For as long as I have tracked these weekly rankings, The Open Man Heisman watch has always been a Top 10. Earlier this season, the race condensed down to five. Heading into Championship Week, the pack is at seven who seemingly have a reasonable path to New York.
So, while names like Arizona’s Khalil Tate, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Houston’s Ed Oliver still receive some love, none play this weekend — and thus, have no chance to make enough headway to get to Manhattan. The Heisman Top 10 is instead a Top 7, with the candidates who can realistically earn invitations as finalists, as well as those contenders capable of sealing the award in a championship game.
Four of the seven play this weekend, including runaway favorite Baker Mayfield. They have the most to gain — but also, the most to lose.
7. AUBURN RB KERRYON JOHNSON
Kerryon Johnson’s stormed onto the radar late in the season commensurate with Auburn’s rise into the Playoff discussion. His ascent is very much reminiscent of that of Tre Mason in 2013, who went from a virtual Heisman Trophy afterthought to finalist in the span of two weeks.
Much like Mason, Johnson can land a spot in New York with a big SEC Championship Game performance. He carried a hefty load when the Tigers last saw Georgia just three weeks ago, rushing 32 times for 167 yards. No running back had done such damage against the elite linebacker corps the Dawgs boast. Whether that was an aberration or indicative of a clear advantage Auburn enjoys over its rival Georgia will determine both the SEC championship, and Kerryon Johnson’s Heisman forecast.
6. PENN STATE RB SAQUON BARKLEY
Despite a rather insistent column in Sporting News this week, Saquon Barkley’s Heisman candidacy cooled considerably over the regular season’s final month. His multifaceted contribution to Penn State’s success should not be overlooked. Likewise, he was good enough as a receiver and returner that rushing for fewer than 100 yards in 8-of-12 games doesn’t paint a complete picture.
Barkley finished second in all-purpose yards, behind only San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny. It was a distant second, but Barkley still surpassed 2,000 yards. He’s also well ahead of Stanford’s Bryce Love in that category. With 16 rushing touchdowns, three receiving and two on returns, Barkley’s also one of the nation’s most prolific scorers.
How voters handle his candidacy will be fascinating. He might be a case-study in hype exhausting ballots by the end of a season.
5. SAN DIEGO STATE RB RASHAAD PENNY
The nation’s rushing champion and leader in all-purpose yards by a comfortable margin, Rashaad Penny came tearing back into the conversation in the final week. A kickoff return touchdown against Nevada and an absurd four straight games going over 200 yards rushing forced the nation to start paying attention again — not easy to do, as his former teammate Donnel Pumphrey saw last season, disappearing from the Heisman conversation despite a monster year.
How championship games shake out may well determine Penny’s likelihood of reaching New York. Kerryon Johnson can leap him, but Penny can sneak ahead of Jonathan Taylor if the Wisconsin back struggles in the Big Ten Championship.
4. WISCONSIN RB JONATHAN TAYLOR
One thing that’s difficult to measure when compiling this data for the weekly breakdown is how voters might break along regional lines. Historic voting trends suggest that ballots by region and/or conference can result in splits among candidates. This will be an interesting development, depending on the status of Jonathan Taylor and Saquon Barkley at season’s end. It’s possible one will head to New York, and the other will stay home.
Taylor is better positioned to be a finalist, with one more game left to play — and against an opponent that Barkley put up pedestrian numbers when facing, particularly if you remove his game-opening kickoff return touchdown.
Taylor’s touchdown totals are low, but he’s a yard-eating machine. He’s broken the century mark in all but one game, and averaged 6.31 yards per carry or more in three of Wisconsin’s final four games.
3. LOUISVILLE QB LAMAR JACKSON
The reigning Heisman winner appears to be in great shape for a return trip to New York. Lamar Jackson was so good in 2017 that stigma placed on quarterbacks of teams that fall short of expectations didn’t stick to him.
In fact, Jackson’s 2017 was statistically superior to his 2016. While there may not have been enough “highlight reel” moments to satisfy the types concerned about such things, but Jackson retained all the explosiveness that shaped his Heisman season with a more refined passing touch. He’s legitimately one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all-time, and would be completely deserving to join Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winner — had another quarterback not put up record-breaking numbers all season long.
2. STANFORD RB BRYCE LOVE
Bryce Love’s former Stanford teammate Christian McCaffrey ensured his place in NYC and forced a close vote in 2015 with a huge performance in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Love’s now presented the same opportunity.
USC gave up a 75-yard touchdown run to the running back, who has been positioned in second place for much of the season, but the Trojans held him at bay thereafter. He needs to put on a show to have any chance of unseating Baker Mayfield — something in the vein of McCaffrey vs. the Trojans two years ago.
1. OKLAHOMA QB BAKER MAYFIELD
I won’t mince words: Based on all empirical evidence and data I’ve collected throughout the season to track this year’s Heisman vote, it’s clear Baker Mayfield would have to play one of the worst games in college football history to lose this year’s award. We’re talking Nathan Peterman’s first career NFL start levels of atrocious.
Since Mayfield has cruised along, dissecting one defense after another with remarkable accuracy and devastating deep balls, there’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly implode in the Big 12 Championship. Besides, he already went to work on TCU — and what gets dissected more than a Frog?
Baker Mayfield is winning the 2017 Heisman Trophy, and everyone else is jockeying just to be part of the ceremony.