Last season, the SEC got back to its Heisman-winning ways after Alabama’s Derrick Henry claimed college football’s top prize, piling up more than 2,200 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns.
Of course, to win the Heisman Trophy, players also have to be on a pretty good team. That could be a good sign for programs like Alabama, LSU and Tennessee this year. Can the SEC produce another Heisman Trophy winner this year? It certainly has a chance with some of the nation’s best players.
Here is a look at the SEC’s top Heisman candidates for 2016.
The Five Clear Favorites
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
If the Heisman Trophy was awarded midseason, Fournette would have had it locked up last year. Fournette is undoubtedly the SEC’s top contender heading into 2016. He rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, but didn’t perform as well in LSU’s three losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss. That just goes to show how important Fournette will be to LSU’s success this fall.
2. Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
The SEC doesn’t have a lot of great passers right now, but don’t tell Kelly that. In his first season as the starter, Kelly threw for more than over 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, and also was a threat on the ground. Most impressively, Kelly threw for 300 or more yards in eight games. He performed well against the Rebels’ toughest opponents, and stayed consistent all season. You can’t really find a game on Ole Miss’ schedule where Kelly performed poorly.
Podcast: SEC Media Days Jam Session
3. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
Tennessee is the popular pick to win the SEC East this season. If the Volunteers get to at least 10 wins, they probably will have a player or two in the Heisman conversation. Hurd is a powerful running back, and likely will break Tennessee’s all-time rushing record. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord loves the running game, so Hurd should continue to get plenty of opportunities to impress the voters.
4. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Last year, Chubb was ranked No. 1 on this list. Unfortunately, he suffered a severe knee injury against Tennessee and wasn’t able to further the momentum from his 2014 season. Chubb is still recovering, and it is unclear whether he will be ready to go in week one against North Carolina. Even if he is back to 100 percent, the injury could linger. That said, Chubb is arguably the SEC’s best running back when he’s at his best.
5. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
The Crimson Tide have a ton of questions on offense heading into the season, but they should be good to go at the receiver position. Ridley put up fantastic numbers in his freshman season, catching 89 passes for more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. Ridley is Alabama’s most dynamic weapon, at least for right now. If he gets enough touches, he could contend for the Heisman.
The Next Five Candidates
6. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
In the Nick Saban era, Alabama has relied on strong running backs. Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, take your pick. But for the first time in Saban’s tenure, Alabama is a little unsure at the running back position. While the backs may be unproven, they are talented. If Scarbrough ends up getting the majority of the carries, he will probably end up in the Heisman conversation. After all, he would be the running back at Alabama.
7. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
As mentioned before, Tennessee has high expectations this fall. While the Vols will rely mostly on the running game, that doesn’t exclude the quarterback. Dobbs can be a real game-changer with his legs. However, he will need to improve his accuracy when it comes to throwing downfield if he wants to be considered a legitimate Heisman candidate.
8. Brandon Harris, QB, LSU
It may come as a surprise to those who always say “LSU could be really good if it had a quarterback.” But the Tigers’ quarterback actually finished in the top five in the SEC last year in yards per attempt. Harris was mostly efficient, throwing 13 touchdowns to only six interceptions, and also has shown an ability to scramble. Obviously, he will need better numbers than he had last year to win the Heisman, and Les Miles loves to run the ball, but don’t rule Harris out if LSU has a stellar season.
9. Damien Harris, RB, Alabama
The other Alabama running back, Harris, likely will split carries with Scarbrough. However, one of these guys could emerge as the lead running back at some point in the season. Both are physical rushers, and it’s hard to say which will emerge. But if Harris is the one who ends up as Alabama’s leading rusher, he may very likely be in the Heisman conversation.
10. Trevor Knight, QB, Texas A&M
Knight is a bit of a wild card. His 2014 season at Oklahoma was fantastic (mostly), but the hype eventually faded and Knight lost the starting job. Now that Knight is in Kevin Sumlin’s system at Texas A&M, it could end up being the perfect fit. Knight is an offensive weapon, through the air and on the ground. He also will have plenty of playmakers around him, which should help his numbers.
Three Dark Horses to Watch
Fred Ross, WR, Mississippi State
It isn’t as likely for wide receivers to win the Heisman, but Ross is one of the SEC’s top returners at the receiver position. He had the luxury of catching passes from Dak Prescott last season, and things will definitely be different at the quarterback position in Starkville this fall. But that could help Ross, because Mississippi State will probably have to get more creative in getting him the ball. He’s the best offensive weapon on the Bulldogs’ roster. The Heisman will be a long shot, but it’s not out of the question.
Ralph Webb, RB, Vanderbilt
Because players usually have to be on a winning team to win the Heisman, it increases the degree of difficulty for someone like Webb, but Vanderbilt could at least get to a bowl game this season. Webb is, without question, the Commodores’ best player. With more than 1,100 rushing yards last year, Webb is third behind only Fournette and Hurd among the conference’s returning backs.
Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
Michel may be a long shot too, but he’s the clear No. 2 on Georgia’s running back depth chart. His recent broken arm isn’t as severe as the injury Chubb suffered, so when Michel is at full strength, he could get even more carries this season. Michel’s Heisman chances depend mostly on whether Chubb will be at full strength, but if he’s not, Michel has shown that he can fill in adequately.
Ranking the Conferences in 2016
Defensive Players to Watch
1. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
A defensive end winning the Heisman would be unheard of. The award almost always goes to a quarterback or running back. The only primary defensive player to win the Heisman was Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997, but even he needed to return kicks and occasionally fill in at wide receiver. It is extremely unlikely that a defensive player will win the award this year, but Garrett will probably have the best chance. His sack numbers should help.
2. Johnathan Ford, S, Auburn
Last year, Ford finished third in the SEC in total tackles, with 118 stops from the safety position. He also ran two interceptions back for touchdowns. But the thing that could propel Ford into the Heisman talk, assuming he is near the top of the tackle charts again, is his ability to return kicks. Ford finished second in the SEC last season, averaging almost 30 yards per return.
3. Charles Harris, DE, Missouri
Mizzou’s defensive line is so good that teams will have to get creative in double-teaming Harris. They will have to pay nearly as much attention to Walter Brady at the other end spot, plus defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. is back. Harris had 18.5 tackles for a loss last year, which ranked second in the conference, behind only Garrett at Texas A&M.
4. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee
Sutton was a three-star prospect when he got to Tennessee, but he has since made a name for himself as a lockdown corner for the Vols. Sutton rarely gets beat by opposing receivers, but like Auburn’s Ford, he will have to rely on return numbers to be talked about in the Heisman race. Sutton was the SEC’s top punt returner last year. He averaged almost 19 yards per return and got to the end zone twice.
5. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
The Gators have the SEC’s best corner, period. Tabor is well known already, and likes to trash talk. That’s because he knows he’s one of the SEC’s best players and is confident in his ability. It will be difficult for Tabor to put up Heisman-like numbers on defense, but he’s a solid longshot candidate.