How Heisman hopefuls can improve their chances of winning

2:00 | College Football
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Thursday April 6th, 2017

Heisman Trophy races are unpredictable. Youngsters make unexpected leaps. Upperclassmen endure puzzling plunges in form. Multi-year starters suffer major injuries. All of these things, and so much more, can complicate what seems, on the surface, like a very simple task: Determining who is the best player in the country. While we don’t know what twists will shake up the 2017 race, it’s not hard to identify some things projected candidates can do to improve their chances of winning. Using last season as a baseline, SI.com is analyzing how five Heisman hopefuls, listed in descending order based on the latest odds from VegasInsider.com, can increase the likelihood they’ll claim the bronze trophy in December.

Sam Darnold, QB, USC: Don’t lose early

The Trojans may fail to accomplish this even if Darnold brings his A-Game from Week 1 on. While USC won't need to stare down anything approximating the Alabama juggernaut that dealt it a 52-6 stomping to open 2016 in its 2017 nonconference slate, two of the Trojans' first three games come against a Stanford team projected to compete with Washington for the Pac-12 North Division title and a talented Texas squad ready to take a leap in new coach Tom Herman’s first season. Darnold needs to guide USC to victories in both of those games, as well as the opener against Western Michigan. If he doesn’t, the Trojans will fall out of the College Football Playoff conversation, and the tidal wave of Heisman hype Darnold’s riding this off-season will crash. Darnold can position himself to win this thing simply by putting up decent numbers and keeping USC near the top of the polls. The equity he built up with voters last year while propelling the Trojans to nine consecutive wins, including a memorable triumph over Penn State in the Rose Bowl, will go a long way. Darnold’s box-score lines may fall short of the Jacksonian absurdity we witnessed weekly in the first half of 2016, but that won’t matter as much for a candidate who looks set to enter 2017 as the clear frontrunner for the award. An early defeat, however, would elicit derisive howls about USC being overrated and dent Darnold’s status as the front man of the consensus No. 1 outfit west of the Mississippi.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: Find a new go-to target (s)

Getting Mayfield back for another season was a huge win for the Sooners, but he won’t be joined in Norman in 2017 by the speedy pass-catcher who accompanied him on a certain visit to New York last winter, Dede Westbrook. No quarterback and wide receiver established a more fruitful partnership in 2016 than Mayfield and Westbrook. The former shattered the single-season record for passing efficiency and was named first-team All-Big 12, while the latter hauled in 80 receptions for 1,524 yards with 17 touchdowns and won the Biletnikoff Award. The loss of Westbrook will sting, but with Lincoln Riley still calling shots from Oklahoma’s sideline as offensive coordinator instead of jumping at a head coaching opportunity elsewhere, anything less than another trip to the Big Apple for Mayfield would be a surprise. He just needs to figure out the wideout, or wideouts, on whom he can rely to power Oklahoma’s attack and, incidentally, pile up the statistics required to put him in contention for the Heisman again. Mayfield’s got a lot of options, from returnees Mark Andrews, Nick Basquine and Jeffery Mead; to highly regarded freshmen CeeDee Lamb and Charleston Rambo; to transfers Marquise Brown (junior college) and Jeff Badet (graduate, by way of Kentucky). None of these players may function as the sort of game-breaking threat Westbrook was a year ago, but Mayfield will need one or more of them to emerge as reliable targets. 

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: Pace yourself

Few things captivated college football fans during the early part of last season more than Jackson. His four-game tear through September featured a seven-touchdown pasting of Charlotte, a clinical deconstruction of Syracuse’s wobbly D and a 362-yard evisceration of perceived national championship contender Florida State. It was unreasonable to think Jackson could keep up that pace, but when he didn’t, his Heisman stock predictably sank, to the point where Jackson’s grip on the award looked downright shaky after a two-game losing streak to close the season. The lead Jackson opened up by rocketing out of the starting blocks proved too vast for competitors like Deshaun Watson and Mayfield to make up, but Jackson’s chances of a repeat in 2017 likely will vanish if his play wanes the way it did toward the end of 2016. Unfortunately for Jackson, his brilliance last season could drag him down this season, as the electorate will expect him to match or exceed the statistical totals he produced in 2016 while also providing enough ankle-breaking spins, 50-yard-plus sideline sprints and and Houdini-esque pocket escapes to fill highlight reels. It’s possible that Jackson, with more experience piloting coach Bobby Petrino’s offense, actually makes another jump to follow up the gigantic one he made as a sophomore. But that won’t translate into him becoming a partial answer for a popular sports trivia question (Who has won the Heisman twice?) if he peaks before the autumnal equinox.

J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State: Improve your passing statistics

Simple enough, right? As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman voting after completing 64.7% of his passing attempts for 2,834 yards and 34 touchdowns with a 169.8 passer rating. Last season, those numbers fell to 61.5%, 2,555 yards, 24 touchdowns and a 135.5 rating. Barrett kept himself in the Heisman mix through much of 2016 despite that regression, in large part because he plays the most important position on the field for a brand-name program with massive national appeal and led that program to another double-digit win season and playoff berth. Getting Ohio State to the final four seems like a must for Barrett to mount another run at the award, but it won’t be enough for him to win it. Barrett will need to reverse the statistical slide that saw him finish his junior campaign with three consecutive games of sub-100 passer ratings, one touchdown and three interceptions combined and a completion percentage of 50.1. That closing stretch (at Michigan State, Michigan, Clemson) laid bare how impotent the Buckeyes’ attack was against quality defenses, bringing into sharp belief their need to make changes on that side of the ball and foretelling a staff shakeup this off-season. Indeed, with new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day in Columbus to oversee an offensive overhaul, there’s optimism Barrett can rekindle the 2014 version of himself. The difference is that whereas three years ago Barrett was a lightly regarded reserve mostly anonymous outside of Columbus who was thrust into QB1 duty after a preseason injury to star Braxton Miller, he’ll enter this season as a seasoned veteran with plenty of starting experience who’d make a nice fit on any “eighth-year senior” list.

Jake Browning, QB, Washington: Beat USC

Browning’s 2016 Heisman campaign unofficially perished in mid-November, during a 26-13 loss to USC at Husky Stadium that left the distinct impression that the Trojans had the better quarterback. As USC’s Sam Darnold slung arrows with Sindarin precision to fell a previously indomitable Washington secondary, Browning labored to keep his head above water against the Trojans’ D while connecting on only 47.2% of his passing attempts and serving up two interceptions. For this voter, at least, the image of the SoCal golden boy shining under the bright lights as Browning wilted on his home field was impossible to shake come ballot submission time. Browning can’t let that happen again in 2017. For starters, Darnold should enter Week 1 as the Vegas favorite to win the Heisman, so there’s a good chance he’ll head into a possible matchup against Washington with a leg up on Browning in the race for the award. Second, unless Browning so manifestly outperforms Darnold against conference competition during the regular season, voters will find it all to easy to lock in on one West Coast quarterback and focus on other candidates in other parts of the country (We can note that the expansion of TV coverage in college football has made teams and players across the country more accessible to more people than ever before while also acknowledging that East Coast bias exists.) Washington and USC aren’t set to square off in Pac-12 play, so a meeting between the teams would need to take place in the league title bout, just in time for Browning to make his closing argument to wavering voters.

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