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A way-too-early look at the 2017 Heisman Trophy favorites

The college football season is just a few weeks from kicking off, and if there’s one thing certain entering 2017, it’s that as much as we think we know about the sport’s best players, we often know nothing at all. We’re of course talking about the Heisman Trophy. While the big, obvious name occasionally wins college football’s most prestigious award (think Marcus Mariota or Tim Tebow), a guy like Johnny Manziel or (in the case of last year) Lamar Jackson often comes out of nowhere to take home the trophy.

With another season upon us, who are some names to keep an eye on in the Heisman race? Below are a handful, ranging from the biggest favorites in Las Vegas all the way down to some big long shots (note: all odds come courtesy of the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas).

Sam Darnold, QB, USC (5-1)

While Jackson is the reigning Heisman winner, Darnold enters the season as the odds-on favorite in Vegas… and with good reason: While most of the college football world didn’t catch on to Darnold’s brilliance until late last season, he was one of the most consistently excellent quarterbacks in the sport.

On the season Darnold tossed for just under 3,100 yards and 31 touchdowns, an incredible feat when you remember that he did it in just 10 starts. The now-redshirt sophomore opened the season as a backup to Max Browne, before taking over and going 9-1, with his only loss coming in a last-second defeat to Utah in his first game as a starter. After that, he went 9-0, highlighted by a wild, record-setting five-touchdown, 453-yard performance against Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

That Rose Bowl showed the nation just how good Darnold truly is – something that should continue into the 2017 season.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma (10-1)

While other quarterbacks (Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Darnold) were bigger “stars” last year, few were as productive as Mayfield. After leading Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff in 2015, Mayfield was even better statistically in 2016, finishing with 40 touchdowns and over 3,900 yards passing.

However, while Mayfield is good, there are questions to keep in mind when it comes to his Heisman candidacy, specifically the talent around him. Remember, Oklahoma lost the nation’s best wide receiver, Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook, as well as a pair of 1,000-yard rushers – Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.

Plus, remember that the maestro of Oklahoma’s offense – Lincoln Riley – is moving from coordinator to the head coaching chair. You have to think that will affect Mayfield and the Sooners’ offense, right?

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (10-1)

Although Jackson’s season didn’t end well (Louisville lost its final three games last year), it is easy to forget how mesmerizing he was throughout the entirety of the 2016 campaign. Jackson was nothing short of spectacular, tossing for over 3,500 yards and rushing for another 1,500 while tallying a staggering 51 total touchdowns.

Yet despite those gaudy numbers, it still won’t be easy for Jackson to win a second Heisman Trophy. For one thing, there are plenty of worthy candidates to topple him. Second, there are major questions to be answered on the Louisville offense. In addition to the need for improved line play as Jackson was sacked eight times in a bowl game loss to LSU and the Cardinals also lost top running back Brandon Radcliffe to the NFL, as well as the team’s two leading receivers, James Quick and tight end Cole Hikutini.

Lamar jackson

NEW YORK CITY, NY – DECEMBER 10: 2016 Heisman Trophy finalist University of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (4) gives the thumbs up as he answers questions during the 81st Annual Heisman Trophy press conference on December 10, 2016, at the Marriott Marquis in New York City. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State (12-1)

Just for fun, let’s play a game: Can you name the only three players currently in college football who have finished in the top five in Heisman voting? The first two (Jackson and Mayfield) are obvious, but the third, not so much. It was Barrett who finished fifth in 2014. That of course was a long time ago, but entering 2017 there are reasons to really like and really not like Barrett as a Heisman contender.

On the “not like” side are the stats; his numbers (specifically completion percentage) have essentially gone down every year since that impressive redshirt freshman campaign in 2014. Plus, the Buckeyes lost by far their best playmaker off last year’s team, Curtis Samuel, who had 74 catches in 2016.

On the plus side, Barrett will be one of the most recognizable players on one of the most recognizable teams in college football this year. He seems to have really taken to new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s playbook. The question now: Will it be enough to allow Barrett to return to his 2014 form?

Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State (12-1)

Admittedly, the odds feel a little high here. Francois was good – but certainly not great – in his first go-around as Florida State’s starter, completing just 58.8 percent of his passes. Things won’t get any easier this year: Florida State lost its top four receivers from a year ago. One guy who was expected to help fill the void (Da’Vante Phillips) was suspended indefinitely last week.

In defense of Francois, he did play his best football late in the 2016 season, leading Florida State to five straight wins to end the year, but can Francois keep it up? He’ll need to – the Seminoles open with Alabama in Week 1.

Jake Browning, QB, Washington (15-1)

While Washington was – as a team – a major story in college football last year, Browning’s brilliant play seemed to get lost in the shuffle. The sophomore from California nearly broke a Pac-12 record with 43 touchdown passes, leading the Huskies to their first ever College Football Playoff appearance.

Like everyone else on this list however, there are concerns with Browning entering 2017. For starters, of those 43 touchdown passes, nearly half (17) went to speedster John Ross, who is now in the NFL. Also, if Browning flew under the radar with Washington in the College Football Playoff chase last year, what might happen if the Huskies – as a team – fall off a bit in 2017?

Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn (15-1)

Although Stidham hasn’t even officially been named the starter at Auburn, he is already gaining buzz as the player who could potentially lead Auburn back into SEC title contention for the first time since 2013. Could he also follow in the footsteps of another junior college transfer named Cam Newton, who took home a Heisman Trophy as well?

