The Heisman is arguably the most notable individual honor in sports. I mean, it has its own televised ceremony–no other single award has that! The trouble with the Heisman, though, is that it has become even tougher for people like me to predict the winner before the season begins. Recent recipients like Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton, and even reigning winner Lamar Jackson have come out of relative obscurity to claim the award.
Nonetheless, I’ve gazed into my crystal ball and have this year’s final Heisman ballot in front of me. Here are the ten players who will receive votes by season’s end, starting with number ten and working our way up to the quarterback that will take home college football’s coveted honor.
10 Derwin James, So., DB Florida State
One defensive player usually lands on the final Heisman ballot. Last season there were two: Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen. But this year there will just be one, Florida State’s Derwin James. The redshirt sophomore missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury, but in fourteen games as a Seminole, he has over 100 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and an interception. Remarkable numbers for a defensive back. Given that he plays for a team that could be playoff-bound, James will shine enough in the spotlight and earn some Heisman votes in the process.
9 Bo Scarbrough, Jr., RB Alabama
Scarbrough could be the best back in college football. We saw why in last season’s College Football Playoff when he ran for over 270 yards and four touchdowns against Washington and Clemson. However, I’m worried about that broken bone in his right leg that he suffered in the National Championship. If he’s hampered to start the season, that could effect his final numbers.
8 James Washington, Sr., WR Oklahoma State
Washington has gotten better and better over his three years at OK State. Last year he was All-Big 12 after piling up close to 1,400 yards and ten touchdowns. He’ll take another step forward this season and be the most impactful receiver in college football. Washington plays in one of the nation’s best offenses (the Cowboys finished 10th in the nation in yards per play last year) and he’ll once again be the main target for quarterback Mason Rudolph. This guy is going to light it up.
7 Derrius Guice, Jr., RB LSU
Guice stepped in for an injured Leonard Fournette last season and was even better than the All-SEC back. Guice had five 100-yard rushing performances compared to Fournette’s four, including two sensational 250+ yard outings in wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M. Given LSU’s persistent quarterback troubles, expect Guice to carry a heavy load for the Tigers and put up hugggee numbers.
6 Baker Mayfield, Sr., QB Oklahoma
Mayfield has finished in the top four of each of the past two Heisman races, but I’m not high on his chances to finally win the award this year. For starters, the two-time All Big-12 QB was arrested this past offseason for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest–never a good sign. He’ll also have to cope with the departures of his two top playmakers, wide receiver Dede Westbrook and running back Samaje Perine. And on top of that, let’s not forget that Mayfield will have a new head coach after Bob Stoops, once an institution on the Oklahoma sidelines, retired prematurely. With all this upheaval, I bet Mayfield will have his lowest finish in the Heisman voting since becoming Oklahoma’s starter.
5 Lamar Jackson, Jr., QB Louisville
Jackson will have to overcome unbelievably high expectations this season to become the second repeat winner in Heisman history. Voters still have a sour taste in their mouth’s after Jackson’s abysmal last three games in 2016 (he threw 3 INT’s and completed less than 50% of his passes in three Louisville losses). Many also probably regret not voting for the man who finished second behind Jackson, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Coupled with Louisville’s long odds to win the national title, Jackson simply has too many hurdles to overcome.
4 J.T. Barrett, Sr., QB Ohio State
Barrett is still looking to return to his freshman year form, when he set career highs for yards per attempt (9.03) and QBR (87.1). Now with three years of experience, I think it’s likely that he will. However, a few Big Ten teams (i.e. Michigan, Iowa) have formidable defenses and the weather usually makes things difficult in the second half of the season. These two factors will hold Barrett back, resulting in his numbers being moderate compared to a few other top contenders.
3 Jalen Hurts, So., QB Alabama
Heisman voters love dual-threat quarterbacks. Look at some of the most recent winners: Jackson, Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton. Those guys are the reason why I like Hurts to be a Heisman finalist. He posted a solid 23/9 touchdown to interception ratio and ran for thirteen touchdowns last season. That’s great production, especially for a true freshman, and I think his numbers will be even better now that he has a year of seasoning under his belt and plenty of offensive weapons returning (i.e. Scarbrough, WR Calvin Ridley). Hurts will be the main reason why Alabama appears in a fourth consecutive College Football Playoff.
2 Saquon Barkley, Jr., RB Penn State
Barkley’s a beast, plain and simple. In a year when he ran for nearly 1,500 yards, his yards per carry average actually dropped from 5.9 to 5.5 in ’16. But I think this is actually evidence of Barkley’s consistent excellence; and even with additional defensive attention this season, Penn State’s offense looks to be balanced enough for Barkley to enjoy even more success. In short, I’m betting on the guy who squats 525 lbs to be the most outstanding running back in 2017.
1 Sam Darnold, So., QB USC
Darnold is poised for even bigger things after single-handily turning USC’s season around last year. After completing over 67% passes and throwing for 31 touchdowns in just ten games, Darnold will benefit from having a full offseason to prepare as the week one starter. Though the Trojans have to replace a couple of impactful players on offense, their top-rated recruiting class from 2015, which features running back Ronald Jones II and receiver Deontay Burnett in addition to Darnold, should fill in the gaps with relative ease and be a boon for Darnold. And their schedule is manageable, as well. USC is projected to face just three ranked opponents. Two of those games (Stanford, Texas) will be at home.
My prediction is that Darnold will take advantage of an advantageous schedule and lead the talented Trojans to an undefeated season. The projected number one pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will be rewarded with a well-deserved Heisman trophy.