2017 Preseason Award Projections: Heisman Trophy

By Charlie Campbell
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Heading into the 2017 college football season, WalterFootball.com has rolled out our projections for the nation’s leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises, and the next fall’s stars could be the headline players next April for the 2018 NFL Draft. We also have projected the winners of the postseason awards that are given out to the best of college football. We conclude the series with the perhaps most storied and overrated award in sports, the Heisman Trophy.

The Heisman Trophy is given to the best player in college football, even though it never goes to lineman and has hardly ever gone to a defensive player. Three years ago, we were correct when we predicted Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota would win the Heisman. Last year, we predicted Deshaun Watson to win, but the winner was Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Heisman Trophy Finalists:

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

I personally think the Heisman Trophy is a joke. The fact that it has hardly ever gone to a defensive player and never goes to an offensive or defensive lineman is absurd. The hype around the Heisman Trophy is insane, but every year, readers ask me for a prediction, so here it is.

The Heisman has a tendency to favor running backs who carry their teams with a weak quarterback, and that could be the case this year with Guice at LSU. With Leonard Fournette in and out of the lineup with an ankle injury in 2016, Guice took advantage of a larger-than-expected workload to have a breakout sophomore season. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry for 1,387 yards with 15 touchdowns, plus took nine receptions for 106 yards. Guice had some massive games in 2016, rumbling for 252 yards versus Arkansas and 285 yards against Texas A&M. With Fournette now playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Guice is the undisputed feature back for the Tigers and looks poised for a huge 2017 season.

LSU has some good talent on its offensive line to go along with gifted wide receivers and skill position contributors. The biggest detriment to the Tigers over the past few seasons has been sub-par quarterback play, and that is the biggest question mark heading into the season. While the play of the signal-callers has held the program back from competing for SEC and National Championships, it hasn’t prevented the Tigers from having productive running backs as Fournette had a huge 2015 season prior to Guice’s breakout year last fall. With the blocking talent in front of him, Guice should have a massive 2017 season and could be a Heisman candidate.

Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Darnold was an extremely efficient passer last season, leading the Trojans to a 10-3 record. After a 1-2 start to the season for USC, the redshirt freshman was made the starting quarterback. He lost his first start against a good Utah team, but after that he led his team to ripping off a nine-game win streak to close out the year, including impressive wins over Colorado, Washington, and a comeback Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Darnold completed 67 percent of his passes in 2016 for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He should produce a big season and will have plenty of attention as perhaps the most high-profile player in college football. The Trojans have good receiving talent for Darnold to work with, and he has played at another level compared to the competition. There is no reason to think that Darnold won’t have a good season for USC and earn plenty of postseason honors. He easily could end up being a Heisman Trophy finalist, but I think USC’s balanced offense could keep Darnold’s production less than quarterbacks at other schools who run for a lot of touchdowns. Thus, I see him as more of a Heisman finalist rather than the winner.

Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Entering the season, Barkley looks like the most physically talented running back in college football and in possession of the the potential be a high pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The 5-foot-11, 223-pounder has good speed to go along with size, quick feet, vision, natural pad level, and elusiveness. He is a well-balanced back who is a threat to rip off runs in chunks and dominate any defense.

Barkley was superb in 2016, averaging 5.5 yards per carry on the year for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. The sophomore also made 28 catches for 402 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver. Barkley, quarterback Trace McSorley, and wide receiver Chris Godwin led an effective offense that took Penn State to the Rose Bowl in a breakout year for James Franklin’s tenure at Penn State. Barkley was also impressive as a freshman in 2015 when he averaged 5.9 yards per carry for 1,076 yards with seven touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes for 161 yards and a score.

Barkley will see a quality schedule with tough defenses during his 2017 slate. However, Barkley is so physically talented he should still be productive even with defenses selling out to stop him. He is a safe bet to be one of the best offensive players in college football this coming season and is a definite Heisman contender.

Heisman Trophy Runner-Up:

Lamar Jackson, Louisville

I personally think Tim Tebow should have won the Heisman twice, but the trophy voters seem to seriously avoid awarding the same player a second time. Archie Griffin (1974 and 1975) is the only player to have won the award twice. Thus, I think Jackson will be a finalist but won’t win the Heisman this year, even if he deserves it like Tebow did.

Jackson dominated college defenses last season. The sophomore was a massive point-producer for the Cardinals. Jackson completed 56 percent of his passes for 3,543 yards with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions on the year. He also ran for 21 touchdowns and 1,571 yards while averaging six yards per carry.

There is no reason to think that Jackson won’t put up massive numbers in 2017. Playing in the ACC, the junior will have plenty of easy opponents to cruise over. However, there are a few good teams that will test Jackson with a lot of NFL talent. Still, he has one of the most brilliant football minds in head coach Bobby Petrino, who is superb at identifying and manipulating mismatches. Jackson should produce a huge junior year and could easily be the most productive of the star quarterbacks in college football. That should result in him receiving a lot more postseason honors, and he easily could be a Heisman finalist.

Heisman Trophy Winner:

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Mayfield went on a tear late in the 2015 season, turning the Sooners’ offense into a point machine. He was a Heisman finalist as he completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,700 yards with 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also ran for 405 yards with seven scores. The effectiveness of Mayfield carried Oklahoma into that season’s college playoff. In 2016, Mayfield completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,965 yards with 40 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He picked up six rushing touchdowns as well.

Mayfield needs to continue to develop his pocket passing for the NFL, but the 6-foot-2, 214-pounder should produce a massive 2017 season. The Sooners figure to rely on his passing and rushing ability in 2017 after losing both of their top running backs, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, to the NFL. Mayfield has a quality supporting cast and plays in college football’s Arena League, the Big 12, which lacks quality defenses, and Mayfield should dominate his conference slate again. It would not be surprising if he has another big season and ends up winning the Heisman.

Honorable Mentions:

Offense: UCLA QB Josh Rosen, Georgia RB Nick Chubb, Iowa RB Akrum Wadley, Ohio State RB Mike Weber, Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough, Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk and Alabama WR Calvin Ridley.

Defense: Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence, Houston DT Ed Oliver, Alabama DT Da’Ron Payne, Georgia DT Trenton Thompson, Florida State S Derwin James and Alabama S Minkah Fitzpatrick.

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