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Heisman Watch: Ranking the Pac-12's Top Candidates for 2017

Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold

The annals of Pac-12 football history are filled with stars who won the Heisman Trophy – names like Jim Plunkett, Terry Baker, Gary Beban, Marcus Allen, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Marcus Mariota.

Washington Huskies QB Jake Browning

In total and throughout its various incarnations, the Pac-12 claims 11 Heisman winners; Pac-12 programs make for 12, with recent newcomer Colorado boasting a 1994 recipient in the late Rashaan Salaam.

And the Pac-12 is loaded with contenders to make it Lucky No. 13. Heading up the Pac's cast of candidates is arguably the most hyped prospect of the 2017 season, Sam Darnold. And while USC has had a historic edge on the Heisman in comparison to its conference brethren, don't sleep on some of the league's other names – especially considering the last five Pac-12 Heisman finalists all came from Stanford (Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck, Christian McCaffrey) and Oregon (LaMichael James and Mariota).

Top 10 Pac-12 Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2017

10. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

Overlook Freeman at your own risk.  Though the Oregon senior's production dipped in 2016 – and really, who in the program didn't suffer a setback in last year's 4-8 finish? – Freeman remains on course to set UO's career rushing record.

He already holds Oregon's single-season rushing mark, hitting 1,836 in 2015. That was good enough to surpass 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James. And even while languishing through a less productive junior campaign, Freeman still flirted with 1,000 yards while averaging more than 5.6 yards per carry.

Freeman isn't ranked higher here because Oregon has a long way to return to contention in 2017. While there are exceptions – D'Onta Foreman earned an invitation to New York last season despite Texas' sub-.500 finish – Heisman nominees from teams out of their conference title race are rare.

9. Armand Shyne, RB, Utah

If you're looking for a dark horse out of the Pac-12, look no further than Shyne. The Utah offense has undergone repeated changes throughout the program's tenure in the Pac-12, but one constant is the showcasing of standout feature backs: John "Wolfman" White, Devontae Booker and last year, the surprising emergence of once-retired Joe Williams.

Before Williams came out of a brief retirement to rack up 1,407 yards and 10 touchdowns, Shyne was on his way to carrying the banner for Utah's running back legacy.

Shyne rushed for 373 yards and four touchdowns in less than five full games' worth of work. He's poised to be the breakout star of a unit that finally looks healthy. The Utah ground attack should also benefit from the addition of new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, previously the quarterbacks coach at FCS Eastern Washington; as well as Oregon wide receiver transfer Darren Carrington.

A more credible passing threat should open the field for Shyne more than any recent Utes running back, and almost give Utah a dimension its lacked in three years of contending unsuccessfully for the Pac-12 championship.

8. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford

Christian McCaffrey nearly brought the Heisman back to The Farm in 2015, and quietly put up finalist-worthy numbers in 2016. McCaffrey leaves Stanford with a long shadow, but Love has the skills to forge his own path.

Stanford RB Bryce Love

Oh, and Love's skills fit nicely in the larger confines of the Stanford system.

For as long as David Shaw's been at Stanford – both as head coach and offensive coordinator – the Cardinal have featured standout running backs. Love appears ready to be next in the long and distinguished line that includes two Heisman finalists, last year averaging 7.05 yards per carry in relief of an injured McCaffrey.

Considering the position's importance to Stanford's success, and the precedent set with McCaffrey and Toby Gerhart both reaching New York, Love could easily position himself for a similar run.

7. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington

Star players on national championship teams tend to have an advantage when pursuing the Heisman, though that comes with a stipulation.

Gaskin is an elite running back – one of the best in college football, in fact – and could rank much higher on this list. It's possible his surrounding team is too good for him to rank much more favorably than No. 7, however. Don't mistake that for a slight on Gaskin, who prepares for his third year as Washington's feature back.

Gaskin averaged 5.8 yards per carry for 1,373 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016. He could have produced more, had Washington not also had a Heisman-chasing quarterback in Jake Browning, and another electric running back in Lavon Coleman. Both are back, meaning Gaskin will be sharing the spotlight.

Should the benefits of playing on such a loaded offense improve Gaskin's individual numbers, he could race to the forefront of the Heisman chase.

