Before its transition into The Open Man, CFB Huddle tracked the annual Heisman Trophy race at important junctures. Last week marked one such juncture, with the last of college football’s spring practices concluding.
The sport is now in its dormant period until mid-July, when media days begin the sprint to Opening Weekend. As we embark on this long stretch, The Open Man takes stock of the Heisman landscape.
For those in need of a refresher, the Heisman Top 10 evaluates and projects player standing based on media and voter buzz, betting odds and other factors to provide the clearest picture of the landscape possible. Updated version are slated for the week prior to the season opener, and every Monday during the campaign.
In the meantime, enjoy the final Heisman Top 10 for the next three months.
10. Penn State QB Trace McSorley
Central to Penn State’s surprising Big Ten championship ascension, Trace McSorley burst from relative obscurity last season. McSorley appeared in mop-up duty behind Christian Hackenberg in 2015, and given Hack’s struggles, there was no reason to foresee his understudy becoming a star.
All McSorley did in 2016 was throw for 28 touchdowns and rush for another seven. He saved some of his best stuff for Penn State’s most high-profile stages, throwing for eight touchdowns combined in the Big Ten Championship win over Wisconsin, and the epic Rose Bowl loss to USC.
His dual-threat ability fits James Franklin’s offensive vision more than Hackenberg, who was a Bill O’Brien recruit. As Franklin’s vision for Penn State football really takes shape, and the Nittany Lions enter 2017 as reigning Big Ten champions with designs on a College Football Playoff spot, McSorley’s star is sure to shine this offseason.
9. Florida State QB Deondre Francois
Deondre Francois’ debut last season against Ole Miss was just spectacular enough to elicit some knee-jerk comparisons to Florida State’s last freshman quarterback. Francois didn’t quite match the otherworldly precedent Jameis Winston set as a BCS championship and Heisman Trophy winner in his first year, but the Seminole quarterback showed enough flashes of greatness to suggest he’ll make his own legacy in Tallahassee.
The win over Ole Miss set the bar high, as Francois passed for 410 yards and rushed for another 59. He was never quite as dual-prolific again — though he did hit up rival Florida for 63 rushing yards and a pair of combined touchdowns. Francois apparently thrives against the SEC, which bodes well for his high-stakes 2017 opener against mighty Alabama.
Should Francois lead the Seminoles to victory over the Crimson Tide in Week 1’s most anticipated contest, his Heisman stock will skyrocket to Jameis Winston levels.
8. Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough
Somewhere, hidden on the campus of the University of Alabama, Nick Saban has commissioned a factory that pumps out monstrous running backs. They’re the size of some teams’ offensive guards, with the speed of other teams’ slot receivers. The latest model, Bo Scarbrough, didn’t get a ton of reps last season. Any reason for that?
A new offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa should translate to more touches for the impressive Scarbrough. He proved himself worthy of feature-back status in Alabama’s College Football Playoff run, accruing 273 yards and four touchdowns total in the semifinals and finals. Scarbrough may not see two better defenses in 2017 than he faced in those games vs. Washington and Clemson, either.
7. Washington QB Jake Browning
Had the 2016 season ended on Halloween, Jake Browning would have been a shoo-in invitee to New York. The Washington quarterback likely would have finished second to Lamar Jackson at that juncture in the season, too. However, Browning slumped over the final month — most notably against the three best defenses he saw all season (USC, Colorado and Alabama).
The inauspicious conclusion to an otherwise terrific campaign (43 passing touchdowns, four on the ground) may have put a damper on Browning’s Heisman buzz this offseason. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — overhype in the preseason often hinders a player’s Heisman candidacy once autumn arrives. Such is the burden of a different Pac-12 quarterback, whose occupation of the spotlight gives Jake Browning reign to progress in his third season running the Washington offense.
6. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
Alabama boasts two Heisman-winning running backs in the last eight years — and they’re the only two running backs to win the award in since 2005. That’s noteworthy, because the Heisman has truly became a quarterback’s honor in the last decade-and-a-half. Though Alabama has dominated college football for a span approaching a decade, yet never had a Heisman-worthy quarterback. Sorry, I won’t acknowledge A.J. McCarron’s runner-up vote in 2013 as anything more than a lifetime achievement award.
