Preseason Heisman Top 10

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Each week of the college football season since 2015, I have compiled a Top 10 of Heisman Trophy candidates. For the uninitiated, the Heisman Top 10 isn’t my own assessment; rather, I evaluate the rankings of other, reputable sports media, buzz from prominent outlets and chatter among voters.

These rankings function as a barometer of the Heisman race throughout the fall. Starting with a stock report in the offseason is vital to understand the thought process, as voters absolutely allow preseason perception to influence their in-season evaluations.

Also, it’s worth noting how wildly off-base preseason evaluations can be. Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson was a red-hot Heisman candidate ahead of 2015, for example.

Before diving into the Top 10, those who just missed the cut include:

– Washington QB Jake Browning
– Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough
– Penn State QB Trace McSorely
– Georgia RB Nick Chubb
– Auburn RB Kameron Pettway

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10. Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham

Hype surrounding the Baylor transfer is starting to build at a feverish pace. This isn’t necessarily the most accurate gauge of media (and ergo, voter) sentiment, but Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook moved Jarrett Stidham’s Heisman odds from 50-to-1, to 15-to-1.

Gambling odds on the Heisman race can be a dicey means of evaluating, as the prop is low-volume and can dramatically sway. Westgate is a more reliable source than some others that post Heisman odds, though. Moreover, the love for Stidham among SEC is skyrocketing.

Fans and pundits have eagerly anticipated Gus Malzahn’s next great quarterback since Nick Marshall exceeded expectations in 2013, but the real fascination with Auburn quarterbacks stems from Cam Newton’s out-of-nowhere run to the 2010 Heisman.
Will Stidham be more Newton, or more Johnson? Initial hype suggests Heisman voters lean toward the former — for now.

9. Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph

Oklahoma State may well be the favorite in the Big 12 after the abrupt retirement of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops. The spotlight gradually shifting from Norman to Stillwater has been a boon (pun intended, folks) to Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph’s national profile.

Rudolph is coming off a 2016 in which he threw for 4,091 yards with a staggering 7-to-1 touchdown:interception ratio.

8. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts

Jalen Hurts was tremendous in his true freshman season, quarterbacking the Crimson Tide within a minute of a national championship. Previous Alabama teams flirted with elements of zone-read and spread, but Hurts’ dual-threat ability took it to another level with 23 passing touchdowns and 13 on the ground.

Dual-threat quarterbacks have been the most successful contenders for recent Heismans, a trend really taking off a decade ago with Tim Tebow’s win. Hurts is the first such prospect from Alabama, which is the only program to produce multiple winners in this same decade.

Those two factors alone would seemingly catapult Hurts near the front of the line. So what gives? First, it’s worth noting that both of Alabama’s Heisman winners were running backs — and between Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, the Tide have two such potential contenders this year.

Second, recent Alabama quarterbacks have received undue criticism. Part of compiling these weekly rankings mean paying attention to media I wouldn’t otherwise, and to that end, I listened to a recent podcast clip from The Paul Finebaum Show in which guest host Peter Burns asked Nick Saban about Jalen Hurts taking blame for Alabama’s national title game loss, and how that would impact freshman Tua Tagovailoa’s prospects for playing.

I don’t always agree with the opinions that shape these rankings.

7. Florida State QB Deondre Francois

Second-year Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois is an intriguing Heisman prospect at this juncture in the year for two reasons: No. 1, his dual-threat playmaking ability adds an element to the Florida State offense not previously employed very often in Jimbo Fisher’s tenure as head coach.

No. 2, I consider Francois’ buzz something of a bet hedge. Opening Week 1 against Alabama means Francois will either be gone from the Heisman conversation in Week 2 and left to rebuild his resume, or with a rocket strapped to his back and launched to the top.

6. LSU RB Derrius Guice

Leonard Fournette’s injury-plagued 2016 opened the door for Derrius Guice to begin his ascent to super-stardom. But after a 1,378-yard, 15-touchdown campaign, which included Guice breaking off an absurd 7.6 yards per carry, the LSU running back’s Heisman profile really began to soar with off-field feats of athleticism.
Just look at this bowling video.

Or, more importantly, this clip from the squat rack:

Combined with the hire of Matt Canada to coordinate the Tigers offense — the best offseason Ed Orgeron made — Guice could be primed as this Heisman race’s fastest riser.

5. Penn State RB Saquan Barkley

Two players left the 2017 Rose Bowl Game with remarkable cachet among national media. Both rank Top 5 most buzzed-about in the preseason Heisman race. Saquon Barkley is one of the two.

The Penn State running back was excellent throughout the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten championship campaign, but going off for 194 yards rushing and 55 receiving with three total touchdowns in the Granddaddy of ‘Em All has Barkley positioned as one of the favorites for the stiff-arm trophy heading into the fall.

4. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett

Can a Heisman candidate realistically be considered a Top 4 most hyped prospect, but also be overlooked? J.T. Barrett makes a strong case.

Barrett was deserving an invite to New York in 2014. He flourished after being unexpectedly thrust into the starting lineup shortly before Week 1. However, the late-season injury that sidelined him for the Buckeyes’ national championship run led directly to him losing the starting job in 2015.

The departure of Tom Herman that same offseason also put a damper on Barrett’s 2015 output, but he showed signs of getting back to that level in 2016.

He’s an almost-universal choice to contend for this year’s Heisman, but expectations are somewhat tempered. His performance Week 2 against Oklahoma will either cool or ignite his 2017 Heisman outlook.

3. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield

2016 Heisman finalist and 2015 Heisman contender Baker Mayfield generated offseason headlines — not always for the right reasons. His run-in with law enforcement during a public intoxication incident certainly wasn’t serious enough to disqualify Mayfield from Heisman contention this year, though.

In fact, other offseason turmoil at Oklahoma — namely, the surprising retirement of Bob Stoops — renders Mayfield an even more important figure in the Sooners’ pursuit of a Playoff berth.

Lincoln Riley’s impressive two years as offensive coordinator are tied directly to Mayfield’s ascent. Riley is now the head coach, and the passing attack will remain an integral part of the Oklahoma attack. The pressure is on Mayfield more now with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon gone from the backfield.

2. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson

Has a defending Heisman winner ever returned flying further under the radar than Lamar Jackson? It’s not so low as to remove the 2016 winner from one of the top spots in preseason projections, and Jackson is the 1st Team All-American choice among most preseason publications.

Giving the level of actual hype, however, Jackson’s All-America status feels more like a formality than a genuine sentiment of initial Heisman projection. That could actually benefit his pursuit of joining Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winners.

While USC’s Sam Darnold garners the lion’s share of national attention this offseason, Jackson repeating his remarkable play in 2017 will feel new.

1. USC QB Sam Darnold

There’s no getting around it, no matter how much Sam Darnold works to downplay the hype. The USC quarterback is college football’s most talked-about player, and the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.

Darnold called some of the hype “annoying” at last week’s Pac-12 media days. He’s not wrong, but it is the burden he must bear in the 2017 season.

Nevermind the internal pressure it can place on a quarterback, either. Don’t think opposing defenders have not noticed the excessive hype lavished on Darnold since he led USC’s come-from-behind Rose Bowl victory last January.