Heisman Dark Horses to Know in 2017

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For those new around here, let me share something that will become abundantly clear over the course of the college football season: I love the Heisman Trophy.

For all its faults, my youthful fascination with the award endures. That’s a contributing factor to The Open Man’s Heisman Top 10, a regular breakdown and ranking of candidates based on media and voter buzz. An updated version of the Heisman Top 10 will drop next month ahead of the season.

None of the following seven players are likely to make the preseason countdown, but all have the potential to break into the chase at some point in the fall. This edition of The Open Man College Football Preview Listapalooza spotlights dark-horse contenders who could shake up the Heisman race.

Arkansas QB Austin Allen

Exposure is a critical component to any Heisman candidacy, and no division in college football has as much as the SEC West. Beginning in 2009, the SEC West sent at least one representative to New York City through a run that only ended last year. In total, nine SEC West products were finalists, and four won the stiff-arm trophy.

2009: Mark Ingram*, Alabama

2010: Cam Newton*, Auburn

2011: Trent Richardson, Alabama; Tyrann Mathieu, LSU

2012: Johnny Manziel*, Texas A&M

2013: A.J. McCarron, Alabama; Tre Mason, Auburn

2014: Amari Cooper, Alabama

2015: Derrick Henry*, Alabama

Precedent’s on Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen’s side — to an extent. More than half of the SEC West has had Heisman representation since 2009, but Arkansas is one of the division’s three members yet to produce a Heisman finalist. Allen benefits from coming into the season with some hype; he popped up on national radars last season after a 400-yard passing game against Alabama, and closed out 2016 with 3,430 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Allen’s the veteran face of a Razorback squad that could overachieve in the always-treacherous, yet this year mysterious SEC West. Just don’t expect an aggressive media blitz to promote his candidacy.

“We at Arkansas try to prove what we are by numbers, by doing things we actually can put own down on paper and believe them,” head coach Bret Bielema said Monday at SEC Media Days, via ASAPSports.com. “Not a lot of hype or a lot of hubba-hubba.”

USF QB Quinton Flowers

Here’s a nomination that’s a bit of a doozy. Heisman voters have proven absolutely merciless when it comes to Group of Five standouts in recent years, excluding worthy nominees like Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds in 2015. In fact, no Group of Five or non-BCS conference representative has made it to New York since Boise State’s Kellen Moore in 2010.

Quinton Flowers has to put up monster numbers to garner consideration, and USF needs to be firmly in the hunt for a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Fortunately for him, both are well within reach.

Flowers finished No. 2 nationally in rushing yards among quarterbacks last season at 1,530 yards, trailing only 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. His staggering 7.8-yard per average was tops among all quarterbacks.

He’s also the true definition of dual-threat, throwing for better than 5,000 yards the last two seasons with 46 touchdowns against 15 interceptions.

As the face of a bonafide Top 25 team and leading contender for the Group of Five’s berth into the New Year’s Six, Flowers will garner the attention necessary to make some Heisman voters consider getting out of their comfort zone.

Colorado RB Phillip Lindsay

The topic of Heisman consideration came up in Mike MacIntyre’s post-spring practice address to national media. The Colorado head coach gave a fair assessment, saying:

“The Heisman’s a hard thing to win. The team’s got to do really well,” he said. And indeed, the Buffs would need to exceed expectations to elevate Lindsay into that conversation — and they are capable of doing so — and the running back is a big reason why.

“He’s an all-around back. He’s not just a guy you hand the ball to, he’s not just a guy you bring in on third down,” MacIntyre added. “Hopefully we have an excellent year this year, and he gets some of the recognition he deserves.”

It’s difficult not to recognize Lindsay’s individual numbers. He rushed for 1,252 yards last season with 16 touchdowns, and was one of the best pass-catching backs in the nation at 53 grabs for 493 yards. His importance in both the passing and rushing game will prove critical to Colorado’s success, especially early on. Conveniently enough, the Buffs draw defending Pac-12 champion Washington early, so Lindsay will have a high-profile opportunity to attract some eyeballs.

Iowa RB Akrum Wadley

In The Open Man’s breakdown of surprise teams, I heaped praised on both the Iowa Hawkeyes collectively, and Akrum Wadley collectively. The more I read up on and watch highlights of Wadley, the more convinced I am he can be the best running back in the nation.

Listed at 191 pounds, Wadley isn’t the biggest back. Then again, neither was 2015 Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey. And there are comparisons to be made between the two, as Wadley’s demonstrated an all-around explosive ability both carrying and catching the ball. His effort against Michigan (115 yards rushing, 52 yards receiving with a touchdown) best demonstrated his versatility.

With Nevada transfer James Butler joining the Iowa backfield, Wadley’s size is even less of an issue. He won’t be racking up hits while sharing up carries, and the multifaceted look from the Hawkeye run game should help Wadley break off more yards per touch.

Oklahoma State WR James Washington

Two of the last three Heisman Trophy ceremonies have featured wide receivers, suggesting voters are thawing on the position somewhat. Last year, Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook gained the invite to NYC. We go to the other side of Bedlam for a worthy contender in 2017, Oklahoma State standout James Washington.

Washington spurned the NFL draft despite a monster 2016 in which he caught 71 passes for 1,360 yards and 10 touchdowns. With quarterback Mason Rudolph back behind center, Washington will again be the focal point of Mike Gundy’s always-potent offense.

More importantly for a realistic Heisman candidacy, Washington should be a key cog in Oklahoma State’s pursuit of a College Football Playoff berth. With 16 starters back from a lineup that won the Alamo Bowl, including Washington and Rudolph, this appears to be the best Cowboys squad since the 2011 team that flirted with a BCS Championship bid.

Florida QB Malik Zaire

Hop into the Wayback Machine for a spin to September 2015. Following up on his breakthrough performance — a 2014 Music City Bowl in which he accounted for two scores in a win Notre Dame over LSU — Malik Zaire opened the following season with a three-touchdown game against Texas.

Zaire was thrust into way-too-early Heisman conversations then, only for a injury sustained Week _ at Virginia to effectively end his tenure with the Fighting Irish. He opted to transfer after DeShone Kizer won the starting job for good, ultimately landing at Florida this spring — and after some finagling with the SEC.

Zaire joins a Florida program boasting back-to-back divisional titles, won in spite of oftentimes uninspiring quarterback play. Ironically, Gators head coach Jim McElwain has a track record for maximizing signal-callers’ potential, cultivating a game-plan for A.J. McCarron at Alabama that won the Crimson Tide a national championship in January 2012. He went onto Colorado State and oversaw the development of Garrett Grayson into an NFL draft pick.

In Gainesville, however, the curse that’s plagued the position since Tim Tebow’s departure eight years ago remains. And curse is indeed the right word.

Promising recruits Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel had outstanding college careers…at NC State and Louisiana Tech, respectively. Will Grier showed promise to open 2015, but landed at West Virginia after a yearlong suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

That brings us to Zaire. While he must beat out returning starter Luke Del Rio for the starting job, Zaire isn’t necessarily at a disadvantage: Del Rio missed the spring due to injury and freshman Feleipe Franks lacks collegiate game experience.

Florida gives Zaire an opportunity to regain the mojo demonstrated in impressive bursts a few years ago, and the Gators may have the difference-maker they have lacked in two still-very-impressive seasons.