The Heisman Trophy is college football’s most prestigious individual award, so it should come as no surprise that it’s been very difficult for a player outside of a Power 5 conference to win it. In fact, the last time a player from one of the current Group of 5 conferences (AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) did claim the Heisman was back in 1990 when BYU quarterback Ty Detmer was the winner.
As an FBS Independent, the Cougars at least have the advantage of being able to schedule several Power 5 teams, which in turns increases their exposure and profile. Houston’s Andre Ware (1989) was the last true Heisman winner from a Group of 5 conference so should that change this year it would take nothing short of a historic performance.
Here are the 10 Group of 5 players that appear to have the best shot at breaking the Group of 5’s lengthy Heisman drought.
10. Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
For wide receivers, their Heisman drought goes back almost as far as the Group of 5’s with Desmond Howard (1991) being the last. Similar to Howard, Sutton has big-play ability (16.4 ypr on 76 catches in 2016) and can score any time he touches the ball. The junior figures to be a huge part of the Mustangs’ offense, which could take a step forward in head coach Chad Morris’ third season.
9. Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State
How do you replace the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher? With a guy who averaged 7.5 yards per carry. Penny has big shoes to fill following Donnel Pumphrey’s departure, but he gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground last season on just 136 carries, which was 213 fewer than Pumphrey. The Aztecs will continue to run the ball, so expect Penny’s workload to increase significantly and with early-season matchups against Arizona State and Stanford on tap, there are opportunities to impress the country and Heisman voters too.
8. Mike White, QB, WKU
The Hilltoppers have a new head coach following Jeff Brohm’s departure for Purdue, but the offensive game plan will remain the same – throw, throw and throw some more. White is coming off of a 4,363-yard season with 37 touchdowns and just seven interceptions despite not playing in the second halves of several blowouts. He’ll be breaking in some new targets, but the opportunity should still be there to put together another impressive stat line.
7. Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee
James is the NCAA’s active leader in both career receptions (213) and receiving yards (2,971) after hauling in 105 catches for 1,625 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He did this despite starting quarterback Brent Stockstill (see below) missing three games. James is a fairly safe bet for another 100 receptions and if he’s able to surpass last season’s production it will not go unnoticed despite the Blue Raiders hailing from Conference USA. Especially should Middle Tennessee come away with a win against Vanderbilt, Syracuse or Minnesota.
6. Brent Stockstill, QB, Middle Tennessee
Stockstill is the son of Blue Raiders head coach Rick Stockstill and already well on his way to rewriting the school record books. The junior missed three games last year because of a shoulder injury and still threw for 3,233 yards, 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. If he stays healthy, bigger numbers should follow, especially with top target Richie James leading a deep receiving corps. Brent Stockstill also will need to make the most of the three Power 5 opponents (Vanderbilt, at Syracuse, at Minnesota) on Middle Tennessee’s schedule.
5. Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo
Woodside led FBS with 45 touchdown passes last season and his 4,129 yards placed him seventh. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, tossed just nine interceptions and finished second in passer efficiency (183.3) to Baker Mayfield. Woodside has two of his top receivers back as the Rockets are expected to not only contend for the MAC title, but the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six bowl spot as well. A strong showing on the road against ACC Coastal Division favorite Miami would go a long ways to helping his Heisman candidacy.
4. Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
Rypien returns after throwing for 3,646 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. Now in his third year as the Broncos’ starter, if Rypien can take another step forward and help lead Boise State back to the Mountain West title game and a possible New Year’s Six berth, then he will get some Heisman consideration. An early-season head-to-head matchup with Washington State’s Luke Falk and a home game against Wyoming and Josh Allen (see below) also provide Rypien with opportunities to impress.
3. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
Allen is considered by some to be among the top quarterback prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. He needs to cut down on his interceptions (15 in 2016) and keep the Cowboys in the hunt for a Mountain West Mountain Division title, but he has the dual-threat skill set to put up big numbers and highlight-reel plays. Strong showings out of the gates against Iowa and Oregon not only will help his draft stock, but also build momentum for his Heisman candidacy.
2. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
It’s no secret that the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman is Charles Woodson, who also served as kick returner and a wide receiver on occasion for Michigan that season (1997). So it will take a special player to break through for the defense, and Oliver certainly fits that bill. A Freshman All-American last season after racking up 23 tackles for a loss and five sacks, Oliver will be the focal point of the Cougars’ defense and will have plenty of attention on him throughout the fall. If the preseason first-team All-American can live up to his lofty billing, it will only help his Heisman chances.
1. Quinton Flowers, QB, USF
Flowers could follow in Lamar Jackson’s footsteps as the next dual-threat quarterback to win the Heisman. Last year, Flowers accounted for 42 total touchdowns and finished with just 41 fewer rushing yards (1,530) compared to Jackson (1,571) despite getting fewer carries (198 vs. 260). Now a senior, Flowers will remain the focal point of the Bulls’ offense under new head coach Charlie Strong and going undefeated in the regular season is a possibility. If Flowers puts up similar numbers along the way, he should get serious consideration for an invitation to the Heisman ceremony in New York City.