Last season’s Heisman Trophy ceremony brought fans a rare treat with five different players invited to New York as finalists for college football’s ultimate individual honor. Despite a diverse group of players finishing behind eventual winner Lamar Jackson however, not one of those five finalists came from the SEC.
Can things change for the mighty Southeastern Conference in 2017? Given the crop of quality signal-callers, prodigious defensive stars and big-time playmakers in the league, chances look good that there will be at least once finalist representing the SEC this December. Who exactly might that be? Here are 10 of the top candidates:
10. Da’Shawn Hand, DL, Alabama
Defensive players are largely an afterthought when it comes to the Heisman Trophy, with only Charles Woodson taking home the ultimate prize from that side of the ball and just a handful of defenders even making it to New York. Teammate Jonathan Allen had a superb 2016 season but fell short of being a finalist so it’s clearly an uphill battle for somebody like Hand to even get in the mix. Still, rushing the passer for one of the nation’s best defenses will always earn acclaim and if the former No. 1 overall recruit can live up to his early billing for the Crimson Tide this year, it’s possible he shocks the world to win the Heisman.
9. Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia
Georgia experienced some growing pains in head coach Kirby Smart’s first year on the job and part of that had to do with turning the offense over to a true freshman in Eason. While he had his ups and downs while getting his feet wet, the former five-star quarterback with an impressive supporting cast is one reason why folks keep increasing expectations for the Bulldogs. If Eason can make the leap as a sophomore and put up big numbers while leading his team to a conference title (and likely the College Football Playoff if so), then he’s bound to be involved with the Heisman come December.
8. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Ridley burst onto the scene as a freshman for Alabama and played a big role in the team’s run to a national championship two years ago. His numbers came back down a bit as a sophomore but there’s still little doubt that he’s one of the most dangerous pass catchers in the country as he enters his likely final year in Tuscaloosa. We’ve seen some impressive runs by wideouts recently and if Ridley can rack up the yards and touchdowns like he’s capable of (on the top team in the country), there’s no reason to think he can’t finish higher in the voting than Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook did recently.
7. Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
It’s tough to replace a school legend at quarterback but Fitzgerald did a pretty bang up job taking over for Dak Prescott in StarkVegas last season. The dual-threat signal-caller really impressed against some tough SEC defenses and managed to hit the double-double with more than 2,000 yards passing and 1,000-plus rushing. It’s no stretch to think he’ll drastically improve on his 54 percent passing after another year of Dan Mullen tutoring so Fitzgerald will have the stats to get into the Heisman conversation when all is said and done. If the Bulldogs make a similar leap in the win column then it wouldn’t be shocking at all if yet another speedy maroon-clad QB does the stiff arm in front of the cameras.
6. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
In terms of explosiveness and ability to take it to the house on every single touch, it’s hard to think of anybody more dynamic in the league than Kirk. He’s been a star for the Aggies each of the past two seasons and his hard work leading into 2017 should help pay off with another big year full of highlights. He’s got added value because he can get you several scores on special teams and it’s not hard to see him leading the nation in enough categories that he winds up holding the trophy at the end of the day.
5. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Just about everybody inside and outside of Athens were shocked to see that Chubb and fellow tailback Sony Michel were going to return to Georgia for their senior years. Chubb appeared to be fully healthy in 2016 after recovering from knee surgery and there are only a handful of players capable of completely taking over a game. If the Bulldogs’ offensive line can come together and create space, Chubb could run from Atlanta and the SEC title game right on up to New York.
4. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
After going so long without a winner, Alabama has turned into quite the Heisman-producing program in the backfield with both Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry getting their names etched into the side of the trophy. Scarbrough looks like he could join that group given the way he finished down the stretch last season and he’s definitely built for the task if you’ve seen him in person. While a full year as the starter should produce enough stats and highlights to be the last guy standing in New York, the biggest competition for Scarbrough may come from his own backfield mates this season.
3. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
Leonard who? Guice was the best “backup” tailback in the country last season and could have started for just about 125 or so other programs. As is, he racked up more than 1,300 yards and averaged a wild 7.6 yards per carry in 2016. He’ll be the focal point of the offense much more during the upcoming season and will benefit from new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s creativity in getting him touches. A big game against Alabama and a surprising SEC West title could help Guice find a lot more than just the end zone.
2. Jarret Stidham, QB, Auburn
No player in the country saw more movement this offseason from the oddsmakers for the Heisman Trophy than Stidham and there are good reasons behind that. The Baylor transfer checks off all the boxes you’re looking for in a quarterback and he’s moved to an offense that will allow him to put up the big numbers you have to have at the position in order to wind up in New York. Gus Malzahn has already guided one signal-caller to college football’s highest honor and Stidham could follow the same path.
1. Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
Hurts was on the periphery of last year’s Heisman discussion but never could seem to get enough credit for Alabama’s stellar success. That will change in 2017 as he becomes much more of the face of the program and the names change over on defense. Everybody expects him to take the next step when it comes to the passing game and he remains a true dual-threat talent capable of hitting the double-digit mark in terms of rushing touchdowns. If the Crimson Tide make it to the playoff yet again, Hurts will be a regular on the awards circuit too.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.