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Heisman Watch: Big 12’s Top Candidates for 2017

Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield

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The Big 12 didn’t wind up having a team in the College Football Playoff last season but the conference was all over the Heisman Trophy ceremony, drawing the rare honor of sending not one but two finalists to New York for the sport’s ultimate individual honor.

Could the same thing happen again in 2017? Given the amount of players who put up eye-popping numbers in the conference, chances look good that there will be at least once finalist representing the Big 12 this December. Who exactly might that be? Here are 10 of the top candidates for the award from all over the league:

10. Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State

The Cowboys’ offense will be explosive once again this season but the most underrated part of the big numbers produced by Mike Gundy’s group is the running game. Hill burst on to the scene in 2016 and garnered Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors after averaging nearly 5.5 yards per carry. Defenses will have to deal with a dangerous passing game so Hill will have plenty of opportunities to leave his mark in favorable situations. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the tailback’s candidacy is on his own team and trying to emerge from the shadow of the mullet that lies on his coach’s head.

9. Chris Warren, RB, Texas

Warren is the presumed heir in the Texas run game to D’Onta Foreman, who only put up 2,028 yards on the ground last season. Yes there will be a new offensive system in place under new head coach Tom Herman but that will also mean a more physical approach that loves to run the ball that could prove a boon for somebody like Warren. If he can come close to Foreman’s numbers last year while helping the Longhorns make a big jump in the win column, the big fella can certainly rumble all the way to the Big Apple.

8. Jesse Ertz, QB, Kansas State

It seems like forever ago that Collin Klein was repping the Wildcats in the Heisman race and Ertz looks like the next man to make it from Manhattan to Manhattan. This might be Kansas State’s best team since that 2012 team that won the league and the dual threat Ertz is going to play a big role in living up to high expectations. If he can make a jump in terms of efficiency and capture a league title, he’ll have more than a dark horse’s chance of grabbing the trophy.

7. KaVontae Turpin, WR, TCU

Injuries derailed his and the Horned Frogs’ season but there have been plenty of highlights early in Turpin’s career that showcase his game-changing abilities. Be it on a screen play or a punt return, he’s simply a threat to take it to the end zone on every touch. Turpin will benefit from a potential run to the league title and being able to contribute in multiple categories.

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6. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State

Washington is the favorite to take home the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver and a third straight 1,000-yard season could earn him a trip to New York for an even bigger award. His Bedlam rival Dede Westbrook made the same trek in 2016 and it would surprise nobody if the same thing happens to the Cowboys’ playmaker. The only question is whether Washington can steal enough of the spotlight from his teammates to hoist the trophy.

5. Kenny Hill, QB, TCU

The Trill is gone is but Kenny Hill will still live on as the Horned Frogs’ signal-caller. Now a senior, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see a big jump with his numbers provided he can stay healthy and his receivers don’t drop half the things he throws their way. If Hill can lead TCU to a surprise conference title while producing the way he’s capable of, Gary Patterson will be in New York talking about his super productive offense instead of the team’s D.

College Football Uniforms: TCU

4. Shane Buechele, QB, Texas

There are a handful of programs that get an oversized amount of attention and Texas is no doubt one of them. Being the quarterback on such a team makes for an instant Heisman contender to begin the year and Buechele is no exception. He posted impressive numbers as a freshman (including a 21:11 TD-to-INT ratio) and now gets the benefit of working with a new, offensive-minded head coach who is something of a QB whisperer. It all adds up to the budding face of the Longhorns program potentially winding up flashing the stiff arm following the “Horns Up.”

3. Will Grier, QB, West Virginia

Grier was slowly working his way into the Heisman conversation back in 2015 following a breakout first half at Florida. After getting popped for using PEDs and then transferring to Morgantown, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the quarterback keep up the early career trajectory and turn into a quality starter for the Mountaineers. Geno Smith made an impressive early run at the award under Dana Holgorsen before and it seems Grier has enough talent to get over the hump with a big year and league title in hand.

2. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

Everybody from NFL scouts to every Big 12 defensive coordinator is well aware of what the strong-armed Rudolph can do with the football in his hands and the early name recognition will certainly help his case of making it to New York. He tossed just four interceptions last season despite throwing for more than 4,000 yards and is primed to repeat (or better) those numbers once again given the ridiculous skill talent around him. Having the new Big 12 title game in late December could help his candidacy tremendously and give the Cowboys another Heisman Trophy nearly 30 years after their first.

1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Mayfield understands the saying “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” more than any other college football player after finishing in the top five in voting for the Heisman twice but still failing to take home the prize. He at least made it to New York as a finalist last season but will no doubt be aiming to finally give the winner’s speech this time around in his final campaign in Norman. He set the FBS record for passing rating a year ago and should be just as good (if not better) for the Sooners in 2017, which just might be enough to become the latest OU signal-caller to grab the trophy in December.

— 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.