Every College Football Conference's Top Heisman Contender for 2015

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2015

Every College Football Conference's Top Heisman Contender for 2015

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    Leonard Fournette will be a very strong Heisman Trophy candidate this fall.
    Leonard Fournette will be a very strong Heisman Trophy candidate this fall.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Across the nation, teams are wrapping up their spring football practices. Saturday is the final major day for spring games, after which programs will turn their focus to summer workouts in preparation for the 2015 season.

    It’s the perfect time to start thinking about award candidates for the 2015 season—specifically for the Heisman Trophy, the most coveted individual award in college football. With 2014’s winner Marcus Mariota gone to the NFL, we will have a new player hoisting the stiff-arm trophy in New York in mid-December.

    The candidate list is lengthy for what will be a wide-open race. Here’s a look at the top Heisman candidate from each conference. Candidates were selected for their skills, potential, past performance and ability to win the award. Here we go!

American Athletic Conference: Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel

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    Gunner Kiel has found a home in Cincinnati.
    Gunner Kiel has found a home in Cincinnati.Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Gunner Kiel has finally found a home. The talented quarterback originally committed to Indiana, then switched to LSU and finally signed with Notre Dame. He spent a redshirt season on the Fighting Irish roster before deciding to transfer to Cincinnati, costing himself a season of eligibility.

    Last fall, Kiel showed that he was worth the wait. The 6’4”, 208-pounder had an excellent sophomore season with the Bearcats, throwing for 3,524 yards with 31 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He surpassed 300 yards four times, including a 436-yard, four-touchdown effort in a wild 54-46 win over East Carolina.

    Cincinnati won a share of the AAC championship, and the Bearcats should be among the league’s best teams again this fall. With a season of development, Kiel should be improved and could threaten 4,000 yards passing. He’s clearly the league’s top Heisman candidate.

Atlantic Coast Conference: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson

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    Deshaun Watson is a huge difference-maker for Clemson's offense.
    Deshaun Watson is a huge difference-maker for Clemson's offense.Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    When Deshaun Watson was healthy last fall, Clemson’s offense was one of the nation’s best. The true freshman made the position his own a month into the season. In his first start, he threw for 435 yards and an ACC single-game-record-tying six touchdowns in a rout of North Carolina.

    He threw for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns against two interceptions. His main problem was staying healthy. Watson missed most of four games with a broken finger, and upon returning, he suffered a knee injury against Georgia Tech, which was later revealed to be a torn ACL. He played on the injury and led a 35-17 win over South Carolina but was shut down for surgery shortly afterward.

    Watson has made excellent progress since the surgery and will be ready for the season. At 6’3”, he has a huge arm and can also run for first downs. He has excellent pocket presence and will only get better. He has a pair of great receivers to throw to in Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, and if he stays healthy, he’ll be the ACC’s top Heisman candidate.

Big Ten Conference: Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott

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    Ezekiel Elliott hopes to build on a breakout 2014 season this fall.
    Ezekiel Elliott hopes to build on a breakout 2014 season this fall.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    As spring ends, questions remain about Ohio State’s quarterback situation. Will the Buckeyes quarterback be Cardale Jones? J.T. Barrett? Braxton Miller? No one knows for sure. But one thing is certain: The quarterback, whoever he is, will hand off to Ezekiel Elliott—over and over.

    Elliott took Ohio State’s backfield and made it his own in 2014. He rushed for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns and was a key factor in the program’s run through the College Football Playoff. Elliott ended the season with three consecutive 200-yard rushing efforts and got better each time out.

    He saved the best for last, with his best game in the College Football Playoff National Championship. He rushed 36 times for 246 yards and four scores in Ohio State’s 42-20 rout of Oregon.

    Sunday, he won the prestigious Sullivan Award, given to the nation's top amateur athlete.

    “I want to thank Ohio State University for all the opportunities you have presented me," he said, per Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch. "And last but not least, I want to thank my coaches and my teammates just for making this opportunity possible for me, because football is a team sport. And I am nothing without my boys around me. So thank you.”

    Urban Meyer’s group will be a prime national title contender again this fall, and Elliott will have a shot at rushing for 2,000 yards. While the quarterback, whoever he is, could divide the votes going to Elliott, he’ll be a strong candidate regardless. At 6’0”, 225 pounds, he is a quick, powerful runner who should be even better in 2015.

Big 12 Conference: TCU QB Trevone Boykin

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    Trevone Boykin could be the best player in college football.
    Trevone Boykin could be the best player in college football.Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    TCU will enter 2015 as a prime College Football Playoff candidate after improving from 4-8 in 2013 to 12-1 last fall. Quarterback Trevone Boykin was a huge reason why. Boykin thrived in the new Air Raid offense, throwing for 3,901 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, adding 707 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.

    The Horned Frogs will return 10 offensive starters and should have a very strong offense again, keyed by Boykin. If TCU thrives nationally, Boykin will be a natural Heisman Trophy candidate. He finished fourth a year ago and is the leading returning vote-getter. The last five winners of the award have been quarterbacks. It would be natural to see Boykin in New York in December. 

Conference USA: Marshall RB Devon Johnson

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    Devon Johnson is a bruising presence in Marshall's backfield.
    Devon Johnson is a bruising presence in Marshall's backfield.John Amis/Associated Press

    Marshall has emerged as one of the top mid-major college football programs. Last fall, the Thundering Herd started 11-0 before falling 67-66 in overtime to Western Kentucky and finished with a 13-1 record and the Conference USA title.

