Ranking the Top Candidates for the 2018 Heisman Trophy

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2017

Ranking the Top Candidates for the 2018 Heisman Trophy

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    Wisconsin tailback Jonathan Taylor will be a strong Heisman Trophy candidate.
    Wisconsin tailback Jonathan Taylor will be a strong Heisman Trophy candidate.AJ Mast/Associated Press

    There was little drama when the 2017 Heisman Trophy ceremony unfolded Saturday night in New York City. Three-time finalist Baker Mayfield finally sealed the deal, winning the trophy in a landslide. Now, we can start speculating about 2018 Heisman candidates.

    The upcoming bowl season will determine a national champion through the College Football Playoff, but it can also serve as a jumping-off point for 2018 Heisman campaigns. Strong bowl efforts can get players on voters' radars for next year, but a number of players have shown they deserve consideration already. Here's a look at the top 10 candidates for the 2018 Heisman. Please note we are assuming Saquon Barkley, Josh Rosen, Bryce Love and Lamar Jackson will declare for the NFL draft. 

    Players were chosen based on the skills they flashed and statistics they put together this fall, as well as how amenable their surrounding situations are to a run at the stiff-arm trophy.

10. Houston DT Ed Oliver

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    Ed Oliver is an impressive presence on Houston's defensive line.
    Ed Oliver is an impressive presence on Houston's defensive line.Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    2017 highlights

    Houston took a step back to a 7-4 record following Tom Herman's departure to Texas, but you can't blame Ed Oliver. The Cougars sophomore defensive tackle was nearly impossible to block and had an exceptional season in the trenches. He had 69 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.

    Oliver became the first sophomore to win the Outland Trophy, given to the nation's top interior lineman, and was a first-team Walter Camp All-American. He's setting himself up for a big NFL payday following next season, but he has one more year left in a Houston uniform.

        

    What'll change in 2018

    Houston will lose as many as seven defensive starters next fall, so Oliver will carry a big load on the defensive line. But that shouldn't slow him down too much. Heisman voters occasionally have a defensive player in the mix, and his Outland Trophy win should have him on their radar, despite the Cougars' Group of Five status. It would help if Houston mounts a run for a New Year's Six bid.

         

    Heisman chances

    No defensive player has won the Heisman since Charles Woodson won as a hybrid corner/receiver in 1997, but Oliver has the credentials to challenge in 2018. However, the odds are against him. We'll say 3 percent, which could rise if Houston has a strong season on the field.

9. UCF QB McKenzie Milton

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    McKenzie Milton was a driving force for UCF's unbeaten season.
    McKenzie Milton was a driving force for UCF's unbeaten season.John Raoux/Associated Press

    2017 highlights

    UCF was one of the best stories of the 2017 season. Two years after going winless, the Knights went 12-0 in coach Scott Frost's second season, won the American Athletic Conference and made the Peach Bowl to face off against Auburn. A huge reason? Sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton. The dual-threat passer threw for 3,795 yards with 35 touchdowns against nine interceptions and also rushed for 497 yards and seven touchdowns.

    He had seven 300-yard passing games and was at his best when it mattered most. In a wild 49-42 season-ending win over South Florida, Milton threw for 373 yards and four touchdowns. In the AAC title game against Memphis, he had a career-high 494 yards and five scores in the Knights' 62-55 double-overtime win

          

    What'll change in 2018

    Frost is off to Nebraska as the Cornhuskers' new head coach, but Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel should offer a similar philosophy as the new head coach; he ran a wide-open pass-first system at Mizzou. UCF will return as many as eight offensive starters, and Milton will be the centerpiece for a high-scoring system.

          

    Heisman chances

    UCF won't sneak up on anyone in 2018, and that's good news for Milton, who'll garner plenty of attention directing the Knights offense. However, it's still difficult to imagine a Group of Five QB winning the Heisman, so Milton will have to be at his best and put up huge numbers for an unbeaten team to have a chance. Five percent seems right. 

8. Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins

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    Dwayne Haskins should have a much more prominent role next fall for Ohio State.
    Dwayne Haskins should have a much more prominent role next fall for Ohio State.Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    2017 highlights

    Dwayne Haskins mostly spent his redshirt freshman season as J.T. Barrett's understudy but showed Buckeyes fans exciting glimpses of his potential as Ohio State's likely starting quarterback in 2018. Haskins completed 40 of 57 passes (a 70.2 percent clip) for 565 yards and four touchdowns against an interception, and he came up big when it mattered. He relieved an injured Barrett against Michigan and led a comeback win, completing six of seven passes for 94 yards and adding 24 yards rushing.

    He also threw for 228 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a blowout win over UNLV. It'll be fun to see what he can do in a full-time role.