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6. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC

Few, if any backfields in college football history were as good as the USC tandem of Reggie Bush and LenDale White. When that duo left following the 2005 season, the Trojans went almost a decade before another top-flight back emerged. That was Javorius "Buck" Allen in 2013 and ‘14.

The wait for another star-quality running back wasn't nearly as long after Allen. Jones II arrived the very next season, and marked his place as an elite rusher by 2016.

It's no coincidence USC's dramatic turnaround coincided with Jones' uptick in production. He made 141 of his 177 carries from Week 6 and on, and scored 11 of his 12 rushing touchdowns in the same stretch. Jones will be a clear No. 1 to open 2017 now that veteran Justin Davis has graduated. Don't be surprised if he becomes USC's first Heisman finalist since Bush won the award in ‘05.

5. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State

Despite Mike Leach's impressive lineage of record-setting quarterbacks, none of the operators of his air-raid offense have been Heisman finalists. Falk may be the exception to that precedent.

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Falk enters his third year as Washington State's quarterback, and he's demonstrated a unique mastery of the system that transcends the plug-and-play stigma often associated with it. Falk's considered an upper-tier NFL draft prospect for 2018, and could make headway in the preceding Heisman race.

To start, he's the leader of a dark-horse Pac-12 title contender. Secondly, his statistical output is prolific – and not necessarily in the same, sometimes manufactured way as other air-raid passers. Falk is remarkably accurate, connecting on 70 percent of his attempts a season ago.

4. Phillip Lindsay, RB, Colorado

Colorado's 2016 season was a big surprise. One of the key reasons was the Buffaloes’ smallest first-string player.

The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Lindsay was a dynamo in 2016, racking up 1,252 rushing yards with 16 touchdowns. His impact in the ground attack was sizable, but there may not be a running back in college football who packs as much of a punch in the receiving game as Lindsay. He was good for nearly 500 receiving yards and a score last season.

Operating behind a solid, veteran offensive line, and coupled with one of the best wide receiving corps in the nation, Lindsay has the personnel around him to improve his numbers further. Should Colorado again surprise pundits and return to the Pac-12 title hunt, Lindsay has a big chance to get to New York.

3. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

The former 5-star recruit made a splash in his UCLA debut two years ago. Rosen’s deconstruction of Virginia Week 1 of the 2015 season set a high standard he will strive to again meet upon his return from a shoulder injury.

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Rosen spent more than half of 2016 on the sidelines, as UCLA (4-8) endured easily its worst season since Jim Mora became head coach in 2012. With new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch implementing an offense designed to better accentuate all of UCLA's offensive positives – including a more effective run game – Rosen should flourish in 2017.

Given his exciting style of play and fascinating off-field persona, Rosen should have no trouble getting back into the Heisman conversation with a standout season.

2. Jake Browning, QB, Washington

Pac-12 North teams produced the Heisman Trophy winner in 2014, and the runner-up in ‘15. Browning's first two months of 2016 had the division on course for a third consecutive finalist reaching New York City, but the Washington quarterback endured a late-season arm injury that significantly hindered his production.

Browning said at July's Pac-12 media days that his arm is back to 100 percent, so expect to see the Washington quarterback produce at the torrid pace he established through the Huskies' first 10 games. He threw for 34 touchdowns against just three interceptions in that stretch, and was completing around 70 percent of his attempts.

What's more, a full-strength Browning is a human highlight reel who tosses the deep ball better than most in college football. He had 11 passing plays of 60-plus yards a season ago.

1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Every bit of hyperbole imaginable has been thrown Darnold's way this offseason. He stepped in as starting quarterback of a 1-2 USC team last September, lost his debut, then led the Trojans on nine-game winning streak that culminated in the Rose Bowl.

His record-setting Rose Bowl performance – 453 passing yards with five touchdowns – ignited a flurry of praise that has firmly established Darnold as the Pac-12's leading candidate for the Heisman; if not the nation's.

We've heard this in the past of other USC quarterbacks, but Darnold seems prepared to face the onslaught of pressure. He said he spoke with 2004 Heisman winner Matt Leinart in the offense to ready himself. Employing a dual-threat game unlike any recent USC quarterback before him, Darnold's uniquely equipped to join the most illustrious club in college football.

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