Projecting the Heisman Trophy race in August is almost always a futile task. Name recognition from previous seasons is still a factor, especially if no obvious favorite emerges, but it doesn't play the role it once did. One Heisman race has little impact on the next, with only four of the last 20 winners placing in the top 10 of the voting the previous season. Everyone is on TV every week and underclassmen have increasingly entered the Heisman race, making it a more fluid race.
The Heisman race is also hard to predict because it is dependent on many variables. We're not just projecting top players -- something influenced by injuries, discipline issues, etc. -- but we're projecting entire teams. Sixteen of the last 20 Heisman winners have played for teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll at the end of the regular season, when the award is handed out. In that time, only Robert Griffin III (15th) and Ricky Williams (20th) have been on a team outside the top 10.
While it's easy to be confident in who the best teams will be this season after spending eight months studying and arguing about the upcoming season, the unexpected usually happens in college football. Last year's top two of Marcus Mariota and Melvin Gordon was hardly shocking, but nobody would have had Trevone Boykin, Scooby Wright, Tevin Coleman or J.T. Barrett in their Heisman top 10 a year ago, just as nobody has redshirt freshman Jameis Winston winning in 2013 or Johnny Manziel winning in 2012.
Despite all the uncertainty, some trends are easy to spot. It's still largely an award that belongs to quarterbacks of national title contenders, with Mark Ingram and Reggie Bush the only running backs to take it home since the turn of the century.
That could change this year. Last year proved to be a banner year for young running backs, meaning this season is filled with potential stars at the position, most of whom are sophomores and juniors. Trevone Boykin, Cody Kessler and others could be worthy candidates at quarterback, but this year seems to be as good of an opportunity as any in recent history for a running back to emerge as the Heisman winner.
So, let's go over the top candidates for 2014, noting that this is mainly a projection, based in part on my projections for where teams will end up at the end of the season, meaning this is a look at who might be the top 10 Heisman finishers in December.
Heisman Top 10 Projection
1. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia. Todd Gurley might have won the Heisman last year had he stayed on the field. Now it's Chubb's turn to take a shot at it. Chubb took over for Gurley in October as a true freshman, and he ran for over 100 yards every week, finishing with 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns on 219 carries (7.1 per carry). The Bulldogs will lean heavily on him, and while Sony Michel and Keith Marshall will rotate in if healthy this season, Chubb will be the foundation of everything Georgia does. Georgia has the ability to be a top-10 team, and with plenty of high-profile games -- see: Alabama, Oct. 3 -- Chubb will get a lot of time in the national spotlight.
2. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State. Elliott didn't become a star until Cardale Jones took over as quarterback and the Buckeyes raced to the national title. He had plenty of strong performances over the course of the regular season, but he jumped to 2015 Heisman contender status late, rushing for 220 yards in the Big Ten title game, 230 in the Sugar Bowl and 246 in the national title game. With Ohio State's quarterback situation still unresolved, Elliott, running behind a talented line, is the Buckeyes' best Heisman candidate right now. And with Ohio State opening the season as an overwhelming No. 1, he's a safe bet to hang around the race.
3. Cody Kessler, QB, USC. At this point, it's hard to say Kessler is underrated anymore. He's a senior returning starter for a top-10 team, and he put up big numbers last year, completing 69.7 percent for 3,826 yards, 39 touchdowns and five picks, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt. With a better offensive line, plus the loss of tailback Javorius Allen, Kessler has a good chance to push for 4,000 yards.
4. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. Fournette didn't quite live up to his Week 1 Heisman pose, and he was overshadowed by some other star running backs, but he had a stellar freshman season with a lot to build on. As the former No. 1 overall recruit, he's had name recognition since before he committed to LSU. He got better over the course of 2014, finishing with his Herschel Walker-like run over a Texas A&M defender and a standout performance in the Music City Bowl vs. Notre Dame. He's LSU's centerpiece, although an improved passing game would help his cause.
5. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU. Boykin checks a lot of boxes. He's a returning senior starter coming off a breakout season for a breakout team in which he finished fourth in the Heisman voting. He threw for 3,901 yards and 33 touchdowns, and ran for 707 yards and eight touchdowns. He's the centerpiece of an experienced offense for a team that is widely considered a playoff frontrunner and is ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP poll. It's not hard to see why Boykin is considered a top choice. As a sidenote, it's worth noting that only four of the last 20 Heisman winners finished in the top 10 of the voting the previous season, so while national awareness plays a role, previous Heisman consideration isn't much of a factor anymore.
6. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. I believe Watson is the most talented quarterback in college football, and given that I also like Clemson to win the ACC, Watson has a good chance to be in the mix come December. The Tigers have issues, particularly with turnover on both lines, but if Watson stays healthy -- no guarantee, given what we saw last year -- he has a lot of weapons to work with, along with seemingly unlimited upside. Remember, he averaged more yards per attempt and had a higher passer rating than Marcus Mariota (albeit in a much more limited role). The 2015 season could set the stage for Watson to vault to the top of the race in 2016.
7. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. With only 207 carries in two years -- most of which came last year -- Henry has never been a full-time back, but he's been recognized as a force ever since his breakout performance vs. Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl two years ago. While the versatile Kenyan Drake will get a lot of work, with T.J. Yeldon gone there's no question that Henry will be the centerpiece of the Alabama backfield, more than just a running back used to wear down defenses. He ran 172 times for 990 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, and now he's clearly the top returning skill player on an offense that loses a lot of talent, including a Heisman finalist in Amari Cooper.
8. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor. TCU has the more proven quarterback in Trevone Boykin, but it's hard to imagine Russell not succeeding in a big way. Baylor hasn't ranked outside the top five nationally in passing yards per game since 2010, whether it's been Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence or Bryce Petty at quarterback. Russell has looked good in limited action, and as a redshirt junior he has three years in the Baylor system. With his athleticism, five starters back on the offensive line and the nation's best receiving corps, it's reasonable to assume that Russell will have a huge season. If he pushes Baylor to the playoff, expect him to be in the mix to at least get to New York.
9. Malik Zaire, QB, Notre Dame. If Notre Dame truly does become a playoff contender, then Zaire is likely going to play a big role in that, as a runner and thrower. I projected the Fighting Irish to finish 10-2, and while a lot of that will also be dependent on massive improvement defensively, it also means having confidence in how Notre Dame's offense transforms with the mobile Zaire pushing the tempo in an offense that has a good offensive line and will spread the field with a deep receiving corps.
10. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh. The Panthers won't win the ACC, nor will they be national contenders. But despite sharing an offense with a potential All-American receiver in Tyler Boyd, Conner is poised for a hefty workload, and he's poised to succeed with those opportunities.. Last year, he ran 298 times for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. While he trailed off late and received no Heisman attention, he's the type of guy who could push for 2,000 yards for an above-average team, garnering a few votes to slip into the tail end of the top-10, which is hardly unprecedented.
In The Conversation
Listed in alphabetical order.
J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, QB Ohio State. If one of these two is the clear starting quarterback, then that player will absolutely be in the conversation. There are two problems, though: There's a good chance we see some of both, and even if somebody is the clear starter all season, there's Heisman competition in the same backfield from Ezekiel Elliott. Barrett finished fifth in the vote last year as a redshirt freshman, ranking second nationally in passer rating and coming up just short of 1,000 rushing yards. Jones built up a lot of credibility quickly through the playoff run last year and would also have a chance, although he won't rack up the rushing yards that Barrett did. They're both worthy candidates, but it's still hard to figure out which one.
Devontae Booker, RB, Utah. Without much of a passing game, Utah will again lean heavily on Booker, who also has the versatility to contribute to the passing game. He ran 292 times for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 42 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns, and there's little reason to believe the Utes won't continue to feed him as much as possible.
Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin. If Melvin Gordon didn't win it with a 2,500-yard season, then Clement isn't going to win it this year -- especially with Wisconsin facing its biggest offensive line questions in a while. Still, despite Gordon's huge season last year, Clement managed to run 147 times for 949 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He's poised to become the Badgers' star.
Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State. It is assumed that senior quarterbacks for contenders are easy bets as Heisman candidates, but they're not necessarily Heisman winners. The last seven quarterbacks to win the Heisman either threw for over 4,000 yards or brought significant rushing totals to the table. Before that, Troy Smith and Matt Leinart didn't run the ball much when they won the Heisman, but they also spent the entire regular season ranked No. 1 in the polls. Behind a strong offensive line, Cook will put up decent numbers -- he had 3,214 yards last year -- and he can be on the radar if the Spartans make a third straight major bowl, but he's unlikely to post gaudy enough numbers and will probably spend the season looking up at Ohio State, meaning he's on the periphery of this conversation.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State. Easily the best returning player on the Florida State offense, Cook spent the summer suspended because of a misdemeanor assault charge. He was quickly found not guilty of the charge at Monday's trial, and thus his suspension has been lifted. As a true freshman, Cook often bailed the offense out, rushing 170 times for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns and catching 22 passes for 203 yards. He's Florida State's best candidate, although Everett Golson is a wild card if he wins the starting quarterback job and fixes his turnover problem.
Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon. Freeman complemented Mariota perfectly as a freshman, emerging as the Ducks' top tailback, allowing 1,000-yard rusher Byron Marshall to shift to slot receiver. Freeman wasn't a big factor in the playoff, but overall he ran 252 times for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns. With Oregon replacing Mariota and also losing No. 2 tailback Thomas Tyner for the season, Freeman could be the foundation of a prolific offense.
