An early Heisman watch list for 2017 to determine who will be the biggest threats claim college football’s most prestigious award next season.
Louisville sophomore QB Lamar Jackson is the 82nd recipient of the Heisman Trophy. Well-deserved in a year that the door was opened in late November, but no one sufficiently busted through to leapfrog the season-long favorite. But 2016 is already old news, yup even before the bust of Jackson is completed.
It’ll soon be 2017, and Jackson will open next season as the favorite to repeat as the Heisman winner. However, competitors are already lining up to prevent him from becoming a two-time winner.
*A handful of juniors, such as Luke Falk, Patrick Mahomes, Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph, are also top 10-caliber, but will likely be competing for NFL reps next fall.
Early Heisman Candidates For 2017
10. Auburn RB Kamryn Pettway
Before pulling up lame in the Nov. 5 Vanderbilt game, Pettway was trucking everything in his path. He was Auburn’s D’Onta Foreman, with 138 fewer touches. Pettway is a 240-pound wrecking ball, rushing for 1,123 yards and seven scores in a little more than half a season of work. With an entire year as the focal point of the Tiger offense, he’s liable to post monster numbers, especially if the passing game provides a little more cover. Two of Pettway’s next three games are against Oklahoma and Clemson, so he’ll have the spotlight to ignite his campaign.
9. Texas QB Shane Buechele
Buechele was one of the three or four best freshmen quarterbacks of 2016, completing 236-of-391 passes for 2,958 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. And now he gets to continue his maturation under the watchful eye of Tom Herman, an elite developer of quarterbacks and offenses. Charlie Strong’s staff, particularly coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, did a good job with Buechele. But the sophomore-to-be is liable to hit the tarmac now that Herman is his head coach and seven of last year’s top eight receivers will still be running routes in Austin next fall.
8. Penn State QB Trace McSorley
McSorley finished the regular season as one of the nation’s hottest quarterbacks, rallying the Lions in the Big Ten Championship Game against the usually airtight Wisconsin secondary. He also carries himself with the boundless swagger and confidence of a Mad Bomber, which will really resonate in the voting community. In 2017, he gets a second season with coordinator Joe Moorhead and all of his top targets, provided none turn pro early. McSorley’s biggest hurdles will be sharing a backfield with another contender, RB Saquon Barkley, and matching soaring expectations as the defending conference champs.
7. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
True, Barrett has been just okay as a junior, too often lacking accuracy in the passing game. In fact, he completed less than 50% of his passes against three opponents: Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State. But he firmly belongs in the discussion for two reasons. First, Barrett will be the well-known senior leader of one of the country’s premier programs. And second, this is still the same player who began his career in 2014 by accounting for 45 total touchdowns and finishing fifth in the Heisman as a redshirt freshman. The Buckeyes hope to see that playmaker again in 2017.
6. USC QB Sam Darnold
Troy’s rise this fall paralleled that of Darnold, who was a revelation after earning his first start in Salt Lake City in Week 4. The redshirt freshman was human smelling salt for USC, which awoke from a 1-3 start to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl. Darnold performed with uncommon poise considering his experience level, finishing the regular season ranked No. 10 nationally in passer efficiency rating. With an entire offseason as the undisputed starter, he’ll continue to evolve quickly, though he’ll likely be replacing his two favorite targets, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers.
5. LSU RB Derrius Guice
You don’t get better by losing a player the caliber of Leonard Fournette. Or do you? While Fournette is a once-in-a-generation back, his health was an issue in 2016. Guice took advantage, laying the foundation for what should be a breakout junior season as the feature back. Like Fournette, Guice possesses a rare combination of skills, power, speed and the sudden cuts to make defenders look silly in the open field. In his last three games, he twice went over 250 yards on the ground, including a school-record 285 yards and four scores against Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night.
4. Washington QB Jake Browning
Browning wasn’t invited to New York City as a finalist, which could serve as motivation throughout 2017. Despite being only two years removed from Folsom (Calif.) High School, he’s fifth nationally in passer efficiency rating, while throwing 42 touchdowns and only seven picks. Unfortunately, he struggled in his two biggest games, USC and Colorado, which didn’t go unnoticed. Browning studies too hard and possesses too much arm talent to plateau as a junior, particularly if one or both of his star receivers, John Ross and Dante Pettis, hold off on entering the NFL Draft.
3. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
Hurts was only a part of the Tide’s perfect season and third straight SEC Championship. A key part, but just a part. What can he accomplish in his second year on campus with a larger role within the offense and the program at large? Hurts was unusually productive for a true freshman on a contender, throwing 22 touchdowns, running for a dozen more and accounting for well over 3,000 yards. And he rolled with the poise of a fourth-year junior. But Bama hasn’t even begun unlocking all of Hurts’ potential as a playmaker, which becomes a priority in 2017.
2. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
By the time a player has twice finished in the top 5 of the Heisman vote, he’s usually off to the NFL. Mayfield, though, has already stated that he plans to be in Norman for his senior year. Can the perennial bridesmaid finally get up to the altar in 2017? Numbers won’t be a problem, even as WR Dede Westbrook exhausts his eligibility. And Mayfield will enter next season with one of the highest Q-ratings in college football. He and his team, though, must show up in marquee non-conference games, like the Sept. 9 trip to The Horseshoe.
1. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
Archie Griffin’s distinction as the game’s only two-time Heisman winner could be in serious jeopardy in 2017. Jackson won Saturday’s award as a true sophomore, two years removed from Boynton Beach (Fla.) High School, so his first chance to turn pro won’t come until 2018. And that’s miserable news for ACC defenses. Despite some late stumbles, Jackson was college football’s star attraction this past year, erupting for 1,538 yards on the ground and accounting for 51 total touchdowns. The scariest part? Bobby Petrino will spend the offseason fine-tuning Jackson’s mechanics, reads and throwing motion in the pocket.