NCAA Football

Ten college football stars most likely to unseat Lamar Jackson for the Heisman

Saquon Barkley
Ethan Sears
Written by Ethan Sears

The Heisman Trophy is perhaps the most sought-after individual award in all of sports. From Doak Walker and Nile Kinnick to Tim Tebow and Mark Ingram, the trophy signifies the greatest college football player in the sport, and its recipients truly go down in history.

Last season, the award was given to Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the first sophomore to win since Ingram in 2009. Being too young to declare for the NFL Draft, Jackson is back at Louisville this season, meaning that he could become the first player since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin, and the second ever, to take home a second Heisman.

Jackson is not currently the favorite, but he’s deep in the mix. It’s certainly conceivable right now that a second straight win — and the history that comes with it — could happen.

Of course, he is far from the only contender. There are no shortage of players eager to take home the hardware. Here are the 10 we think are most likely to unseat Jackson for the Heisman Trophy.

Mason Rudolph, quarterback, Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State had one of the best offenses in the nation last year, ranking eighth in offensive S&P+ and 23rd in offensive FEI. They come into 2017 with the bulk of the unit returning, including Rudolph, who enters his senior year.

Rudolph has gotten steadily better each year, culminating in  4,091 yards, 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions last season. He throws perhaps the best deep ball in the nation and receiver James Washington (more on him in a bit) is set to be a star. That alone puts Rudolph in the conversation, but the door is wide open for Oklahoma State to contend in the Big XII.

After Bob Stoops’ unexpected retirement at in-state rival Oklahoma, there are questions facing what was previously the unquestioned favorite. Tom Herman is only in his first year at Texas and it’s unlikely the Longhorns are a national powerhouse again as soon as this year. The Cowboys have a clear window of opportunity here, and Rudolph can be a benefactor.

Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State

In the Barkley profile Sports Illustrated ran Wednesday, the rising junior drew comparisons to Ezekiel Elliott, Bo Jackson, the latter from his own running backs coach, which is one heck of a compliment. That’s not to say it isn’t deserved.

Barkley scampered for  1,496 rushing yards last season along with 402 receiving yards, winning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors. His 18 rushing touchdowns led the conference, as did his 1,898 all-purpose yards. He even led the conference in points scored, which feels almost impossible for a non-kicker. It feels like I just listed the stats of someone who already won the Heisman, but rest assured, Barkley did not.

To bolster his chances even further, the Nittany Lions’ offensive line featured a lot of injuries and a lot of freshmen last season. The former will regress, the latter will age. Coming into the year, Penn State has title aspirations and Barkley has well-placed Heisman hopes.

Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC

Sam Darnold

Darnold is currently the odds-on favorite for two honors: the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. In 2016, after grabbing the starting job in Week 4, Darnold was immediately one of the better quarterbacks in the nation.

He had a 161.1 passer rating, 67.2 completion percentage, a solid-though-unimpressive 3,086 passing yards and not a single game that could be accurately described as bad. After the team struggled for the first four weeks of the year — including an embarrassing blowout loss to Alabama — Darnold led USC to the Rose Bowl, where he promptly turned in an all-time performance, throwing for 453 yards and five touchdowns in a Trojan win over Penn State.

Did we mention that Darnold did all of this as a redshirt freshman? USC is losing its two best receivers from last season, but running back Ronald Jones returns and Darnold figures to improve in his second year, before likely making the jump to the pros. If that improvement happens, Darnold will be well in the Heisman mix.

Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma

The 2015 Big XII Offensive Player of the Year and 2016 Heisman finalist, Mayfield is heading into his senior season with a new head coach, Lincoln Riley, and Heisman buzz.

The Big XII door may be open for their rivals up in Stillwater, but the Sooners are still favorites and Mayfield is the biggest reason. In 2016, Mayfield threw for nearly 4,000 yards along with 40 touchdowns with a 196.4 passer rating. Oklahoma was first in the country in offensive S&P+ and passing S&P+, as the advanced numbers backed up what we all saw.

The best argument for Mayfield, however, may simply be that it’s his turn. He was passed up — rightly — for the past two seasons, but if the race is close this time around, it may be Mayfield’s to lose. He’s without a doubt Oklahoma’s best quarterback since Sam Bradford and has been one of the best players in the nation for his entire tenure in Norman. That will undoubtedly garner votes assuming Mayfield has another deserving season.

Derrius Guice, running back, LSU

Leonard Fournette’s replacement in Baton Rouge may be just as terrifying as Leonard Fournette.

Guice, a junior this season, burst onto the scene last season when Fournette got injured, rushing for 1,387 yards in only 183 attempts. If you don’t have a calculator on you, that’s 7.6 yards per carry, good enough to lead the SEC and get inside the top-10 in the entire country.

Guice also led the conference in rushing yards and touchdowns last season despite Fournette being the #1 guy or splitting carries in all seven games he played. Guice only had 20 or more carries in a game twice last season and led the conference in rushing. Imagine what he’ll do as the unquestioned starter.

Deondre Francois, quarterback, Florida State

Florida State is set to regain the national spotlight this season. They start the year with what could be a #1-vs.-#2 matchup against Alabama and with Francois under center, the Seminoles have a very real chance to make it back to the playoffs.

