Predicting the Heisman Trophy race in the middle of a season, let alone in January, can sometimes feel futile. Just when we think we know everything, there's typically a new candidate who comes along and disrupts the race.
But the offseason is long, and it's time to start thinking about the big stories ahead in the 2017 college football season. Last week, we put together early projections for every team, ranking all 130 FBS squads. On Tuesday, we evaluated the teams impacted the most by NFL Draft early entry decisions. Now, it's time to take a very early look, subject to change, at the top contenders for the Heisman.
As always, this isn't a ranking of the best players in college football. It's a look at which players -- mostly quarterbacks and running backs for national contenders -- have the best chance of actually winning the award as the most outstanding player. Lamar Jackson is back after taking home the Heisman in December, but history says he'll have stiff competition in trying to win it again.
25. Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson. Is a defensive tackle going to win the Heisman? If Ndamukong Suh didn't get the votes, nobody probably will. With that said, it's not out of the realm of possibility for one to get into the conversation, especially someone as talented as Lawrence. A five-star recruit, he finished fourth on the Tigers in tackles as a 340-piund true freshman. If Clemson gets back into the playoff mix, the defensive line -- featuring Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell -- will be the strength of the team.
24. Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State. Urban Meyer's teams have produced plenty of prolific offenses, and new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has coached plenty of prolific runners, including Tevin Coleman and DeMarco Murray. With Curtis Samuel gone, Weber is the most proven skill position player back, after he rushed for 1,096 yards and nine TDs as a redshirt freshman. He may take on a heavier volume of carries in 2017, for a possible national title contender.
23. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon. The Ducks fell to a horrifying 4-8 season before Mark Helfrich was fired. Willie Taggart's debut season got a boost when Freeman decided to return after an injury-plagued junior year in which he was held to 945 yards. Remember, he rushed for 1,836 yards and 17 TDs with an average of 6.5 yards per carry as a sophomore in 2015, numbers typically worthy of Heisman consideration.
22. Shane Buechele, QB, Texas. The Longhorns' roster is hardly lacking talent, and there's a chance that Tom Herman could mold this into a breakthrough team. He has an excellent track record with quarterbacks, and thus expectations will be high for Buechele's sophomore season. As a true freshman, he completed 60.4 percent for 2,958 yards with 21 TDs and 11 INTs, showing promise but ultimately spending a lot of his time handing off to 2,000-yard rusher D'Onta Foreman, who left for the NFL.
21. Derwin James, S, Florida State. James missed all but two games of his sophomore season with a torn meniscus. If he's back at full speed, however, he may be the most talented defender in all of college football: a versatile 6-foot-3 safety who can line up in a variety of positions and rack up stats. As a freshman, he had 91 tackles and 9 ½ tackles for loss.
20. Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia and Shea Patterson, QB, Ole Miss. They were the top two quarterbacks in the class of 2016. Eason started all year for Georgia and averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt. Patterson burned his redshirt to replace the injured Chad Kelly in Ole Miss' final three games and averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt. There's a long way to go for both, but at least one of them is bound to start living up to the recruiting hype sooner rather than later.
19. Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn. A blue-chip recruit who briefly started at Baylor before getting hurt in 2015, Stidham sat out the 2016 season after Art Briles was fired and now will transfer to Auburn, where he has a good chance of beating Sean White for the starting quarterback job. Stidham is immensely talented and could be in line for a breakout season with the Tigers, who have a chance to be the best threat to Alabama in the SEC if he develops as hoped.
18. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA. Remember him? The next big thing at quarterback, assumed to be a top quarterback prospect in the 2018 draft, Rosen was forgotten over the course of the 2016 season. The Bruins turned into a big disappointment, due in large part to offensive line problems and the total lack of a running game. Rosen took a beating and ultimately missed the final six games with a shoulder injury as the Bruins stumbled to a 4-8 finish. Rosen has a ton of talent, though, and now it will be up to new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, brought in from Michigan, to unlock Rosen's potential if he can get back to 100 percent and get some semblance of help from his supporting cast.
17. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia. Chubb's career got off to a remarkable start, first as a replacement for Todd Gurley (seven yards per carry) as a freshman, then as the lead runner to start the 2015 season (8.1 yards per carry). But his sophomore season was cut short by a serious knee injury, and it wasn't clear if he'd be able to return for the start of 2016. He did, rushing for 222 yards against North Carolina in the opener. However, in an offense that had significant growing pains, Chubb ended up with 224 carries for 1,130 yards and eight TDs -- a good season but not his pre-injury level of production. Chubb is still sharing carries with Sony Michel, but he'll return for his senior season to try to regain his old form. When 100 percent, he's as talented as any running back in the country.
16. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State. A wide receiver has been a Heisman finalist in two of the past three seasons, thanks to Amari Cooper and Dede Westbrook. It will be difficult for Washington to leap over his quarterback, Mason Rudolph, but he's primed for a huge senior season after catching 71 passes for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns, with an average of 19.4 yards per catch.
15. Kamryn Pettway, RB, Auburn. Pettway missed Auburn's Oct. 1 game against UL Monroe, and he missed two mid-November games against Georgia and Alabama A&M. In between, he rushed for 770 yards in four games vs. Mississippi State, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. After Auburn lost its top three rushers, Pettway emerged as the top threat in the backfield despite splitting carries with Kerryon Johnson, finishing with 1,224 yards. He'll be the Tigers' workhorse runner.
14. Quinton Flowers, QB, South Florida. Willie Taggart left for Oregon after building one of college football's most exciting offenses, centered around the multi-dimensional ability of Flowers. The Bulls scored 43.8 points per game as Flowers passed for 2,812 yards, rushed for 1,530 yards and accounted for 42 total TDs in 13 games. Under new coach Charlie Strong, USF is the likely favorite for the Group of Five's major bowl bid, and Flowers could find himself at least on the fringe of the Heisman conversation.
13. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State. If Penn State's offensive line gets healthier and improves as expected, McSorley will probably get overshadowed by RB Saquon Barkley. Still, he had a breakout season in new coordinator Joe Moorhead's offense, developing a reputation as a big-play machine. McSorley completed 23 passes of 40-plus yards and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt, and yet he threw just eight interceptions in 14 games. He also rushed for 365 yards and had 36 total touchdowns, propelling Penn State to the Big Ten title. Even with WR Chris Godwin leaving early for the draft, the Nittany Lions offense is poised for big things and its highest expectations in years with McSorley at quarterback.
12. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State. Falk has thrown for over 10,000 yards in his career, with 38 touchdowns in each of the past two years as the team's starter. He's an accurate, smart fit in Mike Leach's offense, helped lead a turnaround for a program that struggled for over a decade. While he loses key targets Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, he's going to keep throwing a ton, potentially making a run at 5,000 yards as a senior.
11. Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama. What kind of growth can we expect from Hurts as a passer in his sophomore season under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian? As a true freshman, Hurts won the starting job and helped lead the Crimson Tide to an undefeated regular season, earning SEC offensive player of the year honors. He's a dynamic runner, putting up 954 yards and 13 TDs on the ground, and he passed for 2,780 yards, 23 TDs and nine INTs. However, the playoff showed he still has a lot of room for growth as a passer, as he averaged barely over four yards per attempt in each game.
10. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State. Barrett's long, eventful Ohio State career will continue for one more season. He was at his best as a redshirt freshman, when he was forced into the starting lineup and finished fifth in the Heisman race, with 2,834 passing yards, 938 rushing yards and 45 TDs in 12 games before an injury. The next year, he didn't win back the starting job from Cardale Jones until late in the season. This year, with Jones gone, Barrett was underwhelming as a passer, although he didn't get much help from his receivers or pass protection. He averaged just 6.7 yards per pass attempt but did rush for 845 yards. As a senior, Barrett will get help from new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, while also needing more help from his receivers and offensive tackles to get back into the Heisman conversation.
9. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State. Rudolph was overshadowed in the state of Oklahoma by Baker Mayfield's absurd passer rating and yards per attempt numbers, but he has continued to develop into one of the nation's best quarterbacks. With the help of WRs James Washington -- who is also returning for his senior year -- and Jalen McCleskey, Rudolph completed 63.4 percent for 4,091 yards, 28 TDs and four INTs, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt. The return of Washington puts Rudolph in position to put up huge numbers for another possible top-15 team as a senior.
8. Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State. Francois' redshirt freshman performances were all over the map, sometimes in the same game. With Dalvin Cook gone, though, there will be more responsibility on the shoulders of Francois after he stepped into the starting role and threw for 3,350 yards and 20 TDs with seven picks in a promising debut season. He went only 9 of 22 in the Orange Bowl win over Michigan and is also losing top receiver Travis Rudolph, but there is rising talent on this offense. If FSU becomes a national title contender again, Francois' growth will play a big role.
7. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU. We don't want to understate how great Leonard Fournette was, but even without Fournette playing in seven games, Guice led the SEC in rushing as a sophomore. He had over 250 yards twice, against Texas A&M and Arkansas, finishing the season with 1,387 yards, 15 TDs and an average of 7.6 yards per carry despite getting five or fewer carries in four of 12 games. With Fournette out of the picture, Guice should be the foundation of new coordinator Matt Canada's offense.
