It's always interesting when the Heisman Trophy is handed down in an election year in our country because it magnifies the truth behind college football's most prestigious award — it's the closest on-field sports award to our actual election, complete with propaganda, campaigning, privilege, and talking heads screaming their opinions on the matter "WHO SHOULD WIN!!".
After a handful of years where we saw Heisman winners who weren't even on the radar before the season winning the award (Ingram 2009, Newton 2010, Manziel 2012, Winston 2013), the last two seasons have given us winners that were among the favorites headed into the season — Marcus Mariota in 2014 and Derrick Henry last season.
The "heading into the summer" odds on the Heisman dropped online late last week, so let's take a look at the big board and give you three names that aren't listed right now, but could be in fairly short order once the season begins....
Deshaun Watson (QB Clemson) +350
If there was a silver lining for Clemson in their national championship game loss to Alabama, it was Watson's announcement to the college football world, with his play in that game, that he was staking claim to the forefront of the 2016 Heisman race. In that game, a 45-40 loss, Watson threw for over 400 yards and ran for 73 yards in a performance reminiscent of Michael Vick's against Florida State in 1999's title game, in which Vick was the best player on the field in a loss and went on, as many suspect Watson will, to become the number one pick in the draft in 2001. Watson will get an early statement game on the road against Auburn in Week 1. After that, it's a two game season — home for Louisville on October 1 and away at Florida State on October 29.
THE RUNNING BACK CLUB:
Leonard Fournette (RB LSU) +400
Christian McCaffery (RB Stanford) +500
Dalvin Cook (RB Florida State) +1,200
Nick Chubb (RB Georgia) +1,400
Royce Freeman (RB Oregon) +2,000
Samaje Perine (RB Oklahoma) +2,000
This might be the strongest crop of running backs we've seen chase the Heisman Trophy over the last ten to fifteen years. Fournette will probably be a top five pick in the 2017 draft, if he stays healthy, while McCaffrey, Cook, and Chubb all have first round talent. McCaffrey is the most intriguing of the bunch to me, given his "do everything" status for the Cardinal — rushing, catching, returning kicks — and his monster Rose Bowl against Iowa being the most recent image heading into the season.
JT Barrett (QB Ohio State) +1,000
Last year was the first that I can ever recall one school having three quarterbacks on the Heisman odds board heading into spring ball, which is exactly what happened at Ohio State with Barrett, Cardale Jones, and Braxton Miller all hovering around +2,000 in March. Miller was weeded out quickly with a spring move to wide receiver, leaving Barrett and Jones in a quarterback shuffle that was a drag on the Buckeyes season in 2016 (and yet they still came within a field goal of playing in the Big Ten title game and, likely, the playoffs). Now Jones is in the NFL and all that's left is Barrett, who is a better fit for what Urban Meyer wants to do offensively anyway. Ohio State recovering from their "Tom Herman departure" hangover offensively is a subtle storyline to this season. If they do that, and keep winning games, Barrett should get a trip to New York City.
Chad Kelly (QB Ole Miss) +1,200
Baker Mayfield (QB Oklahoma) +1,200
After transferring from Clemson amidst some off field conduct issues, and then spending a season at a community college, Kelly is establishing himself as the top quarterback in the SEC. He will get plenty of opportunities to shine, with an opening weekend Monday night game against Florida State being the first. Mayfield got better and better as last season went on, eventually leading Oklahoma to a playoff berth and a Big XII title.
Josh Rosen (QB UCLA) +1,600
Rosen announced his presence in college football with authority last fall, with 351 yards and three touchdown passes in his debut as a true freshman against Virginia. Chatter headed into the 2016 NFL Draft was that, if Rosen were allowed to come out for the draft, he'd have been the first player taken. So now Rosen heads into his sophomore season as, at the very least, the leader for the mythical "most likely to succeed at the next level" award. He opens the season with a first month that includes road trips to College Station (A&M) and Provo (BYU) and home game against Stanford, so we will find out quickly what Rosen's candidacy looks like.
Calvin Ridely (WR Alabama) +2,500
Joshua Dobbs (QB Tennessee) +2,500
Brad Kaaya (QB Miami) +3,300
Patrick Mahomes (QB Texas Tech) +3,300
Dobbs is intriguing, as Tennessee is a chic pick to crash the playoff party, and Mahomes should put up huge numbers for a Red Raider team that seems poised to make a bump up the Big XII leaderboard in 2016.
THREE GOOD CANDIDATES NOT LISTED ABOVE
One quick observation before giving you some "off the radar" long shots — other than Mahomes, the longest shot on the current board, by the way — the state of Texas has ZERO representation on this list, which is indicative of a few things. First, nobody is giving Houston much "elite level" respect headed into the season, even though they destroyed Florida State in their bowl game last season and an early season win against Oklahoma could catapult them into the playoff conversation. Second, Texas and Texas A&M are both expected to teeter on the brink of bowl eligibility this season, with each forecasted to win six games by the Vegas books. Finally, nobody knows what to expect at Baylor with Art Briles' firing. Normally, oddsmakers would put a Baylor QB and WR on the board out of principle.
So without further ado.....
1. Greg Ward, Jr., QB Houston
Ward, like his Houston teammates, gets an early season opportunity to seize the spotlight in a morning kickoff in Week 1 at NRG Stadium against Oklahoma. If the Coogs win that game, they could be in the playoff hunt as a Group of Five school, almost unheard of, and if they do make a run to the playoff, Ward should be in the Heisman conversation all season long, as everything — EVERYTHING — the Cougars do offensively is predicated on the individual greatness of Ward.
2. Trevor Knight, QB Texas A&M
Knight is only a couple seasons removed from beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and having Katy Perry ask for his phone number on an edition of College Gameday back when he was with the Oklahoma Sooners. I don't know if Perry will factor into Knight's candidacy, but there is a trip to Tuscaloosa on October 22. Knight's been named the starter already, possibly because he is the only QB that seems to want to exist within 50 miles of A&M's campus. If the Aggies overachieve this season, Knight should put up numbers in helping them get there.
3. Malik Zaire/DeShone Kizer, QB Notre Dame
As long as Notre Dame's floor is "above average," then their quarterback should be on this list. The only problem is we don't know who the starter will be. Kizer performed very well after Zaire went out with a season ending ankle injury in Week 2, but Zaire is the prototype for what Brian Kelly wants to do offensively. Keep an eye on this battle, and bet accordingly.
SEAN'S BET: Barrett +1000
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.