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A Look Ahead: CFT’s Way-Too-Early 2017 Heisman Trophy Projections

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We’re nearly eight months from the start of the 2017 season, but it’s never too early to peer into the crystal ball and see how the initial stages of the Heisman Trophy race may shake out.

Of the Top 10 (and ties) in the 2016 Heisman voting, just three will return for the 2016 season: Louisville quarterback and winner Lamar Jackson, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Washington quarterback Jake Browning.  It’s fitting that all three of those returners play under center as, since 1986, 20 Heisman winners were quarterbacks.  Since 2000, it’s 14 of 17 at the position.

At least at first blush, it doesn’t appear 2017 will be much different from the previous three decades, although “just” five of our 11-man list play quarterback.  With that in mind, below is our initial Heisman favorites list, listed in order from the favorite on down.

(Writer’s note: class designation is based on what the player will be in 2017.)

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn StateSAM DARNOLD, USC, QUARTERBACK, REDSHIRT SOPHOMORE
Yep, I’m buying in.  I’m buying into USC being the No. 1 team in the country heading into the offseason, and I’m buying into Darnold being the real deal.  Can you really blame me?  Taking over for the since-transferred Max Browne in Week 4, and after a loss in that first start on the road against Utah, Darnold and the Trojans won nine games in a row to close out the 2016 season, with the rising redshirt sophomore playing a pivotal role.  In those nine winning starts, Darnold passed for more than 300 yards four times and more than 400 in one (the virtuoso performance in the dramatic Rose Bowl win).  He threw at least two touchdowns in each of the wins — tossed five each in back-to-back wins vs. Arizona and Cal — and was only picked off eight times in 344 pass attempts in his 10 starts.  The stage never seemed too big for him; in fact, his performance throughout suggested he could be ready for a much bigger stage in 2017.

BAKER MAYFIELD, OKLAHOMA, QUARTERBACK, FIFTH-YEAR SENIOR
In 2015, Mayfield finished fourth in the Heisman voting but didn’t get a trip to New York City as a finalist.  In 2016, Mayfield was third in the voting and made it the Big Apple as one of the five finalists.  The next progression, naturally, is to finish runner-up to (fill in the blank), right?  Or, possibly, become the first Sooner since Sam Bradford in 2008 to claim the trophy.  The bad news for Mayfield is the fact that OU’s top two rushers from 2016, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, left early for the NFL, seemingly leaving a significant offensive burden on Mayfield’s right arm.  That could also serve as good news for Mayfield as, potentially leaning more on the passing game, the stats that led him to being a finalist this season (3,965-40-8, 71% completion percentage) could be even gaudier next.  A road trip to Columbus for matchup with Ohio State in early September could portend just what direction Mayfield’s 2017 Heisman campaign heads.

JAKE BROWNING, WASHINGTON, QUARTERBACK, JUNIOR
Who says nobody loves the Pac-12, what with two of the top three hailing from that conference?  It still baffles me as to how the Huskies sophomore didn’t get more postseason love, though, be it from the Heisman voters or pretty much any other award.  As a true sophomore, all Browning did was finish second in the nation in touchdown passes with 43 in, along with the defense, leading UW to its first-ever College Football Playoff appearance.  All that led to was a pat-on-the-back sixth-place finish in the 2016 Heisman voting.  With a third offseason under Chris Petersen tucked neatly under his belt, I’m expecting a huge leap this season for the rising junior — and for this to be his last season as he makes the early leap into the 2018 draft as one of the top quarterbacks available.

LAMAR JACKSON, LOUISVILLE, QUARTERBACK, JUNIOR
If returning, the defending Heisman Trophy winner deserves to be on any and all preseason watch lists, especially one that comes out three-quarters of a year before the next season starts.  Thanks to history, though, they don’t necessarily have to be high up on the list.  You all know the breakout stats from Jackson’s breakout 2016, so there’s no reason to rehash them here.  The pertinent numbers?  Zero, for the number of Heisman winners who have gone back-to-back since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in the mid-seventies became the first and only to win a pair of the trophies.  1979, representing the year Billy Sims of Oklahoma finished second in the voting one year after winning it, the only player to ever accomplish that.  Finally we come to the number (?) 3rd, which represents the fact that, outside of Sims, no other reigning Heisman winner finished better than that position the following year.  So, heading into the postseason, I’m going to slot Jackson into the No. 4 hole and see if he can prove me and others — and history — wrong.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Washington v AlabamaDamien Harris/Bo Scarbrough, ALABAMA, RUNNING BACK, JUNIOR/REDSHIRT JUNIOR

The last running backs to win the Heisman Trophy were Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, who both just happened to play their college football for the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.  When Henry won his award in 2015, he was a junior.  In 2017, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough will be junior running backs who play their college football for the University of Alabama and… wait a minute I’m sensing a pattern here.  Harris finished the season as the Tide’s leading rusher, but it was Scarbrough that took on a larger role late in the season.  Coming off a knee injury that cost him two games, Scarbrough totaled 63 carries the last four games.  Harris, meanwhile, carried the ball 31 times in that same span.  If one can separate himself from the other — you’d have to say Scarbrough has the decided edge to be the bellcow heading into the offseason — either could find himself in the thick of the Heisman race deep into the upcoming season.