It’s unlikely, but Stidham certainly has the pedigree to earn a trip to New York in December. The redshirt sophomore is a Texas high school football legend, and during a brief stop at Baylor, his freshman year showed flashes of greatness – he tossed 12 touchdown passes as a backup to Seth Russell before an ankle injury prematurely ended his season. Then, after Art Briles was fired, Stidham left Waco altogether and sat out of football last year.

Now Stidham is at Auburn, and so far the early returns are good. He completed 16 of 20 passes for 267 yards in the Tigers’ spring game and should “officially” be the team’s starter by Week 1.

Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State (20-1)

It’s about darn time we wrote about a non-quarterback, and there isn’t one with a better chance of taking home the Heisman than the Penn State junior. Barkley has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons in Happy Valley, and broke out a season ago with 1,496 yards on the ground, while adding over 400 yards (and four touchdowns) receiving as well.

Barkley’s best attribute is that he played his best in Penn State’s biggest games. He tallied 99 yards against Ohio State’s top 10-ranked defense in an upset win, before an incredible 194-yard, two-touchdown performance in a narrow Rose Bowl loss to USC.

Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA (20-1)

While Darnold is the quarterback everyone can’t stop gushing about in L.A. right now, it wasn’t long ago that Rosen held that same title. Then, UCLA’s O-line broke down in front of him last season, and Rosen broke down, too. He was limited to just 10 touchdown passes in six games played.

You can understand why Rosen is being overlooked heading into the season (or he was being overlooked, until a controversial interview he conducted earlier in the week), but make no mistake: This guy is absolutely good enough to win the Heisman. He’s the same kid who tossed 23 touchdowns as a freshman and the same one many are projecting as the No. 1 pick in the next NFL Draft.

If Rosen can put the pieces together, there’s no reason he can’t get to New York as a Heisman finalist – and potentially win the award.

Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama (20-1)

Hurts was one of college football’s breakout stars in 2016, going from backup in Week 1, to eventual starter, to SEC Offensive Player of the Year by the end of his freshman campaign. After his first full offseason in Tuscaloosa, there’s no reason to think he won’t be even better in 2017.

Hurts proved to be one of the most deadly dual-threat quarterbacks in college football a season ago, tossing for 23 touchdowns, while also scampering for 954 yards on the ground. With most of his receiver corps back (led by Calvin Ridley), his passing numbers should go up, and with a deep running back group keeping defenses honest, he should continue to pick up big chunks of yards on the ground as well.

As scary as it is to think, the best is still yet to come for Hurts, who just turned 19 years old earlier this week.

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU (25-1)

Had you told the average LSU fan that Leonard Fournette would be limited to six games in 2016, they would have told you the season would be a disaster – honestly, it kind of was. But if there was one silver lining in a season that led to Les Miles’ firing, it was the emergence of Guice in Fournette’s place.

The junior-to-be stepped up in a big way for Fournette, rushing for over 1,300 yards – as a backup in a couple games while barely playing at all in a few more. However, when he was in the feature back role he shined, most notably when he broke Fournette’s single-game rushing record with 285 yards against Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night.

With Fournette now in the NFL, look for Guice to break out in a big way as the guy in 2017.

Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State (50-1)

No Heisman list would be complete without a few long shots, and from here on out we’re only going to give you guys who are 50-1 or more in the Vegas sports books. Let’s start with Weber. While Barrett is the “bigger name” Ohio State Heisman candidate, Weber might be the smarter bet. The sophomore is a big, mean, between the tackles back who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season.

The one thing to keep an eye on with Weber’s candidacy is whether or not Ohio State can develop a passing game around him. Late last year Weber’s numbers dipped (26 yards against Michigan, 24 yards in a College Football Playoff loss to Clemson) when teams realized that Barrett couldn’t beat them with his arm, and they began to clog the running game.

Barrett and the passing game will need to be better for the Buckeyes to have any chance to return to the playoff … and for Weber to make a run at the Heisman.

Derwin James, S, Florida State (50-1)

Looking for a Jabrill-Peppers-esque defensive candidate to take a chance on in the Heisman chase? Look no further than James, who many believe is the best pure “football player” in the sport this season. That includes James himself (remember, it’s not bragging if it’s true).

Unfortunately, James was limited to just one and a half games in 2016 thanks to a knee injury, but in 2015 he was one of the best all-around defensive players in the sport – even as a true freshman. That year he finished with a staggering stat line of 91 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries, all from the safety position.

In theory, those numbers should improve this year, and in terms of James’ Heisman candidacy, keep this in mind: Like Peppers at Michigan, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said he plans to use James on offense as well.

Quinton Flowers, QB, South Florida (80-1)

Flowers was one of the most underappreciated players in college football last year, after tossing for over 2,800 yards and rushing for over 1,500 more. Even with former USF coach Willie Taggart now at Oregon, don’t expect those numbers to go down under Charlie Strong.

The one question with Flowers’ Heisman candidacy is simply whether he’ll be seen enough to get the notoriety. South Florida plays just one game against a Power 5 school all year (Illinois). With Tom Herman now at Texas, Houston is no longer the marquee opponent it would have been a season ago.

Forget the numbers. Simple exposure may keep Flowers out of the Heisman picture.

Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia (100-1)

I’ll be honest, I’m not a big “Eason guy,” buuuuut, you mean to tell me I can get a guy who was once the top high school quarterback in the country, playing for a potential College Football Playoff contender, at 100-1? Where do I sign up?

For Eason all signs point toward a big year. The Bulldogs return the most talent of anyone in the SEC not named “Alabama,” and the schedule plays out nicely, where the notoriously soft SEC East slate should pad Georgia’s win total (and Eason’s stats).

Aaron Torres is covering college football for FanRag Sports this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com.

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