Jalen Hurts changes that. The dual-threat Hurts injected a new element into the Alabama offense last season, rushing for nearly 1,000 yards to complement his 2,780 passing. Not bad for a youngster who opened the season second on the depth chart.
With the reins clearly in his hands, expect more from the talented Hurts in 2017. His Week 1 showdown with Florida State sets the tone for a possible run to New York City.
5. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
How a returning player finishes the previous season carries significant weight in preseason projections. Few returning to college football in 2017 finished the 2016 campaign quite as strong as Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
Barkley was electric in January’s Rose Bowl Game, rushing for three of his 18 touchdowns on the campaign in the Granddaddy of ‘Em All. Barkley’s array of cut-back moves combined with sheer power and breakaway speed to confound a Top 30 USC rushing defense throughout the afternoon.
That lasting memory highlights an all-around impressive season, which concluded a shade below 1900 yards from scrimmage, with 22 total touchdowns.
4. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
J.T. Barrett’s road to 2017 has been unusual. He put up Heisman-worthy numbers in 2014, despite taking over as the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback only after Braxton Miller sustained an injury.
And yet, even with 34 passing touchdowns and 11 rushing scores that season, Cardale Jones’ College Football Playoff heroics earned the more veteran Jones the starting nod in 2015. When Jones’ play sputtered, Barrett stepped right back behind center to finish 2015 strong, scoring 22 total touchdowns on the campaign.
With a firm grasp on the starting job in 2016, Barrett didn’t quite match his 2014 production levels — yet still accounted for 33 scores.
Barrett’s contributions have been overlooked, both within and beyond Ohio State football. This is his last season in Columbus, and the last chance we’ll have to truly attribute his play-making ability. Expect him to make it a good one.
3. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
Baker Mayfield’s been in the thick of the Heisman hunt each of the last two seasons, even gaining an invite to NYC last season. Third time’s a charm?
That could certainly be the case — especially since the Oklahoma dual-threat quarterback presumably won’t split votes with a teammate. Though the 2016 Heisman was a two-horse race between Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, Mayfield finished a much more distant third without the 209 points wide receiver Dede Westbrook garnered.
Mayfield’s thrown for an incredible 76 touchdowns in two seasons running Lincoln Riley’s hyperspeed offense. His improved accuracy a season ago resulted in a higher completion percentage and fewer interceptions. Should Mayfield take a similar jump in his senior campaign, he’ll be front-and-center in the Heisman race.
2. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
Lamar Jackson set the pace for the 2016 Heisman race in September, and never looked back. Jackson’s win a season ago defied certain expectations for winners, so precedent may not necessarily apply to him. To wit, he overcame the stigma that often comes playing for a team not in the hunt for a national (or even conference) championship.
Jackson was also so spectacular in September and October, he endured some struggles in the final month, playing behind a struggling offensive line. The blowout loss to Houston in November would sunk most candidacies.
Nevertheless, precedent dictates the defending Heisman Trophy winner should not lead the Top 10 at the end of spring football. The award’s had just one repeat recipient in its 80-year history. Meanwhile, Jackson would again likely have to overcome team failings. Louisville looks to be a clear No. 3 in the ACC Atlantic division, behind defending national champion Clemson and possible preseason No. 1 Florida State.
1. USC QB Sam Darnold
The enduring memory of USC’s 2016 season is this:
While Sam Darnold’s touchdown strike to Deontay Burnett in January’s Rose Bowl Game catapulted him to the forefront of national attention, his ascension began in a loss — the only loss USC sustained with Darnold at quarterback. The Trojans fell at Utah on Sept. 23, but Darnold completed 69 percent of his pass attempts and rushed for 41 yards with a score on the tough Utes defense. On that Friday night, USC began to embark on a new era.
He’s different from past Trojan quarterbacks — Heisman winners like Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, and similarly hyped Matt Barkley — in that Darnold is mobile and will use it. He rushed for at least 20 yards six times, including in January’s Rose Bowl.
Darnold’s wheels don’t take away from his passing ability, which his toss to Burnett best exhibits is on point. Darnold will be the most discussed college football player of the summer, setting up expectations for the Heisman Trophy race to come.