4. Dalvin Cook
Team: Florida State
Why: The Seminoles are loaded this year, but still don’t know who will be handing the ball to their star running back. My money is on Deondre Francois to break through at some point this season under center; a former 5 star recruit with elite arm talent and athleticism unmatched by any signal caller of the heralded Jimbo Fisher era.
Even during the disastrous Golson/Maguire era of 2015/2016, the electrifying Cook carried the young Seminoles offense throughout conference play, amassing the nation’s highest yards per carry average against ranked opponents.
Cook, possessing a rare blend of elite straight line speed, agility, and underrated power for his size, reminds me of LaDainian Tomlinson at TCU and early in his NFL career with San Diego.
This season, the Seminoles return 4 starters from an experienced and improving offensive line, and have the good fortune of playing in perhaps the weakest of all of the Power 5 conferences. Before you incessantly bitch about this assertion in the comments section, outside of FSU/Clemson the ACC’s best team in 2016 is a toss-up.
Cook will put up monster numbers in Fisher’s pro-style balanced attack as the Seminoles break in a new starter at QB, with the Clemson matchup not only deciding the ACC and a likely playoff berth, but possibly the Heisman Trophy winner as well.
3. Deshaun Watson
Why: The possible favorite, Watson leads last year’s ACC Champion Clemson Tigers in pursuit of their first back to back ACC Championships of our lifetimes. Watson, an elite athlete possessing arm talent comparable to any of the 2016 draftees not named Jared Goff, drives an offense that should be one of the nation’s most explosive in 2016.
My concern with Watson, and all running quarterbacks for that matter, is durability. Already having suffered a season-ending injury in 2014, Watson still displays a hesitancy to slide and/or get out of bounds to avoid unnecessary hits, with opposing defensive coordinators undoubtedly gunning for Clemson’s star with a barrage of pressures.
If Watson can stay healthy, his Heisman fate likely rests conversely to that of Cook’s, as the matchup between Clemson and Florida State will almost undoubtedly decide the conference champion, and perhaps separate one of the two ACC superstars.
2. Christian McCaffrey
Why: In all honesty, McCaffrey absolutely should have been on the 2016 podium accepting the Heisman Trophy instead of Derrick Henry. However, as a sophomore during the 2015 season, the voters narrowly chose the Alabama running back, even though the second oldest of the McCaffrey brothers had outpaced Henry in yards per carry, total offense, receptions, touchdowns, and was what I would argue the most valuable player to his team in the country.
Without bashing Henry too much, who is an incredible player and enjoyed an outstanding career in Tuscaloosa, McCaffrey carried Stanford, not just on offense in which he regularly played in the Wildcat and withstood one of the highest usage rates of any player in college football, but as a special teams dynamo scoring touchdowns on both punt and kick returns.
McCaffrey accounted for passing, rushing, receiving, and return touchdowns on his way to the greatest individual season in Stanford history, a school that graduated two-time Super Bowl Champion John Elway.
The problem this year is simple: Stanford isn’t that good. Replacing multi-year starter Kevin Hogan at quarterback, two All-American linemen highlighted by 49ers first round pick Josh Garnett, and three of the Cardinal’s top receivers including star tight end Austin Hooper, Coach David Shaw has his work cut out for him after flirting with NFL offers in the offseason.
Can an amazing player win the Heisman on a mediocre team? I doubt it.
1. Leonard Fournette
Why: Fournette rivals only Adrian Peterson as the most physically impressive college running back of all time, combining elite size with bruising power and lateral quickness usually reserved for 140-pound slot receivers, not 235 pound tailbacks. At one point averaging nearly 190 yards on the ground per game, the then-sophomore slowed considerably during the meat of LSU’s schedule, though more appropriately attributable to horrific quarterback play and spotty blocking.
The Tigers again have an issue under center, with returning starter Brandon Harris, with whom I have repeatedly voiced my displeasure, battling Purdue transfer Danny Etling in what can only be described as a battle of who’s worse.
This year, however, even with the annual QB debacle that has become a calling card of the Miles/Cameron era, LSU should not cascade towards mediocrity as a truly elite defense and what should be a much improved offensive front pace the Tigers and their superstar runner.
Even with a loss to the Crimson Tide, barring injury, Fournette’s historic SEC career, which may go down as the greatest 3-year run of any SEC back not named Bo Jackson, should sway voters towards Fournette as this will almost undoubtedly be his last season in Baton Rouge.
