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Early Look at the Top Heisman Trophy Contenders of 2016

Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson

Putting together a list of Heisman Trophy candidates tends to be a dilemma for the conscience.

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History tells us that if you don’t play the offensive glamour positions, you’ve got no shot. So, why bother including anyone who’s not a quarterback, running back or wide receiver? (And for that matter, we’ve reached the point where receivers can probably forget about it.)

On the other hand, the idea that the “most outstanding player” in college football might not play any other position on the field is is patently absurd.

Related: College Football's Top 15 Early Projected Breakout Players for 2016

Let’s not waste time on guys with no shot at winning. Here are the quarterbacks and running backs who should top preseason Heisman lists:

Running Backs

In 2015, Alabama's Derrick Henry became the first running back to take home the Heisman since Mark Ingram – also of Alabama – in 2009. So long as it's just not Crimson Tide tailbacks favored by voters these days, a deep group of ball carriers could vie for the trophy in 2016.

Leonard Fournette, LSU

LSU’s manchild looked like the clear Heisman front-runner in 2015 until he ran into Alabama’s defense. Despite carrying the ball for a measly 31 yards against the Crimson Tide, Fournette still managed to run for nearly 2,000 yards in 13 games. He did that while facing stacked fronts all year. Fournette should run wild next year before heading off to enjoy the NFL’s millions.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State

Speaking of enjoying the NFL’s millions, Cook may end up being even more coveted by the pro scouts than Fournette. The Seminoles’ lead runner carried FSU’s offense in '16. With the ‘Noles likely to challenge for the national championship in the fall, Cook will likely have plenty of time in the spotlight to build his case for the award.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

The 2015 runner-up to Derrick Henry dazzled in his final game of the season, Stanford’s 49-16 blowout of Iowa in the Rose Bowl. That final impression will carry over into '16. McCaffrey has the added benefit of being a standout on special teams, which will only help his candidacy. Given the Cardinal’s personnel losses, however, their star runner might have a tough time replicating his stellar year.

Samaje Perine, Oklahoma

It took a while, but first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley eventually got the Sooners’ running game going last season. Once again, Perine led the way with his bruising running style, rushing for 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Perine, he will have to share the spotlight with talented backfield mate Joe Mixon and star quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Wayne Gallman, Clemson

Gallman flew under the radar in 2015 behind QB Deshaun Watson. He finally got a little recognition in the postseason when he carried the ball 26 times for 150 yards and two scores in the Tigers’ big win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Gallman will continue to operate in Watson’s shadow in the fall, but a big year could put him front and center.

Other potential RB candidates: Royce Freeman, Oregon; Elijah Hood, North Carolina; Jalen Hurd, Tennessee


The '16 crop of QBs might not match the RB candidates, but it's not that far off in terms of quality.

Deshaun Watson, Clemson

The Tigers’ field general arguably deserved college football’s most prestigious award in ‘15, when he rushed and threw for a combined 5,200 yards and nearly 50 TDs. His jaw-dropping performances in the College Football Playoff versus Oklahoma and Alabama helped kick off his ‘16 campaign, and he’ll enter the season as the Heisman favorite. Heavy personnel losses on defense could set Clemson up for a disappointing year, though, which would put an end to Watson’s hopes.

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Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Mayfield’s emergence at OU in ‘15 gave college football one of its feel-good stories of the season as the two-time walk-on sparked the Sooners’ offensive renaissance. No longer a mystery, Mayfield now has to prove he can handle the expectations that will accompany his return for a final season in Norman. Like his teammate Samaje Perine, Mayfield’s talented supporting cast could hurt his candidacy. Mayfield also needs to find a new go-to receiver to replace departing star Sterling Shepard.

Chad Kelly, Ole Miss

Some may question whether the title of “Best QB in the SEC” really means all that much, but Kelly is the top returning starter in the nation’s toughest conference. He heated up down the stretch of the ‘15 season, throwing 11 TD passes and just 1 interception in the final four games of the year against Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State and Oklahoma State. Ole Miss looks like a dark horse to unseat Alabama in the SEC West, which would make the Rebels’ talented gunslinger an intriguing possibility.

Greg Ward Jr., Houston

Houston is one of the hottest programs in the country, and Ward is the engine powering the Cougars’ offense. For Houston to replicate the success of last season, Ward will need to take his game to an even higher level in the fall. He has a chance to make an early statement in the the season opener against Oklahoma.

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

Remember Barrett? He’s the dynamic dual-threat QB who set up the Buckeyes for a national championship in 2014. Urban Meyer yo-yoed between Barrett and Cardale Jones a year later, and his offense suffered for it. Barrett now has the job to himself. He also has the typical wealth of weapons at his disposal as Ohio State tries to reassert itself in the national picture.

Other potential QB candidates: Seth Russell, Baylor; Luke Falk, Washington State; Josh Rosen, UCLA

— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.