Last December only three players were invited to New York as finalists for the 80th Heisman Trophy. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and Alabama receiver Amari Cooper enjoyed the media car wash in the Big Apple before Mariota ultimately claimed the award.
TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, like many others, had to watch the ceremony from home. But he was the most successful player not invited to New York, earning 218 total points and eight first-place Heisman votes. No other non-finalist garnered more than four. Boykin’s stock rose even higher after the Horned Frogs’ 42-3 rout of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl.
That’s why Boykin headlines the 2015 Heisman field heading into the offseason. The Frogs standout is one of several players to keep an eye on, especially with all three ’14 finalists off to the NFL. Who else can make a Heisman run next fall? Here are the top 10 candidates in SI.com’s Way-Too-Early Heisman Watch.
1. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
An improved Boykin was the catalyst behind TCU’s remarkable turnaround in 2014. The Horned Frogs finished 12-1 as Boykin set single-season program records for passing yards (3,901), touchdown passes (33), touchdowns responsible for (42) and total offense (4,608). There’s little reason to believe he can’t keep up that level of production in ’15. The Frogs have a favorable schedule and return 10 starters on offense. Boykin should enter next season atop several Heisman short lists.
2. Braxton Miller/J.T. Barrett/Cardale Jones, QBs, Ohio State
It’s hard not to feel sorry for other teams in the Big Ten: Arguably the three best quarterbacks in the conference all reside in Columbus. Whoever starts between Miller, Barrett and Jones will likely impact the Heisman race. Miller already has two top 10 finishes (fifth in 2012; ninth in ’13) under his belt. Barrett likely would have reached New York in ’14 if he didn’t suffer a season-ending ankle injury against Michigan on Nov. 29. And despite flirting with the NFL draft, Jones announced his return to campus last Thursday. Given adequate playing time, any of the three should be dangerous as part of a team that returns 14 starters.
3. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
A Crimson Tide offense that loses starters including Cooper, quarterback Blake Sims and tailback T.J. Yeldon should look to Henry to shoulder a bigger part of the load in 2015. That shouldn’t be a problem for Alabama’s bruising back who ran for 990 yards with 11 touchdowns behind Yeldon last fall. Henry put on an efficiency clinic over his last four games, averaging 8.0 yards per carry in that span. Henry could be the star for an offense that might look very different next year.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Elliott was the country’s best back in the home stretch of 2014. In Ohio State’s wins in the Big Ten title game, Sugar Bowl and national championship, he carried 76 times for an astounding 696 yards with eight touchdowns. He proved to be a more than serviceable replacement for Carlos Hyde and heads into the offseason with lots of momentum. However, his Heisman hopes hinge on how the Buckeyes’ situation under center unfolds. Quarterbacks have won 13 of the last 14 trophies, and Elliott could have trouble overshadowing Ohio State’s eventual starter.
5. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Todd Gurley was supposed to be Georgia’s Heisman-caliber tailback in 2014. But Gurley missed seven games due to an NCAA suspension and an injury, allowing Chubb to shine in his absence. Chubb rushed for 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns as a true freshman, and he did it after carrying only 31 times in the season’s first five games. He saved his best performance for last: a 266-yard, two-touchdown outing in the Bulldogs’ 31-17 victory over Louisville in the Belk Bowl. Next season Gurley will be gone and Georgia will return four starters on the offensive line. That’s a recipe for another big year for Chubb.
6. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
A knee injury limited Watson’s impact in 2014, but he still showed glimpses of what the future could bring. He threw 14 touchdowns to two picks while completing 68 percent of his passes and averaging 10.7 yards per attempt. If Watson can bounce back from ACL surgery, and if the Tigers’ offense can absorb the loss of dynamic coordinator Chad Morris, the sophomore could make some Heisman noise. Plus, Clemson should bring back seven starters on offense.
7. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette became a 1,000-yard rusher as a true freshman in 2014, surpassing 100 yards in five games for LSU. He rushed for 143 yards with two touchdowns on just 11 carries in a 31-28 loss to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl. He also added a 100-yard kickoff return for a score. Next year the Tigers are set to return eight starters on offense. Given the team’s questions at quarterback, Fournette should emerge as the go-to playmaker for an improved SEC contender.
8. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Freeman might have made more Heisman noise this season if not for Mariota. The quarterback took most of Oregon’s headlines, but Freeman carried 262 times for 1,365 yards with 18 scores. The back will be a seasoned sophomore next year while his coaches sort out a quarterback race between Jeff Lockie, Morgan Mahalak and Georgia Tech transfer Ty Griffin. That could mean a heavier rushing load for Freeman on a team that should still be very dangerous.
9. Cody Kessler, QB, USC
Perhaps no quarterback was as quietly effective in 2014 as Kessler. He threw for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns and only five interceptions while completing 70 percent of his passes. He also racked up 321 passing yards with three scores in the Trojans’ 45-42 Sun Bowl win over Nebraska. Kessler will miss NFL-bound wideout Nelson Agholor, but will be one of eight returning starters in 2015. A repeat performance could create buzz if USC can factor into the Pac-12 race.
10. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State
Prescott entered this fall as nothing more than a dark-horse Heisman candidate. He developed into perhaps the most successful quarterback in program history who finished eighth in Heisman voting. Prescott set 12 school records, including rushing yards by a quarterback (986) and total offense (4,435). Late losses to Alabama and Ole Miss spoiled his shot at reaching New York, and then he spurned the NFL to return in 2015. The question is whether he can maintain his production on a roster that returns seven total starters, fewest in the SEC.
Keep an eye on: Michigan State QB Connor Cook, Arizona LB Scooby Wright III, Florida State RB Dalvin Cook, Wisconsin RB Corey Clement, Oklahoma RB Samaje Perine, Arizona QB Anu Solomon, Pittsburgh RB James Conner