by Rob Joyce
It’s the start of August, which means that college football is officially less than a month away. All of the conference media days have come and gone, and now fall practice will begin nationwide within the next week. Among the natural preseason questions (who will be in the College Football Playoff? Which conference will be left out of the top-four come January?) surrounds the Heisman Trophy.
Often times the winner come season’s end isn’t anywhere near the preseason conversation (a la Lamar Jackson last year). But with the reigning winner, a two-time top-five finisher, and a couple of 2016 breakouts all back for this year, don’t be surprised in one of these five players joins some elite company in New York City this winter.
5) Derrius Guice, LSU:
Leonard Fournette was the focal point of every headline in the LSU backfield for the last two years, but you could argue that it was Guice who was the more productive back last season in Baton Rouge. With Fournette battling injuries, the first-team All-SEC pick led the conference in rushing (1,387 yards) and twice topped the 250-yard mark in a single game. With Fournette now in the NFL it’s unquestionably Guice’s backfield. If he can add a few hundred yards to the mix (with his electrifying speed, it’s possible) and get some help from the LSU passing game, he’ll be in the mix all year.
4) Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma:
Now a senior, Mayfield is used to being in the Heisman conversation – he finished third in voting in 2016, and fourth in 2015. Last year he set the FBS record for pass efficiency, and in two years with OU has only thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in a game once (2015 Orange Bowl). The downside for Mayfield is that he has essentially an all-new group around him, as Biletnikoff winner Dede Westbrook, all-purpose back Joe Mixon (1,812 yards from scrimmage) and back Samaje Perine (1,060 yards in 10 games) are all gone. Abdul Adams (283 rushing yards) and tight end Mark Andrews (489 yards, 7 TDs) are the most productive skill players back for new coach Lincoln Riley. With all of the change in Norman, a Heisman-esque season from Mayfield would be his greatest act yet.
3) Saquon Barkley, Penn State:
After going over 1,000 yards in his freshman season, Barkley didn’t fall victim to the sophomore slump in 2016, rushing for 1,496 yards and 22 touchdowns. After a 2-2 start Penn State ripped off nine straight wins, including a Big Ten championship, earning a Rose Bowl appearance. Now the expectations are even higher in State College, and Barkley is the face of that hype. A blazing fast runner (he runs a 4.33 40-yard dash) with exceptional strength, the junior is expected to help carry the Nittany Lions to the CFP.
2) Lamar Jackson, Louisville:
The reigning Heisman winner not the preseason favorite? In this case, yes. Jackson burst onto the scene last year with his combination of efficient passing (18 TDs to four interceptions through the first seven games) and devastating speed (setting the ACC record for rushing yards by a quarterback), essentially sewing up the award by Halloween. However, he struggled over the final three games of the season as the Cardinals finished 0-3.
With expectations sky high, a blueprint by which to slow Jackson, and his top three pass catchers gone, it’s likely that Archie Griffin remains the only two-time Heisman winner. But! With Jackson’s dynamic abilities, a repeat is by no means out of the question.
1) Sam Darnold, USC:
The Trojans were 1-2, scoring 16 total points in those losses and struggling again against Utah last September when Clay Helton made a change at quarterback. In came freshman Sam Darnold, and although USC lost that night in Salt Lake City, the swap turned the season around. The Trojans didn’t lose again the rest of the season, finishing 9-0, capped by a Rose Bowl classic against Penn State.
Darnold led the charge, as the offense averaged nearly 40 points per game in his starts. Individually he tossed 31 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Now the Trojans are expected to be in the CFP come season’s end, despite not having a bye week and working with a young receiving corps. The likely No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, it’s Darnold’s time to etch his place in USC lore.