Defining the term “dark horse” was actually the toughest part of this exercise.
Finding really talented players who could breakout into prominent roles is actually the easiest part of trying to pick Heisman Trophy sleepers. Part of what makes college football the greatest sport in the world is its volatility and unpredictability.
After debates with many trusted advisors within the Athlon Sports walls, I decided to let Las Vegas define dark horse for me. There are 24 names listed on Bovada’s Heisman Trophy season odds page (for those who enjoy gambling) and those 24 players are ineligible (according to me) to be included as dark horses.
This includes players who I would call "dark horses" like Alabama’s Derrick Henry, who isn’t even a true starter, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, who hasn’t played a single down of college football, or Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, who’s never started a full season.
Top Heisman Sleepers:
Taysom Hill, BYU
The BYU signal-caller has an elite combination of size, power and athleticism that most quarterbacks only dream about. His ability to embarrass defenses with his feet is obvious — try 1,344 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground — but it’s his continued development as a passer that makes him a Heisman contender. He finished eighth in the nation with 4,282 yards of total offense — ahead of names like Winston, Boyd, Bridgewater and Bortles. With a schedule filled with solid but not overly taxing games, Hill will post monster numbers for a team with double-digit wins.
Byron Marshall, Oregon
The Ducks have five starters back along the offensive line and an offense that has churned out Heisman candidates at running back. Marshall rushed for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 168 carries last fall. If he can get upwards of 250 touches, he could lead the nation in rushing for Oregon. His only concern might be that backup Thomas Tyner is too good to keep off the field for very long.
Cole Stoudt, Clemson
The keys to one of the shiniest offenses in the nation have fallen in Stoudt’s lap and he deserves his opportunity. Stoudt has waited his turn behind Tajh Boyd and all signs point to him being more than capable of running Chad Morris’ attack. He’s all about tempo and is a solid fit for an offense that consistently posts huge statistics. An early upset over Georgia or Florida State are almost a must, however, to get into the mix.
Davis Webb, Texas Tech
Captain Kliff believes in Webb so much that anyone else on the Lubbock campus who can throw a football left town this offseason. Webb proved enough as a freshman last fall to entrench himself as the star of the show at Texas Tech. He threw for over 300 yards five times in just six starts, including 385 yards against Oklahoma and 403 in Holiday Bowl upset win over Arizona State. The offense should provide huge numbers and a few upsets at home (like, say, against Texas or Oklahoma) could put Webb into national conversations.
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
There aren’t too many players with as many physical skills as Hackenberg. He is a sure-fire, first-round NFL Draft pick in two springs as he set 11 school records as a true freshman last year. The offensive line and overall depth is a major concern and keeps him from being mentioned alongside names like Brett Hundley, Bryce Petty and Braxton Miller, but Hackenberg is just as talented. Look for the PSU QB to continue to grow with no limits on his upside.
Maty Mauk, Missouri
The youngster is brimming with confidence and now has the keys to an offense known for producing big-time stars at quarterback. Brad Smith, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin have all run Gary Pinkel’s offense to perfection. Mauk is just the next and might be the best pure passer in the SEC.
Chuckie Keeton, Utah State
In 2012, Keeton was exceptional by throwing for 3,373 yards and 27 touchdowns with only nine picks while also rushing for 619 yards and eight touchdowns. The Aggies were 11-2. Last year, Keeton accounted for 20 touchdowns and just two interceptions with 1,629 yards of total offense in just six games before suffering a season-ending injury. Utah State also has some marquee games at Tennessee, BYU and Boise State which can help increase Keeton's profile.
Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
Ameer Abdullah led the league in rushing and Melvin Gordon got most of the accolades, but Langford was arguably the most important tailback in the Big Ten last year. He rushed for 1,422 yards and 18 scores on the year but 1,070 yards, 13 touchdowns and all eight of his 100-yard games came in conference play. Langford belongs being mentioned alongside the star runners of the B1G.
Buck Allen, USC
Javorius “Buck” Allen took control the starting tailback job at USC in the second half of last year and it has vaulted him into award conversations. Allen rushed for over 100 yards in four of the last six games and scored 12 times during that span. A full season workload could make Allen the top true workhorse back in the conference this year.
Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Who finished second to Johnny Manziel last year in the SEC in total offense? Not Aaron Murray, Nick Marshall, AJ McCarron or Connor Shaw. No, Wallace’s 3,701 yards were well ahead of third place (and well behind Manziel). Now fully healthy and with a developing young corps of supporting players, Wallace is in store for a monster final season.
Five Super Sleepers:
Stefon Diggs, Maryland
If he could just stay healthy, Diggs could make a run at the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver. He does special things with the ball in his hands but has missed seven games in his first two seasons. With a talented quarterback returning, Diggs has a chance to post a breakout season in College Park. The Big Ten will find out quickly how dangerous Diggs can be.
Marquise Williams, North Carolina
Williams flashed a lot of ability last fall and should only continue to develop. The Tar Heels went 6-1 over their final seven games and the offense averaged over 40 points per game due in large part to his play. With a full season of making plays, Williams has a chance to get into the national conversation.
Shock Linwood, Baylor
The Bears had the Big 12’s leading rusher last year in Lache Seastrunk but also boasted the No. 6 rusher too. Linwood, a freshman last year, rushed for 881 yards and eight TDs on just 128 carries. Imagine what he could do with a year of seasoning and a full workload?
Tyler Boyd, Pitt
Boyd is a special talent with rare ability. He has elite NFL upside and plays for a head coach who normally produces big numbers in the passing game. Look for Boyd, just a sophomore, to make a run at the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wideout. Should that happen, landing in the Heisman conversation isn’t out of the question.
Will Gardner, Louisville
There are many things worse than betting on a Bobby Petrino quarterback. Gardner is a tall, pocket passer who fits his system perfectly. And with a gifted offensive line and deep supporting cast, it’s not unthinkable that Gardner becomes the second-best passer in the ACC.