The Heisman Trophy is awarded to college football’s most outstanding player but every preseason list is, let’s face it, not much more than a popularity contest with some of biggest names in the sport. That’s in part because we’re looking at recent eye-popping production, which means the Heisman discussion inevitably centers on guys like Stanford running back Bryce Love and Arizona QB Khalil Tate or rising stars like Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor.
Outside of those big names though, who really has a chance to make it to New York and flash the stiff arm for all to see? Here are 10 dark horse Heisman candidates who have what it takes to make it into the conversation now and in December:
10. Rashan Gary, DT, Michigan
If the Wolverines return to glory under Jim Harbaugh this season, they will likely be led by Gary, who has lived up to the hype as a former No. 1 overall recruit. He’s got the quickness of a potential top-10 NFL draft pick and can influence both the passing game and rushing attack with his ability to get up field and create havoc. If Gary racks up some big numbers for a stellar Michigan defense, he may very well wind up in the Big Apple.
9. Clelin Ferrell/Austin Bryant/Christian Wilkins/Dexter Lawrence, DL, Clemson
The Tigers’ defensive line has been hailed as one of, if not the, best ever in the history of college football going into this season with four starters who have earned All-America honors. If one member of this impressive quartet really stands out and has a dominant season with eye-popping sack numbers, it’s certainly possible one of them can make a sneaky run at the Heisman. The best player on the best team always gets love from voters and that could be the case for one of these names.
8. Tony Pollard, RB/WR/KR, Memphis
Anthony Miller was fantastic for the Tigers last season but with him in the NFL, the team is looking for its most versatile playmaker to take over an even bigger share of the offensive load for the team in 2018. Pollard will likely line up all over the field and is Memphis’ leading returning receiver and probably their top tailback too. The new kickoff rules hampers his terrific return ability (he had four TDs last year) but he could have the stats to garner Heisman love, especially if the team wins the AAC and captures the Group of 5 New Year's Six bid.
7. N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
Harry might be the Pac-12’s best-kept secret. In short, he’s a beast after topping 1,100 receiving yards and hauling in eight touchdowns in a highlight-filled season. He’ll be QB Manny Wilkins’ go-to once again for the Sun Devils and if the team exceeds expectations in Year 1 of the Herm Edwards experiment, Harry will be a magnet for votes from west of the Mississippi.
6. Devin Singletary, RB, FAU
Lane Kiffin generated all the headlines for the Owls’ remarkable turnaround but Singletary was the real reason why FAU became Conference USA champions on the field. He finished fourth in all of FBS with 1,796 yards on the ground a year ago and should see a similar workload as the offensive focal point. Don’t discount the fact that the team will have a lot more eyes on it than it did in 2017 and Singletary will have a huge opportunity to impress voters in Week 1 at Oklahoma.
5. Malcolm Perry, QB, Navy
Perry did remarkable damage for the Midshipmen after being moved to quarterback last season despite not getting many reps as the triggerman for the option attack. Still, he finished with a wild 8.6 yards per carry and more than 1,100 rushing yards in total — a record 282 of which came in his first start under center. He has nowhere to go but up as a passer (he has just two attempts) so if that part of his game comes along in 2018, he could find himself following in the footsteps of Keenan Reynolds as a Heisman finalist from the academy.
4. AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College
Dillon really burst onto the scene for the Eagles last season as a true freshman and didn’t seem to break a sweat down the stretch on his way to 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns. Defenses will be more prepared to face him in 2018 but he’ll also have a much improved offense around him that could open up even bigger running lanes. If Dillon can chase the 2,000-yard mark and lead Boston College to a surprising run at the division title, then another stiff-arm trophy for Chestnut Hill can’t be ruled out.
3. Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State
Francois seems like an afterthought in the college football world after he went down in the opener against Alabama last season and it remains to be seen if he can even reclaim his starting job with a new coaching staff in place and a handful of regrettable off-the-field actions. Still, there’s no question he has the talent (3,350 passing yards, 20 TDs in 2016) and platform at FSU to make a run at the trophy if he winds up as the starter and leads the Seminoles to a big bounce-back campaign.
2. Ed Oliver, DL, Houston
Oliver is widely considered one of the best players in college football in what will be his last season with the Cougars before going to the NFL early. He’s got plenty of name recognition and highlights from the past two years in Houston but despite everything going his way, his odds for the Heisman are generally listed around 50/1. Part of that has to do with defenders having such a tough time winning the award but with another stellar season Oliver could not only finish higher than Ndamukong Suh once did in the voting, but actually mange to take home the award given just how good he is.
1. Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
Talk in Tuscaloosa is all about Tua Tagovialoa at quarterback but have we stopped to think about the guy who is 26-2 as a starter with a national title game appearance every year he’s been on campus? Even with his struggles in the final game last season, he still put up a 17-to-1 TD/INT ratio (17-to-1!) and rushed for another eight scores as well. If Hurts (above, right) winds up holding off Tagovailoa and leads the Crimson Tide back to the College Football Playoff once again, there will be no denying he’s a pretty good player and worthy of a dark horse run at the Heisman Trophy as well.
-- 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.