Way-Too-Early Ranking of 2018 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2018

Way-Too-Early Ranking of 2018 Heisman Trophy Candidates

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    The season is still young, and plenty of season-defining moments are on the horizon. But three weeks into the college football season, the Heisman Trophy picture is beginning to take shape.

    So far, nobody is running away with the race.

    There aren't any major-college behemoths throwing up PlayStation numbers like Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Bryce Love were a season ago. This year, the stars are still emerging, and a lot of them are coming from familiar places.

    Yet, the door is open for others like Penn State's Trace McSorley, Georgia's Jake Fromm and even Love to creep back into the picture if they have some massive performances on major stages. But they have some catching up to do. 

    From a pair of Group of Five program superstars posting gaudy stat lines to the maestro of the nation's No. 1 program, there are plenty worthy candidates out there. There are even a couple of first-year starters filling huge shoes admirably.

    With several big games coming up on the slate, it's an opportunity for all of them to prove just how great they are.

    Let's take a look at the top 10 Heisman Trophy candidates at this early juncture of the season. We've ranked them based on their numbers so far and ability to continue posting impressive statistics—and with weight toward those who'll have national exposure to produce the all-important "Heisman moments."

    As always, post your thoughts in the comments.

10. AJ Dillon, Boston College Running Back

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    A glimpse at college football's rushing leaders will show only one Power Five player ahead of Boston College running back AJ Dillon. With no gaudy performances so far, the sophomore still has plenty of wiggle room on this list, too.

    The best thing for him is the Eagles are getting a little exposure, coming in this week ranked No. 23 in the country after dominant wins over UMass and Holy Cross and a narrow victory at Wake Forest.

    The competition is going to improve quickly, though, with Purdue and North Carolina State coming up in the next three weeks and back-to-back battles against Virginia Tech and Clemson in November. In other words, Dillon will have plenty of opportunities to prove he belongs on this list.

    Believe it or not, he's not the only sleeper candidate in Chestnut Hill, either. Quarterback Anthony Brown has thrown nine touchdowns and zero interceptions this season and leads college football with a 240.18 rating.

    That kind of offensive balance bodes well for Dillon to continue posting monster stats.

    Last year, he finished a fantastic freshman season with 1,589 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, and though he hasn't blown up the stat sheets yet, he has 432 rushing yards, four touchdowns and is averaging 7.3 yards per carry.

    If he keeps that up, he'll move up the list. It's just going to be tough for him to have a big enough season to surpass all the elite signal-callers on the board.

9. Justin Herbert, Oregon Quarterback

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    Another player who has feasted on cupcakes is Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, but that doesn't change how impressive he's been.

    The junior has 840 passing yards and 12 touchdowns already, but the Ducks have played Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State. Yuck.

    If there's one red flag with Herbert, it's that he has tossed four interceptions against those no-name schools. That won't matter if he has a Heisman-caliber showing when the No. 7 Stanford Cardinal come to town this weekend, however.

    Not only is this going to be the perfect stage for Herbert to show the nation just how good he is, but it's also an opportunity for coach Mario Cristobal's program to cement itself as being "back."

    It's been a while for the high-flying Ducks, who endured the up-and-down career of Mark Helfrich and the one-and-done Willie Taggart season.

    Now with Herbert, it looks like they're poised to compete in the Pac-12 North, but this weekend is a must if they're going to be in the mix for big things in the division, the conference and the nation. Winning would be huge for him and huge for the program.

    "As gifted as the quarterback is, Herbert doesn't have a distinctive, memorable, iconic win at Oregon," the Oregonian's John Canzano wrote this week. "Not yet. But one may be close. And if he can carry Oregon past the Cardinal next week, and back to true college football relevancy, the question then becomes: What can't Herbert do?"

8. Darrell Henderson, Memphis Running Back

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    Like another player coming up on this list, Darrell Henderson has statistics on his side. But he plays for a team that doesn't go up against enough premier opponents for him to make a huge difference in the Heisman race.

    That means Henderson is going to have to take matters into his own hands with stats that make everybody take notice, no matter who he plays.