Saquon Barkley, PENN STATE, RUNNING BACK, JUNIOR
There might not have been a more underrated Power Five back in the country than Barkley.  His 1,496 yards on the ground were second in the Big Ten and 14th nationally, while his 18 rushing touchdowns were tied for seventh in the country.  The sophomore capped off his breakout season with 194 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Rose Bowl loss to USC.  It was an odd season for Barkley, though, as he had just one 100-yard game in the first five (105 yards vs. Kent State), then in the next four ran for 200-plus twice and 167 in another one.  Between that stretch and the bowl game, however, he failed to run for more than 92 yards in any of the four games, which included a 14-yard game against Michigan State.  If Barkley can find some consistency this coming season, he should be on voters’ radars throughout.  Surely Barkley’s teammate, quarterback Trace McSorley, will get some Heisman run, but this back is more than deserving of some recognition.

Derrius Guice, LSU, RUNNING BACK, JUNIOR
I’m betting that, a little bit on down the road, you could win your fair share of bar bets by asking who was LSU’s leading rusher during Leonard Fournette‘s final season in Baton Rouge.  Of course, it was Fournette… who, in large part because of a lingering ankle, finished second on the team with 843 yards before jumping early to the NFL.  Guice, naturally, finished first on the Tigers with 1,387 yards, and put up 15 rushing touchdowns for good measure.  For running backs with 150-plus carries, Guice’s 7.6 yards per carry was second in the country.  With a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada who rather enjoys the running game — Pittsburgh was 21st this past season, North Carolina State 31st the year before with him as coordinator — Guice could be poised to do something that much-hyped Fournette never did: make his way north to New York City as a Heisman finalist.

Iowa State v Oklahoma StateJames Washington, OKLAHOMA STATE, WIDE RECEIVER, SENIOR
Yes, just three “wide receivers” — Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers (1972), Notre Dame’s Tim Brown (1987), Michigan’s Desmond Howard (1991) — have claimed this particular honor, and that was due in very large part to their prowess in the return game; Washington has returned five kickoffs (for 81 yards with a long of 27) the past three seasons, and there are no plans to turn him into a return specialist in 2017.  Yes, he returned for his senior season along with quarterback Mason Rudolph, whose name will most likely litter these types of lists because, well, he’s a quarterback and a very productive one at that.  But, back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, 10 touchdowns and a per catch average of just a shade under 20 yards shows the type of explosiveness that could, if they broaden their horizons a bit, open the eyes of some voters.

JALEN HURTS, ALABAMA, QUARTERBACK, SOPHOMORE
Personally, I don’t ever see a quarterback from a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team winning the Heisman, but Hurts deserves at, the very least, a nod.  As a true freshman, Hurts (and his defense and running backs) led the Crimson Tide to another SEC championship and an appearance in the national championship game.  He took relatively good care of the ball, tossing nine interceptions in his 382 pass attempts; just two of those came in the last five games, with four of those contests involving ranked teams.  The Texas native led the Tide with 13 rushing touchdowns, and was second in yardage to Damien Harris.  Again, a ‘Bama quarterback with Saban as the coach will likely never put of the kind of numbers that catches the eyes of voters, but the dual-threat game he brings to the table plus the fact that his team is perpetual national title contenders will likely have him as part of the stiff-armed discussion for as long as he remains in Tuscaloosa.

ED OLIVER, HOUSTON, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, SOPHOMORE
A player from a Group of Five program hasn’t won the Heisman in nearly three decades, since BYU quarterback Ty Detmer in 1990.  A defense-only player has never claimed the stiff-armed trophy.  So why even bother listing Oliver?

Yeah, he’s good.  Here’s to hoping the voters actually watch what’s going on this upcoming season on both sides of the ball.

 

New Mexico AD Paul Krebs in hot water for Scotland golf trip

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New Mexico AD Paul Krebs (right) had it all figured out. He wanted to go to Scotland to play golf (who doesn’t) but he didn’t want to pay for it (who does?). So he came up with a solution: he’d turn it into a UNM fundraising trip and make the school pay for it.

The school sold 23 packages to travel across the pond for a getaway of luxurious accommodations and bucket-list golf, but put the bills of himself, two UNM executives and a handful of local businessmen on the school’s dime. Lots of dimes, in fact. The trip cost the Lobos nearly $65,000.