Last season, Francois’ 3,350 passing yards led the nation among freshmen quarterbacks. He also posted 8.4 yards per attempt, a 142.1 passer rating, and 20 touchdowns while leading FSU to the Orange Bowl. Sure, his numbers as a freshman weren’t quite as impressive as Darnold’s, but the Seminoles are widely considered the better team this year.

If Francois turns in an impressive performance in the opening game against Alabama, he could be the early pace-setter for the Heisman race. Should Florida State fend off Clemson and Louisville in the ACC after beating the Crimson Tide in Week 1, Francois under center throughout, it’s not hard to see a wire-to-wire Heisman victory for the redshirt sophomore.

J.T. Barrett, quarterback, Ohio State

Heading into his senior year, Barrett has a sterling resume. He finished fifth in Heisman voting in 2014 and probably would have been in the 2015 conversation had he not gotten injured the previous year, opening the door for Cardale Jones to lead the Buckeyes to a national title and resulting in the two splitting time at QB.

Last season wasn’t Barrett’s best — statistically speaking 2014 was undeniably better — but 2,555 passing yards, 845 rushing yards and being one of the best offensive players on an Ohio State team that made the playoff for a second time in three seasons.

Coming into his senior year, Ohio State is a Big Ten favorite and many think they’ll return to the CFP yet again. If they do, Barrett’s play will be a driving force behind it. Curtis Samuel, Noah Brown and Dontre Wilson are gone, Ezekiel Elliott is long gone. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an offense around Barrett — nobody should worry about Urban Meyer’s recruiting skills and Trevon Grimes is a name we’ll be familiar with soon — but Barrett will be the catalyst behind this offense.

His actual passing ability is a question mark, but Barrett can run as well as any quarterback in the country and manage things well enough in the pocket. That may be enough to put him in the Heisman conversation given that he’ll be the unquestioned face of the offense going forward.

Nick Chubb, running back, Georgia

Chubb has been taken down a peg since 2014, when he burst onto the scene by rushing for 1,547 yards and averaging 7.1 per carry, but his return last season from a torn PCL was still very good by any standard.

To recap, Chubb went for 1,130 yards — 5.0 per carry — despite games in which his leg continued to bother him after a high ankle sprain and an offensive line which ranked 101st in adjusted line yards. Given the situation, it’s harsh to judge Chubb as having lost any luster.

Let’s say Chubb is healthy this season. What reason is there to assume that he won’t be the same player as 2014 when he was that guy for stretches last season, including a 222-yard performance against North Carolina, 142 yards against TCU, 121 against South Carolina? Chubb is 1,845 yards off Herschel Walker’s school record. That’s a long way away, but if he stays healthy, it’s not impossible for Chubb to at least make a run at it. Doing so would no doubt put him in the conversation.

James Washington, wide receiver, Oklahoma State

Washington is the only wide receiver on this list and with good reason. Quarterbacks and running backs dominate the Heisman — Johnny Rodgers (1972), Tim Brown (1987), and Desmond Howard (1991) are the only wideouts to win the award and all three played a position in addition to wide receiver. (Rodgers took carries, Howard played as a returner and Brown did both.)

So, this won’t be easy for Washington. Though he technically plays special teams, he only returned one kick last year for two yards, so that’s not a part of his game that will win him votes. For all intents and purposes, he would be the first ever to win the award as a wide receiver.

Some of the arguments made for Rudolph apply to Washington as well, mainly Oklahoma State’s potential in the Big XII and the proficiency of their passing attack. Washington is as big a part of that as Rudolph — he had 1,380 yards on 71 receptions along with 10 touchdowns last season. If you’re wondering, that’s more yards, receptions, and touchdowns than Brown had in ’87 and more yards and receptions that Rodgers had in ’72 or Howard in ’91, including those on the ground. And Jhajuan Seales, OSU’s third receiver last season, is gone. Washington could get some of those targets.

If Oklahoma State bursts onto the scene, it’s easy to see Washington getting as much credit as Rudolph, It would be tough for a receiver to beat out his own quarterback for the Heisman, but it could be done.

Bo Scarbrough, running back, Alabama

After more than 30 years, Alabama finally has its own Bo.

Scarbrough got off to a slow start in 2016, but excluding Bama’s first five games, rushed for 7.4 yards per carry. He destroyed Florida and Washington in the SEC Championship Game and Peach Bowl, going for 91 and 180 yards with two touchdowns apiece. There’s no question that Scarbrough is one of the most talented backs in the nation, in the same mold as Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, Heisman winners both.

The biggest obstacle to the Heisman for Scarbrough may be on his own team. Damien Harris had more carries than the hometown kid last season and will have a chance at playing time this year as well. If Scarbrough gets off to a slow start, it could derail his Heisman train before it leaves the station. However, there is a history of Alabama running backs and this award and it’s not hard to see Scarbrough being next in line.

About the author

Ethan Sears

Ethan Sears

Ethan Sears is the publisher of sports web site EthanSears.com and will graduate in 2017 from Rye High School in Westchester County, New York. He has loved sports from an early age and intends to have a long career in journalism.

Ethan interned at the New York Post in the summers of 2015 and 2016. He also writes for Giants Wire, USA Today's New York Giants blog. In addition to writing and editing his own website, Ethan is the sports editor for his school paper, Garnet and Black. You can follow him on Twitter @ethan_sears.