Maybe I’m romanticizing a bit, but you could make the argument that no individual award in the sports world is more revered than the Heisman Trophy. Even though it’s obviously no guarantee of future success in the NFL (Sup, Troy Smith), the prestige of the Heisman is nearly incomparable. With another college football season soon upon us, here are five players that should strongly contend for college football’s top individual honor (although I’m very partial to the #Feeney4Heisman movement, no guards will appear on this list).
1. RB/KR/PR Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
We have to start with the guy who deserved to take home the Heisman after last season. Last season, McCaffrey smashed Barry Sanders’ longstanding record with 3,864 all-purpose yards. Even though the college football season is longer than it was back in 1988–and that definitely helped McCaffrey break Sanders’ record–there’s no question that McCaffrey’s sophomore season was one of the greatest in college football history. But of course he didn’t win the Heisman because Alabama wins everything.
It would be unrealistic to expect McCaffrey to equal his phenomenal output from a season ago, but with his speed and versatility he should be in the Heisman conversation all year. Something to keep in mind: Stanford will have a new man under center now that the highly successful Kevin Hogan era is over. Especially early in the season, teams can afford to be much more aggressive in trying to contain McCaffrey, so he’ll have to work extremely hard for every yard he gets.
2. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU
How good would LSU be if it ever had a quarterback? The fact that Les Miles can consistently churn out 9-10 win seasons without the threat of a passing game is extremely impressive. But that’s a topic for another column.
The point is that with the futility of LSU quarterbacks–this year it’ll be Brandon Harris again with Danny Etling (a guy who transferred in after being benched at Purdue) backing Harris up–opponents can (and do) stack the box with eight or even nine defenders. It doesn’t matter. Even with a shortened regular season schedule (LSU’s opener against McNeese St. was cancelled), Fournette still managed to rush for 1,953 yards–capped off with a dominating 212 yard, four touchdown performance in LSU’s Texas Bowl win over Texas Tech. Fournette is an athletic freak, gifted enough to be able to both run through or around defenders. He’ll have another Heisman-caliber season before likely becoming a first-round draft pick.
3. QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
No surprises with any of these first three players. Watson is the classic dual-threat college quarterback. After an ACL injury cut his 2014 season short, Watson accounted for 5,209 yards of offense and 47 touchdowns and led Clemson to the National Championship Game. Although his coach, Soybean Wind, actively opposes college athletes getting paid, Watson’s 2015 season increased his market value exponentially. “Clemsoning” is no longer an accurate joke critics can make about the Tiger program, and Watson’s dominance is a big reason for that. Watson could definitely lead Clemson to back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances, and doing so would likely ensure a trip to New York for himself.
4. QB Josh Rosen, UCLA
Since I went super-obvious with the first three members of this list, I’ll go with a couple dark horses to round it out. No disrespect to Baker Mayfield and Dalvin Cook–guys who will surely be strong contenders for the Heisman–but this list is merely five guys to watch.
With that being said, Rosen is probably the best pure passer in the country. Like McCaffrey, he lacks some exposure due to the fact that he plays on the West Coast. But as a freshman he quietly threw for 3,668 yards and 23 touchdowns. Solid numbers, but not Heisman-worthy, I’ll grant you that. However, those are eye-popping numbers for a true freshman quarterback. There is perhaps no one in college football poised to take a bigger step forward in 2016 than Rosen, but questions remain regarding what level of talent will be surrounding him. UCLA lost top running back Paul Perkins and Rosen’s top two receivers in Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte to the NFL Draft, and Rosen’s Heisman candidacy may hinge on how well UCLA replaces those players.
5. S/LB Jabril Peppers, Michigan
Peppers is an intriguing Heisman candidate since he’s primarily been a defensive player. This year, he’s stated that he will be playing offense, defense, and returning kicks–planning on playing around 100 snaps per game. As such, he’s going to face a great deal of media scrutiny all season (including idiotic thinkpieces about how he’s “revolutionizing” the game, SPARE ME). Michigan should be very good again this year, and Peppers will no doubt make an enormous impact playing both ways. The thing that concerns me (and what may ultimately derail his Heisman hopes) is whether or not Peppers can keep his level of play high while playing 100 snaps every single game. Even though college football players are tremendous athletes and in great physical condition, at some point severe fatigue and injury become very real possibilities. Peppers is going to be a very interesting story to keep an eye on all year and could potentially have the best non-QB/RB Heisman finish since Manti Te’o.