Setting the Early Odds on 2017 Heisman Contenders

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 19, 2017

Setting the Early Odds on 2017 Heisman Contenders

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    Louisville QB and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson
    Louisville QB and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar JacksonMichael Reaves/Getty Images

    It's never too early to start looking ahead to the Heisman Trophy race, and the 2017 edition is shaping up to be one of the best ever.

    Reigning winner Lamar Jackson will return to Louisville to try to become the second two-time winner in the award's history alongside Ohio State's Archie Griffin. But USC's Sam Darnold, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Penn State's Saquon Barkley are just a few of the talented players nipping at his heels.

    Who are the early favorites? Our picks based on talent, Heisman trends and expectations are in this slideshow.

Just Missed the Cut

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    Florida State S Derwin James
    Florida State S Derwin JamesJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Ten slots aren't enough to fit everybody in this discussion, and these players all have legitimate shots to win the most prestigious award in American sports.

    Who deserves to be in the top 10, and who's more of a dark-horse candidate? Sound off in the comment section.

    • Florida State S Derwin James
    • Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
    • Washington State QB Luke Falk
    • Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald
    • Penn State QB Trace McSorley
    • Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham
    • Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
    • Georgia RB Nick Chubb

10. South Florida QB Quinton Flowers

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    South Florida QB Quinton Flowers
    South Florida QB Quinton FlowersDon Juan Moore/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 2,812 passing yards, 24 passing touchdowns, 1,530 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns

    Odds: 75-1

    If you're looking for the chic pick to win the Heisman out of the Group of Five, South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers is your guy.

    The Bulls' rising senior signal-caller racked up 4,342 total yards in 2016, accounted for 42 touchdowns and shouldn't miss a beat with head coach Charlie Strong and uptempo offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert in charge of the program in 2017.

    He's a true dual threat who, outside of Louisville's Lamar Jackson, is the most electric running quarterback in the country. The Flowers hype should continue to grow throughout the offseason as analysts search for fringe candidates to tout prior to toe meeting leather.

9. Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph

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    Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph
    Oklahoma State QB Mason RudolphTom Pennington/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 4,091 yards, 28 passing touchdowns, 61 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns 

    Odds: 60-1

    Mason Rudolph will fight an uphill battle for attention in a Big 12 that will include Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, new Texas head coach Tom Herman and systems that produce video game numbers from quarterbacks around the conference.

    Rudolph will have some of the best, though.

    The rising senior has proved over the course of his career that he has the arm strength and knowledge of head coach Mike Gundy's system to run it at an elite level. He plays on a team that is consistently relevant in November and should be in the conference title mix again in 2017 thanks to Rudolph's return and that of star wide receiver James Washington.

    If Rudolph can lead the Cowboys into the College Football Playoff mix, he is probably the best Heisman bet on the board.

8. LSU RB Derrius Guice

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    LSU RB Derrius Guice
    LSU RB Derrius GuiceWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 1,387 rushing yards, 15 rushing touchdowns, 106 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown, 223 kickoff return yards

    Odds: 55-1

    Derrius Guice wasn't supposed to be the featured running back at LSU in 2016, but that changed in the season-opener when former Tiger Leonard Fournette injured his ankle and was limited during the season.

    In Fournette's stead, Guice proved he is a monster. 

    The rising junior packs enough punch to be a force between the tackles, and he is one of the most electric running backs in the game. With new offensive coordinator Matt Canada in the house, the Tigers offense should be much more creative. 

    That means additional touches and highlights for Guice, which are what he needs to become a serious Heisman threat.

7. Washington QB Jake Browning

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    Washington QB Jake Browning
    Washington QB Jake BrowningMaddie Meyer/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 3,430 passing yards, 43 passing touchdowns, 45 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns

    Odds: 45-1

    Jake Browning led Washington to the Pac-12 championship and a berth in the CFP last year and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. With that experience in his back pocket and an offense that is designed to accentuate a quarterback's strengths, another run should be in the cards for Browning.

    He proved as a sophomore that he's one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the game. He has a firm grasp of what head coach Chris Petersen asks him to do and can take the top off a defense when the time is right to create big plays.

    He will get receiver Dante Pettis back to help him out but will have to find another option in the passing game after John Ross declared for the NFL draft. If Browning can create offensive balance again, he should be a legitimate threat to get an invitation to New York as a finalist in December.

6. Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough

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    Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough
    Alabama RB Bo ScarbroughTom Pennington/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 812 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 22 receiving yards

    Odds: 35-1 

    Bo Scarbrough emerged as a force in the Peach Bowl national semifinal win over Washington, and he repeated the feat with two touchdowns in the national title game against Clemson before a fractured leg ended his outing in the third quarter.

    His encore should be fascinating.

    The 228-pound rising junior has speed to burn and the power to run through anybody. With quarterback Jalen Hurts providing more of the "lightning" option on the ground, expect new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to use Scarbrough's "thunder" early and often as the Crimson Tide look to get back to the peak of the college football world.

5. Florida State QB Deondre Francois

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    Florida State QB Deondre Francois
    Florida State QB Deondre FrancoisJoel Auerbach/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 3,350 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns, 196 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns

    Odds: 30-1

    Deondre Francois was sensational during his redshirt freshman campaign, topping the 3,000-yard mark through the air with inconsistent wide receiver play and an offensive line that let him down early and often.

    The tough rising sophomore should have better protection in 2016, but he will have more of the offense on his shoulders thanks to the departure of star running back Dalvin Cook. With a big arm and athleticism he could showcase more as a sophomore, Francois should be the centerpiece of an explosive Seminoles offense.

    Whether he gets into the Heisman mix, though, depends on the team's success. If he can lead Florida State to a season-opening win over Alabama and re-establish the program as the ACC's best, get ready for the Francois hype train.

4. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley

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    Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
    Penn State RB Saquon BarkleySean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 1,496 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns, 402 receiving yards, four receiving touchdowns, 74 kickoff return yards

    Odds: 25-1

    Saquon Barkley kicked off his 2017 Heisman campaign in the Rose Bowl loss to USC, when he rushed for 194 yards and two touchdowns and showed the world he is one of the best all-purpose running backs in the game.

    He isn't even close to reaching his ceiling, though.

    With Trace McSorley entrenched as the starting quarterback, expect head coach James Franklin to get creative with how Barkley is used, emphasize his pass-catching ability and help Barkley produce the kind of season running backs dream of.

3. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield

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    Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
    Oklahoma QB Baker MayfieldJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 3,965 passing yards, 40 passing touchdowns, 177 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns

    Odds: 20-1

    Baker Mayfield will return to Norman for his final year as the quarterback of the Oklahoma Sooners, and it could be his best.

    The electric dual-threat quarterback who owns back-to-back Big 12 titles has his sights set on a return to the CFP. For that to happen, he'll have to find success without running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, as well as receiver Dede Westbrook.

    No worries, though. Mayfield ran for 405 yards as a sophomore in 2015, so he can pick up some slack in the ground game. Through the air, he's known as one of the most prolific passers in the country and plays in a system under offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley that he knows well.

    Mayfield went to New York as a Heisman finalist as a junior, and a return trip to the Big Apple should be in his future. Whether he can win it might depend on how much voters expect him to improve upon his 2016 season.

2. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson

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    Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
    Louisville QB Lamar JacksonJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 3,543 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns, 1,571 rushing yards, 21 rushing touchdowns

    Odds: 6-1

    It's unfair, but Lamar Jackson will be held to a much higher standard as a junior than he was during his Heisman Trophy-winning season of 2016. Voters will want to see him improve, evolve and be even better to earn their votes.

    Nothing is impossible for Jackson, but that seems close to it.

    He was electric as a sophomore behind an offensive line that was average at best and atrocious at worst, and that line should improve in 2017.

    How will teams attack Jackson? Will he improve upon his completion percentage of 56.2? These are the questions that will determine his Heisman fate this year, even if he produces a similar season production-wise to his award-winning campaign. 

1. USC QB Sam Darnold

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    USC QB Sam Darnold
    USC QB Sam DarnoldSean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    2016 Stats: 3,086 passing yards, 31 passing touchdowns, 250 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns

    Odds: 5-1 

    Sam Darnold established himself as a star in 2016, and he did so in a pinch after Max Browne was benched prior to USC's Week 4 game against Utah. All Darnold did was lead the Trojans to nine straight wins to close out the season—including a 52-49 Rose Bowl win over Penn Stateand entrench himself as one of the most gifted quarterbacks in college football.

    That was on the fly. Think about what he's capable of now that he'll have a full offseason as the unquestioned starter with a coach in Clay Helton who is a little more comfortable in his own job heading into his second full campaign.

    Expect the playbook to expand, Darnold to be more of a factor on the ground and the rising redshirt sophomore to take home the 2017 Heisman Trophy.


    Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats, and recruiting information is courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted.

    Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on SiriusXM. Follow Barrett on Twitter and Facebook.