How do you pick a Heisman Trophy winner? Is it the best player from the best team? Is it the best player, regardless of team records? Is it the player with the best NFL potential? Sometimes one player encompasses all three of those, though that’s pretty rare. Players like Cam Newton are pretty rare – the player who excels at the college game and quickly transitions to success in the pro ranks. More often, players like Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel are the norm – guys who rack up insane stats in college, but struggle to adjust to the NFL.
We tend to believe that the Heisman was intended to celebrate individual, and not team, excellence. Great players who happen to play on terrible teams should have an equal chance at winning the award, as long as they prove it on the field.
Of course, this year, that probably won’t be the case. All of the major contenders for the Heisman this season come from teams that have at least a shot at their conference title, and perhaps a lot more than that.
Following are our top 10 candidates for the Heisman, in order:
Deshaun Watson, QB, Jr., Clemson
333-of-491 for 4,109 yards, 35 TDs, 13 INTs; 207 carries for 1,105 yards, 12 TDs
Last year, Watson did just about everything but win the national championship. He was accurate and deadly through the air and on the ground, accounting for 47 Clemson TDs. We expect more of the same from him in 2016, and perhaps even more. Other than two road games at Auburn and Florida State, Watson and Clemson should dominate their opponents. (And Watson was even big in big games like FSU last year, so he could have a season with no let-downs.)
Leonard Fournette, RB, Jr., LSU
300 carries for 1,953 yards, 22 TDs
For much of 2015, Fournette appeared to be the leader in the Heisman race. But then came Alabama, which held him to just 31 yards. That was followed by two other sub-par performances, at least by Heisman standards, and Fournette eventually sank to sixth in the voting. This year, LSU is stronger, and Fournette appears even more determined and focused. A trip above 2,000 yards is possible and maybe even likely. If so, he will turn the Heisman at least into a two-man race. That is, until you consider…
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Jr., Stanford
337 carries for 2,019 yards, 8 TDs; 45 rec. for 645 yards, 5 TDs; 37 kick returns, 28.9 avg., 1 TD; 15 punt returns, 8.7 avg., 1 TD
McCaffrey may just be superhuman. Last year he ran, he caught, he returned and he scored. No other player in the country was as diverse, and perhaps none were as dangerous. The one knock against McCaffrey is that he didn’t score that often. Mainly, he carried the load to get Stanford into scoring position, and someone else sealed the deal. But that also reveals that he’s truly a team player and doesn’t need the TDs for personal glory. But this year, he might need them for the Heisman.
Baker Mayfield, QB, Sr., Oklahoma
269-of-395 for 3,700 yards, 36 TDs, 7 INTs; 141 carries for 405 yards, 7 TDs
The player most likely to break up the top three is Mayfield, who has an opportunity for gaudy stats and a run at the College Football Playoff. The game that could move Mayfield right to the top of the heap comes in week No. 3, when Ohio State pays a visit to Norman. If Mayfield has a big game AND the Sooners win, he’ll have a big advantage going into the rest of the season. The only drawback is that the game is early, and Heisman voters tend to have a short memory.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Jr., Florida State
229 carries for 1,691 yards, 19 TDs
Cook has the second-best chance of breaking into the top three, but he has two things working against him – health and Deshaun Watson. Plus, Cook is the second-banana running back in the Heisman race. In order to have a realistic chance, Cook will need to beat Watson head-to-head when they meet in Tallahassee on Oct. 29, plus he’ll need to outperform Leonard Fournette throughout the season, especially if LSU stays on target for the SEC title.
Greg Ward Jr., QB, Sr., Houston
231-of-345 for 2,827 yards, 17 TDs, 6 INTs; 197 carries for 1,114 yards, 21 TDs
Let’s just say this – Greg Ward has virtually no chance of winning the Heisman this year, but his poise and the enormous stats he’s going to post at least deserve some serious recognition. In other years with fewer notable candidates, Ward might be a very attractive outside choice for the award, but with so many top-line candidates, at least one of whom will be lights-out this season, Ward will have close to an impossible task to unseat all of them. His best chance is if he leads Houston to an opening day upset of Oklahoma, and then runs the table after that.
J.T. Barrett, QB, Sr., Ohio State
93-of-147 for 992 yards, 11 TDs, 4 INTs; 115 carries for 682 yards, 11 TDs
Now that he’s free from competition from Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller, Barrett will get a chance to shine all by himself. The Buckeyes have a hard road to the CFP, and Barrett will probably need to lead Ohio State there if he’s going to have a chance. In week No. 3 he’ll have a chance to distinguish himself against Oklahoma. The winner of that game will have a clearer path to the CFP, and the QB that wins that game – Barrett or Baker Mayfield – will have an added advantage in the Heisman race.
Josh Rosen, QB, Soph., UCLA
292-of-487 for 3,669 yards, 23 TDs, 11 INTs
Take a note on this one – Josh Rosen is probably one of the frontrunners for the Heisman – in 2017. Last year, he played like a veteran much more than a freshman, and he should be even better entering 2016. The Bruins get two early road tests at Texas A&M and BYU before the Pac-12 schedule starts on Sept. 24 against Stanford. The odds of Rosen winning this year are practically zero, but some great performances and an overall good year will definitely set the stage for him in his junior year.
Chad Kelly, QB, Sr., Ole Miss
298-of-458 for 4,042 yards, 31 TDs, 13 INTs; 106 carries for 509 yards, 10 TDs
Like others on this list, Kelly suffers by being in the race with too many other good players at his position, and by being in the same conference as one of the frontrunners. Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield will have to perform below expectations, and Kelly will have to lead Ole Miss to a head-to-head upset of LSU while Leonard Fournette has a bad game. He will also probably need to do great against Alabama and at least challenge for the SEC West title. That’s too much to ask. Still, his numbers alone this year should turn a lot of heads.
Royce Freeman, RB, Jr., Oregon
283 carries for 1,838 yards, 17 TDs; 26 receptions for 348 yards, 2 TDs
If Royce Freeman stays all four years at Oregon – and that’s a big if – he will have the chance to become one of the all-time leading rushers in NCAA history. In his first two seasons, he has 3,203 yards, and he should crack 5,000 yards this year. Ron Dayne has the record with 7,125, so if Freeman goes for four, the record might be his by next December. The 2017 Heisman might also come with that record. But with so many notables in front of him, nothing short of an undefeated run in the Pac-12 will put him in the discussion with the finalists.
Others to watch: Seth Russell, QB, Sr., Baylor; Bo Scarbrough, RB, Soph., Alabama; Nick Chubb, RB, Jr., Georgia
Tomorrow: 2016 Bowl Projections
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt