CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: Heisman Watch List

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With the last two Heisman winners, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, off to the NFL, a fresh batch of contenders will make up the pool of preseason candidates to potentially take home the 2015 version of the Heisman Trophy.  And, perish the thought, a running back could actually (gasp!) claim an honor that’s become yet another annual quarterback award.

In fact, six running backs were among the baker’s dozen of favorites in the most recent set of Heisman odds released by Bovada.lv last month.  The other seven, of course, were quarterbacks.

With that as a backdrop, let’s take a snapshot look at a handful of players, in alphabetical order so as not to offend anyone, who could become the next first-time winner of the most prestigious trophy in college football.

CARDALE “J.T.” JONES-BARRETT, QB, OHIO STATE
2014 STAT LINE: J.T. Barrett — 203-of-314 passing (64.7 percent), 2,834 yards, 34 touchdowns, 10 interceptions; 171 carries for 938 yards (5.5 ypc), 11 touchdowns | Cardale Jones — 56-of-92 passing (60.9 percent), 860 yards, seven touchdowns, two interceptions; 72 carries for 296 yards (4.1 ypc), one touchdown.
QUICK HIT: By now, everyone knows the tale of these two quarterbacks’ tapes.  Barrett led the Buckeyes to the cusp of a College Football Playoff berth as he set a Big Ten record for total touchdowns in a season prior to sustaining a serious leg injury in the regular-season finale against Michigan.  That opened the door for Jones to shine in the postseason, helping OSU to three straight wins to claim its first national championship in over a decade.  Whoever wins the much-discussed starting job coming out of summer camp will be one of the in-season front-runners for this year’s version of the trophy — and I have a sneaking suspicion that player’s going to be Barrett.

TREVONE BOYKIN, QB, TCU
2014 STAT LINE: 301-of-492 passing (61.1 percent), 3,901 yards, 33 touchdowns, 11 interceptions; 152 carries for 707 yards (4.7 ypc), eight touchdowns.
QUICK HIT: The highest finisher in the Heisman voting last season (fourth) of any returning player this season, Boykin is poised to improve upon a breakout 2015 campaign.  Boykin will have the kind of pass/run totals that catch the eyes of voters, while his Horned Frogs will likely be ranked among the top two or three teams for a sizable chunk of the regular season, shining an even brighter spotlight on the player.  High-profile games against Minnesota, Oklahoma and Baylor won’t hurt his candidacy either — provided he rises to the occasion in winning efforts, of course.

NICK CHUBB, RB, GEORGIA
2014 STAT LINE: 219 carries for 1,547 yards (7.1 ypc), 14 touchdowns; 18 receptions for 213 yards, two touchdowns.
QUICK HIT: The first of three true sophomore backs on this list, one could make the argument that Chubb is the most talented of that trio.  He backed up such talk with an outstanding first season in Athens, with his 1,547 yards rushing serving as the second-most ever for an UGA freshman, behind only the 1,616 yards put up by the great Herschel Walker in 1980.  The most impressive part of Chubb’s debut?  He rushed for a modest 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns through the first five games of the 2014 season; then, after Todd Gurley went down for the rest of the season, ripped off 1,323 yards and 12 touchdowns in the final eight games.  With the Bulldogs breaking in another starting quarterback, Chubb should once again be the focal point of the offense — and the opposing defense as well, to be fair.

CONNOR COOK, QB, MICHIGAN STATE
2014 STAT LINE: 212-of-365 passing (58.1 percent), 3,214 yards, 24 touchdowns, eight interceptions; 51 carries for 80 yards (1.6 ypc), two touchdowns.
QUICK HIT: The good news for any Heisman candidacy Cook entertains is that the Spartans should be good enough to be a Top-10 presence throughout most of the regular season.  The bad news?  Cook likely won’t put up the type of numbers that grab the attention of voters.  The past two seasons, he’s accounted for just under 6,000 yards passing and 46 touchdowns, while he’s ran for less than 160 yards and three touchdowns in that span.  Still, if he can lead MSU to an unbeaten regular season — that would mean an upset over the likely top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes — Cook, as a quarterback, will be in the thick of the Heisman discussion late into the year.

EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, RB, OHIO STATE
2014 STAT LINE: 273 carries for 1,878 yards (6.9 ypc) and 18 touchdowns; 28 receptions for 220 yards.
QUICK HIT: Prior to last month’s set of odds, Bovada had Elliott tapped as its Heisman wagering front-runner on two different occasions.  That status made sense, given how the true junior was coming off a postseason in which he ripped off nearly 700 yards in wins over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon.  With all of attention now focused squarely on the quarterback situation in Buckeye Land, Elliott stands the best chance of any player to break the stranglehold quarterbacks have on the award, a streak that now stretches back five years since Alabama running back Mark Ingram won the honor in 2009.