Taysom Hill, QB, BYU. Hill got some Heisman love early last season before his season came to an early end thanks to a broken leg. He's been a nationally known player ever since he trampled over Texas in 2013, and in that season he threw for 2,938 yards and ran for 1,344. He's a long shot to get into the race, but we know he can rack up big numbers. If the Cougars can somehow survive their brutal September (at Nebraska, Boise State, at UCLA, at Michigan), Hill can quickly grab a lot of attention. But the best BYU can hope for in that stretch is probably 2-2.
Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn. Gus Malzahn has engineered highly productive pass-first offenses in the past, despite what recent history says, and Johnson has enormous expectations as he steps into the starting job. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior brings a different skill set to the table than Nick Marshall, and if Auburn does in fact live up to its preseason hype -- No. 6 in the AP poll -- then Johnson is sure to be at the forefront.
Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma. Perine is an interesting case this season. He has drawn plenty of attention after he ran for 427 yards vs. Kansas, breaking Melvin Gordon's week-old FBS single-game rushing record. Despite not opening the season as starter, he ran 263 times for 1,713 yards (6.5 per carry) and 21 touchdowns. He wasn't as consistent as Chubb, but the overall numbers ended up pretty similar. Oklahoma will surely feed the ball to Perine offense, but this offense will look different, with a better receiving corps, running back depth competing with Perine for touches and a new Air Raid-inspired system under offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley that could produce big numbers for new quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA. He wasn't named to an All-Pac-12 team, but Perkins led the Pac-12 in rushing, carrying 251 times for 1,575 yards and nine touchdowns, with an average of 6.3 yards per carry. He's one of the nation's most underrated players, and depending on how the Bruins' quarterback race shakes out, he could be leaned on heavily for an experienced team with an improved offensive line.
Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State. Prescott was a candidate for much of last year, ultimately finishing eighth in the voting, and he's universally regarded as the best returning quarterback in the SEC. So, in theory, he sounds like a great candidate, after throwing for 3,449 yards and 27 touchdowns and rushing for 986 yards and 14 touchdowns. Last year was likely a better chance for Prescott, though. The Bulldogs are likely to fall in the SEC West standings this season, and while he was great throughout last season, his stock fell off toward the end. If the Bulldogs pull off a few impressive wins, he can get some momentum behind his candidacy, but it's probably unlikely.
Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech. Thomas' status as the point guard in a triple-option offense will make it difficult for him to get into the race, unless Georgia Tech pulls a 1995 or 2001 Nebraska and makes the national title game. But the Yellow Jackets offense was phenomenal in the second of last season, and Thomas is the biggest reason why, as he is a perfect fit for Paul Johnson's system. As a sophomore, Thomas led Georgia Tech to an Orange Bowl win, rushing 190 times for 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns and passing for 1,719 yards and eight touchdowns.
Proven Defensive Players
Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. Bosa hasn't gotten off to a good start, as he'll be held back by a one-game suspension that will see him sidelined for the Virginia Tech game on Labor Day. Beyond that, everyone is familiar with Bosa can do, which is why he's regarded by many as the top prospect for the 2015 draft. A defensive player isn't going to win the Heisman, especially on a national title contender with so much offensive talent ready to compete for votes, but Bosa has a significant impact on the game and could get a few votes thrown his way with another huge season.
Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona. It seems impossible that the biggest star on a Rich Rodriguez team is a defensive player, but Wright's numbers as a sophomore for the Pac-12 South champions were phenomenal: 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles and 14 sacks, leading the nation in the first three of those four categories. Repeating that production might be impossible, but he already tied Dak Prescott for eighth in the Heisman vote last year, so he's on voters' radar.
Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon. After an offseason of close scrutiny of whether or not Adams would graduate on time from Eastern Washington -- where he was twice the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, which is the FCS version of the Heisman -- Adams finally arrived at Oregon in mid-August to try to win the job over last year's backup, Jeff Lockie. Lockie has experience with the system and his teammates, but Adams has experience on the field and is likely to quickly prove to be too talented to keep off the field.
Adoree Jackson, ATH, USC. It's going to be difficult for anyone to duplicate what Charles Woodson did in 1997, winning the Heisman by standing out as a cornerback, catching 11 passes for 231 yards and returning punts -- all for a national champion. Jackson, a sophomore, is going to attempt to duplicate Woodson's feats. A phenomenal all-around athlete, Jackson starred as a cornerback and kick returner last year, and he's expected to see his role on offense and punt returns increase as well. In 2002, for national champion Ohio State, Chris Gamble returned punts and some kicks, caught 31 passes and had four interceptions, but he was not in the Heisman conversation.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss. Amari Cooper finished third last year, so it's not like a receiver can't get into the race. But it's also really hard for one to put up the necessary numbers without also making a few big plays in the return game. Treadwell is a tremendous player, but with an uncertain quarterback situation and his own return from a brutal leg injury, he's a long shot, at best. Still, he's the most talented receiver in the country.
Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M. If Allen falters, he'll be looking over his shoulder at true freshman Kyler Murray, a storyline that won't go away. But he is in position to succeed. After all, he was the No. 1 ranked quarterback in the recruiting class of 2014, he mostly looked solid late last season and he has a loaded receiving corps to work with, on a team that may be underrated right now.
Jacoby Brissett, QB, N.C. State. For about an hour and a half last year, Brissett did look like a Heisman candidate, when he morphed into Johnny Manziel/Cam Newton in the first half against Florida State. He threw for 2,606 yards, 23 touchdowns and five picks and ran for 529 yards and three touchdowns last year, and with a beatable schedule, he could make a leap forward. He'll get noticed if the Wolfpack can spring an upset of Florida State or Clemson.
Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas. Collins has shared the backfield in each of his first two years, rushing for 1,026 yards as a freshman and 1,100 yards last year. However, with a season-ending injury to Jonathan Williams (who ran for 1,190 in 2014), Collins is currently the clear lead runner in Bret Bielema's power offense. The Razorbacks are sure to rotate running backs, but Collins is their best weapon behind an enormous, experienced offensive line.
Jared Goff, QB, California. Goff is certainly generating hype, although it might be more from NFL circles. Goff threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns last year as a sophomore, and with most of Sonny Dykes' offense back, Goff is sure to build on those numbers this year. Beat Texas on the road early, and he'll grab some attention. But he's still a long shot because of Cal's likely status as a middle-of-the-pack team.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State. Hackenberg's numbers last year looked nothing like a potential Heisman candidate, and he's unlikely to engineer a drastic enough turnaround to actually get in the mix, especially with few marquee games on the schedule. Hackenberg does, however, have the attention of the NFL, an underrated cast of skill players on the rise and, hopefully, a more stable offensive line. Against a beatable schedule, his numbers could turn around in a hurry.
Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee. This could be either Hurd or quarterback Joshua Dobbs, and maybe it should be Dobbs, given that Hurd may have to split carries with juco transfer Alvin Kamara. Hurd didn't get enough of a chance to shine as a freshman, though, behind a rebuilding offensive line. He has Derrick Henry-like size, and last season he caught 35 passes in addition to running for 899 yards and five touchdowns. He got lost in the shuffle among freshman running backs last year, but he still has a ton of upside and could emerge as the biggest offensive star for a team on the rise.
Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami. I'm not optimistic about Miami's chances this year, but Kaaya showed flashes of stardom as a true freshman. If Al Golden does manage to turn things around for the Hurricanes, that'll mean a big season from Kaaya, who threw for 3,196 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2014.
Gunner Kiel, QB, Cincinnati. A Group of Five player isn't going to win it, but Jordan Lynch did finish third in 2013, so it's not like it's impossible to be on the radar. Kiel has the highest profile of the Group of Five players, as a former five-star recruit who threw for 3,254 yards and 31 touchdowns for the Bearcats in his first season as starter. Cincinnati might be the best non-Boise State contender for the New Year's bowl bid, and Kiel will put up huge numbers in an experienced offense. In the Group of Five sleeper category, also keep an eye on Toledo running back Kareem Hunt, who ran for 1,631 yards and 16 touchdowns in only 10 games as a sophomore, for a team that could win the MAC in 2015.
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA. Coach Jim Mora is doing his best to keep the freshman's ego in check, but it seems inevitable that Rosen will win the starting job. Becoming a Heisman contender is another story. While Jameis Winston won the Heisman as a redshirt freshman, Rosen has been on campus for less than a year as a true freshman. Rosen does step into a good situation filled with experienced starters returning, and he participated in spring practice. He's probably the only true freshman quarterback who could get onto the radar.
Anu Solomon, QB, and Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona. Again, somehow a defensive player overshadows the two key pieces of a successful Rich Rodriguez offense. Both of these guys were freshman starters last year: Solomon threw for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns, and Wilson ran for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. This offense is going to continue to produce in a big way if they stay healthy.
Marquise Williams, QB, North Carolina. It's been hard to get excited about North Carolina, who never seems to meet expectations. But amid UNC's disappointing 2014 season, Williams performed well: 3,073 yards and 21 touchdowns passing and 783 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing. With a revamped defense and nearly everyone returning to the offense, it's feasible for the Tar Heels to compete for the ACC title.