It’s never too early to take a look at some early Heisman candidates for next season. Clemson and Alabama provided one heck of a finale for the 2016 season, but now we look ahead. Louisville star Lamar Jackson led the 2016 Heisman race for most of the season, winning over Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. Will the 2017 race be as one-sided? Here are some names to keep track of.
- Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville- There’s no better place to start than with the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner. Despite a lackluster finish to the season, Jackson’s numbers were just too stellar to overlook. No QB in the country is a bigger threat with their legs, and Jackson can sling it as well. The Cardinals didn’t contend for a playoff spot, but if they do in 2017, there’s a good chance that Jackson will have to prepare another acceptance speech. Expect Jackson to be the favorite to win the coveted award when the 2017 season kicks off.
- Sam Darnold, QB, USC- All is right in the college football world when USC is elite. After a down period following NCAA sanctions, the Trojans are back, and Darnold is a giant reason why. Darnold didn’t open the season as the starter, but once he got the job, there was no looking back. He won’t wow you with athleticism the way Jackson does, but he’s deadly efficient and knows how to get his team into the win column. Darnold would be the third USC QB to win the award, joining Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. With the Trojans currently ranked at #3, big things could be in store in Southern California.
- Derrius Guice, RB, LSU- If there’s a superstar that you don’t know about, it’s probably Derrius Guice. Slated behind NFL-bound Leonard Fournette, Guice has quietly been one of the best RB’s in college football in his first two seasons. He’s averaged 7.8 yards per carry in his career, adding 18 rushing TDs. With Fournette leaving, Guice will finally get his shot at being the full-time feature back. Expect Guice to rumble all over opposing defenses all season long, leading the LSU offense.
- Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma- Will 2017 finally be the year that it all comes together for Mayfield and the Sooners? When it comes to early Heisman candidates, Mayfield’s been a mainstay for three years now. All the pieces are in place for him to make a run at the award. Oklahoma’s explosive offense can put up 50 points on any given Saturday. The issue for Mayfield’s case has been the thin Big-12 competition, partnered with Oklahoma’s inability to go undefeated. We know that the numbers will be there, but will his team keep Mayfield in the race?
- Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State- The miracle 2016 season that the Nittany Lions had isn’t possible without Saquon Barkley. The junior RB thrives in Penn State’s high octane attack, and has all the tools to be a beast at the next level. The toughest hurdle for Barkley in his Heisman campaign will be overcoming a stacked Big-10 schedule. If Penn State can improve on their 2016 performance, and Barkley shines all season long, it’ll be hard to keep him out of New York City for the award ceremony.
- Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State- The main reason why Francois cracks my top six is that I see Florida State being the real deal in 2017. Sure, they lose RB Dalvin Cook to the NFL, but look for Francois and his offensive line to take big steps forward with experience under their belts. When you watch Francois play, you see what Head Coach Jimbo Fisher sees in him. He’s got all the tools to be a great college QB. If he can get some better protection this season, watch out ACC.
- Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama- Like Francois, Hurts is heading into his Sophomore season on a team destined for contention. It was clear in the National Championship Game that Hurts has a long way to go as a passer. His inability to complete passes down the field cost the Tide big time against Clemson. Still, Alabama is a likely candidate to return to the playoff. If what is said about Hurts’ work ethic is true, he should improve in a major way.
- J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State- Will he stay or will he go? Of the eight players on my list, Barrett is the only one that may move on the the NFL in for the 2017 season. In a piece I wrote on him during the playoff, I said that he was good, but not great. That showed in Ohio State’s blowout loss to Clemson. If Barrett does return, he’ll have to shoulder a bigger load, with many of the most talented Buckeyes moving on to the NFL. Urban Meyer always finds a way to field an elite team, and Barrett knows how to get the most out of his teammates. Stay tuned regarding his NFL status.