“The trip was a working trip and it was designed to immerse us with these donors. It was an intensive experience and I understand why people may question it,” Krebs told KRQE-TV earlier this month.

Despite his attempt at justification, it appeared Krebs knew from the start the trip was an ethical no-no. The $65,000 bill was classified as a basketball tournament on UNM’s accounting paperwork, and Krebs failed to disclose the nature of the June 2015 trip to acting president Chaouki Abdallah until last week.

“VP Krebs came to me and told me that he wanted to tell me something that he had forgotten or did not tell me before,” Abdallah told KRQE. “I was not happy.”

It is not clear why the UNM Foundation or the Lobo Club,  non-profits that handles the school’s and the athletics department’s fundraising efforts, respectively, did not cover the cost of the trip, especially since Lobo Club executive director Kole McKamey was one of the UNM officials who was on the trip. Putting the bill on the university’s ledger also appears to be a violation of the state’s anti-donation laws. The $24,000 cost to take the Albuquerque businessmen has since been refunded by an anonymous donor.

“(Krebs) told me about it in no uncertain terms,” Abdallah told said. “He didn’t try to sugarcoat it. He said I made a mistake. I didn’t tell you about it before. Here’s what happened. I’m going to try to fix it.”

 

Miami Beach Bowl officially moves to Frisco, Texas

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The Miami Beach Bowl was an unnecessary bowl game played in a metro area already populated by bowl games — but at least it was in Miami. Bowl games may have lost their luster over the past decade-plus, but it’s hard to complain about being sent to South Beach in December for a football game.

The Miami Beach Bowl is no more, and it’s now been reincarnated as another unnecessary bowl game to be played in a metro area even more populated by bowl games — and it won’t be anywhere near as interesting as Miami.

Meet the Frisco Bowl, the newest ESPN-created postseason college football game to be played in the scenic locale of Frisco, Texas.

The north Dallas suburb will host the game at Toyota Stadium, a 20,500-seat outdoor venue that’s home to MLS club FC Dallas as well as the FCS National Championship every January. The Frisco Bowl will also compete for sponsorship dollars and public attention with the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, the Heart of Dallas Bowl in Dallas and the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.

“We are pleased to be able to host this game in one of the most vibrant football markets in the country,” said ESPN vice president of events Clint Overby. “The infrastructure and facilities that exist in Frisco are outstanding and will be an excellent venue for the teams, players, administrators and fans traveling into the marketplace. We look forward to working with civic organizations and businesses in the area to create an annual event that embraces the spirit of the community.”

The first annual Frisco Bowl will pit an American Athletic Conference team against a to-be-determined conference at 8 p.m. ET on Dec. 20.

2017 Texas signee sees felony drug charge reduced to misdemeanor

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It appears the door to one member of Texas’ 2017 recruiting class arriving in Austin this summer has opened a little wider.

In late February, Reese Leitao was arrested at his Oklahoma high school on a charge of possession/delivery of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to sell within a thousand feet of a school, a felony.  Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman is reporting, Leitao pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug possession charge.

As part of the plea agreement, Leitao received a four-year deferred sentence; provided he stays clean during that time, the charge will be wiped off his record.  The American-Statesman writes that, “[a]ccording to Leitao’s attorney, Leitao has ‘some probationary work,’including speaking engagements at schools, and will be under the supervision of the district attorney.”  A $1,000 fine was part of his punishment as well.

The ball is now in the hands of first-year UT head coach Tom Herman as to whether Leitao will have a football future with the Longhorns.

“I’m happy,” the attorney, Allen Smallwood, told the newspaper. “Hopefully the University of Texas will be happy.”

At the time of Leitao’s arrest, a statement attributed to Herman said that “[w]e’re collecting information, will talk to Reese and his family, let the legal system run its course and then address it further at the appropriate time.” As of this posting, the university has yet to publicly address the development.

Leitao was a three-star 2017 signee, rated as the No. 19 tight end in the country and the No. 8 player at any position in the state of Oklahoma.

Miami All-American, NFL Hall of Famer Cortez Kennedy dead at 48

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One of the most physically-gifted and talented players in the history of Miami Hurricanes football is gone way, way too soon.

The Orlando Police Department confirmed Tuesday afternoon that Cortez Kennedy passed away earlier today.  He was just 48 years old.

No cause of death has been determined, with the OPD stating that “at this time there is nothing suspicious to report but we are conducting an investigation regarding his unattended passing.”

After starting his collegiate playing career at the junior college level, Kennedy moved on to the University of Miami, earning All-American honors in 1989.  In 2004, he was inducted into the university’s Sports Hall of Fame.

The third overall pick of the 1990 NFL draft, Kennedy spent his entire 11-year pro career with the Seattle Seahawks.  In 2012, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Not surprisingly, Kennedy’s sudden passing has brought an outpouring of emotion from those connected to the football program.