    Coach Doc Holliday must replace standout quarterback Rakeem Cato and leading wide receiver Tommy Shuler, but he has an excellent building block in bruising tailback Devon Johnson. Johnson, who stands 6’1”, 243 pounds, rushed for 1,767 yards and 17 touchdowns last fall, averaging an eye-popping 8.6 yards per carry.

    He surpassed 100 yards 10 times, including an amazing 272-yard, four-touchdown effort in a win over Florida Atlantic. He’ll be one of Conference USA’s best players and likely one of the top non-Power Five players as he chases a 2,000-yard senior season and another C-USA title.

Mid-American Conference: Toledo RB Kareem Hunt

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    Kareem Hunt is one of the more exciting players in college football.
    Kareem Hunt is one of the more exciting players in college football.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Savvy college football fans know the power of MACtion, the exciting brand of football played by the Mid-American Conference. The MAC has become a staple of fall Tuesday and Wednesday nights on the ESPN family of networks, creating its own spotlight with excellent under-the-radar football.

    If you’re looking for MACtion this fall, you could do far worse than checking out Toledo’s appearances. The Rockets have one of the nation’s most electric backs in junior Kareem Hunt. Last fall, Hunt rushed for 1,631 yards and 10 touchdowns, going over 100 yards in every game he played in.

    And his season would’ve likely been even better if the 5’11”, 215-pound back hadn’t missed three full games with an ankle injury. He showed his talents to a national audience in the GoDaddy Bowl, carrying 32 times for 271 yards and five touchdowns in Toledo’s 63-44 win over Arkansas State.

    If he stays healthy this fall, Hunt could top 2,000 yards rushing. That’s a show worth tuning in for, no matter when it’s on.

Mountain West Conference: San Diego State RB Donnel Pumphrey

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    Donnel Pumphrey is a small but mighty force in San Diego State's backfield.
    Donnel Pumphrey is a small but mighty force in San Diego State's backfield.Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press/Associated Press

    San Diego State made its fifth consecutive bowl appearance in 2014, and tailback Donnel Pumphrey was a huge reason why. The 5’9”, 170-pound back built on a solid freshman season with a standout sophomore campaign, rushing for 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns.

    He was a workhorse for the Aztec offense, carrying 276 times and averaging 6.8 yards per carry. He surpassed the 100-yard mark nine times and went over 200 yards twice, going for 261 yards and three touchdowns in the regular-season finale against San Jose State.

    Pumphrey is the Mountain West Conference’s leading returning rusher and has excellent breakaway speed. He broke off a 93-yard touchdown against New Mexico. If the Aztecs can make noise in the Mountain West race, Pumphrey could become a national name as he chases a 2,000-yard rushing season.

Pac-12 Conference: Southern California QB Cody Kessler

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    Cody Kessler will be one of the top quarterbacks in college football this fall.
    Cody Kessler will be one of the top quarterbacks in college football this fall.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    For playing in a major media market, Cody Kessler’s excellent 2014 season went under the radar. The Southern California quarterback threw for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns and five interceptions, leading the Trojans to nine wins in Steve Sarkisian’s first season.

    USC lost wide receiver Nelson Agholor to the NFL draft early but will return eight offensive starters this fall, and Kessler’s decision to return for his senior season was a major plus. He is a great pocket passer with a big arm who should thrive in the Trojans offense. If USC makes a College Football Playoff run, Kessler will be a strong Heisman candidate, following in the footsteps of former USC Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer.

Southeastern Conference: LSU RB Leonard Fournette

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    Leonard Fournette will be a strong Heisman Trophy contender this fall.
    Leonard Fournette will be a strong Heisman Trophy contender this fall.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    LSU is one of the nation’s premier football programs, but the Tigers have only one Heisman Trophy winner in their history: Billy Cannon took the award home in 1959. As Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune notes, that drought should be about to end thanks to tailback Leonard Fournette.

    Regarded as the top overall recruit in 2014, Fournette was heavily hyped but got off to a bit of a slow start as a freshman. He carried eight times for 18 yards against Wisconsin in his college debut, and it took until the Tigers’ fifth game for him to crack the 100-yard mark, going for 122 against New Mexico State.

    He finished strong, rushing for 100-plus five times in LSU’s final nine games. In the Music City Bowl, Fournette essentially announced his candidacy, carrying 11 times for 143 yards with two touchdowns, including an 89-yard run, and returning another kick for a touchdown. At 6’1”, 230 pounds, he is a bear for opposing tacklers to bring down and should be even better after an offseason in the weight room.

    No tailback has won the Heisman since Alabama’s Mark Ingram did so in 2009, but if LSU is nationally prominent this fall, that drought could end as well with another trophy in Baton Rouge.

Sun Belt Conference: Arkansas State QB Fredi Knighten

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    Fredi Knighten is an excellent dual threat for Arkansas State's offense.
    Fredi Knighten is an excellent dual threat for Arkansas State's offense.Alan Diaz/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Even though Arkansas State has had trouble keeping a coach for more than one season, the Red Wolves have become a powerful figure in the Sun Belt Conference. Last fall, first-year starting quarterback Fredi Knighten stepped in and guided ASU to yet another bowl game.

    Knighten, who stands just 5’11”, 189 pounds, had a great debut season under center, throwing for 3,277 yards with 24 touchdowns against seven interceptions and adding 779 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns. His final start was his best. Arkansas State lost the GoDaddy Bowl 63-44 to Toledo, but it wasn’t for lack of effort from Knighten. He passed for 403 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

    A Heisman run is unlikely at best, but Knighten is the best player the Sun Belt has to offer and a very exciting prospect to watch without question.

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