Heisman contenders: Early 2020 college football candidates - Sports Illustrated

Forde-Yard Dash: 13 Too-Early Contenders for the Heisman Trophy

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (special teams counseling sessions available separately in Lubbock): 

MORE DASH: September Winners, Losers | Playoff Hurdles

THIRD QUARTER: THE TOO-EARLY HEISMAN WATCH

The College Football Playoff choices won’t be the only difficult decisions to make this season. Think about the Heisman Trophy.

Assuming the Heisman will push back its voting until after the end of the regular season and conference championship games, there will be disparate data to sift through. Some of the usual benchmarks for excellence—a 3,000-yard passing season or 2,000-yard rushing season—will have to be adjusted for deflation. Per game averages will matter more than overall numbers.

This might also be the Heisman Trust’s opportunity to do what it should have done decades ago: push back the voting until after all the hay is in the barn. Wait until the bowls and CFP games have been played.

Will that happen? We don’t know. The countdown clock on the Heisman home page is still set to Dec. 12, which doesn’t figure to work for anyone. No announcement has been made about a new date.

Regardless, let’s take a premature look at Heisman contenders—at least among those who have played so far. More contenders will join the party in October and November. Casting a wide net, here’s who is flashing early:

THE QUARTERBACKS

K.J. Costello (21), Mississippi State. Let’s talk about the dude who put on a Bulldogs uniform for the first time and obliterated the SEC single-game passing record, throwing for 623 yards in an upset of LSU. New State coach Mike Leach has had four players finish in the Top 10 in Heisman voting: Kliff Kingsbury (ninth in 2002); Graham Harrell (fourth in 2008), Michael Crabtree (fifth that same year); and Gardner Minshew (fifth in 2018). There is a long way to go, but Costello got a nice start on becoming Leach’s fifth Top 10 player.

D’Eriq King (22), Miami. The Hurricanes have scored 99 points in their first two league games. That’s the most at The U since scoring 104 in the first two Big East games of a juggernaut 2001 season. King’s dynamic play both throwing and running is a huge reason why. If the Houston transfer can maintain what he’s done so far, averaging 300 yards per game total offense, he will produce Miami’s best season of quarterbacking since Ken Dorsey led the Hurricanes to back-to-back BCS championship game appearances in 2001–02.

Trevor Lawrence (23), Clemson. So consistently good that you can take him for granted. Don’t do it. Now a junior and headed to the NFL in 2021, Lawrence leads the nation in pass efficiency (234.59). He’s barely gotten his arm warmed up, throwing just 37 passes thus far in two games, but that will likely change in the coming weeks as the competition cranks up. A King-Lawrence matchup Oct. 10 could qualify as the first Must Watch game of the season.

Dillon Gabriel (24), UCF. He’s been sensational so far, throwing for 400-plus and four touchdowns against both Georgia Tech and East Carolina. That includes five passing plays of 40 or more yards, which is tied for the most in the nation. The left-handed sophomore has kept the Hawaii QB connection going at UCF, following star McKenzie Milton at the position.

UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel

Zach Wilson (25), BYU. The Cougars have been a big-play offense, and that starts with Wilson. He’s the only quarterback averaging more than Lawrence’s 11.04 yards per play, checking in at 11.31. There is a long way to go, but Wilson’s 78.3% accuracy rate is well ahead of Steve Young’s single-season school record of 71.3. (That was set in 1983, and completing more than 70% in those days is flat ridiculous.)

The Current and Former Texas Starters (26): Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele at SMU. Ehlinger’s arrival coincided with coach Tom Herman’s, and that ultimately led to Buechele’s transfer. It’s working out for both QBs. Ehlinger was heroic in leading the Longhorns back from the brink of disaster against Texas Tech, throwing for two touchdowns and a two-point conversion in the final minutes, then adding another TD pass for the win in overtime. Meanwhile Buechele is leading the only offense in the nation averaging more than 45 points and 500 yards through three games.

THE RECEIVERS

Kyle Pitts (27), Florida. Every position has had a Heisman Top 10 finisher in the 21st century except one—tight end. There have been a million quarterbacks, plenty of running backs and wide receivers, more defensive linemen than you might expect, a few linebackers, and even the rare defensive back (Tyrann Mathieu) and offensive lineman (Bryant McKinney). But tight ends? None. Can Pitts change that? The future first-round draft pick was unstoppable in the Gators’ opener against Mississippi, catching eight passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns.

Jaylen Waddle (28), Alabama. With Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs gone to the NFL, Waddle gets a greater role in the ‘Bama passing game. He produced immediately, racking up a career-high eight catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Waddle was an explosive kick returner last year as well, returning a punt for a touchdown against LSU and a kickoff for six against Auburn. The Crimson Tide likely will use him in that role against an opponent more challenging than Missouri.

THE RUNNING BACKS

A trio in search of more workload (29): Travis Etienne of Clemson, Isaiah Spiller of Texas A&M, and Khalil Herbert of Virginia Tech. It’s hard in the modern era for running backs to get the ball enough to stand out. But keep an eye on these guys going forward.

Etienne has gotten 29 touches from scrimmage thus far, producing 228 yards and a touchdown. It figures to be a long season for Clemson, so his opportunities will come. The Aggies’ under-utilization of Spiller Saturday nearly got them beaten by Vanderbilt—he had 117 yards on just eight carries. Herbert, a grad transfer to Tech from Kansas, had a big debut: 195 all-purpose yards on just 10 touches, good for 19.5 per play.

(Notably not flashing yet: Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard. A 2,000-yard rusher last season who finished eighth in the 2019 Heisman voting, he’s sitting at 194 rushing yards and just 3.96 yards per carry through two games. Hubbard’s backup, LD Brown, has been far more productive per carry at 8.3).

THE DEFENSIVE OPTION

Rashad Weaver (30), Pittsburgh. Ultimately, there could be any number of defensive players that insert themselves into at least the periphery of the Heisman discussion. But let’s start the conversation with Weaver, a defensive end who missed all of last season after a knee injury. He didn’t play in Pitt’s opener due to COVID-19 protocols, but in the two games since then against ACC competition he’s produced 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Weaver is part of a disruptive defense that leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. Don't sleep on Pitt, which could be the surprise contender in the ACC.

MORE DASH: September Winners, Losers | Playoff Hurdles