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Early Look at the Top Heisman Trophy Contenders for 2018

Bryce Love

Bryce Love

Following the graduation of Baker Mayfield, as well as the early departure of 2016 winner Lamar Jackson and last year's preseason favorites Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold, the 2018 Heisman Trophy field is wide open. However, as always, there are several exciting candidates. Most notably, last year's runner-up, Stanford running back Bryce Love, opted to return to Palo Alto for his senior season instead of jumping to the NFL. As we turn our attention to next season, we take an early look at the top Heisman contenders for 2018.

Wisconsin Badgers RB Jonathan Taylor

Top 5 Heisman Trophy Contenders for 2018

1. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford

Naturally, we’ll begin with the highest returning finisher from the 2017 Heisman race. Instead of leaving early for the NFL, Love decided to return as he continues his pursuit of an eventual medical degree. Academics aside, Love is the consensus favorite to take home college football’s highest as a senior this fall. Even though he missed one game with an ankle injury, which remained a factor throughout the second half of the season, Love finished second in the nation with 2,118 rushing yards and an average of 162.9 yards per game in his first season as a starter for the Cardinal. He averaged an explosive 8.05 yards per carry. Even though Stanford must replace multiple key starters from its solid offensive line, a healthy Love could go for 2,000 yards again in 2018.

2. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

With Baker Mayfield and San Diego State Rashaad Penny out of eligibility and Lamar Jackson and Saquon Barkley off to the NFL a year early, Taylor (above, right) ranks just behind Love among returning Heisman candidates. Taylor ran for 1,977 yards — the third most nationally and an official FBS record for a true freshman — and 13 touchdowns in 2017, which boosted him to a sixth-place finish in the Heisman vote. Given head coach Paul Chryst’s tendency to feed his primary ball carrier, in addition to the experience, talent and depth returning on the offensive line for the Badgers, there’s a great chance Taylor makes a run at 2,000 yards — and some serious hardware — as a sophomore.

3. Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona

Simply put, Tate was the most exciting player in college football during the second half of the season last year, and he has the potential to be even better in 2018. Tate ran for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging an incredible 9.22 yards per carry, and also was a better passer than most realized. The sophomore completed 62 percent of his attempts for 1,591 yards and 14 touchdowns, and though he was intercepted nine times, Tate averaged 8.9 yards per attempt, which ranked tenth nationally. He also led the Pac-12 with a 123.5 passer rating on play-action, according to Pro Football Focus. As good as Tate was, he could be in for an even bigger season with former Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin set to take over the Wildcats. Does the name Johnny Manziel sound familiar? 

4. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State

With Saquon Barkley off to the NFL, McSorley is now the face of the Nittany Lions. And he’s primed for a big senior season after leading the Big Ten in passing (3,570 yards,  274.6 ypg), completion percentage (66.5), and yards per attempt (8.4). Though he won’t have Barkley at his disposal, as well as wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton (team-high 878 receiving yards) or tight end Mike Gesicki (team-leading 57 receptions, tied with Hamilton with 9 TD catches), there are still plenty of options available on the roster to help McSorley put up similar (or even better) numbers in 2018.

5. McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF

He faces an uphill battle because he plays for a Group of Five program, but Milton (right) flashed Heisman potential as a sophomore in 2017 and finished eighth in the Heisman voting. He completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns, and averaged 10.2 yards per attempt — all of which ranked in the top 10 nationally. He also added 613 rushing yards and eight scores. New head coach Josh Heupel helped Missouri QB Drew Lock put up huge passing numbers in 2017, so there’s plenty of reason to expect another big year for Milton, and the Knights’ increased profile doesn’t hurt his chances either.

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Next 5 on the List

1. Will Grier, QB, West Virginia

Unfortunately, Grier injured his hand late last season, which cut short an impressive debut for Florida transfer. Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns in his first 11 games with the Mountaineers, completing 64.4 percent of his passes and averaging 9.0 yards per attempt along the way, but also led the Big 12 with 12 interceptions. Hopefully we’ll finally have the opportunity to see what Grier can do in a full season in 2018, because he has the potential to put up Heisman-type numbers while helping West Virginia make a charge for the Big 12 title.

2. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

Heading into College Football Playoff National Championship against Georgia, Jalen Hurts had the profile we were looking for in a 2018 Heisman candidate. Specifically, Hurts was the starting quarterback for what will likely be the preseason No. 1 team, who happens to have two years of starting experience under his belt (and oh, by the way, led his team to back-to-back national title game appearances). Hurts also has the skill set for Heisman contention: he is an efficient passer, having posted a 150.8 rating with a 17:1 TD-to-interception ratio last season, and also is a dynamic runner (1,809 rushing yards, 21 TDs in his career).

