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Heisman Watch: Ranking the Pac-12's Top Candidates for 2020

Heisman Watch: Ranking the Pac-12's Top Candidates for 2020

Heisman Watch: Ranking the Pac-12's Top Candidates for 2020

College football has added a new name to the illustrious club of Heisman Trophy winners every year since 1935 — including during World War II. In that context, it's staggering to imagine an autumn that doesn't end with a new recipient of the game's most celebrated individual prize, but the unusual has become the norm amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 season is already set up to be completely unrecognizable from any modern comparison, with some leagues opting for conference-only schedules. The Pac-12 was the second FBS conference to adopt such a model. For a conference that already has some issues with outside perception, a league-only docket might make a Heisman candidacy especially difficult to launch.

2020 Heisman Watch by Power 5 Conference: ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Pac-12 I SEC

Nevertheless, the Pac-12 features a number of prospective contenders from a variety of programs.

Top 8 Pac-12 Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2020

8. Max Borghi, RB, Washington State

Washington State has not had a running back in the Heisman race — or much on the radar nationally to any extent — since Jerome Harrison in the mid-2000s. Borghi may not have challenged Harrison's 1,900-yard output from the 2005 campaign, but with 817 yards on just 127 carries, he eclipsed Harrison's yards per carry average by 0.4.

Borghi will see more carries as Washington State transitions from the air raid to the run-and-shoot offense under new head coach Nick Rolovich, and isn't likely to sacrifice the receptions that made him such a dangerous weapon on the periphery a season ago. He caught 86 passes in 2019, five of which went for touchdowns.

7. Jermar Jefferson, RB, Oregon State

In 2018, Jefferson, then a freshman, was arguably the single-biggest surprise to emerge in the Pac-12. The secret was out in 2019, and defenses keyed more on the powerful and explosive Oregon State back, but he still finished the campaign with 685 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and another two scores receiving.

Should he stay healthy for the duration of the 2020 campaign, expect an uptick in Jefferson's numbers. He has the potential to bounce back as the most productive ball carrier in the conference.

6. Chase Garbers, QB, Cal

The story of Cal's 2019 season can perhaps be best described in two ways: With Garbers and Without Garbers. With Garbers, the Golden Bears opened the campaign at 4-0 and roared into the Top 25. He sustained a shoulder injury midway through the fifth game against Arizona State, and Cal lost the next four; three of which were by a combined 21 points.

Upon his return, Cal finished 4-1 for the best final record of Justin Wilcox's tenure. His return to the lineup, coupled with an outstanding defense and the services of reliable running back Christopher Brown Jr., have the Golden Bears positioned as dark-horse contenders for the Pac-12 North.

5. Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, USC

Wide receivers contending for the Heisman have been few and far between. In the last 12 years, however, receivers who landed in New York included air-raid standouts Dede Westbrook (Oklahoma, 2016) and Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech, 2008). The latter was the primary target of current USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.

That's a fun coincidence to be sure, but not the sole reason St. Brown could emerge as a Heisman contender. The former 5-star recruit is poised to take over for Michael Pittman Jr. as the primary option in the Trojans' stacked passing attack. He's a highlight-reel playmaker and embodies the qualities the Heisman Trust emphasizes in candidates beyond just his football ability.

4. Tyler Shough, QB, Oregon

Positioning a player with limited college snaps this high might be presumptive. However, Tyler eases into the job Justin Herbert occupied for four seasons with an outstanding backfield around him and arguably the best left tackle in college football blocking for him (Penei Sewell).

Shough's dual-threat playmaking could add an exciting dimension to what was a methodical Ducks offense a season ago. Captaining a potential conference championship-winning team doesn't hurt the quarterback's ability to command the spotlight.

3. CJ Verdell, RB, Oregon

Running backs have found themselves at a growing disadvantage in the Heisman chase. To wit, there have been only two players in college football history to rush for 2,000-plus yards in two different seasons: One was Iowa State's Troy Davis, the 1996 Heisman runner-up. The other was Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, who was never even invited to New York.

It's been five years since a running back hoisted the hardware. Some good news for Verdell's candidacy? Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal was an offensive assistant for the Alabama team that produced that back, Derrick Henry.

Verdell hit his stride in the back-half of Oregon's Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl Game run. He finished the campaign with 1,220 yards on just 197 carries with eight touchdowns, and in 2018, proved himself a dangerous pass-catching weapon at 315 yards and two scores. Along with standout defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux — maybe the Pac-12's best long-shot Heisman contender for 2020 — Verdell promised last season was the start of bigger things to come. Winning the program's second Heisman would certainly qualify.

2. Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State

A breakout starring performance in primetime last November against Oregon let the nation know what Pac-12 followers understood much earlier in his freshman season: Daniels can ball. The dual-threat quarterback threw for just under 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns against only two interceptions. He added another 355 yards with three scores on the ground.

Daniels' legs may be unleashed even more with Arizona State replacing productive running back Eno Benjamin. Should Daniels stuff the stat sheet in 2020 and continue to build off his late-season stardom — and the Sun Devils meet expectations as South contenders — he will factor into the Heisman race.

1. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

Because the Heisman relies as much on buzz as production, One could reasonably assume playing in the media capital of America benefits a Heisman candidacy. USC boasting three of the Pac-12's four winners in the 21st century helps support the point.

Certainly that's not to take anything away from Slovis. He heads into the protracted 2020 campaign having emerged from relative obscurity to set a bevy of USC freshman records. Rejoining arguably the best wide receiving corps in the country, and with a year of familiarity in Graham Harrell's system to his credit, the stage is set for Slovis to have a monster sophomore season.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.