Heisman Watch: Ranking the Group of 5's Top Candidates for 2019

D'Eriq King could wind up in New York City with another big season leading the Houston Cougars' high-powered offense

College football teams from Group of 5 conferences are often overlooked on the national landscape. The recent run of excellence at UCF is a prime example, as the Knights (banners aside) were never truly considered a national championship contender by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee despite winning 25 straight games over the last two seasons. Because of the lack of respect given to the so-called lesser conference programs, players who hail from G5 teams are also largely overlooked for national awards – especially the granddaddy of them all, the Heisman Trophy. 

 

No player from a current Group of 5 program has hoisted college football's top individual honor since quarterback Ty Detmer in 1990, when he broke records for Western Athletic Conference powerhouse BYU. Nevertheless, if a player from the Group of 5 ranks has a truly remarkable season statistically, and his team makes a UCF-like run or better, he might make a move up the Heisman list. As we look toward the 2019 campaign, we take a closer look at 10 potential G5 Heisman contenders.

 

Top 10 Group of 5 Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2019

 

10. Cole McDonald, QB, Hawaii

McDonald is the leading returning passer (3,875 yards) in FBS and ranks second behind 2018 Heisman runner-up (and Hawaii native) Tua Tagovailoa with 36 touchdowns. As the triggerman in Nick Rolovich's Run-and-Shoot, McDonald ranked in the top eight nationally in both categories last season despite missing one game due to injury and playing through incredible pain in several others. If he stays healthy and keeps talented redshirt freshman Chevan Cordeiro at bay, McDonald could post huge numbers for the Rainbow Warriors as a junior.

 

9. Juwan Washington, RB, San Diego State

Like McDonald, Washington fought through injuries to produce impressive numbers in 2018. Washington played in just nine games for the Azetcs, but he racked up 999 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Already a factor as a kick returner, Washington could also improve upon his 10 receptions and 73 receiving yards now that head coach Rocky Long has given the go-ahead for SDSU to run more of a spread offense in 2019.

 

8. Malcolm Perry, QB, Navy

The 2018 season was a disaster, but we've seen enough from head coach Ken Niumatalolo over the years to understand the potential for a bounce-back at Navy. The Midshipmen will turn to Perry to lead the offense once again after he split time between QB and slotback a year ago. Perry ran for 1,087 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior, and added 222 passing yards and two touchdowns, 167 receiving yards and a TD, and chipped in with a few kick returns as well. 

 

7. Brandon Wimbush, QB, UCF

If not for a horrific leg injury suffered against USF, UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton would sit atop this list. And, if not for a preseason ankle injury to Darriel Mack Jr., Wimbush might not make it at all. However, the Notre Dame graduate transfer has the inside track to start for the Knights after three seasons with the Irish, and that fact alone makes him valuable. Throw in his strong arm, dynamic running ability and touted leadership skills, and Wimbush has the potential to make a big splash at the G5 level. 

 

6. Zac Thomas, QB, Appalachian State

Thomas is one of nine returning starters back for the defending Sun Belt Conference champions. Thomas, who led the Mountaineers to an 11-2 record, threw for 2,039 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2018. He added 504 rushing yards and 10 scores on the ground, and even caught a touchdown pass. With a wealth of experience back to help, and with former NC State offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz as the new head coach, Thomas appears poised for a big year.

 

5. Nathan Rourke, QB, Ohio

College fantasy football fans have been shouting about Rourke since he took over as the starter for the Bobcats in 2017. Rourke has thrown for at least 2,200 yards in each of the last two years, but has been even more impressive as a runner, posting a combined 1,772 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns over that period. Ohio must completely rebuild its running back room, so Rourke could get even more carries – and more touchdowns – for the MAC title contenders as a senior.

 

4. Kevin Hopkins Jr., QB, Army

Army and Navy have combined to produce five Heisman winners, but none since Roger Staubach won the hardware with the Midshipmen in 1962. But the Black Knights have a great opportunity to create some Heisman buzz for Hopkins following an impressive 11-2 season in 2018. Hopkins ran for 1,017 yards and 17 touchdowns and threw for 1,026 yards and six scores last year. He'll likely need bigger numbers across the board and likely an undefeated season (no small feat with a trip to Michigan in Week 2), but the Black Knights will likely be favored in 12 of their 13 regular-season games.

 

3. Mason Fine, QB, North Texas

The Heisman campaign is in full effect for Fine, as evidenced by the #6ForHeisman peppered throughout Mean Green social media accounts. Fine threw for 3,793 yards (second behind McDonald among FBS returning QBs) with 27 touchdowns and only five interceptions while completing 64.6 percent of his passes. He welcomes back a lot of weapons, including top receiver Rico Bussey, Jr. and running back DeAndre Torrey.

 

2. Jordan Love, QB, Utah State

Utah State made a run at the Mountain West title in 2018 but fell short in the regular-season finale against Boise State. Still, after dismantling North Texas 52-13 in the New Mexico Bowl, the Aggies secured a spot in the postseason AP Top 25. Love was a major reason for that success, as he finished with 3,567 passing yards and 32 TDs with just six interceptions in 417 attempts. Love ran for seven touchdowns as well. Though he is one of just two starters returning on offense, Love is capable of big things and should keep Utah State in the mix for the Mountain division crown once again.

 

1. D'Eriq King, QB, Houston

Few quarterbacks possess the premium dual-threat abilities of King. In 11 games last season, King completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 2,982 yards and 36 touchdowns with only six interceptions. He also gained 674 yards on the ground with 14 more scores (that's 50 total touchdowns, by the way) on 111 carries, meaning he averaged a robust 6.07 yards per carry.

 

With Dana Holgorsen back in the Lone Star State and one of the most talented supporting casts among all G5 teams around him, a healthy King has the potential to put up 60 TDs or more. And if the Cougars knock off a big-name opponent like Oklahoma or Washington State, and run the table in the AAC, King could find his way to the Heisman ceremony in New York.

 

Others to Watch (in alphabetical order)

Holton Ahlers, QB, East Carolina

Blake Barnett, QB, USF

LeVante Bellamy, RB, Western Michigan

Spencer Brown, RB, UAB

Shane Buechele, QB, SMU

Damonte Coxie, WR, Memphis

Darrynton Evans, RB, Appalachian State

James Morgan, QB, FIU

James Proche, WR, SMU

Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati

Armani Rogers, QB, UNLV

J'Mar Smith, QB, Louisiana Tech

Patrick Taylor, RB, Memphis

Michael Warren II, RB, Cincinnati

Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

 

— 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.

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