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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.

 

NC State adds Division 2 graduate transfer kicker

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It’s possible Dave Doeren‘s life would feel completely different right now if he had a better kicker in 2016.

In this reality, Doeren is 25-26 after four seasons in Raleigh, coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons following his 8-5 breakthrough of 2014. But if his Wolfpack could kick last year, Doeren is most likely riding high after an 8-4 regular season buoyed by a win over Clemson in Death Valley. Because not only did NC State lose that game on a late field goal whiff, the Pack also suffered a 33-30 loss to East Carolina in which it endured two missed field goals.

NC State’s two kickers combined to hit only 9-of-17 tries last fall, good for 121st nationally, and ranked 104th with a 93.3 percent conversion rate on 45 extra points. And the situation wasn’t getting better this spring.

To rectify that situation, NC State announced the addition of kicker Carson Wise. A graduate transfer from Division II Carson-Newman, Wise will have two years of availability for the Wolfpack.

Wise connected on 21-of-31 field goals and 97-of-101 PATs last season, numbers that, on their face, do not represent massive changes from what NC State posted last season. But Doeren is banking on Wise as a solution for NC State in 2017.

“I’m excited to have Carson join the family,” Doeren said in a statement. “He is a talented player who should be a great addition to our special teams as we look for him to handle our field goal and kickoff duties this fall.”

Arkansas House votes to exempt sporting venues from expanded gun law

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Remember how we talked about it’s impossible to follow sports and ignore politics? Not long after John Swofford released a statement on how a North Carolina law would effect ACC sporting events, the Arkansas legislature passed a bill that will do the same in the SEC.

The Arkansas House voted 71-20 to allow its state colleges and universities to exempt themselves from a law that greatly expands venues permitting concealed-carry handguns. Until the passing of SB724 today, guns would have been permissible inside Razorback Stadium, among other places.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey released a statement earlier this week urging state lawmakers to remove sporting venues from the bill. “HB 1249 creates concerns for the Southeastern Conference and its member institutions,” he said. “It remains our collective desire to provide a safe environment for student-athletes, coaches, officials and fans, and will continue to closely monitor the status of this legislation.”

Passing the bill was made more complicated by the involvement of the NRA, according to Rep. Jimmy Gateway.

The bill must now head back to the Senate before it can receive final approval from Governor Asa Hutchinson.

John Swofford releases statement on North Carolina repeal of HB2

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It’s pretty much impossible to keep politics out of the sports page today. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was forced to release a statement on Tuesday urging Arkansas state legislators to exempt Razorbacks sporting venues from a bill that would greatly expand areas allowing concealed-carry handguns, and now ACC commissioner John Swofford has been forced to wade back into political waters.

North Carolina’s state legislature brokered a deal Thursday with new governor Roy Cooper to repeal House Bill 2, the controversial law requiring persons within Tar Heel state borders to use public bathrooms matching their gender at birth. The “bathroom bill” cost the state a reported $3.76 billion in revenue, and some of that lost revenue related directly to college football.

Following the NCAA’s lead of revoking the state’s championship event hosting privileges due to HB2, the ACC moved its football championship game from Charlotte to Orlando (the men’s basketball tournament was previously booked for Brooklyn), a move that cost the conference itself money as well.

Thursday’s repeal of HB2 is more complicated than simply yanking the bathroom bill (this is where I’ll direct you to a much more appropriate place to digest the political news of the hour than a college football blog) and, as such, Swofford’s statement is appropriately nuanced.

The ACC is still undecided where this December’s title game will be played, and Swofford will kick that decision upstairs to the league’s presidents.

Oklahoma OL Christian Daimler to pursue graduate transfer

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Oklahoma offensive tackle Christian Daimler will pursue a transfer, according to a message posted to his Twitter account Thursday.

As a fifth-year senior, Daimler qualifies as a graduate transfer and will be eligible immediately. “I could not be more excited about what my future holds,” Daimler wrote. “Wherever I end up I know that I will always be a Sooner and for that am I so proud. This University [sic] will forever remain close to my heart. Boomer Sooner.”

If that name does not immediately ring a bell, you are forgiven. Daimler appeared in three games as a Sooner, all over last season.

Hailing from Houston, Daimler, who stands 6-foot-7 and is listed at 321 pounds, was a 3-star recruit when he signed with Oklahoma over Texas A&M, Arizona State and Colorado, among others.