    He's doing that so far.

    The 5'9", 200-pound junior running back from powerhouse South Panola High School in Batesville, Mississippi, has been perhaps the most impressive player in college football throughout the early season. His Tigers, however, are just 2-1 with a loss to Navy.

    That's not because of Henderson, who, if anything, should get far more touches in Mike Norvell's offense.

    He leads the nation with 521 rushing yards despite just 36 carries. Do the math; that's a ridiculous 14.5 average. He already has six rushing touchdowns, too. He also has four catches for 90 yards and another touchdown.

    He should have another big game against South Alabama this weekend.

    "Darrell is definitely a special back, and he’s going to get plenty of opportunities," Norvell said, per the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Evan Barnes. "He knows what to do when he gets the ball in his hands."

    The endgame for that is scoring, and Henderson has proved adept at that. 

    The back-to-back games against Central Florida and Mizzou on Oct. 13 and 20 will give him his biggest national platforms. Will it be enough? History says no, but if he continues to average nearly 15 yards per carry, how could you deny him hardware?

7. Drew Lock, Missouri Quarterback

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    Though it flew under the radar, it was big news that Missouri quarterback Drew Lock elected to return for his senior season after he tossed 44 touchdown passes last year.

    With a near-perfect blend of size and arm strength, Lock could have been a high-round draft pick.

    Fortunately, he's still ours to enjoy in the college football world.

    Again, you may not get to see Lock a lot because of the Tigers' middling spot on the national radar. But they're 3-0 and possibly the biggest threat to Georgia in what looks to be a runaway SEC East division race. We'll know this weekend when the Bulldogs travel to Columbia.

    Lock will have a captive audience for his abilities this weekend. Beat the Dawgs, and his Heisman hopes get interesting. So will the Tigers' SEC chances. Mizzou follows UGA's trip up with back-to-back jaunts to South Carolina and Alabama.

    If Lock can lead his team to one or more victories during that stretch and keep posting big numbers, he will be in the mix for college football's biggest individual award. Beat Georgia or Alabama, and he'll be on the tip of everybody's tongue.

    Lock can make every throw. There may be only three quarterbacks in the nation as physically gifted; he's that good. Lock has completed 69 percent of his passes for 1,062 yards, 11 touchdowns and just one interception, which came when he was trying to do too much late in a win over Purdue.

    He's going to have to guard against that in his next three games. This is a huge opportunity for him.

6. Cole McDonald, Hawaii Quarterback

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    If you're going by sheer numbers alone, Cole McDonald would be your clear-cut Heisman Trophy front-runner.

    Even though the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors lost their first game last weekend after making the cross-country trip to Army, it wasn't because quarterback McDonald struggled. Despite playing a game that started at what would have been 6 a.m. in Hawaii, he thrived.

    It's been the case all year for the author of Hawaii's recharged run-and-shoot, the offense that was a pleasure to watch back in the days of Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan. With his blond dreadlocks, McDonald is the poster boy for Hawaii football, and he's making the nation take notice.

    So far, he has run coach Nick Rolovich's offense to perfection, leading the nation with 1,486 passing yards and 15 touchdowns—and he has zero interceptions. He's completed 68.5 percent of his passes, and the 6'4", 205-pound quarterback can beat you with his feet, too. He has 144 rushing yards and a pair of scores on the ground.

    Yes, the Rainbow Warriors have played one more game than most of the other teams out there, but McDonald is still putting amazing games together for a team that is exciting to watch. That's not bad for a former 2-star prospect who wanted just one chance at playing college ball.

    "It was kind of hard to just get my recruiting started," McDonald told B/R colleague Adam Kramer. "Really, it never started for me. All I needed was one shot."

    The coolest thing for all of us is that his college career is just getting started, too. The sophomore has plenty more games to play and records to obliterate. You'd better remember his name—and stay up late to watch him if you get the chance, too. He's the real deal.

5. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin Running Back

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    You can always count on Wisconsin to have a powerhouse rushing attack spearheaded by a player who is going to churn out yards and be a rugged weapon in the Big Ten.

