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Heisman Watch: Early Look at Top Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2020

Heisman Watch: Early Look at Top Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2020

Heisman Watch: Early Look at Top Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2020

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow just completed one of the greatest seasons in college football history. In addition to winning the Heisman Trophy by the largest margin ever, Burrow filled his trophy case with a half-dozen other national awards and led the Tigers to the national championship. Along the way, he rewrote the school record book and set a new NCAA record with 60 touchdown passes.

Of course, Burrow wasn’t among the preseason Heisman favorites in 2019. This time last year, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was the clear front-runner to win college football’s top individual honor following his runner-up finish in 2018. Both Burrow and Tagovailoa (who finished 10th in the voting following an injury-shortened junior season) are gone, as are four more of the top six vote-getters from last year.

As we look far ahead to the 2020 college football season, we take a closer look at the early favorites for the Heisman Trophy, as well as some Burrow-like longshots who could emerge in the race.

Top 5 Heisman Trophy Contenders for 2019

1. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

If 2019 were a normal year, Fields probably would have won the Heisman. In his first season with the Buckeyes, Fields completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,272 yards and 41 touchdowns with only three interceptions (two of which came in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson after the votes were cast). He averaged 9.2 yards per pass attempt and also ran for 484 yards and 10 touchdowns.

But Burrow produced one of the greatest seasons in college football history and runner-up Jalen Hurts also was excellent, in addition to being one of the best stories. Fields probably lost a few votes to his own teammate Chase Young and settled for third. But as the top returning vote-getter for 2020, Fields should be considered the early front-runner.

2. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

Lawrence was criticized for the eight interceptions he threw across the first seven games of the 2019 season, but he rebounded with an incredible second half that included a school-record (and still active) streak of 239 pass attempts without being picked off. Lawrence finished his sophomore season with a 65.8 percent completion percentage, 3,665 passing yards, and 36 touchdown passes and he also scored nine times on the ground while running for 563 yards. He finished seventh in the voting in 2019 and is likely to rise this year.

3. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

Etienne shocked college football fans and NFL talent evaluators alike when he announced he would return to Clemson for his senior season. Etienne ran for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging 7.8 yards per carry as a junior and also contributed 432 receiving yards and four scores on 37 receptions. He’s one of the most explosive and elusive ball carriers in the nation, and through teammates can split the Heisman vote, Etienne (who finished in the top 10 in 2019) is capable of making a run for the hardware.

4. Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame

Book threw for 3,034 yards with 34 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 2019 while averaging 7.6 yards per pass attempt and completing 60.2 percent of his passes. Book also proved capable as a runner with 546 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Though his overall numbers were solid, Book feasted on the likes of New Mexico and Bowling Green in the first half of the season. Yet he finished very strong, including a four-game span in which he tossed 13 touchdowns with zero picks, setting the stage for high expectations as a fifth-year senior.

5. Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas

Texas failed to meet expectations in 2019, though that had more to do with injuries and defensive struggles than the play of Ehlinger. Sure, he threw 10 interceptions, including four in a maddening loss to TCU in which he completed just 45.8 percent of his attempts. But he also threw for four touchdowns in three sperate games, including the 45-28 loss to eventual national champion LSU. With a healthier supporting cast and new coordinators on both sides of the football, both Texas and Ehlinger can take a big step forward in 2020. And if the senior improves on his 3,663 passing yards and 32 touchdown passes and contributes similar rushing numbers (he's averaged more than 500 rushing yards per season and has 25 career rushing touchdowns), Ehlinger could make a legitimate Heisman push.

Next 5 on the List

1. Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State

Like Etienne, Hubbard surprised many with his decision to eschew the NFL for another year in college. Hubbard led the nation with 2,094 rushing yards as a third-year sophomore in 2019, and he ranked third in the country with 21 rushing touchdowns. Though he was less productive as a receiver than Etienne, and the Cowboys aren’t likely to be a national title contender like Clemson, Hubbard runs with the same top-level speed while remaining powerful and elusive. Another 2,000-yard season is a distinct possibility — especially if Hubbard and fellow returnees Spencer Sanders and Tylan Wallace lead the Pokes to the Big 12 Championship Game.

2. Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

Since 2017, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley has produced a pair of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks and a runner-up. Two of the three were first-year starters. That track record is enough to put the Sooners’ likely 2020 starter on our list. Add the fact Rattler was the highest-rated QB recruit in the 2018 class, and the redshirt freshman should be considered one of the favorites. Of course, Rattler must win the job first. Tanner Mordecai will provide stiff competition from the current roster, and each of Riley’s last three signal-callers came to Norman as transfers, so there’s a chance he could add another QB to the mix.

3. Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia

The most recent odds from the DraftKings online sportsbook list Newman, the graduate transfer from Wake Forest, as the third most likely to win the Heisman in 2019. Though Newman emerged as one of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in 2019, during which he threw for 2,868 yards and 26 touchdowns and ran for 574 yards and six scores, he also struggled with injuries and has failed to start a full season as a college quarterback.

Nevertheless, a major reason for optimism for Newman (and the Bulldogs’ championship hopes as a whole) is a change at offensive coordinator. James Coley, who called the plays for head coach Kirby Smart in 2019, has been reassigned, replaced by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers OC Jeff Monken, who is expected to open up the offense and put Newman and Georgia in position to succeed. If Monken refurbishes the Bulldogs' offense like Joe Brady was credited for doing so at LSU, Newman could have a Burrow-like rise.

4. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

USC has underachieved in each of the last two seasons, and head coach Clay Helton is seemingly on a permanent hot seat. But Helton was able to hold onto offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, and Slovis returns following one of the most impressive true freshman campaigns in recent memory. If the Trojans stay healthier than they did in 2019, USC could make a run at the Pac-12 title.

With Harrell calling the plays, Slovis completed 70.9 percent of his passes for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He also completed 8.9 yards per pass attempt. Assuming he holds on to the job (former starter JT Daniels is expected to return from injury), Slovis could improve on those numbers in Year 2.

5. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU

The Heisman Trophy race has been dominated by quarterbacks in recent years. Therefore, signal-callers like Sam Howell and Bo Nix, the returning starters at North Carolina and Auburn, respectively, Miami quarterback D’Eriq King, the recent transfer from Houston who accounted for 50 total touchdowns in 2018, or Myles Brennan, who is the early favorite to succeed Burrow at LSU, likely have a better shot than any receiver. Even an All-American and Biletnikoff Award winner.

Regardless, it’s impossible to ignore Chase, who led the nation with 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2019. Chase averaged 21.2 yards per catch on his 84 receptions, and he could be even more of a focal point of the Tigers' offense in 2020 following the losses of Joe Burrow, fellow receiver Justin Jefferson and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to the NFL.

Wild Card

Penei Sewell, OL, Oregon

After the votes were tallied last year, The Athletic's Bruce Feldman wrote about his decision to pencil in Sewell No. 2 on his Heisman ballot. Feldman is one of the most respected and visible reporters in college football, and his opinion carries some weight. Therefore Sewell, who also graded out as PFF's highest-rated player ever, is likely to garner more buzz than any offensive lineman since Orlando Pace, who finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 1996. Sewell is already enough of a household name to make some noise on the national stage, and if the Heisman Trophy is truly the award reserved for the best player in the country, he should have a strong case.

3 Defensive Players Worth Consideration

1. Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

If you're looking for a defensive player to make a Chase Young-like rise to the top five of the 2020 Heisman Trophy race, Parsons would probably be the safest bet. Parsons recorded 109 total tackles, 14.0 tackles for a loss, 5.0 sacks, and forced four fumbles for the Nittany Lions in 2019. He’s also incredibly fun to watch and should get a huge amount of attention from national media and pro scouts in 2020.

2. Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron must replace an incredible amount of talent and production from the Tigers' national championship squad, but at least he’ll have Stingley to build around. Stingley was a Day 1 starter at cornerback and emerged as an All-American while posting 38 total tackles, six interceptions, and 15 pass breakups. He was also the team's top punt returner and is expected to contribute on offense in the future.

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3. Gregory Rousseau, DL, Miami

Chase Young led the nation with 16.5 sacks in 2019, but Rousseau was close behind with 15.5. The Hurricanes have a long way to go as a team before any individual player garners legitimate Heisman consideration, but Rousseau is already one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the country with just one season under his belt, and he would likely play a major role should the program take a big step forward in 2020.

3 True Freshman to Watch

1. Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

Mac Jones earned valuable playing time and starting experience for Alabama in 2019, and he posted numbers impressive enough to enter 2020 as the front-runner to take over for Tua Tagovailoa as the full-time starter for the Crimson Tide. But similar to the way Tagovailoa outplayed Jalen Hurts for the job, there’s reason to believe Young, a five-star recruit, could supplant Jones before the season ends.

Already in Tuscaloosa as an early enrollee, Young will have an opportunity to compete with Jones and Taulia Tagovailoa for the job this spring. If he wins the job early and leads Alabama back to the College Football Playoff after a one-year hiatus, don’t be shocked if Young becomes the first true freshman ever to win the Heisman.

2. Jay Butterfield, QB, Oregon

Penei Sewell may be Oregon’s best overall player, and pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux is a budding superstar (who probably deserves recognition in the category above), but quarterbacks always have an edge in the Heisman vote. And with Justin Herbert off to the NFL, Butterfield is set to compete with rising sophomore Tyler Shough for the starting QB job in new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's system. If Butterfield emerges victorious, he'll have one of the most talented supporting casts in the Pac-12 to work with, a high-profile showdown with Ohio State in Week 2, and a manageable conference slate on which to build a resume.

3. Chubba Purdy, QB, Florida State

Similar to Miami and USC, Florida State has the high-end talent to compete for a conference championship but has fallen well short of expectations in recent seasons. With head coach Mike Norvell now at the helm for the Seminoles, there's hope FSU can capitalize on its roster strength in 2020 and beyond. But the Noles must improve at the quarterback position, and despite James Blackman's experience and Jordan Travis' athleticism, Purdy (the brother of Iowa State's Brock Purdy, who was a December flip from Louisville) has a strong chance to start. If Purdy and Norvell team up to lead a quick Florida State turnaround, and Purdy explodes onto the national scene as Jameis Winston did in 2013, he could enter the Heisman conversation.

Others to Watch (in alphabetical order)

Chatarius Atwell, WR, Louisville

Myles Brennan, QB, LSU

Sean Clifford, QB, Penn State

K.J. Costello, QB, Stanford (reportedly weighing potential transfer)

Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State

Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

Javian Hawkins, RB, Louisville

Kylin Hill, RB, Mississippi State

Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

D'Eriq King, QB, Miami

Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska

Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M

Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

Tanner Morgan, QB, Minnesota

Bo Nix, QB, Auburn

Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State

Wan'Dale Robinson, RB/WR, Nebraska

Spencer Sanders, QB, Oklahoma State

Tyler Shough, QB, Oregon

DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

Master Teague III, RB, Ohio State

Kyle Trask, QB, Florida

Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

Zamir White, RB, Georgia

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen is also the managing editor of CFB Winning Edge. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.