Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota broke a Heisman Trophy trend last season by winning the award after being considered the preseason favorite.
Heisman winners no longer need preseason hype – just ask Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston and Cam Newton who won it as first-time starters — and this season even the players considered the front-runners are not quite the household names that Mariota was going into his junior year.
TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, Georgia running back Nick Chubb and USC quarterback Cody Kessler are the top of most odds-makers’ lists. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson and LSU running back Leonard Fournette are chic second-level picks.
But recent history suggests the Heisman winner will come from a down-the-ballot candidate. Here are six:
KYLE ALLEN, TEXAS A&M
Allen was OK starting five games as a freshman (16 touchdowns and seven interceptions) and then had to beat out super recruit Kyler Murray for the job in the preseason. Don’t forget Allen was highly touted, too. And Kevin Sumlin’s offense regularly turns quarterbacks (Case Keenum and Manziel) into stars. Allen also has the benefit of playing with maybe the best group of receivers in the country.
JACOBY BRISSETT, QB, NORTH CAROLINA STATE
For one quarter last September, Brissett and the Wolfpack were the story of college football. They led Florida State 24-7 and Brissett was making Heisman-worthy plays. It didn’t last, but the Florida transfer had a nice first season with North Carolina State, passing for 2,606 yards and 23 touchdowns and running for another 529 and three scores.
If the Pack can complete an upset or two and emerge as a surprise contender in the ACC, Brissett will get more than one quarter in the spotlight.
CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG, QB, PENN STATE
NFL scouts like Hackenberg’s arm, size and smarts. College football fans look at his 2014 stat line — 12 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions — and say, “Overrated!” Hackenberg didn’t get much help from a porous line and young receivers last year. With better support, Hackenberg could put up numbers to match the scouting reports and maybe lift Penn State into Big Ten East contention.
GUNNER KIEL, QB, CINCINNATI
The Notre Dame transfer who flip-flopped a couple times as a recruit has settled in nicely with the Bearcats. He threw for 3,254 yards and 31 touchdowns last season and has all of his top targets back. It will be tough for a player from outside the Power Five conferences to win the Heisman, but Cincinnati’s schedule is just good enough to get him into the conversation if the Bearcats can get to double-digits wins.
SETH RUSSELL, BAYLOR
Like Allen, Russell is walking into a quarterback-friendly system, stocked with elite receivers. Over the last five seasons Baylor quarterbacks (Bryce Petty, Nick Florence and Robert Griffin III) have averaged 4,031 yards passing, 30 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Russell has only played sparingly behind Petty, but he’s done well and the time to watch and learn should serve him well. Just as did with Petty and Florence.
NICK WILSON, ARIZONA
The freshman class of 2014 helped make it cool to be a running back again. Fournette, Chubb, Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook got more publicity than Wilson last year and come into this season with more hype. But Wilson ran for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and playing in a Rich Rodriguez offense, there’s no reason he can’t flirt with 2,000k as a sophomore.
EXTRA POINT: Four more dark horses in the Heisman race. Mike Bercovici, QB, Arizona State; Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy; Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State; Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami.
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