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CFT Previews: Six-pack of Heisman dark horses

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The early frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy in 2019 will be Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. But history suggests the preseason favorite or favorites for the Heisman Trophy have a rough time getting to the end of the season as the frontrunner. Every season sees new Heisman contenders come and go and the favorites going in may run into a rough patch that does significant harm just because they were the favorite at the start of the season.

The preseason oddsmakers have labeled Lawrence and Tagovailoa as clear favorites for the Heisman Trophy this season, which leaves the pool full of possible darkhorse candidates. Here are six players who may already be flying on the radar or have a shot to skyrocket up the charts with some big performances this season.

ADRIAN MARTINEZ, NEBRASKA
Quarterback

Expectations are high for Nebraska this season as Scott Frost begins his second season on the job. One reason for the optimism this season, aside from the schedule and a wide-open division race, is quarterback Adrian Martinez. As a freshman, Martinez passed for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for 629 yards and eight touchdowns. His dual-threat ability should electrify the Nebraska offense this season and could be why the Huskers potentially play for the Big Ten title at the end of the year. A good spotlight performance against Ohio State in Lincoln would fuel the Heisman buzz if things go well for Martinez.

SAM EHLINGER, TEXAS
Quarterback

A year removed from throwing for 3,296 yards and 25 touchdowns while leading Texas to a regular-season victory over Oklahoma and a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, Sam Ehlinger should certainly be on the radar for the Heisman Trophy. Similar production this year with the Longhorns already starting the year in a good spot on the playoff radar should keep Ehlinger in the mix. Improving the touchdown total and leading the Longhorns back to the Big 12 championship game could very well result in a trip to New York at the end of the year for the Texas gunslinger.

SHEA PATTERSON, MICHIGAN
Quarterback

If the Michigan offense truly does improve by opening up the playbook and picking up the pace, as has been the big difference expected this offseason with a new offensive coordinator in charge in Ann Arbor, then Shea Patterson could have a shot. Patterson passed for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns with seven interceptions last fall, his first with the Wolverines since transferring from Ole Miss, but those numbers likely won’t cut it. So if the Michigan offense does focus their gameplan more to Patterson’s skill set and comfort level, and if the Wolverines score some big wins along the way to a possible Big Ten title shot (which would include beating Ohio State in conference play and likely a non-conference victory over Notre Dame in October), then Patterson may have some possible marquee moments lined up.

AJ DILLON, BOSTON COLLEGE
Running Back

Quarterbacks may rule the Heisman Trophy conversation these days, but a running back can sneak up every now and then. As a true darkhorse candidate, last year’s leading rusher in yards per game may have the steepest uphill climb. AJ Dillon rushed for 110.8 yards per game last season in 10 games. And his touchdown total of 10 would certainly need to go up this year too. He should get plenty of chances to run the ball at Boston College, so the numbers could pile up.

JUSTIN HERBERT, OREGON
Quarterback

Perhaps the Pac-12’s top Heisman Trophy candidate is one the NFL scouts are already watching closely. Justin Herbert opted to return to Oregon for one more season rather than turn pro, and now he could have a chance to lead the Ducks back to the Pac-12 this fall. If he does, then he will likely remain in the Heisman discussion all season long. Herbert passed for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. Improving the pass completion percentage would help, but scoring big wins against Auburn to open the season and later against Washington may be the key to a trip to New York.

JK DOBBINS, OHIO STATE
Running Back

Sure, Ohio State may have one of the more talented transfer quarterbacks looking to keep the offense humming this season (Justin Fields), but the Buckeyes may be wise to rely more on running back JK Dobbins this season. Dobbins saw his rushing total take a dip last season after a brilliant freshman season in 2017 (1,403 rushing yards down to 1,053 yards despite nearly 40 more rushing attempts), but he is still one of the top running backs in the Big Ten and it shows. If Dobbins is used more early on this season as the new quarterback gets situated in the offense, Dobbins should rack up some big numbers to get started. Spotlight games at Nebraska, home against Penn State and at Michigan spread out this season and down the stretch give Dobbins a chance to make some loud noises in the Heisman race.

We might as well talk about Jalen Hurts…

Oklahoma has been the home to the last two quarterbacks, with Baker Mayfield winning the award in 2017 and Kyler Murray taking the trophy back to Norman last season. Head coach Lincoln Riley could not have stepped into a better quarterback situation than he did when he took over for Bob Stoops in 2017. Now, with Murray off to the NFL, the Sooners bring in former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. While Hurts may not be exactly the same kind of quarterback Mayfield or Murray were the past two years, the Sooners are gaining an experienced starter who has led his previous team to the national championship game in back-to-back seasons. There is a lot to like about this combination, even if Riley has a few things to work on with Hurts to get the offense where he wants it.

The odds a school claims three straight Heisman Trophy winners are likely against Oklahoma this season. No school has ever had three straight Heisman Trophy winners (Yale and Army have each had back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners; USC had back-to-back winners but one (Reggie Bush) has since been officially vacated; Ohio State has back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners courtesy of the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Griffin). Could history be made? Sure. Why not? But the streak probably comes to an end in Norman this year, even if the season goes well for Hurts and the Sooners.

