We are just one week away from the start of the 2017 college football season. The offseason has been long and arduous, but our lives are oh so close to regaining that beautiful piece that has been missing for the last seven months.
The 2017 kickoff brings with it the quest for college football's most prestigious individual award. Right now the odds are in favor of USC quarterback Sam Darnold with Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield rounding out the top three.
J.T. Barrett checks in at No. 4 on the list as Ohio State's quarterback will look to take advantage of a new quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator, and a hopefully improved group of pass-catchers.
Heading into the 2016 season, the Eleven Warriors staff presented its picks around this same time. The list included names like Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey, and Leonard Fournette. One name that wasn't mentioned was Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. Whoops.
This year we are at it again and hoping for some much better prognostications.
Pick: Baker Mayfield, Quarterback, Oklahoma
Breakdown: Oklahoma is an overwhelming favorite in all of its games except Columbus, and if his stats just tread water vs. Ohio State the rest of his season is going to be a weekly 400-yard passing/photoshopped stat box. His competitors for the Heisman will all have tough November games. Barring any of them going full-superhuman highlight reel (e.g. Troy Smith vs. Michigan, any of Michigan's Heisman winners vs. Ohio State) he shouldn't be splitting votes with anyone regionally and will emerge as the winner.
Pick: Saquon Barkley, Running Back, Penn State
Breakdown: The Penn State game in 2015 was a perfect showcase for a player on an opposing team to have a great game against the Buckeyes, in that you could stare in slack-jawed awe at their performance without worrying about how they might impact the outcome of the game. I was in Ohio Stadium for that game, and my immediate thought after "hell yeah these jerseys are sweet, Penn State sucks and we're gonna win" was "Saquon Barkley is probably going to win the Heisman at some point" as he racked up almost 200 yards of rushing on only 26 carries.
Last season was less fun as not only did Penn State win, but Barkley was kept on a leash for most of the game. That's a shame, because despite playing for a team I generally dislike, Barkley can be one of the most entertaining players in college football today. He's fast, monstrously strong, and now just has to find the kind of consistency that's to the level of his talent. The sky's the limit for that guy, and if James Franklin and company can figure out how to keep him going, he'll be getting the trophy in December.
Pick: Sam Darnold, Quarterback, USC
Breakdown: The best preseason Heisman pick I can offer is Sam Darnold of USC even if I'm not sure he's even close to the best player in the country, or even the best quarterback.
Saquon Barkley is an important name to watch here but Heisman voters generally don't care for tailbacks unless they're from Alabama. Derrick Henry had 2,219 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns in 2015. Both led the country. Mark Ingram's Heisman is a bit more inexplicable, but was largely built on the argument he deserved it because no other Alabama player had won one to that point. Roll Tide.
I mention that because Saquon Barkley is an exciting player and the best running back in the country. I'm just not sure he has something close to what Henry did in 2015 to win his Heisman. Trace McSorley still churns out a large chunk of PSU's much improved offense.
I also don't think Darnold is the best quarterback in the country. I'd give that nod to J.T. Barrett or Jake Browning. In Barrett's case, he would need to approximate his 2014 season's superlatives without any of the bumps in the road. In Browning's case, I would need to be convinced Washington has another John Ross in the pipeline. Ross was a special player for the Huskies last year; I'm not sure Washington has another deep threat like him.
That leaves Darnold, who captured college football's attention last year with his run as USC's quarterback after the Trojans benched Max Browne. Darnold has two things working in his favor in addition to his preseason hype. One, his accuracy is elite. He completed 67% of his passes, which compares favorably to recent winners like Sam Bradford and Jameis Winston. Second, he'll churn out the yards. If he had started the whole season with his per-game stats over the final 10 games, he would've accrued roughly 3,900 passing yards with 38 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. That's firmly in the ballpark of what Jameis Winston did in 2013.
This prediction comes with the full appreciation that many of the recent winners came from nowhere; Lamar Jackson clearly comes to mind even if his missteps down the stretch do not bode well for a repeat campaign. So, I'll provide the caveat, like I did last year, that no Heisman prediction is as good, right now, as Sam Darnold.
Pick: Jake Browning, Quarterback, Washington
Breakdown: While all the focus will be on Sam Darnold, Browning and the Huskies will quietly repeat as Pac-12 champs, thanks in large part to a very favorable schedule that avoids the Trojans entirely. After a big road win over Stanford in early November, the Huskies will emerge as a serious playoff contender, and much of the focus will fall on the conductor of Chris Petersen's RPO-heavy offense. After Browning outplays Darnold to win the conference title and head back to the playoff, the choice becomes easy for any remaining undecided voters.
Breakdown: I hate taking the favorite because it’s boring (and I really like Saquon Barkley) but there are just too many reasons to take Sam Darnold as my pick to win the Heisman.
The dude put on a clinic in all 10 of his starts as a redshirt freshman – winning nine – while putting up some big time numbers including a completion percentage of 67.4 with 29 touchdowns against eight picks.
He also threw for 2,950 yards over those 10 games punctuated with 453 yards and five touchdowns against Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
Beyond the numbers, there’s just something about the way the kid carries himself that I enjoy watching. He’s poised and reserved despite having every reason to be a cocky prick.
Throw in the fact quarterbacks have won 14 of the last 17 stiff-arms and I’m cool with slotting Darnold to win it this year.
Breakdown: After watching Darnold's Rose Bowl performance against Penn State, I have a hard time picking against him. Darnold has a NFL-ready arm and is the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. I think he carries the Trojans into a CFP appearance and takes the Heisman Trophy with him.
Breakdown: The Heisman Trophy more often than not goes to the best quarterback on a championship-contending team, and that’s exactly what I expect Darnold to be in 2017.
Outside of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, who’s now playing in the NFL, no quarterback was better down the stretch of last season than Darnold. In USC’s final nine games of last season, all wins by the Trojans, Darnold completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 2,697 yards (almost 300 yards per game) and 29 touchdowns (with at least two touchdown passes in every game).
If Darnold can avoid a sophomore slump and continue to play at that level, USC should be a frontrunner to win the Pac-12 and earn a College Football Playoff berth – and Darnold, in turn, should be the Heisman frontrunner.
Pick: Jarrett Stidham, Quarterback, Auburn
Breakdown: Yes, I am quite familiar with the hype that has surrounded several of Gus Malzahn's quarterbacks. It happened with Nick Marshall in 2014 and then again with Jeremy Johnson in 2015. Marshall did put up some solid numbers, but Johnson ended up getting benched before he could even make it through September as the starting quarterback.
Jarrett Stidham is an entirely different case.
The Texan was easily one of my favorite quarterbacks in the 2015 recruiting class, but I mostly stopped paying attention when he faded into the gross abyss that is Baylor football. Now an Auburn Tiger, he's won the starting gig for 2017 and looks to be an ideal fit to help Auburn rise back up the ranks of the SEC.
Stidham and the Tigers travel to Clemson on Sept. 9, and there's no doubt that game could help to catapult him into the Heisman limelight. Will he be able to go on the road and take down one of the country's top defenses? I have no idea, and expecting him to do so is asking a lot.
Regardless, I am looking forward to seeing how he performs at Auburn. Stidham is my early pick for the 2017 Heisman.