LEONARD FOURNETTE, RB, LSU
2014 STAT LINE
: 187 carries for 1,034 yards (5.5 ypc), 10 touchdowns; seven receptions for 127 yards.
QUICK HIT
: If Chubb isn’t the most talented super soph back in the country, this guy is.  His ill-timed Heisman pose notwithstanding, Fournette was mostly up in an up-and-down start to a much-hyped debut.  Fournette had five 100-yard rushing efforts last year, with four coming in the second half of the season.  On the flip side, he was held to 50 or fewer yards five times, with the lowpoint coming on a five-carry, nine-yard performance in a 17-o loss to Arkansas in mid-November.  His two top rushing performances, though, came in the last two games of the season — 146 vs. Texas A&M, 143 vs. Notre Dame — so he had some modicum of momentum heading into the offseason.

CODY KESSLER, QB, USC
2014 STAT LINE: 315-of-452 passing (69.7 percent), 3,826 yards, 39 touchdowns, five interceptions; 55 carries for -152 yards (-2.9 ypc), two touchdowns.
QUICK HIT: For whatever reason, and despite outstanding numbers, Kessler was on the outside of the Heisman discussion looking in last season.  With the Trojans expected to be a much-improved squad, to the point where they could very well spend a considerable amount of time in and around the Top 10, Kessler should be a season-long presence in the stiff-armed talk.  Perhaps the biggest question mark for Kessler is whether or not the skill players around him can help him get back to, or surpass, his 2014 production as his rushing prowess — or lack thereof — won’t gain him any points with the voters.

SAMAJE PERINE, RB, OKLAHOMA
2014 STAT LINE: 263 carries for 1,713 yards (6.5 ypc), 21 touchdowns; 15 receptions for 198 yards.
QUICK HIT: If Chubb or Fournette aren’t the most talented sophomore back in the nation, Norman’s finest would certainly qualify for that honor.  Perine, of course, set an FBS single-game rushing record with his 427 yards in a late October win over Kansas.  That yardage was part of a four-game stretch in which he ran for 925 yards — and 10 touchdowns for good measure — to close out the 2014 season.  As Perine didn’t become a focal point of the offense until a third of the season was in the books, he should have the kind of full-season numbers that puts him squarely in the Heisman mix.

DAK PRESCOTT, QB, MISSISSIPPI STATE
2014 STAT LINE:
QUICK HIT: Prescott was one of the Heisman favorites for the first month and a half of the 2014 season before the combination of the MSU quarterback stumbling a bit and the rise of Mariota put an end to any such talk.  Still, he nearly became one of just a handful of FBS quarterbacks to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.  Prescott’s plummet from the Heisman radar coincided with his Bulldogs’ tumbling from a No. 1 ranking; if MSU can avoid such a swoon again, Prescott will be in the discussion yet again.

DESHAUN WATSON, QB, CLEMSON
2014 STAT LINE: 93-of-137 passing (67.9 percent), 1,466 yards, 14 touchdowns, two interceptions;
QUICK HIT: There seems to be little question about Watson’s talent level; as a true freshman, he was wise beyond his years in seeing the field and had the production to match it.  If the injury-plagued Watson had played just one snap in one additional game, even if he didn’t attempt a pass, his pass efficiency rating of 188.6 would’ve been the best in the country, ahead of Mariota‘s 184.4.  The biggest “if,” though, when it comes to Watson is his health as he missed five full games and parts of two others with injuries.  If he can stay healthy, Watson possesses the type of talent that can get him into and keep him in the Heisman discussion for the better part of the upcoming season.

SCOOBY WRIGHT, LB, ARIZONA
2014 STAT LINE:
QUICK HIT: A defensive player will ultimately win the most prestigious award in the country, right?  Right?!?!?  If one should happen to break through this season, Wright, a former two-star recruit, could very well be the one on that side of the ball.  As a sophomore last season, Wright seemingly came out of nowhere to finish ninth in the Heisman voting as just a sophomore.  He led the nation in tackles and forced fumbles on his way to winning three of the top honors a defensive player can claim in the game — the Bronko Nagurski trophy, the Lombardi award and the Chuck Bednarik award. Thanks in part to his status as an “underdog,” Wright, if he can match his performance from a year ago, stands a good chance to improve upon that ninth-place finish this season.

Big Ten pulls plug on fall football amid COVID-19 concerns

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The Big Ten won’t play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, becoming the first of college sports’ power conferences to yield to the pandemic.

The move announced Tuesday comes six day after the conference that includes historic programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State had released a revised conference-only schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season with potential COVID-19 disruptions.

But it was not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.

The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.

The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.

Trump, coaches push for college football as cracks emerge

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President Donald Trump joined a U.S. senator and a number of coaches Monday in the push to save the college football season from a pandemic-forced shutdown.