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”

Colorado State pauses football after allegations of racism

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Colorado State is pausing all football activities after an investigation started by the president of the university into the program’s handling of COVID-19 cases uncovered allegations of racism and verbal abuse toward athletes.

Athletic director Joe Parker said he asked President Joyce McConnell to expand the investigation she announced Tuesday to include a comprehensive review of the athletic department and football program.

“Today, we learned of some extremely troubling allegations of racism and verbal abuse from CSU’s athletic administration generally and in the football program specifically,” Parke said.

Parker’s statement did not mention any particular member of the coaching staff or athletic department. Steve Addazio is in his first season as head coach of the Rams.

McConnell announced the investigation Tuesday after an article published in the Coloradoan that quoted unidentified football players and members of the athletic staff saying coaches told them not to report coronavirus symptoms and threatened players with reduced playing time should they quarantine.

“Colorado State University is committed to being an anti-racist university, and we will not tolerate any behavior or climate that goes against that core value,” Parker said. “Moreover, CSU Athletics is committed to the health and well-being of student-athletes above all other priorities, and this includes their mental health. We believe it is our responsibility to make sure that all student-athletes feel welcomed and valued as members of an inclusive athletics community.”

Colorado State has paused all meetings, workouts and practices.

“While we have been working hard towards playing football this fall, the holistic well-being of our student-athletes is our unequivocal top priority,” Parker said. “We must and will address these allegations before we focus on playing football.”

On Tuesday, Addazio said he welcomed the investigation into the football program’s alleged mishandling of coronavirus protocols.

McConnell announced via an email to student-athletes and department staff Thursday that Husch Blackwell, a legal firm based in Kansas City, would lead the probe into those allegations

Addazio was hired in December, replacing Mike Bobo, after spending seven seasons with Boston College.

The Rams were scheduled to open the season Sept. 19 by hosting Northern Colorado, but the Big Sky Conference voted this week to push back its football season to the spring.

Pac-12 player group ‘disappointed’ after commissioner call

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The Pac-12 players of the “WeAreUnited” movement said they were “disappointed and deeply concerned” after a recent meeting with the conference’s commissioner.

The players sent an email to Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott late Friday accusing him of not taking the issues they have raised seriously enough. The email was also shared with members of the media.

The group’s correspondence came after Scott followed their Thursday call with an email to the players that struck a very different tone, thanking them for the “passion and honesty with which you spoke yesterday evening.”

The group is pushing the conference to address their concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for college athletes. Players threatened opting out of practices and games if their demands aren’t addressed. Leaders of the group have said their movement has more than 400 players from around the conference supporting it.

In their email to the commissioner, the players said they were unsatisfied with Scott’s answers to question about increasing the frequency of COVID-19 testing done on athletes and the mandating of best practices across the conference.

“Without a discernible plan and mandates to ensure the health and safety of student-athletes, it is absurd, offensive, and deadly to expect a season to proceed,” they said.

When the players went public with their demands last Sunday, they reached out to the Pac-12 and requested daily meetings with conference officials. Instead, they got one call last week and a pledge from the conference for continued communication.

“You informed us we cannot have legal representation attend these meetings to assist in connection with our legal rights, nor were you willing to even have regular meetings with us to provide updates,” the players wrote to Scott.

Scott’s email addressed four topics that made up the bulk of the Thursday call with 12 players: health and safety; eligibility; COVID-19 liability waivers; and opt-out due to COVID-19 concerns.

Scott wrote the conference will attempt to provide the players an opportunity to speak with the Pac-12 medical advisory committee and keep them abreast of work being done at the NCAA level to address whether athletes who opt out of the coming season will be permitted to retain eligibility.

Scott said the conference office would ensure none of the league’s schools ask athletes to sign liability waivers and reiterated Pac-12 schools were committed to honoring scholarships of players who chose not to play this season because of COVID-19 concerns.

“We will work on gathering the information listed above and providing it to you as soon as possible,” Scott wrote.

Clemson QB Lawrence says he’s completely committed to 2020 season

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Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence said he considered opting out of this season when he was unsure what college football would look like going forward amid the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Lawrence said Friday once he understood he’d play an 11-game season with a chance for an Atlantic Coast Conference and national championships, he decided to play his junior season.

The Heisman Trophy hopeful said he’s completely committed to this season and confident in Clemson’s ability to keep himself and his teammates safe.

Lawrence, who is the likely No. 1 overall pick in the next NFL draft should he leave college early, was 25-0 as a starter until he and Clemson fell to LSU in the national title game last January. The 6-foot-6 junior, had perhaps his poorest performance in college in the 42-25 loss to LSU. He joked how after his freshman year when he led Clemson to a championship he heard how amazing he was and since the LSU defeat, he heard how much work he has to do improve.