The Heisman Trophy is awarded to college football’s most outstanding player but every preseason list for the trophy is, let’s face it, not much more than a popularity contest with some of biggest names in the sport. As a result, you’re bound to see Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa atop just about every prognosticator’s ballot in some order with others like Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Texas signal-caller Sam Ehlinger mixed in somewhere.
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. Nathan Rourke, QB, Ohio
Rourke is perhaps the best player in the MAC and it’s not inconceivable that the dual-threat star follows in the footsteps of Northern Illinois’s Jordan Lynch and winds up in New York. He’s capable of putting up 3,000 passing/1,000 rushing yards in 2019 and will get the benefit of several mid-week games to showcase his skills to a national audience with no competition. #MACtion is always outstanding but it might really live up to that if Rourke can do something special with the Bobcats.
9. Chase Young, DL, Ohio State
Young was an incredible force off of the line for the Buckeyes last season once Nick Bosa went down with an injury and some NFL scouts already think he could wind up being the top draft pick in the spring if his game continues to progress. Voters are more receptive to putting in defensive players on their ballots and if Young has a monster year, it wouldn’t be too surprising if he gets a push for the trophy as the nation’s best defensive player.
8. Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State
This just might be the most underrated player in the country thanks to all those late-night Pac-12 kickoffs. Benjamin can do just about everything in the backfield, as evidenced by his 1,642 rushing yards and 7.5 yards per catch in 2018. He’s also a highlight machine waiting to happen given how he can take it to the house with any touch. If the Sun Devils can win the Pac-12 South and Benjamin reaches, say, 2,500 yards from scrimmage, he could very well run his way to the Big Apple.
7. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
It’s hard to have a better introduction to college football than Moore had as a true freshman last season, recording 1,258 receiving yards, scoring 14 times and electrifying crowds with a number of thrilling returns. The Boilermakers are a trendy dark horse in the Big Ten West and if their star receiver can help get the team to Indianapolis while posting huge stats in Jeff Brohm’s high-flying offense, Purdue might be represented well in early December.
6. Leviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado
Shenault was the focal point for the Buffaloes’ offense last year and despite missing part of the season due to injuries (and being ineffective in others because of them) still managed to record 86 receptions. Not just a threat through the air, he nearly scored as many rushing TDs as receiving too. If he’s healthy for all 12 games and CU makes another surprising run to the Pac-12 title game, Shenault might have the best shot at the Heisman as a receiver since Larry Fitzgerald many moons ago.
5. Jordan Love, QB, Utah State
Love has two things going for him. First, he’s just the kind of prolific passer that can put up the numbers needed to get into the conversation, throwing for 3,567 yards last year with 32 TDs and only six picks. There’s already NFL buzz and the hope is that he can continue to grow into a first-rounder at the next level. Maybe just as important though, there’s opportunity. Love plays both LSU in Baton Rouge and opens the year on a Friday against Wake Forest. BYU is on the docket too and he’ll have big Mountain West tests against San Diego State and Boise State. Make a run at the Group of 5 New Year's Six bid and Love could be stiff arming more than DBs in 2019.
4. Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame
It’s strange to think how little buzz there is about a player who led Notre Dame, one of the true bluebloods of the sport, to the College Football Playoff and an undefeated regular-season record. Books numbers weren’t eye-popping given that he took over the starting gig a few games in but he did make some huge plays to win games and was a good reason why the Irish got over the hump before running into the Clemson buzzsaw. Book will carry much more of the offensive workload this season as the team’s signal-caller and if he takes the next step, another bronze statue under the golden dome could happen.
3. Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona
Tate was a preseason Heisman darling not long ago with the way he was able to run and throw the football. Despite some eye-popping totals on the ground in 2017 though, not much went right for him in '18. Injuries were a huge part of that of course but if he can get back to his old ways and be one of the most electric players in the country again, don’t discount a run at the prestigious award.
2. D’Eriq King, QB, Houston
To say King was prolific putting up numbers a year ago would be an understatement. Even with an injury that sidelined him, he still accounted for 50 — 50! — touchdowns in 2018 and could be even better under new head coach Dana Holgorsen. King is so dynamic in the backfield that you really do have to account for everything when the ball is in his hands. He’s got a great chance to make a run at the award with Oklahoma, Washington State and UCF among those on the schedule this year. Pull a few upsets and secure a Group of 5 New Year's Six bid with monster numbers and King is bound to keep the Heisman in the hands of a Texan.
1. Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan
Depending on where you get your odds, Patterson is right around +2500 to win the Heisman in 2019. That’s well behind others in his conference like Jonathan Taylor, Adrian Martinez and even Justin Fields, who has never even taken a snap at Ohio State. Michigan is moving to an offensive scheme that is well suited to Patterson’s talents and if he puts up huge numbers with a veteran group while getting the Wolverines in the playoff discussion, this dark horse just might become the front-runner in Ann Arbor before the leaves even change color.
— 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.