There was speculation that two of the five most powerful conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — might call off their seasons. Farther east, Old Dominion canceled fall sports and became the first school in the Bowl Subdivison to break from its league in doing so; the rest of Conference USA was going forward with plans to play.

A Big Ten spokesman said no votes had been taken by its presidents and chancellors on fall sports as of Monday afternoon and the powerful Southeastern Conference made clear it was not yet ready to shutter its fall season.

“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,’” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey posted on Twitter. ”Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

A growing number of athletes have spoken out about saving the season with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence among the group posting their thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantToPla. Trump threw his support behind them Monday.

“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled,” he tweeted.

Old Dominion has stopped trying. The Virginia school canceled football and other fall sports less than a week after Conference USA set out a plan to play a football season.

“We concluded that the season – including travel and competition – posed too great a risk for our student-athletes,” ODU President Broderick said.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a different stand, saying the Wolverines have shown players can be safe after they return to school.

“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. “I am advocating on August 10 that this virus can be controlled and handled because of these facts.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, picked up on the safer-with-football theme in a letter to the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.

“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true,” he wrote. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

“Here’s the reality: Many of you think that football is safer than no football, but you also know that you will be blamed if there is football, whereas you can duck any blame if you cancel football,” added Sasse, a former college president. “This is a moment for leadership. These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”

Players unite in push to save college season, create union

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Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds saw the tweets from Trevor Lawrence and other college football players pushing for the opportunity to play this season despite the pandemic.

Reynolds, one of the organizers behind a players’ rights movement in the Big Ten, didn’t like the way some on social media seemed to be pitting Lawrence’s message against the efforts of #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited.

“There was a lot of division,” Reynolds told AP early Monday morning.

Reynolds got on a call with Lawrence and the star quarterback’s Clemson teammate, Darien Rencher, and within a matter of hours the summer of athlete empowerment found another gear.

College football players from across the country united Sunday in an attempt to save their season and ensure they will no longer be left out of the sport’s biggest decisions.

Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oklahoma State All-America running back Chuba Hubbard, Alabama running back Najee Harris and numerous other players from Florida State to Oregon posted a graphic on social media with #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited.

“We came to the conclusion, We Want to Play, their message might have been conveyed differently but at the end of the day the message wasn’t too far off from what Big Ten United wanted to promote,” Reynolds said. “Which is we all want to play sports this fall. Every athlete, I’m pretty sure, wants to play their sports. They just want to do so safely.”

The #WeAreUnited hashtag was used a week ago by a group of Pac-12 players in announcing a movement they say has the support of hundreds of peers within their conference. They have threatened mass opt-outs by players if concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for athletes are not addressed.

#BigTenUnited arrived on the scene a couple days later, a movement that claimed the backing off 1,000 Big Ten football players. Their demands were more targeted, strictly related to health and safety in dealing with COVID-19.

Sunday night, the call with Reynolds, Rencher and Lawrence led to a Zoom meeting — of course — with some of the Pac-12 players involved in “WeAreUnited.”

Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs got to work on a graphic and now the movement is officially nationwide.

“Just started bouncing ideas off each others’ heads and kind of discussing where we go from here and we ended up coming up with that statement,” said Reynolds, a senior from South Orange, New Jersey.

Under the logos of each Power Five conference — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the players pronounced their platform:

— We all want to play football this season.

— Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.

— Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision.

— Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.

— Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials: Ultimately create a College Football Players Association.

All of this capped a weekend during which the adults who run college sports seemed to be moving toward shutting it all down because of the pandemic.

A day after the Mid-American Conference became the first of the major college football leagues to cancel the fall season, Power Five conference commissioners met Sunday. They discussed mounting concerns about whether a season can be safely conducted with the pandemic still not under control in the United States.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said no decisions on the season have been made, but conceded the outlook has not improved.

“Are we in a better place today than two weeks, ago? No, we’re not,” he said.

Bowlsby cited “growing evidence and the growing pool of data around myocarditis.”

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart and it has been found in some COVID-19 patients. There is concern it could be a long-term complication of contracting the virus even in young, healthy people, a group that has usually avoided severe cardiovascular symptoms.

Also Sunday night, the Big Ten’s university presidents and chancellors held a previously unscheduled meeting, a person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not announced by the conference.

Another person with direct knowledge of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no votes were taken or decisions made about the college football season.

The final call on whether major college football will played this season rests in the hands of the university presidents who oversee the largest conferences.

With doom and gloom hanging over college football, Lawrence, who has become the face of the sport in a summer of strife, tried to push back the tide with a series of tweets.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence posted. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19.”

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth had a similar message, and the parents of Ohio State football players weighed in, too.

Reynolds wants athletes to have a say in the meetings that are deciding the fate of their sports — starting now.

”All college athletes through unifying and not being afraid to speak our minds and having social media to kind of mobilize, I think that box on a Zoom call is something that is pretty attainable,” he said. “Especially, in the near future.”

After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

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In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”