The 2018 Heisman Trophy winner could emerge from relative obscurity. Such was the case for recent winners Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston, a pair of redshirt freshmen not even projected to start a year out from their inclusion in college football’s most exclusive club. Lamar Jackson was a known commodity after the 2015 season, but as a midseason add to a struggling team, flew low on the radar ahead of his 2016 Heisman season.
Then again, the 2018 Heisman winner might follow a trajectory comparable to that of Baker Mayfield, a prominent frontrunner from the end of the previous season.
No one knows for certain, quite obviously. Each season is unique, and so is every Heisman race. The Open Man Heisman Top 10 forecasts the race based on a scientific process of data tracking throughout the season; the following is much less scientific, albeit based somewhat on data.
Once the initial 2018 Heisman watch conversation begin to emerge in national media, the following are names likely to appear at the forefront.
2017 BUZZWORTHY NAMES
WISCONSIN RB JONATHAN TAYLOR
Jonathan Taylor made a case worthy of serious consideration in 2017. Given how Wisconsin utilizes feature backs, it’s fair to assume he can build off his 1,847-yard, 13-touchdown freshman campaign.
ARIZONA QB KHALIL TATE
Were it not for his getting banged up in the final two games of the 2017 regular season, Khalil Tate appeared on course for an invitation to New York in 2017.
Tate returns in 2018 leading an Arizona roster retaining a bevy of talent. Rich Rodriguez-coached players have a history of being dismissed by Heisman voters; Patrick White, Steve Slaton, Denard Robinson and Ka’Deem Carey were all passed over despite numbers worthy of consideration.
However, Tate’s buzz in 2017 and the experience surrounding him in 2018 give him the best road map to NYC.
UCF QB McKENZIE MILTON
OK, so Group of Five players have an extraordinarily difficult time factoring into the conversation. None have represented in New York during the College Football Playoff era, despite Keenan Reynolds and Rashaad Penny building worthy resumes in 2015 and 2017.
Still, McKenzie Milton started to pick up a modest groundswell late in the 2017, earned a few votes in the final ballot, and that could carry him into the early 2018 Heisman conversation. Hype can matter as much as production, especially for contenders from the Group of Five.
HOUSTON DT ED OLIVER
Group of Five contenders are outsiders; defensive Heisman contenders are, remarkably, even more rare. Combine the two, and the likelihood of a Heisman candidacy is infinitesimal. Ed Oliver defied both expectations in 2017, appearing on a few reputable Heisman watch rankings over the case of the campaign.
The Outland Trophy winner will enter into the 2018 Heisman race with hardware, notoriety and an opening week matchup against another likely preseason frontrunner, Khalil Tate.
ALABAMA QB JALEN HURTS
Two-year Alabama starter Jalen Hurts could very well begin his third season with the Crimson Tide sporting a national championship. That’s certainly one way to launch a 2018 Heisman candidacy. Hurts threw 15 touchdowns against just one interception and was again electrifying via the run.
PENN STATE QB TRACE McSORLEY
Saquon Barkley earned the lion’s share (wakka wakka) of attention at Penn State in 2017, but quarterback Trace McSorley peaked in the Top 5 of The Open Man Heisman Top 10 during the campaign.
McSorley was very much feast-or-famine. He can be spectacular, a necessary quality to compete for a Heisman. With Barkley presumably bound for the NFL, it’s Trace McSorley’s team in 2018.
FLORIDA STATE QB DEONDRE FRANCOIS
Flashes of brilliance in the 2016 season gained Deondre Francois some preseason Heisman chatter ahead of the 2017 season — a 2017 season that ended less than one game in.
Francois return in 2018 not guaranteed the starting quarterback job; James Blackman had impressive moments, and the arrival of a new coaching staff likely opens every position on the depth chart in spring football. Considering how quarterbacks have performed under Willie Taggart at each of his last three stops, though, it’s likely Francois would bounce back in a big way should he land duties in 2018.
OREGON QB JUSTIN HERBERT
Speaking of successful quarterbacks under Taggart, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert was off to an excellent start before a collarbone injury sidelined him for about half of the Ducks season.
He’ll return in 2018 under a new head coach, albeit one with which Herbert is familiar in Mario Cristobal. The departure of Royce Freeman makes Herbert the focal point of the Oregon offense heading into a new era.
MIAMI RB MARK WALTON
Although eligible for the NFL draft, the injury that sidelined Mark Walton earlier into Miami’s breakout 2017 season may necessitate his returning for 2018. That would give Miami an explosive playmaker around which to build its offense. With Mark Richt establishing the identity of this program and building The U into an ACC contender, Walton has the potential to be the face of the ‘Canes.
HIGH CEILING RETURNERS
OHIO STATE RB J.K. DOBBINS
J.K. Dobbins was special in his freshman season at Ohio State, and it may be only the beginning. Dobbins rushed for 1,364 yards, and should see more opportunities for touchdowns with a new quarterback set to take the reins of the Buckeyes offense in 2018. Dobbins will also have the chance to factor more prominently into the passing game as a receiving option out of the backfield.
CLEMSON QB KELLY BRYANT
Kelly Bryant’s numbers in 2017 were unspectacular, well shy of the statistics predecessor Deshaun Watson registered on his way to two Heisman ceremonies. But Bryant could launch a 2018 Heisman candidacy in the most spectacular fashion possible should he lead Clemson to a second consecutive national championship.
GEORGIA QB JAKE FROMM
The Georgia offense improved by leaps and bounds in Year 2 of the Kirby Smart era. It’s no coincidence the improvement began when Jake Fromm replaced Jacob Eason behind center.
Fromm leads the Bulldogs into the College Football Playoff after Georgia won its first SEC championship in 12 years. With 21 touchdown passes against just five interceptions, and a chase to win a national championship, Fromm builds off a rock-solid foundation.
WILL THEY STAY OR WILL THEY GO?
Early entries into the NFL draft factor into shaping the preseason Heisman conversation. A handful of underclassmen seem destined for the pros next autumn — a smattering of high-end running backs like Ronald Jones II, Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice come to mind — and a talented quarterback like Josh Rosen who could go No. 1 overall doesn’t necessarily fit his new head coach’s scheme.
Others do not have what appear to be such clear cases for early entry, however. Should they return, they will be in the 2018 Heisman discussion during the offseason.
USC QB SAM DARNOLD
After entering the 2017 season the odds-on favorite for the Heisman, Sam Darnold endured a challenging start that eliminated him from contention. USC won a Pac-12 championship, but fell just short of the College Football Playoff.
With two seasons of eligibility remaining, Darnold could return in pursuit of two loftier goals.
MISSOURI QB DREW LOCK
Drew Lock registered eye-popping statistics in 2017: 43 touchdown passes, 3,695 yards through the air with another 111 on the ground. He flew relatively under the radar until late in the season, once Missouri exceeded expectations as a team.
Josh Huepel’s exit from Missouri for the head coaching job at UCF might make Lock’s decision easier, but he has not been one of the prominently discussed quarterbacks for the 2018 class. Another season might not only improve his draft stock, but it could turn Drew Lock into a 2018 Heisman contender.
STANFORD RB BRYCE LOVE
It’s not so outlandish to think the 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up could return for another go-around. By virtue of playing behind Christian McCaffrey in 2016, and doing much of his work on explosive plays in 2017, Bryce Love has not racked up excessive mileage in his Stanford career.
What’s more, Love has touted his commitment to the academic side of his Stanford tenure. The pursuit of credentials in stem cell research could be as much of a motivating factor for Love to return as being the frontrunner for the 2018 Heisman.