For the first time in recent history, there should be legitimate discussion of a running back topping the 2017 NFL Draft board.
Here are some players that have a shot at the Heisman, but are less likely to bring home the hardware.
Why: Last year the perennially balanced Sooners abandoned pro style sets for the fun and gun of the defenseless Big 12, allowing the former walk-on to put up video game numbers en route to a Playoff appearance.
This season Oklahoma and Big Game Bob should be right in the thick of things again, as the Big 12 has weakened further following the deserved collapse of Baylor. Mayfield is without doubt a “system” quarterback, a knock that will hurt him in the minds of voters similarly to his former coach at Texas Tech Kliff Kingsbury.
Team: Ohio State
Why: Barrett slogged through last season as OSU Coach Urban Meyer inexplicably continued the Cardale Jones experiment for a duration nobody outside of Columbus can explain. Now, with Jones a Buffalo Bill, the Buckeyes are 100% Barrett’s, but with a host of new faces.
Yes, Ohio State recruits as well as anyone and Coach Meyer will again lead one of the nation’s best teams, but replacing 16 starters, the most of any Division 1 team, including 9 top 60 NFL Draft picks, is too much for any collegiate roster to absorb.
2017, though, with Barrett likely to forego the NFL Draft as he is not currently viewed as a high pick, should see JT and the Bucks as both Heisman and National Title favorites.
Why: He’s not going to win, but there is going to be a somewhat major case made for the Cougars’ quarterback to be this year’s winner. First of all, I think it is extremely unlikely Houston and second year offensive dynamo Coach Tom Herman lose a game in 2016, after their dismantling of Florida State in the Peach Bowl to end last season.
With the probable favorites (McCaffrey, Fournette) languished with teams highly unlikely to go undefeated, a Houston team winning 24 of 25 games could be a playoff crasher, with Ward storming the Heisman ceremony.
Now, the realistic and pragmatic side of me is sure this won’t happen. Even if the Cougars go undefeated a matchup with a perennial power like Alabama in the first round of the playoff would make the 2015 Alabama MSU 38-0 drubbing look like an all time classic. Houston is a good team but is overmatched by an SEC power at every position, averaging a recruiting finish outside the top 75 in the last 5 cycles, while Alabama has closed 4 number one overall classes.
For revenue purposes the Cougars will be held out, regardless of what transpires, but Ward is a perfect fit in Hermann’s system that led the 2014 Buckeyes to their National Championship.
Baylor, there’s a coach in your backyard that needs a Brinks truck delivery for 2017.
Here are some players that are longshots, but worth watching anyway.
Why: Yes, I realize only once has a predominantly defensive player won the Heisman in the history of the award. But perhaps not coincidentally, that man was Michigan do-everything corner/safety Charles Woodson the year Peppers was born.
The #2 overall recruit in the class of 2014, and the best thing Brady Hoke did for Michigan in his 4 seasons, Peppers is perhaps the nation’s best overall athlete, sporting a 4.3 40 at nearly 225 pounds, and the versatility to play corner/safety/linebacker/quarterback/running back/wide receiver/return man, all of which in the same game, as he did in the 2015 matchup with Michigan State.
With a laughable early schedule, the Wolverines should be 7-0 coming into East Lansing looking to avenge last year’s last second debacle, with a victory setting up for a likely 11-0 Michigan team in Columbus for the first time in a decade. If Harbaugh allows Peppers significant offensive touches in games outside of the rivalry matchups (last season Peppers did not play offense until week 7) and the Wolverine defense lives up to the hype as perhaps the nation’s best, look out for the charismatic Peppers.
Why: The golden boy himself, or as I like to call him, the harmless Johnny Football. Rosen spent his first year in Pasadena living the life of a 5-star quarterback; slamming coeds, setting PAC 12 freshman records, and installing in-dorm hot tubs. The kid is living the life.
But now as a sophomore in the wide open PAC 12, it’s time for Rosen and Coach Mora to take the next step towards playoff contention. Oregon and Stanford are down, USC is breaking in a first time head coach and QB, and the supposed PAC 12 favorite is perennially mediocre Washington; things could not be better positioned for the Bruins.
Rosen has all the tools and will be in the conversation for the #1 overall pick in 2018, but a massive sophomore season and conference title could get him to New York, but probably not on the podium..
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