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Heisman Watch: Ranking the Group of 5's Top Candidates for 2018

UCF Knights QB McKenzie Milton

UCF Knights QB McKenzie Milton

It’s been a long time since a player from a non-power conference won the Heisman Trophy. The last, BYU quarterback Ty Detmer, set 42 NCAA records on his way to earning college football’s highest individual honor in 1990. Back then, the Cougars were members of the Western Athletic Conference.

It’s even difficult for top player from a Group of 5 conference to earn an invitation to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch was the last to do it in 2013, when he finished third in the final vote (after finishing seventh in 2012). Other notables to make the trip to New York include Boise State’s Kellen Moore in 2010 (finished fourth) and Hawaii record-setter Colt Brennan in 2007 (third). The last G5 player to finish in the top five of the voting was San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny, who finished fifth behind 2017 winner Baker Mayfield.

Because they do not play against the most prestigious programs week in and week out, every player from a G5 program is a longshot to make it to the Heisman ceremony, and faces even longer odds to hoist the hardware. Nevertheless, there are many exciting and productive players from non-power conference schools that could make noise on a national level in 2018. We might even see the next Penny, Lynch or Detmer.

Heisman Watch 2018: ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Pac-12 I SEC I Dark Horse

10. Sutton Smith, DE, Northern Illinois

Northern Illinois is no stranger to national recognition, and Smith made plenty of noise for the Huskies in 2017 by racking up an FBS-best 29.5 tackles for a loss and tying for the national lead with 14.0 sacks. Smith’s incredible production as a sophomore earned him All-American status, and he also brought home MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

9. Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo

Another MAC standout and the only wide receiver on our list, Johnson was a relative unknown (even by G5 standards), when he signed with Buffalo out of junior college in 2016. Johnson didn’t see the field in his first year on campus, but he set a school record with 14 touchdown receptions last season. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound senior racked up 1,356 yards on 76 catches, most of them coming courtesy of quarterback Tyree Jackson. With Jackson and Johnson on display, the Bulls should be a factor in the MAC, and NFL scouts should spend plenty of time watching both this season.

8. Brent Stockstill, QB, Middle Tennessee

It takes massive numbers for a G5 player to create a national buzz, but Stockstill is more than capable. The son of head coach Rick Stockstill, Brent enters his senior season with 8,939 career passing yards and 77 touchdowns – both school records. He threw for more than 3,000 yards and 30 TDs in each of his first two seasons as the Blue Raiders' starter before being limited to seven games, and just 1,672 yards and 16 scores, last year. Stockstill has great command of the offense and a talented set of wideouts capable of carving up defenses across Conference USA.

7. Mason Fine, QB, North Texas

Stockstill isn’t the only great quarterback in C-USA. Fine led the league with 31 touchdown passes in 2017 and ranked second with 4,052 passing yards, good for sixth in the FBS, while leading the Mean Green to the West Division title. Like Stockstill, Fine has weapons available to him on the outside. And with a strong supporting cast elsewhere, North Texas should again be in the mix for the conference championship, which should help raise Fine’s national profile.

6. Malcolm Perry, QB, Navy

It would be unfair to expect Perry to put up the kind of numbers Keenan Reynolds did in Navy’s triple-option offense – especially considering the fact Reynolds set an NCAA Division I record with 88 rushing touchdowns across four seasons under center and Perry has just three starts at the position. Nevertheless, the explosiveness Perry showed as a sophomore, when he gained 1,182 yards on the ground and scored 11 times, suggests it’s possible. Perry is expected to be the full-time signal caller for the Midshipmen as former starter and fellow 1,000-yard rusher Zach Abey has been moved to receiver – meaning Perry should rack up huge numbers in 2018.

5. Justice Hansen, QB, Arkansas State

The Sun Belt Conference has yet to make its mark with a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl game representative, and though the league has produced many exciting players, none has broken into the Heisman Trophy conversation. That could change with Hansen. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound senior threw for 3,967 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2017 and added 423 yards and seven scores on the ground. He topped 300 passing yards six times last season, surpassed 400 in three contests, and put up 520 against ULM.  The Red Wolves have a great chance to win the conference in 2018, and Hansen will have a huge opportunity to show what he can do when Arkansas State travels to Alabama in Week 2.

4. Devin Singletary, RB, FAU

Quarterbacks have dominated this list, but there are talented G5 playmakers at the running back position as well, including Appalachian State’s Jalin Moore, who is in line for a big season. However, the clear No. 1 back in the Group of 5 ranks is Singletary. No FBS player scored more rushing touchdowns last season than Singletary, who crossed the end zone line 32 times as a sophomore. Singletary finished fourth nationally with 1,920 rushing yards on a hefty 301 carries, which ties him for the lead in that category. Even with all that work he averaged an impressive 6.4 yards per carry. If he stays healthy and challenges the 2,000-yard mark again, the Owls could be in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. And with high-profile non-conference matchups with UCF and Oklahoma on the schedule, Singletary could grab the national spotlight and make a strong Heisman case.

3. Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State

The Heisman Trophy is not a career achievement award, though being a multi-year performer and nationally recognized name helps immensely. Rypien enters his senior year with 39 career starts, which ties him with Washington’s Jake Browning and Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson for the national lead. Rypien also has been highly effective, with a combined 9,873 passing yards, 60 touchdowns and 22 interceptions across three seasons. If Boise State competes for a New Year’s Six bowl as expected, Rypien’s name recognition should rise, as would his Heisman chances.

2. McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF

Milton finished eighth in last year's Heisman voting, as the Hawaiian-born dual-threat quarterback proved to be the perfect triggerman in Scott Frost’s offense. Milton threw for 4,037 yards with a 37:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio, ranked second nationally in both passer rating (179.3) and yards per pass attempt (10.2), and also ran for 613 yards and eight touchdowns while leading the Knights to a perfect 13-0 record. Milton was the AAC Offensive Player of the Year and even with a new head coach – Jopsh Heupel – calling the shots, he should be among the nation's most prolific signal-callers once again. Heupel, the 2000 Heisman runner-up while at Oklahoma, is no stranger to the award and he helped Drew Lock put up huge numbers at Missouri last year as the Tigers' offensive coordinator. So don't expect to see much of a drop-off for Milton this year.

1. Ed Oliver, DL, Houston

It’s incredibly difficult for a G5 player to generate Heisman buzz, and it’s doubly difficult for one to do so on the defensive side of the football. Nevertheless, Oliver has the talent to break through. A former five-star recruit who is already being viewed as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Oliver is a dominant force for the Cougars. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound junior totaled 39 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks across his first two college seasons – which would be impressive for any defender, and even more so for an interior defensive lineman. In an effort to raise his profile further, Oliver is likely to see some snaps on offense in 2018. He had one opportunity to carry the football last year, scoring on a one-yard touchdown run against Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. A few more touchdowns, along with his typical defensive numbers, should make Oliver the best bet of all Group of 5 players to make it to New York.

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

(Top photo courtesy of UCF Athletics)