As the 2017 college football season comes to a close, we can’t help but look ahead to 2018. Although the bowl season got started on Saturday, there are still 32 more games to go plus the two College Football Playoff semifinals and national championship game on Jan. 8. Here's a look at some of the elite players who will be on display over the next few weeks, and will most likely figure prominently in the Heisman Trophy race next season.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume this year’s junior Heisman candidates such as Bryce Love, Lamar Jackson, Kerryon Johnson or Roquan Smith – all of whom finished in the top 10 of the voting in 2017 – as well as third-year sophomore Sam Darnold, early-season favorite Saquon Barkley and UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, will leave for the NFL draft.
Obviously if any member of that list stays in school another year, he would join this group, which is ranked chronologically by the date and time of each player’s bowl game.
Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona
Foster Farms Bowl vs. Purdue — Wed., Dec. 27
He didn’t take over as the starting quarterback at Arizona until the midpoint of the season. He also often played late at night or on the sometimes difficult-to-find Pac-12 Network. Nevertheless, Tate (above, right) inserted himself into the Heisman discussion as a sophomore and should be considered among the favorites in 2018.
Tate’s skills as a runner are tremendous. He ranked sixth in the country with 135.3 rushing yards per game during the regular season, tallying 1,353 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground while averaging an incredible 10.2 yards per carry. Tate can throw, too: he completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,289 yards and nine TDs, and though he was intercepted eight times, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound California native ranked No. 17 among FBS signal-callers with an average of 8.4 yards per pass attempt. As he develops as a passer, those numbers should only get better.
Drew Lock, QB, Missouri
Texas Bowl vs. Texas — Wed. Dec. 27
He’ll be tempted to jump to the NFL, but if Lock returns for his senior season, he’s likely to put up great numbers in 2018. Lock and the Tigers are riding huge momentum into the Texas Bowl, having won six straight games while averaging 51.3 points per contest during the winning streak. Overall, Lock threw for an SEC-leading 3,695 yards and 43 touchdowns during the regular season, and though he’s sure to miss top target J’Mon Moore and play-caller Josh Heupel, Lock is capable of putting up even more eye-popping statistics next year.
Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
Cotton Bowl vs. Ohio State — Fri., Dec. 29
There is a very good chance Jones leaves USC early for the draft, but should he decide to return, he’ll be one of the top running backs in the country in 2018. Jones enters the Cotton Bowl with 1,486 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns while averaging 6.14 yards per carry for the Trojans as a junior. Simply put, though he’s been largely underrated on a national level, Jones is one of the most explosive players in college football, and would be a surefire Heisman candidate.
J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
Cotton Bowl vs. USC — Friday, Dec. 29
With J.T. Barrett graduating and defensive lineman Nick Bosa highly unlikely to garner national attention for college football’s highest individual award, Dobbins (right) moves into the forefront as the top Heisman candidate for the Buckeyes. Dobbins is averaging 7.5 yards per carry and has totaled 1,364 rushing yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
Orange Bowl vs. Miami — Saturday, Dec. 30
Two voters made Taylor, a freshman, their No. 1 choice in the 2017 Heisman race. The odds are high more will follow suit over the next two to three years. Taylor, who finished sixth in the voting this season, led the Big Ten and ranked third nationally with 1,847 rushing yards during the regular season. This means he has a chance of breaking 2,000 with a solid game against Miami in the Orange Bowl. Taylor has 13 rushing touchdowns and is averaging 6.77 yards per carry for the Big Ten West champion Badgers who were in the hunt for a College Football Playoff spot up to the end.
Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
Peach Bowl vs. UCF — Monday, Jan. 1
Kerryon Johnson may or may not leave for the NFL, and former 1,200-yard rusher Kamryn Pettway might join him, which makes Stidham the clear Heisman candidate for the Auburn Tigers in 2018. In his first season on campus, Stidham has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 2,827 yards and 17 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He also has gained 178 yards and scored four times on the ground while leading the Tigers to the SEC West title, and within a hair of a College Football Playoff spot.
McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF
Peach Bowl vs. Auburn — Monday, Jan. 1
If a player from a Group of 5 conference school could make noise in the Heisman race, the best bet would be Milton. The on-field conductor for the explosive Knights offense, Milton has thrown for 3,795 yards and 35 touchdowns with nine interceptions as a sophomore, while completing 69.2 percent of his pass attempts. His 184.8 rating and 10.5 yards per pass both ranked second nationally to Heisman winner Baker Mayfield during the regular season. Milton also has run for 497 yards and seven TDs, making him one of the most dangerous dual-threat QBs in the country.
Milton and the Knights will miss Scott Frost, but former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel brings the experience of calling plays for the Tigers' explosive offense. Also, Milton’s top targets Tre’Quan Smith and Dredrick Snelson are expected to return, which should only help navigate the coaching transition.
Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Rose Bowl vs. Oklahoma — Monday, Jan. 1
Georgia doesn’t typically put up the video game statistics generally needed to propel one of its players to the Heisman, but it’s reasonable to think Fromm could get some votes in 2018 — especially if he picks up some added momentum by leading the Bulldogs to a national championship this year. Fromm has completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,173 yards and 21 touchdowns with five interceptions as a true freshman. He finished sixth among qualified FBS signal-callers with a 168.2 rating in the regular season.
Teammate D’Andre Swift, who should take over as the primary running back, could also make a Heisman case as a sophomore. There will be another quarterback in Pasadena capable of playing his way into the 2018 Heisman race — Oklahoma backup Kyler Murray, the former Texas A&M transfer who is expected to step into the shoes of this year's recipient.
Kelly Bryant, QB, Clemson
Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama — Monday, Jan. 1
We’ve seen the importance of Bryant to Clemson this season as the Tigers were upset 27-24 by Syracuse in a game in which he was sidelined by a concussion he suffered late in the first half. Bryant recovered from that injury to lead Clemson to an ACC title and a spot in the playoff, throwing for 2,678 yards and 13 TDs with six interceptions and adding 646 rushing yards and 11 TDs in his first season as the starter.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
Sugar Bowl vs. Clemson — Monday, Jan. 1
Though he’s regularly criticized on talk radio and message boards, Hurts is one of the best quarterbacks in college football. Hurts also is the on-field leader of one of the best teams in the nation, giving him the inside track to building up a Heisman candidacy when compared to his highly talented teammates.
Hurts has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 1,940 yards and 15 touchdowns with just one interception as a sophomore, and he has 768 rushing yards and eight more scores. Another College Football Playoff run in 2018 – which would be his third – also would help Hurts state his case to voters.
Some defensive players could make a move into the Heisman discussion next season, such as Ohio State's Nick Bosa, LSU cornerback Andraez Williams, or even Houston defensive lineman Ed Oliver, who has the potential to make an Ndamukong Suh-like impact on next year’s race. Other players such Brandon Wimbush, Trace McSorley and Jake Browning could play their way into the discussion with standout performances in their respective bowl games.
We’ll lose the 2017 winner and several early draftees, but with the opportunity to watch so many great players during the bowl season, we’ll have no shortage of Heisman candidates to banter about throughout the offseason.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.