        

    What'll change in 2018

    Well, Haskins will have much more responsibility as Ohio State's likely starter. His passing and mobility skills should translate well in what will once again be one of the nation's best offenses. Assuming the Buckeyes are again a serious College Football Playoff contender, Haskins will have plenty of eyes taking notice of his exploits.

        

    Heisman chances

    Six percent. Haskins showed in brief stints how talented he is, but he'll have to prove it consistently for Heisman Trophy voters to take notice. Don't count him out.

7. Oregon QB Justin Herbert

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    Justin Herbert had an excellent season when he was healthy for Oregon.
    Justin Herbert had an excellent season when he was healthy for Oregon.Thomas Boyd/Associated Press

    2017 highlights 

    Willie Taggart's tenure at Oregon was brief, but he did restore the program's footing, improving the Ducks from 4-8 to 7-5 before leaving for Florida State. He made a smart decision in keeping Justin Herbert as the starting quarterback. Herbert missed five full games with injury, but he showed flashes of electric play when healthy, throwing for 1,750 yards with 13 touchdowns against three interceptions and averaging 10.3 yards per pass attempt.

    Most notably, Oregon was 6-1 with Herbert as the starter and 1-4 without him. He threw for at least 250 yards in six of the seven games he started, with the only exception an 86-yard effort against Cal before leaving with an injury.

         

    What'll change in 2018

    Herbert will have a new head coach in offensive line coach Mario Cristobal, who was elevated to the full-time head role following Taggart's departure. Don't expect Cristobal to change much about Oregon's offense, and if he stays healthy, Herbert should lead the Ducks to a better record.

         

    Heisman chances

    Heisman voters have shown they have no problem voting for a deserving West Coast candidate for the Heisman Trophy (see Mariota, Marcus), and if Herbert enjoys a fully healthy season in Oregon's high-powered offense, he could be a deserving candidate. Let's start this as an 8 percent chance.

6. Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins

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    J.K. Dobbins had an excellent freshman season in Ohio State's backfield.
    J.K. Dobbins had an excellent freshman season in Ohio State's backfield.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    2017 highlights

    J.K. Dobbins enjoyed an outstanding freshman season in Ohio State's backfield. He supplanted Mike Weber as the Buckeyes' starting tailback and rushed for 1,364 yards and seven touchdowns. Dobbins bookended his season with big games, rushing for 181 yards at Indiana and 174 in the Big Ten title game win over Wisconsin. He had six 100-yard rushing games and averaged an impressive 7.5 yards per carry while flashing big-play ability.

          

    What'll change in 2018

    Ohio State is likely to return as many as seven offensive starters, although one big change will be at quarterback, where Dwayne Haskins will step in for the graduated J.T. Barrett. Dobbins should be a year older and stronger as the Buckeyes' clear No. 1 back, and OSU will be a playoff contender again. Expect a strong season and a push for 1,800 to 2,000 yards.

           

    Heisman chances

    Dobbins will have a clear case for the Heisman as one of the nation's top returning tailbacks, although having the dynamic Haskins in the same backfield could hurt his hopes. He'll have a 9 percent chance at the stiff-arm trophy.

5. Arizona QB Khalil Tate

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    Khalil Tate is an electric presence at quarterback for Arizona.
    Khalil Tate is an electric presence at quarterback for Arizona.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    2017 highlights

    When Rich Rodriguez sends out Christmas cards, he should make sure Khalil Tate is high on his list. The sophomore quarterback emerged as one of college football’s breakout stars and potentially saved RichRod’s job, helping the Wildcats to a 7-5 record.

    Tate was just average as a passer, throwing for 1,289 yards and nine touchdowns against eight interceptions, but he was electric on the ground. He rushed for 1,353 yards and 12 touchdowns, which is exceptional considering he didn’t become the starter until early October. In his first start against Colorado, he produced one of the best stat lines of the year: 327 rushing yards and four touchdowns and 12-of-13 passing for 154 yards and a touchdown in a wild 45-42 win. Tate had six 100-yard rushing efforts and a pair of 200-yard games in eight starts.

         

    What’ll change in 2018

    Arizona must replace three offensive line starters, including both starting tackles, but the most important thing for Tate will be additional opportunity. He’ll be the starter from Week 1 on, and that will give him a chance to pile up bigger numbers. A nonconference schedule that starts with BYU and Houston could help Tate get a strong start too and stay on the Heisman radar well into Pac-12 play.

          

    Heisman chances

    Ten percent. The Wildcats will be a bowl team but could have a tough time challenging for the Pac-12 title, which could hurt Tate in voters’ eyes. However, he’ll have the skills and the numbers to compete with the nation’s best.

4. Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham

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    Jarrett Stidham gave Auburn's offense a shot in the arm this fall.
    Jarrett Stidham gave Auburn's offense a shot in the arm this fall.David Goldman/Associated Press

    2017 highlights

    Jarrett Stidham sat out a full season with no football after leaving Baylor, and he showed this fall that it was worth the wait. He landed at Auburn, grabbed the Tigers' starting quarterback role and helped rejuvenate the offense. Stidham led Auburn to upsets of then-No. 1 Alabama and Georgia and keyed the Tigers' SEC West title run.