6. Jake Browning, QB, Washington. Browning's production fell off late in the season, in the losses to USC and Alabama and even the blowout win over Colorado, but according to The Seattle Times, Browning actually played hurt down the stretch. The week after the USC loss, Browning injured his shoulder against Arizona State, and injury he played through the rest of the way. Despite the late downturn, Browning still took a big leap forward as a sophomore, completing 62.1 percent for 3,430 yards, 43 TDs and nine INTs. While he loses star WR John Ross, he'll still have a solid supporting cast led by RB Myles Gaskin and WR Austin Pettis, with what will hopefully be an improved line in pass protection. If Washington is a top-10 team again, Browning will be in the Heisman conversation again after a sixth-place finish in 2016, especially if he's back to 100 percent.
5. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State. Barkley had a few down games as a sophomore, partly because of issues on the offensive line, but he earned Big Ten offensive player of the year honors and proved to be a dynamic big-play threat with power and exceptional agility and burst. He had 249 yards from scrimmage in the Rose Bowl, including an absurd 79-yard TD, allowing him to finish the season with 1,496 rushing yards, 402 receiving yards and 22 total TDs. The Nittany Lions will have a veteran offense on the rise in 2017, with what should be a sturdier line, giving Barkley a chance to be Penn State's best Heisman candidate since Larry Johnson rushed for 2,000 yards and finished third in 2002.
4. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama. Injuries have limited Scarbrough, and unfortunately he broke a bone in his leg in the national championship game. However, he was dominant in the first six quarters of his playoff experience, rushing for an Alabama-bowl record 180 yards and two TDs against Washington, then putting up 93 yards and two TDs against Clemson before exiting the game. Scarbrough is a nightmare to tackle, and if he's healthy, he'll be Alabama's best option in the backfield. His Heisman candidacy is limited by a few factors, however: Durability has been an issue, and even if he is 100 percent and getting the most carries, this is a crowded backfield that also features Damien Harris, B.J. Emmons, Joshua Jacobs and incoming five-star recruit Najee Harris, plus QB Jalen Hurts. Still, Scarbrough looks like the best returning playmaker on the presumed preseason No. 1 team.
3. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville. Archie Griffin remains the only player to repeat as winner of the Heisman, and that happened 42 years ago. The most recent repeat attempts came from Johnny Manziel, who finished sixth in 2013, and Jameis Winston, who finished sixth in 2014. It wouldn't be surprising to see Jackson finish in that territory, for a few reasons. It can be so difficult to match one's Heisman-winning numbers. Jackson passed for 3,543 yards and 30 TDs and rushed for 1,571 yards and 16 TDs, and now he'll enter 2017 with absurdly high expectations in a season in which his every move will be heavily scrutinized. There also could be inevitable backlash, especially after some voters may have felt buyer's remorse after the postseason performances of Jackson and Deshaun Watson, who finished second. Jackson peaked in the first half of the 2016 season, and nobody was able to catch him. However, Louisville ended the season with three straight losses, including horrendous offensive outings against Houston and LSU. Despite the lackluster ending, Jackson set a high bar to reach again, especially if the Cardinals' offensive line doesn't improve. Jackson should make more strides as a passer in his junior year, but it wouldn't be surprising to see his rushing production take a step back. He's a well-known star on what should be another good Louisville team, and he'll be in the conversation. It's just difficult to put together a fully satisfying follow-up to a Heisman season, which opens the door to somebody new.
2. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma. The Big 12 granted Mayfield an extra year of eligibility last summer, and he'll use it to try to lead Oklahoma to a third straight Big 12 championship. An ex-walk-on at Texas Tech, Mayfield finished fourth in the Heisman race in 2015, then was invited to the ceremony as a finalist in 2016, finishing third. He broke Russell Wilson's single-season FBS passer rating record, completing 70.9 percent for 3,965 yards (11.1 yards per attempt), 40 TDs and eight INTs. He loses RBs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine and Heisman finalist WR Dede Westbrook, but with offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley still calling the shots, Mayfield is positioned for another big year as a senior.
1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC. Seven USC players have won the Heisman Trophy, tied with Ohio State and Notre Dame for the most. (Although only six are officially counted, thanks to Reggie Bush.) Five of them have been running backs, but Darnold is positioning himself to try to join Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer on the list of quarterbacks. While he didn't open the 2016 season as starter, he replaced Max Browne by the end of September and proceeded to lead the Trojans to nine straight wins after a rough 1-3 start. Darnold was at his best in the Rose Bowl, leading a comeback win over Penn State in which he showcased his ability to make NFL-level throws in tight windows. He threw for 453 yards and five TDs in that game, allowing him to finish the season with a 67.2 percent completion rate for 3,086 yards, 31 TDs and nine INTs while also rushing for 250 yards. He is a highly skilled player whose growth as a redshirt freshman will allow USC to be viewed as a playoff frontrunner in 2017. If the Trojans meet high expectations, Darnold will be in the Heisman race.