The Heisman Trophy race is an unpredictable journey that formally unfolds over the course of approximately three months, starting on Labor Day weekend and ending at an overwrought, early-December ceremony in New York City. But an important, less quantifiable component of the Heisman derby takes place during the offseason. It involves the amplification or tamping down of hype for certain players based on past performance, projected improvement and various other factors. Even now, for instance, it’s not hard to identify the guys who will enter the fall as the strongest candidates to take home the award.
Today, let’s ignore the favorites and look at 10 potential dark horses in the 2018 race, who may seem like long shots for college football’s most prestigious individual honor now but stand a good chance of playing their way into the discussion. As a (hopefully) uncontroversial effort at sorting the pool, we chose to exclude the 11 players Bovada listed with the best odds on April 10: Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, Stanford running back Bryce Love, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, West Virginia quarterback Will Grier and Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant.
Florida State RB Cam Akers, sophomore
Akers lived up to the exalted recruiting reputation he brought to Tallahassee last year as the 247Sports Composite’s No. 3 player in the class of 2017 by rushing for 1,024 yards on 5.3 yards per carry, and he’s poised to use that promising debut season as a springboard to the national spotlight. Akers is almost definitely going to put up big numbers in new head coach Willie Taggart’s up-tempo offense, regardless of which of three quarterbacks competing for the starting job is handing him the ball. Whether those numbers will lead to serious Heisman consideration will hinge in large part on how much Florida State improves from last season’s 7–6 flop.
Washington QB Jake Browning, senior
As a sophomore in 2016, Browning placed sixth in the Heisman voting after teaming with speed demon John Ross to form one of the nation’s most lethal QB-WR tandems while propelling the Huskies to the College Football Playoff. Last season, with Ross in the NFL, Browning’s production tailed off as Washington “settled” for a 10–3 record and a Fiesta Bowl berth, while the Pac-12 was shut out of the playoff altogether. The Huskies should be back in the mix with their senior signal-caller, a top-tier left tackle (senior Trey Adams) protecting his blindside and a dangerous tailback (senior Myles Gaskin) compelling opposing defenses to stack the box.
Boston College RB AJ Dillon, sophomore
You could be forgiven for missing Dillon’s weekly dump-truckings in low-stakes games during the second half of last season. His 1,589 yards on 5.3 yards per carry netted him the BC freshman rushing record, the ACC Rookie of the Year award and not much else. It’s entirely possible something similar could play out in 2018—Dillon plowing through linemen, juking linebackers to the turf and dusting defensive backs while assembling a sterling statistical résumé, only with none of the publicity that would come with those feats at a brand-name program. For Dillon to make a dent in the Heisman competition, the Eagles may need to at least get within shouting distance of Clemson at the top of the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald, senior
Fitzgerald spent the spring recovering from the severe injury he suffered to his right ankle during the Bulldogs’ Thanksgiving night loss to Ole Miss last season. He’s expected to be fully healthy by the start of fall camp, at which point he will step into new head coach Joe Moorhead’s pace-pushing offense. Fitzgerald’s ability to gash defenses both through the air and on the ground, as well as his opportunity to slay a slate of marquee foes in the SEC (Florida, Auburn, at LSU, at Alabama), make him an obvious name to toss into the Heisman fray at this stage.
Oklahoma State RB Justice Hill, junior
During the first two seasons of his college career, Hill functioned as a complementary component in one of the nation’s top offenses next to program record-setting quarterback Mason Rudolph and Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver James Washington. Now that Rudolph and Washington have moved on to the NFL, head coach Mike Gundy could turn to Hill more often, particularly as Rudolph’s successor gets acclimated under center early on. Hill should take well to an increased carry load. As a sophomore in 2017, he racked up 1,467 yards and 15 touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry and finished the year by gashing Virginia Tech’s stingy run defense for 120 yards and a score.
Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke, junior
Lewerke will begin his second season as the Spartans’ starting QB in a favorable position to build up Heisman momentum. Not only does Michigan State look set to mount a challenge to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State in arguably the toughest division in the Power 5 leagues (the Big Ten East), it brings back its top three receivers and four starters on the offensive line from the group that rebounded from a dismal 2016 season to win 10 games last fall. Lewerke’s output as a runner and passer could keep him in the Heisman mix, provided the Spartans make good on their preseason expectations by staying in the playoff hunt.
Missouri QB Drew Lock, senior
Lock’s Heisman bid requires an assumption that the changes new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley—who oversaw a disappointing 15–21 run over three seasons as Tennessee’s head coach from 2010 to ’12 and has never previously served as an OC —will install in Missouri’s scheme won’t materially hamper Lock’s ability to roast opposing defenses with his cannon arm. Under the direction of Josh Heupel last season, Lock threw for a Football Bowl Subdivision–high 44 touchdowns and ranked in the top five in passing efficiency. If he can get close to those marks again now that Heupel has taken over as UCF’s head coach, Lock might be able to outflank other big-name SEC QBs in the race.
UCF QB McKenzie Milton, junior
The Knights lost head coach Scott Frost and his high-octane offense to Nebraska, but as his replacement they hired Heupel, under whom Lock posted eye-popping numbers while rising into the first-round discussion for the 2019 draft. Lock’s success last season suggests Milton might be able to pick up right where he left off as a sophomore in 2017, when he tallied 45 touchdowns and 4,650 total yards and ranked behind only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in passing efficiency while driving the Knights to a 13–0 record. A second consecutive run to a New Year’s Six bowl would help Milton overcome the lack of name recognition that typically weighs down candidates from outside the Power 5.
Houston DL Ed Oliver, junior
At first glance, Oliver’s Heisman chances may seem remote by virtue of his position. The last defensive player to win the Heisman was Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997, and few have come close since then. But it’s difficult to argue that Oliver, at the outset of his final college season, is not one of the best players in the nation. Although he will be marked down for facing inferior competition in the AAC, that distinction should count for something. Oliver would really help himself by registering lofty figures in the standard defensive statistical categories that voters inevitably will turn to in assessing his candidacy.
West Virginia WR David Sills V, senior
Sills is not the Mountaineers’ best bet to win the Heisman this season—that honor goes to quarterback Will Grier, but as explained above, he wasn’t eligible for this discussion. Sills could leapfrog Grier, though, with some help from Grier. Sills, who tied Memphis’s Anthony Miller for the FBS lead with 18 touchdown receptions in 2017, should amass another eye-popping stat line as a prime pass-catching threat in one of the most explosive offenses in the country. There’s also something to be said for the narrative appeal of Sills’s backstory. It’s safe to assume that most college football observers would delight in watching a one-time quarterback phenom take home the award at a different position.