The Heisman Trophy is handed out to college football’s most outstanding player but when it comes to preseason predictions, the award is not much more than a popularity contest that features the biggest names in the sport. That’s one reason why you’ll hear about USC’s Sam Darnold, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in just about every conversation when it comes to the trophy prior to the start of the season.
Outside of those big names though, who really has a chance to make it to New York and flash the stiff arm? Here are 12 dark horse Heisman candidates who have what it takes to make it into the conversation now and in December:
12. Dexter Lawrence/Clelin Ferrell, DL, Clemson
We’ve seen defensive players receive increased attention when it comes to the award in recent years and one of Clemson’s uber-athletic linemen could make the case they at least deserve an invite to the ceremony — if not the trophy itself. Each played a big role in the team’s title run last year as freshmen and combined for 12.5 sacks as part of a rotation. Both guys have a chance to be downright dominant this season and in doing so could make a Ndamukong Suh-esque push for the trophy.
11. Deon Cain, WR, Clemson
The talk all offseason has been about Clemson replacing the terrific tandem of Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams but the Tigers are still loaded enough to be in the running for yet another ACC title and trip to the College Football Playoff. Leading the charge in 2017 should be Cain, who averaged 19 yards per catch last season (on 38 receptions), and should be one of the team’s top scorers given his explosiveness. If he can put up big-time numbers and become the next great receiver out of Clemson, he could find himself in the mix for much more than just a Biletnikoff Award.
10. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
As disappointing as Oregon’s year was in 2016, perhaps nobody on the team took the Ducks’ struggles harder than their starting tailback in Freeman. While everybody expected another big-time campaign after an impressive 1,836-yard outburst as a sophomore, that wasn’t in the cards as his numbers regressed to nearly half his totals from the year before. Freeman surprisingly opted to bypass the NFL draft in order to return to Eugene to help lead a turnaround and he remains a threat to post some eye-popping numbers once again if fully healthy.
9. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
Keenan Reynolds and Jordan Lynch have gotten into the mix for the Heisman as Group of 5 quarterbacks and Allen could be the next one on the list. He’s already put up enough numbers to be labeled a future first-round pick and he’ll be able to leave a good early impression if the Cowboys can upset Iowa and Oregon early in the season. Perhaps the biggest issue is he plays way out West at a non-traditional power but if Wyoming can run the table and have Allen post some monster stats there’s no reason to see why he couldn’t make a run at the award.
8. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
Falk has thrown for more than 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons and is set to do so again for the Cougars in 2017. While every Mike Leach quarterback is going to have impressive stats, this one might have the best chance of any recent protégé to take home the Heisman. If Wazzu can wind up winning the Pac-12 and even sneak into the playoff conversation, be prepared to hear all about the toughest signal-caller west of the Mississippi.
7. Kenny Hill, QB, TCU
Kenny “Trill” topped a bunch of Heisman lists early in his tenure at Texas A&M before the bottom kind of fell out in College Station. He’s reinvented himself and flown a little under the radar in Fort Worth but the QB has a chance to put up some big numbers in the Horned Frogs’ offense as a senior this year. While most of the Big 12 Heisman talk is focused on the two signal-callers in Oklahoma, don’t be shocked by one south of the Red River making some noise in the race too.
6. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
Stanford has produced two of the best tailbacks in school history the past few years but each fell just short of capturing that famous stiff-armed trophy come December despite having the numbers to do so. Might Love reverse the curse and grab the hardware this time around? It’s possible despite the inevitable comparisons to Christian McCaffrey at every point this season. He’s got explosive, home-run potential and could run right into the record books given the way things have gone on The Farm.
5. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
Sam Darnold is college football’s golden boy at the moment but he’ll be the first to tell you that one of the Trojans’ best players lines up right behind him in Jones. Few possess his blend of power and speed and the “Texas Tesla” could be even better than last season’s 6.1 yards per carry. USC is no stranger to having both a QB and a RB up for the prestigious award and that certainly might be the case in 2017 given how good Jones is.
4. Kamryn Pettway, RB, Auburn
QB Jarrett Stidham is getting all of the Heisman attention at Auburn but the guy behind him in the backfield has just as good of a case to make it to New York if things break the right way for the Tigers. He was the team’s best offensive player in 2016 and led the SEC in rushing yards per game on his way to first-team all-conference honors. The big back could be even this season and may be firmly in the mix to follow in Tre Mason’s footsteps to the Big Apple.
3. Ed Oliver, DL, Houston
Tom Herman may be gone as head coach but his prized five-star recruit will still be on campus looking to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. As just a true freshman, Oliver dominated games in a way few have seen before and he not surprisingly earned All-American honors from just about everybody across the country. He’s got enough name recognition to the point where he is already posting decent odds for the Heisman and if he can better his numbers even more then Oliver will be firmly in the mix for the Heisman when all is said and done.
2. Derwin James, DB, Florida State
The Seminoles’ season hit a rough patch in 2016 when James injured his knee and his return to the starting lineup is one reason why many think FSU will be right in the thick of the playoff race this year. The star defensive back recorded 91 tackles and an insane-for-his-position 9.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks as a true freshman and he should be even better as a fully healthy redshirt sophomore. Given that LB/SS Jabrill Peppers was just a Heisman finalist, James winning the award is certainly in play and the addition of return duties (or even offensive snaps) could help tremendously in making a case to voters he’s the best of the best.
1. Quinton Flowers, QB, South Florida
Poor Charlie Strong could barely figure out things at quarterback during his tenure at Texas but the veteran head coach will have no such issues at his new home in South Florida considering how good the Bulls’ signal-caller was as the most recent AAC Offensive Player of the Year. Flowers has improved his passing significantly each season and it’s not a stretch to think a campaign of more than 3,000 yards and 30 TDs through the air is in the cards. Add in another 1,500-yard rushing season like he just had and this year’s version of Lamar Jackson may be wearing green and gold.
— 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.