The Heisman Trophy is perhaps the most sought-after individual award in all of sports. From Doak Walker and Nile Kinnick to Tim Tebow and Mark Ingram, the trophy signifies the greatest college football player in the sport, and its recipients truly go down in history.
Last season, the award was given to Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the first sophomore to win since Ingram in 2009. Being too young to declare for the NFL Draft, Jackson is back at Louisville this season, meaning that he could become the first player since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin, and the second ever, to take home a second Heisman.
Jackson is not currently the favorite, but he’s deep in the mix. It’s certainly conceivable right now that a second straight win — and the history that comes with it — could happen.
Of course, he is far from the only contender. There are no shortage of players eager to take home the hardware. Here are the 10 we think are most likely to unseat Jackson for the Heisman Trophy.
Mason Rudolph, quarterback, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State had one of the best offenses in the nation last year, ranking eighth in offensive S&P+ and 23rd in offensive FEI. They come into 2017 with the bulk of the unit returning, including Rudolph, who enters his senior year.
Rudolph has gotten steadily better each year, culminating in 4,091 yards, 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions last season. He throws perhaps the best deep ball in the nation and receiver James Washington (more on him in a bit) is set to be a star. That alone puts Rudolph in the conversation, but the door is wide open for Oklahoma State to contend in the Big XII.
After Bob Stoops’ unexpected retirement at in-state rival Oklahoma, there are questions facing what was previously the unquestioned favorite. Tom Herman is only in his first year at Texas and it’s unlikely the Longhorns are a national powerhouse again as soon as this year. The Cowboys have a clear window of opportunity here, and Rudolph can be a benefactor.
Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State
In the Barkley profile Sports Illustrated ran Wednesday, the rising junior drew comparisons to Ezekiel Elliott and Bo Jackson (the latter from his own running backs coach, which is one heck of a compliment). That’s not to say it isn’t deserved.
Barkley scampered for 1,496 rushing yards last season along with 402 receiving yards, winning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors. His 18 rushing touchdowns led the conference, as did his 1,898 all-purpose yards. He even led the conference in points scored, which feels almost impossible for a non-kicker. It feels like I just listed the stats of someone who already won the Heisman, but rest assured, Barkley did not.
To bolster his chances even further, the Nittany Lions’ offensive line featured a lot of injuries and a lot of freshmen last season. The former will regress, the latter will age. Coming into the year, Penn State has title aspirations and Barkley has well-placed Heisman hopes.
Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC
Darnold is currently the odds-on favorite for two honors: the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. In 2016, after grabbing the starting job in Week 4, Darnold was immediately one of the better quarterbacks in the nation.
He had a 161.1 passer rating, 67.2 completion percentage, a solid-though-unimpressive 3,086 passing yards and not a single game that could be accurately described as bad. After the team struggled for the first four weeks of the year — including an embarrassing blowout loss to Alabama — Darnold led USC to the Rose Bowl, where he promptly turned in an all-time performance, throwing for 453 yards and five touchdowns in a Trojan win over Penn State.
Did we mention that Darnold did all of this as a redshirt freshman? USC is losing its two best receivers from last season, but running back Ronald Jones returns and Darnold figures to improve in his second year, before likely making the jump to the pros. If that improvement happens, Darnold will be well in the Heisman mix.
Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma
The 2015 Big XII Offensive Player of the Year and 2016 Heisman finalist, Mayfield is heading into his senior season with a new head coach, Lincoln Riley, and Heisman buzz.
The Big XII door may be open for their rivals up in Stillwater, but the Sooners are still favorites and Mayfield is the biggest reason. In 2016, Mayfield threw for nearly 4,000 yards along with 40 touchdowns with a 196.4 passer rating. Oklahoma was first in the country in offensive S&P+ and passing S&P+, as the advanced numbers backed up what we all saw.
The best argument for Mayfield, however, may simply be that it’s his turn. He was passed up — rightly — for the past two seasons, but if the race is close this time around, it may be Mayfield’s to lose. He’s without a doubt Oklahoma’s best quarterback since Sam Bradford and has been one of the best players in the nation for his entire tenure in Norman. That will undoubtedly garner votes assuming Mayfield has another deserving season.
Derrius Guice, running back, LSU
Leonard Fournette’s replacement in Baton Rouge may be just as terrifying as Leonard Fournette.
Guice, a junior this season, burst onto the scene last season when Fournette got injured, rushing for 1,387 yards in only 183 attempts. If you don’t have a calculator on you, that’s 7.6 yards per carry, good enough to lead the SEC and get inside the top-10 in the entire country.
Guice also led the conference in rushing yards and touchdowns last season despite Fournette being the #1 guy or splitting carries in all seven games he played. Guice only had 20 or more carries in a game twice last season and led the conference in rushing. Imagine what he’ll do as the unquestioned starter.
Deondre Francois, quarterback, Florida State
Florida State is set to regain the national spotlight this season. They start the year with what could be a #1-vs.-#2 matchup against Alabama and with Francois under center, the Seminoles have a very real chance to make it back to the playoffs.
Last season, Francois’ 3,350 passing yards led the nation among freshmen quarterbacks. He also posted 8.4 yards per attempt, a 142.1 passer rating and 20 touchdowns while leading FSU to the Orange Bowl. Sure, his numbers as a freshman weren’t quite as impressive as Darnold’s, but the Seminoles are widely considered the better team this year.
If Francois turns in an impressive performance in the opening game against Alabama, he could be the early pace-setter for the Heisman race. Should Florida State fend off Clemson and Louisville in the ACC after beating the Crimson Tide in Week 1, Francois under center throughout, it’s not hard to see a wire-to-wire Heisman victory for the redshirt sophomore.
Source: Yard Barker
Ten college football stars most likely to unseat Lamar Jackson for the Heisman