Way-Too-Early Ranking of 2017 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2017

Way-Too-Early Ranking of 2017 Heisman Trophy Candidates

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    Though Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson still wound up with some quality statistics against Clemson in Saturday night's lopsided loss, he lost ground in his quest to win back-to-back Heisman trophies. 

    There are still a couple of signal-callers in the Sooner State who will have their say in the award once everything is finalized. Several running backs are bunched in on the list too, and a sleeper or two are emerging as well.

    A couple of smaller-school players could sneak onto the list soon.

    San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny leads the nation in rushing yards with 196 per game, the year after the nation's career rushing leader, Donnel Pumphrey, left the Aztecs.

    Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson out-dueled Josh Rosen in a resounding upset of the Bruins on Saturday in the Liberty Bowl. He tossed six touchdowns and has the players around him to continue posting huge numbers. 

    Right now, it's anybody's award. But the trio at the top are trying to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Let's take a look at the way-too-early Heisman rankings.

8. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

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    Preseason hype

    Everybody wanted to see just how Josh Rosen would rebound from last year's season-ending shoulder injury and subsequent surgery. Though he hadn't shown any ill effects in practice, the real test was going to be the games.

    Though B/R colleague Matt Hayes took the topic of how much the UCLA junior loves football head-on with this excellent article that generated some scrutiny for Rosen's opinions, one thing that nobody ever questions is Rosen's ability. There's a reason why he may just be the top overall pick in the NFL draft.

    He may have taken a back seat to USC quarterback Sam Darnold in the preseason, but that hasn't been the case this year.


    Early impressions

    The measuring stick for Rosen thus far is right across town in Darnold, and though the Bruins have a loss (in a frantic, 48-45 setback at Memphis) and the Trojans don't, Rosen has been the bigger story so far.

    He has adapted very well to new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch's scheme, and though it would benefit him and the Bruins to have a little more balance, Rosen has proven up to the task. He brought UCLA back from a 44-10 third-quarter deficit to upset Texas A&M, and he also posted huge numbers in the loss to the Tigers.

    However, getting upstaged by Ferguson in Memphis didn't help his stock.


    Why he's here

    The 6'4", strong-armed signal-caller has all the talent in the world, and he has the ability to be an instant-impact player in the NFL if he comes out early, as expected, after this season. But he still doesn't make the best decisions with the ball.

    Maybe that's because he feels at times like he has to do everything himself. And, sometimes, he does.

    If the Bruins were undefeated and he'd led them back against Memphis, he'd be in the top half of this list. As it is, he has 13 touchdowns, two interceptions and a loss. But he's ranked first with 1,283 total passing yards over three games.

7. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford

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    Preseason hype

    There wasn't that much buzz about Bryce Love entering the season, but that was mostly because he hadn't received the bulk of the carries with Christian McCaffrey in the Cardinal backfield.

    Those around Palo Alto knew he could play, and the junior from Wake Forest, North Carolina, is proving he's more than just a change-of-pace back. Love is the heartbeat of coach David Shaw's offense, and he can be an every-down player and a game-breaker.


    Early impressions

    Love has posted big numbers against quality competition, and that's the reason why he's on the list and could be even higher once he gets to pad some stats against cupcakes.

    The 5'10", 196-pound runner is making folks in the Pac-12 forget about McCaffrey, trailing only Rashaad Penny in rushing yards nationally. His 12.2 average is also tops in the country for backs with more than 20 carries.

    He has 43 carries for 524 yards on the year, and the Cardinal already have played USC and San Diego State, two excellent defenses.


    Why he's here

    There's an argument he should be higher, but he doesn't have the all-around skill set of Penn State star Saquon Barkley, and he hasn't gotten in the end zone nearly as much as Royce Freeman. And, frankly, the four quarterbacks above him belong there.

    If Love can continue to make the most of his carries and stay healthy, he'll have plenty of opportunities to keep generating headlines. If Stanford can get on a hot streak and balance its offense a little, Love may be a sleeper to watch who could keep sneaking his way up.

6. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

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    Preseason hype

    Penn State running back and workout warrior Saquon Barkley is one of the most impressive physical specimens in all of college football. 

    With coach James Franklin expected to have a dynamic all-around attack including quarterback Trace McSorley, some impact receivers, tight end Mike Gesicki and Co., Barkley has the type of supporting cast that won't allow defenses to only focus on him. 

