With bowl season over and Clemson your national champion thanks to an incredible, improbable, title game victory, it’s never too early to look ahead to the 2017 season. And oh, what a season it will be, with a number of stacked teams, including USC, Ohio State, Penn State, and of course, Alabama.
But while a number of big names depart — guys like Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Deshaun Watson — there are a number of big-time stars who will return, potentially setting up one of the most compelling Heisman races in years.
Here are 15 names we could see on the stage in New York at the 2017 Heisman Trophy presentation in December.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Every 2017 Heisman list has to start with the guy who won it in 2016. Jackson will try to become the second player ever to take home the award twice. After a season where he compiled 3,543 yards passing, nearly 1,400 rushing and 51 total touchdowns, it’s not hard to envision him winning it again.
As exciting as Jackson’s season was as a whole, there is concern about how it finished. With Louisville’s offensive line breaking down, Jackson had five total touchdowns in his last three games, including zero in the Cardinals’ bowl game against LSU. If the O-line doesn’t shore things up around him, it’s hard to see Jackson repeating.
Sam Darnold, QB, USC
Darnold was the breakout star of bowl season, tossing five touchdowns in a record-setting Rose Bowl win. Those numbers were basically on par with what he did all season. After entering the Trojans’ lineup in Week 4, he threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns in 10 starts. He also tossed at least two touchdowns in every game.
If Jackson is the Heisman favorite going into 2017, Darnold will be right behind him.
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Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
What was lost in Darnold’s performance in Pasadena was how good Barkley was for the Nittany Lions. Barkley rushed for 194 yards with three total touchdowns.
That capped a spectacular sophomore season in which the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year rushed for 1,496 yards, with 18 total rushing touchdowns, tied for seventh in the country.
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Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Of every player who decided to bypass the NFL Draft, Chubb might have been the most surprising. He rushed for more than 1,100 yards this year after missing most of 2015 with an ACL injury. Given the short shelf life of NFL running backs and his injury history, it was almost certain that he would go pro.
Instead he decided to return to Georgia to finish his degree and try and get the ‘Dawgs to their first SEC title game since the 2012 season. Chubb had five 100-plus yard rushing games in 2016, including 142 in Georgia’s Liberty Bowl win over TCU on Dec. 31.
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Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia
There’s a good track record of quarterbacks making the leap in their second season on campus, with everyone from Johnny Manziel to Jameis Winston and Lamar Jackson taking home the Heisman in either their redshirt freshman or sophomore campaign.
If it’s going to happen in 2017 it seems like Eason — a former five-star recruit -– is as good a candidate as any. He finished his freshman season with 2,430 yards and 16 touchdown passes thrown. Like Chubb, he had a strong bowl game, tossing for 164 yards and two touchdowns, and also like his Georgia teammate, could be a prime Heisman candidate next year.
Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
Because the Bulldogs struggled early in 2016, and because Fitzgerald had the impossible task of replacing the greatest quarterback in Mississippi State history (some guy named Dak Prescott) his performance was obscured.
Fitzgerald was one of the surprise success stories, finishing with more than 2,400 yards passing, as well as 1,375 yards on the ground. He also tallied 36 total touchdowns, including an SEC-best 16 rushing TDs.
Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
While fans were disappointed that an ankle injury never allowed Leonard Fournette to get going in 2016, LSU fans have to be happy that they found a more than capable replacement in Guice. In Fournette’s absence, Guice rushed for more than 300 yards, averaging a staggering 7.58 yards per carry. He also set an LSU single-game rushing record with 285 yards against Texas A&M.
As the featured back for a full season, it will be fascinating to see what kind of numbers Guice can put up.
Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ season didn’t end the way anyone wanted. But that shouldn’t change the fact that Ohio State still had a highly successful 2016, thanks in large part to a breakout season from Weber.
After missing all of 2015 with a knee injury, Weber rushed for 1,096 yards on his way to winning Big Ten Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The only concern for Ohio State fans is the way the season ended; Weber had just 26 yards on 11 carries against Michigan, and a meager 24 yards against Clemson in the national semifinal. There’s no doubt Ohio State’s new offensive coaching staff will get Weber much more involved in 2017.
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J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Assuming that (as expected) Jabrill Peppers turns pro after this year, there will be only three players in college football in 2017 who have, at one point in their careers, finished in the Top 5 in Heisman Trophy voting. Jackson, Mayfield and… J.T. Barrett? In case you forgot, Barrett finished fifth in the voting, way back in his freshman season of 2014.
It’s not impossible to imagine him taking home the trophy next year, as he will be the ringleader of an explosive offense which will welcome back Weber, Noah Brown, Parris Campbell and a handful of others. In the process, Barrett should easily surpass the stats he put up in 2016, when he tossed for 2,555 yards and 25 touchdowns.
USA TODAY Sports Tommy Gilligan
Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Freeman was the backbone of the Oregon offense for the past two seasons, rushing for more than 1,365 yards in 2014 and adding another 1,836 in ’15. However, last season was a relative disappointment as Freeman had 945 yards, in a wildly forgettable 4-8 season for the Ducks.
Freeman elected to return for his senior year and should have another monster season. Willie Taggart brings a dynamic offense from South Florida to Eugene, one that averaged nearly 44 points per game, and produced back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons from Marlon Mack. Freeman could step into the same role Mack had in Tampa and be an absolute star in 2017.
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Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Freeman won’t be the only star returning to the Pac-12, as Browning will be back after a breakout season in 2016. He finished with more than 3,400 yards passing and 43 touchdowns, on the way to being named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and leading Washington to the College Football Playoff.
The only concern with backing Browning for a potential Heisman run is this: With star wide receiver John Ross off to the NFL, will Browning’s stats suffer?