But everything changed in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Hurts struggled to move the Alabama offense in the first half, and head coach Nick Saban made the unprecedented decision to pull Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa, a true freshman. Inexperience aside, he jolted the Crimson Tide to life and later threw the perfect pass to win the national championship. Tagovailoa, who pushed Hurts in the spring and summer before settling into the backup role for the regular season, is a special talent and now has the inside track to the starting job in 2018. As a result, Hurts appears destined for either a transfer or position change, and Tagovailoa’s inclusion on this list is a must.

3. Cam Akers, RB, Florida State

Florida State fell apart in 2017, but one of the brightest spots in an otherwise disappointing season was Akers, a true freshman. Despite splitting carries with Jacques Patrick, Akers ran for 1,025 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017. Even though Patsrick decided to return for his senior season, Akers will have plenty of opportunities to earn the feature back role in new head coach Willie Taggart’s offense. If Taggart rights the ship quickly in Tallahassee, and Akers puts up numbers similar to those Royce Freeman produced for Taggart at Oregon (1,475 rushing yards, 16 TDs) last season, Akers could find himself in the Heisman mix.

4. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

He’s still likely to split carries with Mike Weber and whoever wins the starting QB job will run the ball as well, but Dobbins’ impressive freshman campaign makes him an obvious topic of the 2018 Heisman conversation. Dobbins averaged 7.23 yards per carry as a true freshman, finished third in the Big Ten with 1,403 rushing yards, and scored seven touchdowns for the Buckeyes last season. He’s capable of even more next year.

5. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

Looking for a dark horse candidate? Consider Pac-12 After Dark. In addition to Khalil Tate at Arizona, Stanford QB K.J. Costello has huge upside. Arizona State’s Manny Wilkins is very talented, as is Utah’s Tyler Huntley. Devon Modster showed flashes as Josh Rosen’s backup at UCLA, and now has the benefit of Chip Kelly calling plays, while USC will have some exciting options to replace Sam Darnold, including redshirt freshman Jack Sears and five-star incoming freshman JT Daniels.

But the best of the bunch could be Oregon’s Herbert. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound rising junior completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,983 yards and 15 touchdowns with five interceptions in 2017 while averaging 9.6 yards per attempt. Herbert, who also ran for five scores, led the Ducks to a 4-1 start, but then missed five full games due to a broken collarbone. Oregon lost four of those five games while averaging just 15.0 points per contest (only 8.5 in the losses) during that span. A healthy and experienced Herbert could get Oregon back in the hunt for the Pac-12 North title, which could in turn make him a Heisman candidate.

3 Defensive Players Worth Heisman Consideration

Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith finished tenth in the 2017 Heisman vote, and probably should have fared even better given the huge role he played for the Bulldogs, as well as the great all-around statistics he produced. Smith would have been higher on this list had he chosen to return for his senior season, but there are other defensive players worth mentioning.

1. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

The Heisman Trophy was designed to award the best player in the nation, and though playing for a Group of Five program as a defensive player is a double whammy, Oliver (right) is definitely on the short list for the most talented player in college football. Oliver tallied 73 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks as a sophomore. He also broke up three passes, forced two fumbles and blocked a kick. He’d need 2009 Ndamukong Suh-like numbers to make a Heisman run as an interior defensive lineman, but Oliver has the talent to do it. Also, don’t be shocked if head coach Major Applewhite tries to get him the football at the goal line more: Oliver’s one-yard TD run in the Hawaii Bowl might have been a preview of an expanded role for next season.

Houston Cougars DL Ed Oliver

2. Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State

Bosa, the younger brother of former Buckeyes star and Los Angeles Chargers’ Pro Bowler Joey, is one of the most talented pass rushers in the nation, having recorded 8.5 sacks as a sophomore. Nick Bosa also was credited with 34 total tackles,16.0 tackles for a loss, nine quarterback hurries, two pass breakups and a forced fumble as one of the headliners of a stout Ohio State defensive front. A likely first-round 2019 NFL Draft pick, Bosa could explode on the national level as a junior.

3. Greedy Williams, CB, LSU

Williams proved to be one of the best defensive playmakers in the nation as a true freshman, and finished his debut tied for fourth in the nation with six interceptions — though he won’t be thrown at nearly as much after the Tigers lose Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson to the NFL. Teammate Devin White, the leading returning tackler in the SEC, also could become a factor if he becomes an impact linebacker along the lines of Roquan Smith.

Others to Watch (in alphabetical order)

Jake Browning, QB, Washington

Kelly Bryant, QB, Clemson

AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College

Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State

Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia

Damien Harris, RB, Alabama

Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama

Drew Lock, QB, Missouri

Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma

Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan (if eligible to play in 2018)

Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn

Devin Singletary, RB, FAU

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.