    The 5'11", 230-pound junior was expected to be a legit Heisman Trophy candidate, and he isn't disappointing.


    Early impressions

    The only real question right now is will the Nittany Lions beat some of the lesser competition by so much that Barkley won't be able to pad his numbers and make them gaudy enough to hold up with some of the high-octane quarterbacks in the country?

    He gets the slight nod over some others on this list because of his all-around ability. When he had just 10 carries for 47 yards in a lopsided win over Georgia State this past weekend, he made up for it with four catches for 142 yards and a score.

    If he can lead the Lions to another Big Ten championship, he'll have plenty of opportunities to move up.


    Why he's here

    Everybody knows what Barkley is capable of, but the bottom line is, at least so far, his numbers haven't been next-level.

    Nobody in Happy Valley is the least bit disappointed in Barkley's production, and the Lions have so much offensive ability that there may simply be games where he isn't asked to carry the whole team. That may not be great for individual accolades, but it's the reason why Franklin's team is a national title contender.

    If they keep playing at a high level and Barkley shows out in big games, he'll have his chance to win the award.

5. Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State

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    Preseason hype

    If you don't follow the SEC that closely, you probably don't know that much about Nick Fitzgerald. 

    He's a dual-threat star who had the unenviable task of following in Dak Prescott's cleat-steps after the former Mississippi State star's record-breaking career in Starkville. Without much of a supporting cast expected around him, there were thoughts that Fitzgerald would be a one-man show for Dan Mullen.

    That hasn't been the case at all.


    Early impressions

    The 6'5", 229-pound junior is a load for anybody to bring down, and though the Bulldogs beat up on some lesser opponents during the season's first two weeks, Fitzgerald really got his name out there with this weekend's 37-7 annihilation of LSU.

    The Tigers didn't have an answer for Fitzgerald, who looks like the next great signal-caller developed by Mullen. He can add him to a resume that already includes Dak Prescott and Tim Tebow. The nation is taking notice.

    "Fitzgerald doesn't put up the gaudy passing stats that some college quarterbacks do, but it's his total game that is so impressive," SI.com's Bruce Feldman wrote. "He's thrown for seven TDs (and just one INT), but the really eye-opening stuff is when you add in five rushing TDs and 240 yards on the ground."


    Why he's here

    Is this a nice one-week story, or can Fitzgerald continue to post crooked numbers against quality opponents?

    Well, we'll know soon enough. He plays in the SEC West, after all, and the Bulldogs also travel to SEC East favorite Georgia next week. If Fitzgerald is a difference-maker in that game and in battles against teams like Alabama and Auburn, he'll be in the mix for some postseason hardware.

    There's still a bit of a wait-and-see element with him, but Fitzgerald has the type of skill set that doesn't take weeks off.

4. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

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    Preseason hype

    Lamar Jackson had as much hype as anybody in the country. He's still the hottest ticket in the sport, and though he doesn't quite have the supporting cast around him that he needs, the junior dual-threat weapon won the Heisman Trophy a year ago.

    It's so difficult to repeat, though. 

    If anybody can, it's a next-level athlete like Jackson, but he's going to have to really be incredible from here forward to overcome any shortcomings he has by having to do a lot on his own.


    Early impressions

    Late last season, some teams like LSU and Houston showed the perfect blueprint in defending Jackson. In Saturday night's lopsided loss on a national stage to Clemson, he showed some fundamental flaws.

    He also let his frustration bleed through in a game where the Tigers wound up running away with the win.

    That game will kill Jackson's chances, and it's the reason why he's slid down the list a little. After shredding Purdue and North Carolina, Jackson's numbers look fine against the Tigers. But they weren't when it mattered.

    For that reason, he probably won't win the award.


    Why he's here

    Again, Jackson just isn't a polished enough player. He's proven in the past that he can single-handedly take over games with his arm and legs, and that ability makes him a must-watch player anytime he's on TV.

    But he won't be able to overcome Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph as long as those guys keep winning. Others like Royce Freeman and even Fitzgerald and Barkley could jump him based on what their respective teams do. Louisville isn't through losing, and let's face it: Jackson is going to have to overachieve to repeat.

    Saturday night was a blown chance.

3. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

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    Preseason hype

    Royce Freeman struggled a season ago with injuries, and he missed time in what wound up being coach Mark Helfrich's final year. Once it was announced that the Ducks were hiring Willie Taggart from South Florida, Freeman announced he was coming back to Eugene.

