The Heisman Trophy has become a quarterback's award in the 21st century, but if any year looks like it can become the year of the running back, it'll be the 2015 season. It's just a matter of someone catching presumed favorite Trevone Boykin.
History says that someone will, as beyond Marcus Mariota in 2014, there have been many cases in recent years of unexpected winners who didn't receive much hype in the preseason. That was the case for Jameis Winston in '13, and it was even more so the case for Johnny Manziel in '12. College football frequently has a way of subverting expectations, and thus any projections for the '15 Heisman -- especially so ridiculously early in January -- should be considered just that: projections, based on information we already know, with a little bit of making assumptions based on what we believe is possible.
It is still impossibly early, and talking about Heisman candidates 11 months in advance is mostly a way to pass the time in this long offseason. But early entries to the NFL draft are official, and we already took a look at the top 25 teams for 2015, so now we try to identify the 25 likeliest candidates for the most prestigious individual award in the sport. This is not a list of the best players for the '15 season. This is a list of potential Heisman candidates, which means quarterbacks and running backs, with a couple well-known defenders thrown in and no receivers, at least not yet, because there doesn't appear to be an Amari Cooper in the sport next season.
1. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU. Strangely, while the 2015 NFL draft quarterback class is very thin, there also isn't a big group of touted quarterbacks returning to college football next season either. The most hyped quarterback will certainly be Boykin, who seemed close to a position change to receiver before breaking out under new offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meachem as TCU's offense underwent an astounding transformation into one of the most aggressive, productive units in the nation. Boykin completed 61.2 percent of his passes for 3,901 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and he ran for 707 yards and eight touchdowns. His numbers are hardly perfect: He ranked 24th in passer rating and 26th in yards per attempt, and four of the last five Heisman winners have led the nation in yards per attempt. But he already has a fourth-place Heisman finish under his belt. Both coordinators stayed in Fort Worth. The offense loses just two starters. And he's the most hyped quarterback returning. Preseason hype often turns out to be meaningless in terms of winning the Heisman (see Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston), but there's no question that Boykin will be at or near the top of most lists entering the season, and he's deserving of the praise.
2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. By far the most hyped of one of the best groups of freshmen running backs ever, Fournette was overshadowed by Nick Chubb (most consistently good), Samaje Perine (single-game FBS rushing record), Royce Freeman (lead tailback for a playoff team) and even occasionally Dalvin Cook (helped save Florida State's undefeated season) in 2014. That doesn't mean his ceiling isn't still the highest. Fournette is a freakish athlete, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound runner with power and breakaway speed who also returns kicks. We've seen him pull a Herschel Walker and run over Texas A&M's Howard Matthews on the way to the end zone; we've seen him run through and away from the Notre Dame defense for an 89-yard touchdown. The LSU offense is bound to improve next year, and after getting better and better as his freshman season progressed, Fournette will undoubtedly be the centerpiece. The Heisman pose he struck after the first touchdown of his career may have been premature, but that doesn't mean it can't prove to be accurate eventually.
3. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia. Think about what Chubb could have done as the starter for the entire season. The season began with Todd Gurley as perhaps the top Heisman candidate in the nation. Then he was suspended for four games because of an autograph scandal, and then he tore his ACL upon his return. It opened the door for Chubb to put together a phenomenal freshman season in which he averaged 7.06 yards per carry, finishing with 1,547 yards while averaging 165 yards per game in the eight games after Gurley's suspension. Georgia will make another quarterback change with Hutson Mason gone, and it also will replace offensive coordinator Mike Bobo (new Colorado State coach) with the perplexing Brian Schottenheimer. Georgia will need to find some sort of passing game, but it's pretty obvious what the goal of the offense will be, even if Schottenheimer is a bit of a mystery based on his NFL track record.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State. In a Big Ten loaded with running backs, Elliott was barely on the radar until late in the season, when he suddenly became a star as the backfield mate of Cardale Jones. Elliott ran for 220 yards in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, 230 yards in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama's acclaimed defense and 246 yards in the national championship against Oregon, totaling eight touchdowns in those three big games. He starred both on Ohio State's base inside zone runs and on sweeps, and the 225-pounder carries a lot of momentum entering his junior season, with Ohio State widely expected to open 2015 as the nation's No. 1 team. He'll just have to compete for votes with his quarterback(s).
5. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. The 2014 season wasn't quite the breakout many expected from Henry after his star turn in last year's Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. But we shouldn't be surprised, either. Alabama returned T.J. Yeldon at tailback, and the offense under Lane Kiffin made it a mission to get the ball in the hands of receiver Amari Cooper as much as possible. That will change in '15. Yeldon and Cooper both decided to go to the NFL, and for the second year in a row the Crimson Tide will have a new quarterback. Whereas Henry was often used to run roughshod over tired defenses late in games, he'll be the centerpiece of the offense as a junior. There may be no more frightening player in college football to tackle than the 6-foot-3, 241-pound Henry, whose "quiet" season featured 990 yards and 11 touchdowns as the team's No. 2 running back.
6. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. There is plenty working against Watson's 2015 candidacy: Injuries derailed his freshman season, he just underwent surgery on a torn ACL and he lost respected offensive coordinator Chad Morris to the SMU head coaching job. Despite all that, Watson has an incredibly high ceiling, and if he's not a top candidate next season, it's easy to see it happening in 2016. In eight games, he averaged 10.7 yards per attempt -- which would be best in the country -- and threw for 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He also ran for 200 yards and five touchdowns. He's a talented passer and runner, and he's surrounded by rising young talent at tailback and receiver. It's just a matter of getting back to full speed after undergoing surgery on Dec. 12.
7. Cody Kessler, QB, USC. Underrated no more. Kessler will return to lead a Trojans team that will likely be a popular preseason top-10 pick after he finished the 2014 season ranked fourth in passer rating, completing 69.7 percent of his passes with 39 touchdowns and five interceptions. Kessler loses receivers Nelson Agholor and George Farmer, plus tailback Buck Allen, but there are plenty of reasons to be confident: The whole offensive line returns, as does a rising star in JuJu Smith, who caught 54 passes as a freshman. If the Trojans live up to expectations and make a run at a playoff bid, then surely their efficient, experienced starting quarterback can find himself in the mix. It doesn't get much more high-profile in college football than USC starting quarterback when the Trojans are good.
8. Ohio State quarterback. We have no idea now, and we might not know until late August, who will be the starter. Braxton Miller, who finished in the top 10 of the Heisman voting in 2012 and '13, is still enrolled at Ohio State, although a transfer is still possible. J.T. Barrett finished second in passer rating and fifth in the Heisman voting in '14. After suddenly becoming famous in three games as he went from third-stringer to national championship starter, Cardale Jones will also return to Ohio State. Miller is the explosive runner. Barrett is an accurate passer who can also beat defenses with his legs. Jones has a huge arm with power as a runner. Ohio State returns four starters to its offensive line, and a ton of skill-position talent. If the Buckeyes give the ball primarily to one quarterback, then it's easy to see that player being a Heisman candidate for the national favorite. If multiple players take snaps, then Elliott would probably emerge as the Buckeyes' top candidate.
9. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon. With Marcus Mariota gone to the NFL, the Oregon offense will likely shift its attention more to the running game again. Freeman's emergence as a freshman allowed 2013 1,000-yard rusher Byron Marshall to shift to slot receiver, and he ended up running 252 times for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns, bring a power element to the Ducks' fast-paced, explosive spread attack. While Marshall is mostly playing receiver now, Freeman does have to compete for carries with Thomas Tyner, who was more effective in the national championship game upon returning from an injury.
10. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State. The Seminoles running game was unexpectedly lifeless early in the season, until Cook, a freshman, put it on his back with a dizzying combination of elusiveness and explosiveness. Despite getting only 24 carries in the Noles' first five games, Cook ran for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns, and he also had 203 receiving yards. Cook faces a tough test with only one starter returning to the offensive line, but with Jameis Winston gone, he'll become the focal point of the offense for a team still likely to be ACC favorite despite all the attrition it faces.
11. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State. A top Heisman candidate in the first half of 2014, Prescott's stock plummeted as Mississippi State lost two of its last three regular season games. Prescott is one of the top quarterbacks returning after he threw for 3,449 yards, ran for 986 yards and accounted for 41 total touchdowns, but he faces a steeper challenge in 2015 with the Bulldogs losing so much talent on both of their lines, along with tailback Josh Robinson. On one hand, Prescott appears to be an obvious Heisman candidate because he's the top returning quarterback in the SEC. On the other hand, Mississippi State will likely be picked to finish sixth or seventh in the loaded SEC West.
12. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma. While the hiring of East Carolina's Lincoln Riley as offensive coordinator would signal a change back to more of an Air Raid approach in Norman, expect Riley to embrace his best returning weapon, especially with uncertainty at quarterback between Trevor Knight and Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. Perine, a 5-foot-11, 243-pound bull, finished with 1,713 yards, piling up 242 yards against West Virginia in his first start, and breaking Melvin Gordon's week-old FBS single-game record with 427 yards against Kansas. The talent is certainly there for Perine to make a push, but he'll have to overcome the loss of four starters on the offensive line, adapting to a new system, solid running back depth on the Oklahoma roster and the overall problems faced by a program that finished a disappointing 8-5.
13. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State. Cook could have been the third quarterback taken in this spring's NFL draft, but he opted to return to his senior season, where he returns an experienced offensive line but loses top receiver Tony Lippett and steady tailback Jeremy Langford. The Michigan State offense reinvented itself around Cook over the course of the 2013 season, helping to push the Spartans to the Rose Bowl last year and the Cotton Bowl this year. Cook threw for 3,214 yards in 2014, but he's returning to school in part to improve his accuracy after completing 58.1 percent of his passes.
14. Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona. It feels almost impossible for Wright to match or beat his 2014 numbers next year as a junior. He got a handful of votes to finish ninth, as he finished the season ranked first nationally in tackles for loss, third in sacks, first in tackles and first in forced fumbles. He was a one-man wrecking crew who carried the Arizona defense, and the situation can be the same in '15, even if those numbers are tough to duplicate.
15. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech. Thomas took over as Georgia Tech's starting QB after last winter's transfer of Vad Lee, and he proved to be a much better fit for Paul Johnson's back-to-basics triple-option attack. The Yellow Jackets got better and better as the season progressed, turning into a machine in the Orange Bowl against Mississippi State. While the top four running backs and All-American guard Shaq Mason are gone, four offensive line starters return, putting Thomas in position to be a big-time playmaker in his second year as starter after he ran for a team-high 1,086 yards in 2014.
16. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. It's hard enough already for a defender to get Heisman consideration. It's even harder when there are multiple possible Heisman candidates on offense, and when there are also emerging stars like Darron Lee and Adolphus Washington joining on defense. Still, Bosa is the biggest name on the Ohio State defense, a freakish athlete at 6-foot-5, 278 pounds. He was actually relatively quiet down the stretch, but he finished his sophomore season with 13 1/2 sacks and 21 tackles for loss.
17. Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA. Beyond QB Brett Hundley, UCLA's entire starting offense will be back in 2015, which makes the Bruins an interesting team. On one hand, Hundley has been the clear centerpiece of the Jim Mora era for three years. On the other hand, the rest of the offense may finally be ready to emerge. Perkins already did so in '14, somewhat quietly running 251 times for 1,575 yards and nine touchdowns. Now he'll have a chance to emerge from Hundley's shadow.
18. Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona. Perhaps this spot should go to Arizona running back Nick Wilson, who was yet another freshman running back to post a huge season in 2014, rushing for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. But we'll go with Solomon, who had a solid debut season as a redshirt freshman in Rich Rodriguez's offense, throwing for 3,793 yards, 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions. If he starts running a bit more as a sophomore, he could post big numbers, especially with a loaded receiving corps returning too.
19. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh. The Panthers lost run-oriented head coach Paul Chryst to Wisconsin, bringing in Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who subsequently hired Arkansas' Jim Chaney to run the offense. There won't be a lack of individual skill talent. While Tyler Boyd had a key drop in the bowl game, he's one of the nation's top returning receivers, and Conner carried the offense for much of 2014. Losing right tackle T.J. Clemmings is tough, but the powerful Conner will surely get a ton of work again next season after running 298 times for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns.
20. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor. Baylor tailback Shock Linwood could get into the mix, but it still feels more likely for a quarterback to compete for the award in this offense. Russell is the next man up. Robert Griffin III won the Heisman in 2011. Nick Florence threw for 4,309 yards in '12. Bryce Petty threw for 4,200 yards in '13 and 3,855 yards in '14. Now, Russell, who will be a junior, is likely to take Petty's place, in a loaded offense that returns the entire offensive line, the top four running backs and four of the top six receivers. He's been solid in relief of Petty already, and if he is the clear starter then big numbers are sure to follow, even after the loss of offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery to Tulsa.
21. Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M. Now we start really guessing. Allen surpassed August sensation Kenny Hill on the Texas A&M on the depth chart as a true freshman by the end of the season, and he was hit-or-miss. He did, however, finish with an impressive bowl performance, completing 22 of 35 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns against West Virginia. One of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2014, Allen is surrounded by a talented young receiving corps, giving him a chance for a breakout in '15.
22. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State. Hackenberg had a 2014 to forget, but the context is important: Penn State was dealing with the worst year of NCAA sanctions, with very, very thin depth thanks to reduced scholarships. The position hit hardest was the offensive line, which severely handcuffed play-calling and got Hackenberg hit a lot, with the problems festering as everyone became frustrated. Still, Hackenberg remains a coveted potential NFL prospect for a reason. He has one of the strongest arms in the country, and the Pinstripe Bowl comeback showed that he can be as good as any quarterback in college football when he gets into a rhythm. If he regains some confidence and the offensive line improves, he can have a bounce-back '15 season.
23. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami. Al Golden may face a make-or-break season after the Hurricanes stumbled to 6-7 in 2014. They did have a freshman quarterback, though, and Kaaya showed potential in averaging 8.5 yards per attempt, throwing for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. There was typical uneven play for a freshman, but the offense could focus more on the passing game next year with Duke Johnson gone.
24. Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy. Reynolds feels like he's been around forever, and while he's not going to win the award, he's the type of known smaller-school player who could pull a Jordan Lynch and get some votes if Navy has a big season. He already owns the FBS record for career touchdown runs by a quarterback, even with another year of eligibility remaining. Last season, he ran for 1,191 yards and 23 touchdowns, giving him 64 rushing touchdowns in his three-year career.
25. Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin. If Melvin Gordon couldn't win in a season in which he ran for 2,587 yards, then Clement certainly won't win in his first year as starter. Still, it's easy to see big numbers from Clement, as tailback-friendly Chryst returns to Madison as head coach after Clement ran 147 times for 949 and nine touchdowns as a backup to Gordon.