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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.

 

UNC and Minnesota line up future home-and-home deal

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While one football series between an ACC and Big Ten team may be hard to come by, North Carolina and Minnesota have put together a future home-and-home scheduling agreement to look forward to. The Tar Heels and Gophers will meet for the first time on the football field in 2023 and follow up with a second game in 2024, the schools announced on Wednesday.

North Carolina will host Minnesota on Sept. 16, 2023. The two schools will then open the 2024 season at Minnesota, either on August 31, 2024 or for a Thursday opener on August 29, 2024.

The ACC and Big Ten each require their members to play one game against another power conference opponent each season. North Carolina already satisfied that requirement in 2024 with a season-opener against South Carolina scheduled to be played in Charlotte, NC, but the 2024 game fulfills the power conference scheduling requirement for the Tar Heels. The home-and-home series will also satisfy Minnesota’s obligation to the Big Ten scheduling policy for both seasons (Minnesota is getting an exemption for 2018 and 2019 due to previous scheduling arrangements being in place prior to the Big Ten’s stance on strength of schedule in non-conference play.

Pitt leaves renewal of football series in Penn State’s hands

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Ever since the in-state rivalry between Penn State and Pitt came to a temporary end in 2001, it has been a struggle to get the two schools back on the field for any stretch of time. With the third in a four-game series upcoming this fall, Pitt is hoping to find a way to continue playing the Nittany Lions on future schedules, but the offer is now apparently in Penn State’s hands awaiting a response.

Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke told reporters Wednesday she has proposed a four-year series beginning in 2026 to her Penn State counterpart, Sandy Barbour, but Penn State has not responded to the offer.

“We’re going to wait a tad more patiently, but not much,” Lyke said, according to Trib Live. “We can’t. We have people who want to play us and good opportunities to play what would be a very attractive game.”

The four-game series currently ongoing between the Panthers and Nittany Lions comes to a close after their meeting in the 2019 season in Happy Valley. According to FBSchedules.com, Penn State will not have another opening for a non-conference game until 2021. That is also the first season Pitt will have scheduling availability for non-conference matchups. Both schools already have power conference opponents lined up through 2025 as well, perhaps eliminating the desire to add another power conference opponent to the schedule.

Both Penn State and Pitt have scheduling requirements for non-conference play from the Big Ten and ACC, respectively, to include at least one game against another power conference opponent. It seems like a natural solution for Penn State and Pitt to agree to a long-term scheduling commitment to satisfy their respective conferences’ scheduling requirements, but the old issue has always come down to the financial incentive of a game. With Penn State playing in a larger stadium, it would be losing out on potential revenue that could be gained by an extra home game when possible. And playing road games at Pittsburgh only helps another program in the state by filling the seats more than any other home game on Pitt’s schedules in just about any season (Notre Dame and West Virginia would be other candidates to help Pitt fill Heinz Field).

It took so long just to get the two schools together for a two-year series, which was later expanded to a four-year arrangement. Don’t count on this in-state rivalry being renewed for quite some time after the 2019 season.

QB Blake Barnett reportedly transferring from Arizona State

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Quarterback Blake Barnett is now on the graduate transfer market. According to Bruce Feldman of Sports Illustrated, via Twitter, Barnett will find a new program to wrap up his college football career as a graduate transfer. South Florida is reportedly set to get an official visit from the former Sun Devils and Alabama quarterback.

Barnett started his football career at Alabama, where he sat out the 2015 season as a freshman. During his redshirt freshman in 2016, Barnett appeared in just three games as Jalen Hurts rose to become Alabama’s starting quarterback that would lead the Tide for the next two seasons (until halftime of last season’s national championship game). Barnett transferred to Arizona State, leaving behind a seemingly tumultuous relationship with Nick Saban, and played in just two games for the Sun Devils last fall, while Manny Wilkins established himself as the quarterback for former head coach Todd Graham.

A former four-star recruit out of high school, Barnett has played in just five games and completed 14 of 24 pass attempts for 259 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Barnett’s latest transfer news comes a day after former UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen took a swipe at Barnett, who was ranked ahead of Rosen in various recruiting rankings out of high school.

“Blake Barnett was the Elite 11 MVP,” Rosen said, per SEC Country. “He was the dude that was going to go to ‘Bama, win a couple championships, call it quits and go to the league as the first overall pick. You don’t really hear about him too much.”

As a graduate transfer, Barnett will be eligible to play immediately this fall.

Transferring BYU QB Kody Wilstead finds new home at Kansas JUCO

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With eight quarterbacks on the roster, Kody Wilstead opted to leave the Cougars in mid-March.  A little over a month later, Wilstead has found a new home, albeit a little further down on the college football ladder.

According to the Deseret News, Wilstead has signed to play at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas.  As Coffeyville is a junior college, the quarterback will be eligible to play immediately in 2018.

It’s expected that Wilstead will spend at least one season at the JUCO level before looking at making a move back up to the FBS.

Wilstead, a three-star 2015 signee, took a redshirt as a true freshman last season after serving an LDS mission the previous two years.

After Wilstead’s departure, the seven remaining Cougar signal-callers are, in alphabetical order, Stacy ConnerJoe CritchlowHayden GriffittsBeau HogeTanner MangumBaylor Romney and Zach Wilson. Mangum, last year’s starter, is recovering from an Achilles tendon injury he suffered in November of last year but remains on track to return for the start of summer camp in August.