For better or worse, college football's Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious individual award in team sports, drawing hype and controversy from the beginning of the season till the end. Lamar Jackson won it last year, but that didn’t stop the annual “Heisman remorse” storyline from taking hold after runner-up Deshaun Watson tore through the postseason — despite the fact that, well, the postseason has zero bearing on the Heisman, which is presented in early December. (Again, for better or worse.)
In any event, it’s never too early to look ahead at who may contend for the honor in 2017. Heck, odds are that some athletic departments from the schools listed below are already doing the same, devising creative plans to promote their candidates to voters and to the nation.
Here are the top five players to watch, with five more who could jump on voters’ radars in the fall.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Jackson won it in 2016 and returns as a junior this fall, with what he can only hope is an improved offensive line. The Cards’ three straight losses to close last season dimmed the spotlight on Jackson a bit, and his early-season exploits were so video game-like that duplicating them with so much attention on him seems nearly impossible. Of course, he was the proverbial dark horse candidate last year and delivered, so he remains No. 1 here.
2. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Mayfield was a finalist in 2016, finishing third in the voting one year after finishing fourth. He threw for more yards (3,965), more TDs (40) and had a better completion percentage (70.9) than he did in 2015, and any more improvement — especially with a new cast of skill players around him — will give Mayfield a great chance to win the trophy this time. Public familiarity as a three-year starting QB undoubtedly helps, too.
3. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
If healthy — and unfortunately, that has become a big if these past two years — the 6-foot-2, 228-pound Scarbrough looks like the nation’s most unstoppable running back. His MVP performance in the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Washington proved that — as did his 93 yards and two TDs in the title game against Clemson before leaving with a leg injury.
4. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
Did you see the throw Darnold made to tie the Rose Bowl?! He supplanted Max Browne early in the season as a redshirt freshman and the Trojans took off shortly afterward, winning their final nine games to enter 2017 as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. Darnold, who looks every bit the part of the next great USC QB, is the biggest reason why.
5. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
If Guice led the SEC in rushing during a season in which he entered as a backup to Leonard Fournette, what can he do for an encore? If it’s more than the 1,387 yards and 15 TDs on 183 carries that he tallied in 2016, then Guice could find himself in New York in December.
Five More to Watch
Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
PSU enters 2017 as a College Football Playoff threat and Barkley is the biggest reason why. Much like with Sam Darnold, watch just one Rose Bowl play to understand the running back’s talent.
J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Being a three-year — or is it a four-year? — starting QB who’s already helped lead his program to a pair of CFP appearances is a perfect recipe for a star who will be surrounded by plenty of new faces offensively in 2017.
Jake Browning, QB, Washington
The reigning Pac-12 offensive player of the year tossed 43 TDs against just nine picks. If he leads the Huskies to similar heights as he did in 2016, watch out.
Quinton Flowers, QB, USF
Any Group of 5 player has an uphill climb, but the QB’s 2016 numbers — 4,377 yards of offense and 42 TDs — and his inspiring story make him a potential candidate for a Bulls team that should be favored in every game in 2017.
Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
The D-lineman by day doesn’t play quite as many positions as Jabrill Peppers did, but his impact may be even bigger for the Tigers. Oh, and the rest of the nation is now privy to his athleticism thanks to some dance moves.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.