Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide on Saturday, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which player will hoist the trophy next season. There would be some obvious frontrunners if some NFL decisions go a certain way, but all of those players returning feels highly unlikely. Chances are next season will start without many established stars, which means the field will feel wide open.
Here are a few of the players who could find their way into the race—starting with the ones who would have the best chance if they stayed in college one more season…
If they come back
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Jackson could be a very high draft pick if he leaves for the NFL, but if he decides to return to Louisville, he could wind up in New York in December for a third consecutive year. He told reporters this past weekend that he’ll make his NFL decision after the TaxSlayer Bowl against Mississippi State. The guess is that he’ll go to the NFL. The view of Jackson as a pro is split, but I’m of the opinion that he’ll be an effective quarterback at the next level if he’s selected by the correct team. But if he does decide to return to college, he’ll put up video game numbers again.
Sam Darnold, QB, USC
Darnold is probably a first-round pick if he leaves now, but he also doesn’t seem in that big of a hurry to leave USC. Because he redshirted, he has two more seasons of eligibility. If it looks as if Darnold might be doomed to become a Cleveland Brown, one more season as a USC Trojan might be a much more attractive option.
Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
Given the lack of longevity at the position, tailbacks probably should leave as soon as possible and make as much money as possible. Love has some ambitious post-football goals, but he can earn a good salary while he chases them. He may follow in the footsteps of current Stanford medical student Owen Marecic, who was a two-way star at Stanford and played in the NFL before pursuing medicine. It’s tantalizing to think about what kind of numbers Love could put up if he stayed healthy for a full senior season, but it would be tough to pass up the opportunity in front of him.
Will Grier, QB, West Virginia
Grier’s college career was interrupted by a suspension for a positive test in an NCAA drug screen while at Florida. His breakout season as a redshirt junior was interrupted by a broken finger on his throwing hand. Should Grier and frequent touchdown collaborator David Sills V return for one more season in Morgantown, they could put up some absurd numbers in a wide-open—in every sense of the phrase—Big 12.
Probably coming back
Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
It took about half the season for Stidham to get truly comfortable in Auburn’s offense and for offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to get comfortable with what Stidham can do in the offense. The first Georgia game and the Iron Bowl were great examples of what Stidham can do in an Auburn offense populated by healthy backs. (There wasn’t much he could do about the injuries to Kerryon Johnson and Kam Martin in the second Georgia game.) Now imagine how good Stidham could be with another offseason in the offense.
Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State
With Saquon Barkley probably headed to the NFL—and possibly getting picked in the top three—McSorley will have to carry more of the load in Penn State’s offense. That should be fine for a guy who plays in a similar fashion to the quarterback who just won the Heisman. The promotion of quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne to offensive coordinator following Joe Moorhead’s departure for Mississippi State should allow for continuity that should only help McSorley.
No choice but to come back
Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona
Tate’s October was statistically comparable to Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel’s Heisman seasons, but his production tailed off in November. Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez now has a chance to completely build the offense around Tate. That’s great for Tate’s Heisman chances, but terrible for opposing defensive coordinators.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
Taylor got bottled up by Ohio State in the Big Ten title game (15 carries for 41 yards), but he still averaged 6.8 yards a carry for his true freshman season. He plays at Wisconsin, so he’ll always run behind a quality line. If he stays healthy, he can only get better.
McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF
It’s a shame players don’t have the same freedom of movement as coaches, because Milton (357.7 yards of total offense a game in 2017) would light up the Big Ten if he could follow former Knights coach Scott Frost to Nebraska and play immediately. A Group of Five player has far less chance to win the Heisman, but at least Milton is a known commodity after the season he has had. If new UCF coach Josh Heupel can keep the Knights’ offense humming, Milton might have a chance.
Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
This is not an obligatory mention of a defensive player, nor is it an obligatory mention of a Group of Five player. Oliver might be the nation’s best player next season. This year’s Outland Trophy winner could find himself fighting another defensive tackle—340-pound Clemson gap-stuffer Dexter Lawrence—for the top spot in the 2019 NFL draft.
Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
The numbers for Oregon’s offense with and without Herbert were jarring. With a healthy Herbert starting, Oregon went 6–1 and averaged 52 points. Without him, the Ducks were 1–4 and averaged 15 points. If the Ducks can keep him upright for a season, watch out.
If he’s healthy
Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
Fitzgerald suffered a gruesome dislocated ankle in the Bulldogs’ Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss, so it’s unclear when he’ll be fully healthy again. But if he can get back to 100% in time for the season, the 6'5", 235-pounder could have a lot of fun in Moorhead’s offense.
Taking on bigger roles and ready to blow up
Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State
Haskins replaced an injured J.T. Barrett with the Buckeyes trailing against Michigan, and he helped his team to a comeback win. He’ll have to beat out Tate Martell—who redshirted this season—to win the starting job, but Haskins could preside over an offense that will threaten opponents vertically and on the ground.
D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are leaving, but don’t expect Georgia to abandon the run—especially as some of its more highly recruited offensive linemen come of age. Many of the carries left behind by Chubb and Michel will go to Swift, who averaged 8.2 yards a carry but only 5.6 carries a game this season. Swift also led all of Georgia’s backs in receptions with 15, so expect the Bulldogs to find ways to get him the ball.
Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
This freshman from Louisiana showed up in the summer and became Clemson’s best back. After averaging 7.2 yards a carry splitting time with Tavien Feaster, Etienne should be even better following his first full offseason with the Tigers.
A Random Ranking
Star Wars: The Last Jedi gets a wide release on Friday, so it’s time to rank some Jedi. We ranked the top 10 Star Wars villains in April. Now the good guys get their turn. Just as with the villain rankings, these characters must appear in at least one movie. (Sorry, Ahsoka Tano fans. But the good news is Rosario Dawson wants to play that character on the big screen.)
2. Obi-Wan Kenobi
3. Luke Skywalker
4. Anakin Skywalker*
5. Rey (I’m assuming)
6. Finn (I’m hoping)
7. Mace Windu
8. Qui-Gon Jinn
9. Kit Fisto
10. Yarael Poof
* Yes, he slaughtered an awful lot of the Jedi order. But he also killed Emperor Palpatine (as Darth Vader). He may have been the only one powerful enough at the time to pull that off.
Three and Out
1. Congratulations to Army, which claimed its first Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy since 1996 after a 14–13 win against Navy in snowy Philadelphia. The Black Knights, who went 2–10 in 2015 and broke a 14-year losing streak against the Midshipmen in ’16, were the top service academy team this season. They’re now 9–3 and will finish their season Dec. 23 against San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl.
2. Most of the players on Oregon’s roster signed a petition—penned by offensive lineman George Moore—in support of promoting offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal to head coach to replace Willie Taggart, who left for Florida State. And those players were thrilled when they got their wish last week.
One of Cristobal’s former Miami teammates was thrilled with the choice as well.
3. Remember Daniel Faalele,the 6'9", 396-pound Australian offensive lineman I wrote about last winter? He has now played his first full season of organized football (at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.), and he has chosen a college. On Saturday, Faalele and IMG Academy teammate Curtis Dunlap decided to row the boat for P.J. Fleck at Minnesota.
Your reactions to this were predictable but still hilarious…
For Your Ears
My former Tampa Tribune co-worker Brett McMurphy—who also has worked at some other places—joined the podcast to discuss the lessons learned from the coaching carousel as well as life after an ESPN layoff.
What’s Eating Andy?
Our Richard Deitsch explains why most of the networks that broadcast college football saw a decline in ratings this season.
What’s Andy Eating?
During a break from interviewing the college football movers and shakers who descended upon New York last week for the National Football Foundation’s Hall of Fame dinner, I had planned to visit the Hell’s Kitchen location of The Meatball Shop. Then something jumped off my Google Maps app. Not far from The Meatball Shop—a mini-chain with multiple New York City locations that you should absolutely try the next time you’re in the area—was something called BarBacon. This demanded further examination. So I walked down 54th Street, hung a right on Ninth Avenue and stepped inside.
The menu was exactly what you’d expect from a place called BarBacon. With the exception of the beer, nearly everything had bacon in it or on it. Was it schticky? Absolutely. Was it delicious? Damn straight it was.
The obvious starting point is the beer and bacon flight appetizer. Four five-ounce servings of different craft beers accompany eight sizzling strips of bacon. The spicy jalapeño bacon and the sweet maple bacon were the best, but there really is no such thing as bad thick-cut bacon. The beer selection was excellent, but the better libation is a barrel-aged Manhattan featuring bacon-infused whiskey. The hint of smokiness from the bacon pairs nicely with the sweetness imparted by the aging process. Plus, if you’ve chosen a place called BarBacon, you’re not the type for half-measures anyway. Your drink also should include bacon.
With pure bacon already digesting, it was time to select a bacon-accented entree. I considered the Lamb Bacon Reuben and the Kentucky Fried Bacon Burger, but my inner five-year-old ultimately settled on the bacon grilled cheese. This one mixed bacon with melted gruyere and fontina on semolina, fennel and golden raisin bread. (The raisins sounded out-of-place, but the sweetness they offered was welcome.) Next to the sandwich was a bowl of tomato soup. The sandwich dunked wonderfully, and the bacon blended beautifully with the two highly meltable cheeses.
The Brussels sprouts came glazed with honey and Greek yogurt and featured giant chunks of bacon swimming between the sprouts. The Bacon Industrial Complex has now fully co-opted the vegetable that served as the butt of so many sitcom jokes, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Meanwhile, the “pork wings” didn’t include any bacon, but they were tasty mini-shanks drizzled in sriracha barbecue sauce. One of our party had the bacon and lobster mac and cheese. The bacon elevated a classic steakhouse side to full entree status, because bacon gives almost everything an instant promotion.
Our nation’s love affair with bacon might have gone a little too far—even for me. There’s bacon mayonnaise*, bacon air fresheners, bacon toothpaste and bacon lube. But I have no issue with building a bar around bacon as long as the schtick doesn’t overwhelm the meat.
*Like I said, bacon gives almost everything an instant promotion. Some things, like mayo, are simply too awful for even bacon to help.
BarBacon would fail if the entire concept was “HEY, LOOK AT ALL THIS BACON.” Instead, it’s “Here are some carefully crafted dishes that happen to include bacon.” That makes all the difference.