A way-too-early look at the 2017 Heisman Trophy race

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A way-too-early look at the 2017 college football landscape
2:17 | College Football
A way-too-early look at the 2017 college football landscape
Monday January 16th, 2017

It is far too soon to be thinking about the 2017 Heisman Trophy. Fans and media members are still processing Lamar Jackson’s victory in 2016. He was far from a unanimous choice, and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson’s takedown of Alabama’s world-beating defense in the national championship game shined a critical light on the Louisville quarterback’s qualifications. Had the voting taken place after the College Football Playoff, the thinking went, Watson would have been the one hoisting the bronze trophy in New York. That may be true, and unfortunately for Watson, he won’t have an opportunity to make another run at the award.

Jackson will. If he pulls it off, the junior would become the first two-time Heisman winner since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974-75. Jackson should only get better with another season of experience in coach Bobby Petrino’s offense, and unlike the crop of established stars entering last season (Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Watson), there’s no obvious candidate to dethrone Jackson in 2017. For now, the Watch will entertain the possibility that Jackson can win it again while acknowledging that it probably won’t happen. Jackson’s play could decline. Voter fatigue may set in. Louisville might take a step back. There are a lot of things working against the Cardinals’ dual-threat stud. 

That's why his name does not appear at the top of this way-too-early list of 2017 Heisman candidates. At this point, it’s not worth putting a lot of stock in the order. Think of this as a grouping of players who, as it stands, look like they could be in the running for the award. The list will be revisited before the season begins.

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1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC

There may be some recency bias at work here. Darnold is two weeks removed from delivering the most impressive performance of the postseason, a 33-of-53, 453-yard, five-touchdown master class to lead the Trojans to a three-point win over Penn State in a wild Rose Bowl. The redshirt freshman had already hinted at future stardom by leading USC on an eight-game winning streak to close the regular season, a stretch that included a 13-point win at Washington in which Darnold clearly outplayed Huskies counterpart Jake Browning. Darnold might have gotten more Heisman buzz in 2016 if not for USC torpedoing its playoff chances with three losses in its first four games. Of course, the Trojans may have won at least one of those contests had they decided to start Darnold from the jump instead of since-transferred junior Max Browne.

USC should open 2017 in the top 10 of both major polls, it'll be the favorite to win the Pac-12 (and thereby earn a CFP bid) and Darnold is its most recognizable star. The Rose Bowl broadened his appeal beyond diehards committed enough to stay up for #pac12afterdark. Now casual fans know about him. Darnold already looks like the best college quarterback in Los Angeles, and he could well prove to be the best one in the country.  

2. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

The lack of appreciation for Mayfield last season was puzzling. Not only had he already established himself as one of the nation’s premier signal callers the previous season, he also was the most visible face of a Power 5 conference champion and fringe playoff contender. Plus, Mayfield had the numbers to support a really strong candidacy. He tossed 40 touchdowns against eight interceptions, helped Oklahoma lead the nation in Football Outsiders’ passing S&P, led the nation in completion percentage (70.9) and yards per attempt (11.1) and smashed former Wisconsin star Russell Wilson’s record for passing efficiency (196.39). And yet, Mayfield ultimately didn’t even come close to pushing Jackson for the Heisman. Receiver and fellow Sooner Dede Westbrook undermined Mayfield’s campaign by making his own case for the award, but that doesn’t fully explain why Mayfield didn’t garner more consideration.

Whatever the reason, voters should not make the same mistake in 2017. Mayfield likely will spend most of the season lighting up Big 12 defenses while taking up residence at the top of several statistical categories, but apparently that’s not good enough. Winning a nonconference game at Ohio State could do wonders for his Heisman bid, as well as Oklahoma’s chances of staying in the playoff hunt.

Al Messerschmidt via AP

3. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

The reason Jackson is not listed higher has less to do with his actual ability than an expectation of how voters will appraise him. Jackson set the bar so high last season that it seems exceedingly unlikely he’ll clear it in 2017. Putting up Jackson-like numbers won’t be a prerequisite for any other player hoping to join the chase for the Heisman. But for Jackson, anything less than the brilliant form he displayed through most of 2016 will register as a disappointment. A likely outcome for Jackson in 2017 would be something like the poorly reviewed sequel of a Best Picture-winning movie. Even if Jackson is awesome, he won’t be appreciated as such if he doesn’t match what he did in 2016. What's more, Louisville may have a harder time mounting a playoff run than it did last season after losing key contributors like wide receivers Jamari Staples and James Quick and running back Brandon Radcliff on offense and linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields and defensive back Josh Harver-Clemons on defense.

There is a not-insignificant possibility, however, that Jackson will get better and wreak even more havoc on ACC defenses during his junior campaign. He made a huge leap from his freshman to his sophomore season, so maybe more improvement is a realistic scenario. An upgraded version of Jackson would, at the very least, earn another trip to New York.

4. Jake Browning, QB, Washington

Anyone who didn’t watch Browning last season until Washington’s playoff game against Alabama is probably wondering how he could possibly win an award given to the nation’s most outstanding player. Browning was, well, bad against the Crimson Tide. He completed only 20 of his 38 pass attempts, threw two interceptions and recorded his worst passer rating of the season. But that game was unrepresentative of Browning’s play throughout 2016. For one, he was facing an Alabama defense that, had the Crimson Tide beaten Clemson, would have been remembered as one of the most dominant ever. Unless the Huskies reach the national semifinals again in 2017, Browning won’t have to deal with a front seven as fearsome or a secondary as opportunistic as the one Alabama used to squash the Huskies 24-7 in Atlanta. He shined against Pac-12 competition, and there’s little reason to expect he won’t do the same as a junior even without all-league wideout John Ross Jr. hauling in his passes.

Browning also should draw more attention in the early part of the season than he did in 2016, for the simple reason that more people are familiar with him. If Darnold reaches the ceiling he's suggested is in reach while propelling USC to a Pac-12 title, Browning will have a hard time staying in the race. But that prospect shouldn’t deny him the recognition he deserves after such a promising sophomore season.

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5. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

The Rose Bowl was a national coming out party for Darnold. For Barkley, it was the capstone of a season in which he cemented his status as one of the top players at a position loaded with elite talent (McCaffrey, Cook, Fournette, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, Georgia’s Nick Chubb). Barkley carried 25 times for 194 yards and two touchdowns on 7.8 YPC and added 55 yards and a touchdown as a receiver. As was the case in Penn State’s thrilling upset of Ohio State on Oct. 22 in Happy Valley, Barkley did not wilt in the spotlight, repeatedly gashing a Trojans defense that led the Pac-12 in rushing yards allowed per attempt during conference play. That tendency to excel in big moments will serve Barkley well as a Heisman candidate, as should the fact that Penn State is likely to open the season as, at worst, the co-favorite in one of the nation’s toughest divisions, the Big Ten East.

Like Mayfield last season, Barkley could struggle to gain momentum in the Heisman race if Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley is viewed as a major driver of the Nittany Lions’ success. Yet Barkley is the stronger candidate at this stage, and he should face less competition nationally for the title of nation’s best running back than he did in 2016.

On the radar: J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State; Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State; Derrius Guice, RB, LSU; Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State; Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

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