Unlike many of the past few seasons, last year’s Heisman Trophy ceremony felt a little different because there was actually a bit of drama over who would win the award for college football’s most outstanding player. While the debate over whether Alabama’s Derrick Henry should have won the award over other finalists like Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey or Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson could carry on for several more years, it was certainly nice to have a much more wide-open race.
Could the same thing happen in 2016? Given how wide open the season looks in early August, it’s certainly possible. While McCaffrey and Watson will no doubt top the preseason Heisman lists (along with LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett), there are plenty of players outside the big names who have a real shot at winning the award.
Who might be able to outshine the front-runners and break through with a season that earns them the sport’s most prestigious trophy? Here are 12 of the biggest dark horses who could find themselves in the Heisman conversation at the end of the year.
12. Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
It wasn’t too long ago that Boise State was annually a BCS buster and putting prolific quarterback Kellen Moore into the Heisman conversation. That could be the case again this year as the Broncos get back on track to be a contender for the Group of Five bid in the New Year’s Six and might make their current signal-caller a household name. Rypien threw for more than 3,300 yards and 20 touchdowns as a true freshman (despite not playing until the third game of the year) and he should easily top those numbers heading into 2016. If the Broncos can go undefeated under the guidance of Rypien, be prepared to see him in New York in December and hear plenty of interviews with his uncle, Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien.
11. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
USC might be playing the nation’s toughest schedule but the flip side of that brutal gauntlet is plenty of chances to impress Heisman voters. Enter Tailback U’s latest star in Jones, who burst onto the scene as a true freshman with 987 yards on just 153 carries last year. He’s a home-run threat every time he touches the ball and the workload should increase considerably as he settles into head coach Clay Helton’s system and helps take the pressure off a new quarterback. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and all-purpose star Adoree’ Jackson get most of the USC press when it comes to the Heisman but Jones can put up the numbers to make it to the ceremony.
10. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
The Heisman Trophy almost always comes down to a debate over stats and it’s almost guaranteed that Mike Leach’s latest protege on the Palouse will wind up topping several categories. Falk threw for more than 4,500 yards and nearly 40 touchdowns last year despite missing a game to injury and could see even bigger numbers as a junior. The offensive line could be one of the better ones in recent memory for the Cougars and go-to receiver Gabe Marks might be the Pacific Northwest’s best-kept secret. Last year’s 9-4 record was a breakthrough for Wazzu and if the upward trend continues, Falk will be on the Heisman radar as he slings it all over the field.
9. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury knows how to evaluate and coach the quarterback position, and that is readily apparent considering he’ll have three proteges starting at the FBS level this year in Davis Webb (Cal), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), and Mahomes. It’s the latter who has the most talent out of any of them, and it may just be enough to get the Red Raiders’ starter out of the regular SportsCenter Top 10 plays and into the weekly Heisman conversation. Whether he’s using his rocket of an arm or creating an incredible play with his feet, Mahomes is must-watch material behind center and should once again put up huge numbers in Lubbock. If Texas Tech sneaks into the Big 12 title conversation, their talented young signal-caller also will sneak into the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
8. Trevor Knight, QB, Texas A&M
Knight may have made history this summer when he became the first quarterback in recent memory to represent his school at two different conference media days, headlining the Big 12 edition in 2015 while at Oklahoma and going to the podium at SEC media week this year for his new school, Texas A&M. The graduate transfer is hoping to make the most of his time in College Station and everybody just has to look back to that Alabama upset in the Sugar Bowl to see what he brings to the table for the Aggies. His supporting cast is top notch with targets like Christian Kirk to throw to; so if A&M has a breakthrough season to win the SEC, Knight will likely be able to count on an invitation to New York as a sweet reward.
7. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
For a team coming off a 7-6 season, the hype train surrounding the Washington Huskies sure has picked up an impressive amount of steam heading into 2016. A trendy pick to win the wide-open Pac-12 this year, there’s a lot to like about the talented team from Seattle that has a very impressive and relatively young starting 22. Most of the optimism surrounding the Huskies has to do with Browning taking the leap from good to great and delivering some breakthrough performances after flashing sky-high potential in 2015 as a true freshman starting quarterback. Now he gets back a big weapon in speedy receiver John Ross and it should go without saying that if Browning puts it all together and lives up to the hype, the Heisman conversation will return to Montlake once again.
6. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
This is the season that Tennessee has been building toward for several years and it’s safe to say that expectations have not been this high in Knoxville in more than a decade — and for good reason. The team is rightfully the SEC East favorite and a lot of that has to do with players like Hurd. QB Joshua Dobbs gets a lot of attention for the Volunteers, but it’s the massive (6-4, 240) Hurd who should make the offense click as they chase a title. Don’t be surprised at all if the team makes it to Atlanta for the conference championship game and Hurd is in the middle of a Derrick Henry-esque run to the Heisman as a result.
5. James Conner, RB, Pitt
Last year there was some intense debate as the Heisman voting deadline approached and how much voters should look at a player’s overall career in addition to his contributions to a team for the season. The biggest reason for all that talk had to do with the remarkable story surrounding Navy’s Keenan Reynolds, who eventually finished fifth in the voting. A similar storyline could play out this year for Conner, a former ACC Player of the Year in 2014 who is returning to the field after battling cancer. Pitt has a schedule that sets Conner up well if he can regain his form (including non-conference games against Penn State and Oklahoma State, plus big names Miami and Clemson in November), and he has the talent to post big enough numbers to get into the conversation on merit alone. Heisman voters are not supposed to root for players but every one of them would be happy to vote for the Panthers tailback at the end of the year if everything works out.
4. Jabrill Peppers, ATH, Michigan
As a defensive player, Peppers is already way behind the 8-ball when it comes to the Heisman race. But if anybody can follow in Charles Woodson’s footsteps, it’s bound to be the superstar player at his alma mater. He started as a defensive back last year and jumped on everybody’s radar with his play. But things should be taken to a new level as he moves to become a hybrid linebacker under the Wolverines’ new defensive coordinator, Don Brown. He’s also a dangerous return man and could see an increased roll on offense after scoring a pair of touchdowns. Add in the best player on a traditional powerhouse team that could make it to the College Football Playoff and there’s a lot going for Peppers’ candidacy even if he primarily plays on the defensive side of the ball.
3. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
When it comes to Oklahoma and the Heisman Trophy this season, the name most associate with the award is the guy who finished fourth in last year’s voting, the Sooners’ star quarterback, Baker Mayfield. But while Mayfield is the big name headlining watch lists this preseason, his teammate in the backfield has just as good of a shot to win the award with a big year. Perine rushed for 1,349 yards and really came into his own as the team re-committed to the power run game down the stretch. Sure Perine will have to split some carries with the talented Joe Mixon, but people should probably keep an eye out for the guy who holds the FBS single-game rushing record as he enters his junior season.
2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
When it comes to the ACC this year, you’re likely to hear plenty about Florida State and Clemson. The same is true when it comes to the conference’s Heisman hopes with Dalvin Cook and the likely favorite for the award in Deshaun Watson. But while that’s an impressive top two, don’t overlook the budding star from Louisville in the electrifying Jackson. A dual-threat signal-caller who can beat you with his arm and his legs, he jumped on many folks’ radar with a big bowl win that included more than 200 yards passing and rushing. He’ll be even more refined this year as a sophomore with plenty of opportunities to post big numbers in head coach Bobby Petrino’s system. The Cardinals have a lot coming back and if they upset either one of the top dogs in the ACC, they could very well find their young star of a quarterback in New York when the calendar turns over to December.
1. Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston
It’s been 27 years since Andre Ware dazzled college football on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy, and it remains completely possible that the Cougars will soon have to build a new display case next to his trophy if the super-talented Ward lives up to the hype this season. He topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark last season to go along with his nearly 3,000 yards through the air and should easily better both numbers in 2016 after another offseason under quarterback guru Tom Herman. While most Group of Five candidates for the Heisman will have a tough time getting enough traction, a win over a top-five team like Oklahoma in the opener and keeping the Cougars undefeated and in the hunt for the College Football Playoff each week will be more than enough to ensure Ward has a real shot at being called the sport’s most outstanding player.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.