    Although he had just one 300-yard game, he threw for 2,827 yards with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions and capably led Auburn's read-option offense, serving as a perfect partner to a talented backfield.

         

    What'll change in 2018

    Auburn will lose three starting offensive linemen to graduation and could lose starting tailback Kerryon Johnson to the NFL, but the Tigers' backfield is built to withstand his loss with Kam Martin and Kamryn Pettway. Stidham will have another season under his belt in Auburn's offense, and the Tigers should again be College Football Playoff contenders, which will give his Heisman campaign a boost.

         

    Heisman chances

    If Auburn leans more heavily on Stidham, he has shown he has the arm strength and offensive knowledge to be up to the challenge. Let's call this a 11 percent Heisman chance for a prominent player.

3. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts

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    Jalen Hurts has been an impressive leader for Alabama's offense.
    Jalen Hurts has been an impressive leader for Alabama's offense.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    2017 highlights

    Jalen Hurts has had another good season leading the Alabama offense in 2017, although his numbers look a little different. Under first-year coordinator Brian Daboll, the Crimson Tide sophomore quarterback has been relied on less heavily as a passer. He had 23 passing touchdowns in 15 games last season but has just 15 TDs in 12 games this season. However, he has just one interception compared with nine a year ago and has rushed for 768 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry as opposed to 5.0 a year ago.

    Hurts has no 300-yard passing games and three 100-yard rushing efforts, but he was a strong, capable leader for the Tide offense, keying a late comeback on the road in a 31-24 win at Mississippi State.

         

    What'll change in 2018

    Alabama could lose six offensive starters from 2017, including possibly its top two rushers in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough to the NFL draft. That will put a heavier load on Hurts' shoulders, which could help his numbers. The Tide recruit well and will have a deep, talented roster that will be a strong College Football Playoff contender again, which will keep Hurts in the limelight and help his Heisman hopes.

         

    Heisman chances

    Hurts will be a visible player as the third-year starting quarterback for Alabama. If he shows maturity in Daboll's system, that will give him a big shot in the arm. Let's call it a 12 percent chance.

2. Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor

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    Jonathan Taylor had an excellent freshman season in Wisconsin's backfield.
    Jonathan Taylor had an excellent freshman season in Wisconsin's backfield.Morry Gash/Associated Press

    2017 highlights

    Wisconsin has a strong lineage of productive tailbacks, and Jonathan Taylor is the latest in that long line. The Wisconsin freshman burst on the scene this fall as the nation's most productive first-year tailback, rushing for 1,847 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has a legit shot at cracking the 2,000-yard mark with 153 yards in the Orange Bowl against Miami.

    Taylor was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top tailback, and had nine 100-yard rushing games as well as three 200-yard efforts, including a 249-yard, two-touchdown day against Nebraska. The best is yet to come for the Badgers star.

         

    What'll change in 2018

    Not much, and that's a good thing for Taylor. Wisconsin could return nine of 11 offensive starters (including all five starting offensive linemen) and get top receiver Quintez Cephus back from a leg injury that ended his 2017 season. A healthy, productive, maturing Badger offense can only help his chase for a trip to New York and the Heisman Trophy.

         

    Heisman chances

    Let's say 15 percent. The Badgers will absorb some defensive losses but should again be the top team in the Big Ten West and a College Football Playoff contender, which will help Taylor's visibility considerably in voters' eyes.

1. USC QB Sam Darnold

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    Sam Darnold would be a clear Heisman favorite if he returns for his junior season.
    Sam Darnold would be a clear Heisman favorite if he returns for his junior season.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2017 highlights

    Sam Darnold began the 2017 season as a strong candidate for the Heisman Trophy, but he fell off the radar after some shaky early efforts and the Trojans' road loss to Washington State. That shouldn't take away from his overall efforts. He threw for 3,787 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and he had seven 300-yard passing games.

    He also led the Trojans to 11 wins and the Pac-12 title, defeating Stanford 31-28 with 325 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. However, his numbers were down from his redshirt freshman season; he threw for 31 touchdowns against nine interceptions in 2016.

          

    What'll change in 2018

    Well, first of all, Darnold has to return to school. He has spent only two seasons as a starter but is eligible for the NFL draft as a redshirt sophomore. His touchdown, interception and completion percentage numbers were worse than 2016, and Darnold could return for another season of polish next fall.

    If he does so, he'll return to an offense which could have up to eight starters coming back. Another season of learning can only help his numbers and Heisman Trophy stock.

         

    Heisman chances

    If—and it is a big if—Darnold returns, he would be the clear top Heisman candidate, with a 20 percent chance to win against a solid field.