the Texan had even played a college game.
Luck may have even exceeded Harbaugh's raves with a spectacular 2010 campaign. He went from "good" to "great" and helped turn the previously downtrodden Cardinal into a BCS bowl team. Stanford had won 10 games combined in the three seasons prior to Luck hitting the field, and has won 20 in the two years he's played. It'd be an understatement to call Luck an impact player.
One of the fascinating things about college football is that each season we get similar "step-up" guys, even if they don't always reach the magnitude of an Andrew Luck. This week's Top 10 list: the players with the best chance of stepping into stardom and leading their teams to big seasons.
(Here's the criteria: I'm defining the good-to-great threshold as being any player who hasn't made first-team all-league before. In the case of Luck, Sean Canfield and Jeremiah Masoli were the two QBs who were first- and second-team All-Pac-10 in 2009.)
1. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama Crimson Tide
Mark Ingram will go down as one of the greatest players in the Crimson Tide's storied history, but Nick Saban has quite the stallion to lean on to keep the Bama rushing machine moving. The 224-pound Richardson, one of the strongest men in all of college football (not just one of those pound-for-pound powerhouses), has been very good in his first two seasons, even making second-team all-league in 2010. He is a punishing runner who is also a weapon as a receiver, and will be a security blanket as the Tide breaks in a new quarterback this year.
To read Bruce Feldman's full list of 2011's "next-step" players, become an ESPN Insider today.