    That was the biggest recruit Taggart has landed since he's been in Duck country, and it's paying major dividends. Freeman is the perfect back for this system, and there's a reason why Oregon looks like a major contender in the Pac-12.


    Early impressions

    The nation's 12th-ranked rushing offense has a centerpiece in Freeman, and all he's doing is improving his pro stock with the season he's having.

    The 240-pound bruiser also has a second gear, and nobody has been able to contain him thus far. He's an exceptional talent who has rushed for at least 150 yards in every game, and he's gotten in the end zone nine times already. With Justin Herbert at quarterback for Oregon, the Ducks have an all-around offensive attack.

    Freeman will break Ken Simonton's all-time Pac-12 rushing touchdown record this year, and he's one to watch if the Heisman Trophy gives a nod to career achievements.


    Why he's here

    The Ducks were dead a year ago, and now they're an upstart program again and one of the toasts of the nation. Taggart's turnaround is thanks largely to Freeman. He knows he's got a weapon, and he's going to use him.

    "Royce is a pretty big guy and a pretty tough guy," Taggart told the Oregonian's Andrew Greif. "We're going to feed Royce unless Royce say he doesn't want to be fed."

    That means the stats are going to keep growing. If he keeps getting in the end zone and the Ducks keep winning, he's one to watch.

1b. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State Quarterback

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    Preseason hype

    Perhaps Mason Rudolph took a bit of a back seat to Baker Mayfield considering all the hype the returning senior got a year ago as a Heisman finalist. But there's no questioning Oklahoma State's senior quarterback's ability or playmaking acumen.

    With five able receivers coming back and star sophomore Justice Hill to hand the football off to, Mayfield was always expected to put up some big numbers. How big coach Mike Gundy's team wins will ultimately prove whether Rudolph takes home the hardware. But he was expected to be on the list.


    Early impressions

    The only team with more playmakers than the Sooners is Oklahoma State. Receivers like James Washington and Jalen McCleskey are dynamic, and Rudolph has been in the system for so long he probably recites the playbook in his sleep.

    He's fifth nationally in passing yards, and Rudolph has tossed just one interception to 11 touchdowns. He doesn't have a win on his resume like Ohio State, but the Cowboys are showing no signs of slowing down.

    The Cowboys' schedule doesn't heat up until later this year, but this weekend's tilt against TCU will go a long way in determining Rudolph's threat to win the award and the Cowboys' hopes to win important things this year.


    Why he's here

    Rudolph pelts receivers all over the field like a game of gridiron pinball. He is perfect for Gundy's wide-open offense, and he doesn't have to do everything himself.

    He's here because he's put up huge numbers so far in leading one of the most exciting offenses in all of college football. Maybe Mayfield gets a tiny nod because of the win over Ohio State, but this race could go either way. Either quarterback could hoist the trophy, and right now, it's too close to call.

    Everybody should have Bedlam circled on your calendar. That could be a points explosion.

1a. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

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    Preseason hype

    There weren't always positive headlines for Baker Mayfield, such as the Oklahoma signal-caller's guilty plea to three charges stemming from a February arrest and all the question marks about how a team losing stars Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine and Dede Westbrook could replace them.

    But there's no questioning Mayfield's playmaking skills and just how fortunate the Sooners are to have him back for his senior year. Mayfield is one of the best collegiate quarterbacks of the past decade, and with all the receiving weapons he had returning, he was expected to be a finalist for the award like last year.


    Early impressions

    The senior signal-caller has it all. Not only has he produced excellent numbers with his elite play, tossing 10 touchdowns and no interceptions so far for 1,046 yards and being ranked second nationally in quarterback rating, but he also has a headline-stealing win.

    Oklahoma's road win over Ohio State was chiefly because of Mayfield extending plays and making things happen with his arm and feet. That's how you perform on a big stage in front of a national audience. It was the opposite of what Jackson did against Clemson.

    It's why a lot of pundits have him at the top of their lists.


    Why he's here

    Mayfield has the ability, and he has the swagger. He's the perfect weapon to run coach Lincoln Riley's offense, and he has so many weapons around him.

    The Sooners look like the real deal after beating the Buckeyes on the road, and it's going to be a whole lot of fun watching who wins between them and the rival Oklahoma State Cowboys in Bedlam on Nov. 4. Pretty much everybody outside of the Big 12 is hoping that's a battle of unbeatens.

    It may also be that the winner of that game wins the Heisman Trophy.