    One emerged for the Badgers in last year's near-conference-championship run in freshman Jonathan Taylor, and he's followed that sterling first-year performance with a start to his sophomore season that has been just as scintillating.

    Unfortunately for him and the Badgers, that near-championship-run encore is going to need a rally following Saturday's shocking 24-21 loss to BYU at Camp Randall Stadium. Taylor performed admirably, rushing for 117 yards, but he didn't provide a winning impact. The Badgers didn't lean on him with the game on the line.

    They lost.

    Neither of those things will help Taylor's chances. He is second nationally with 515 rushing yards and is averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He already has five touchdowns and is averaging 171.7 yards per game. So, it's not like he's out of the running just yet.

    Marquee games against Penn State and Michigan await, as do showdowns with teams on the cusp of improvement like Iowa, Purdue and Nebraska. 

    But will he do enough to re-emerge on the national scene? There are few running backs with better numbers, and playing in a Power Five conference (even in a weak division) will help Taylor. He built a resume with that strong first season, but he needs this year to stand on its own.

    What he really needed was to lead an undefeated team late in the season—as was the case a year ago. He'll have to overcome the big upset, and so will his team.

4. Kyler Murray, Oklahoma Quarterback

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    The Heisman Trophy may not leave its current backfield.

    Last year, Baker Mayfield won the award as the quarterback of the Oklahoma Sooners before heading off to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft of the Cleveland Browns.

    His replacement is dual-threat star Kyler Murray who, like Mayfield, transferred into the Sooners program. While Mayfield came from Texas Tech, Murray began his collegiate career at Texas A&M.

    Unlike Mayfield, though, Murray wasn't a walk-on. Instead, he was one of the most coveted prospects in the rich history of high school football in the Lone Star State.

    He's showing why with his sheer athleticism. 

    Murray played baseball for OU this past year and showed so much promise that the Oakland A's made him their first-round draft pick. He agreed to terms of a contract with a $4.6 million signing bonus, according to the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser

    But he elected to delay his baseball focus until after this football season.

    Unfortunately for all college football fans, money talks, and it's looking like this is his final season on the gridiron. That would be a travesty because Murray does things with his feet that Mayfield never could, and he's adept through the air, too.

    He's completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 863 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception, and he's added 169 rushing yards and two more scores. The next few weeks against excellent competition will help define his season.

    If he comes through those, he'll be firmly in the mix.

3. Will Grier, West Virginia Quarterback

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    Last weekend's canceled game against North Carolina State due to Hurricane Florence may have thrown a kink in Will Grier's Heisman Trophy campaign, but that will be short-lived.

    The way the West Virginia senior quarterback lit up Tennessee in the season opener and with several high-profile shootouts upcoming in the Big 12, he'll have every chance to prove he should stay at the top.

    Grier hasn't done anything to prove he belongs anywhere but at the very top. He's in virtually everybody's top three—and rightfully so. In just two games, Grier has thrown for 761 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. He's averaging 380.5 yards per game.

    Not only is Grier showing out, but he also has the supporting cast around him and the perfect coach in Dana Holgorsen to highlight his talents. The next few weeks, he should light up Kansas State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Baylor.

    His schedule is backloaded, which should help Grier if he performs up to expectations. With receivers like David Sills V and Gary Jennings Jr., the numbers shouldn't taper off.

    Grier throws the prettiest ball in the nation, and West Virginia's route trees are things of beauty. The Mountaineers are ranked 12th, and if they continue to surge up the rankings, it'll be because of Grier and the passing game.

2. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama Quarterback

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    Let's get this out of the way first: If Tua Tagovailoa was playing entire games for the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, he'd be running away with the Heisman Trophy race.

    But the Tide are obliterating everybody they play by so much (including SEC West foe Ole Miss in Saturday's 62-7 laugher) that the sophomore hero from last year's national championship game is normally just playing half a game.

    He's making his reps count.

    They love the Hawaiian howitzer in Tuscaloosa—and for good reason. Though he's just 111th nationally with 50 pass attempts, he's thrown eight touchdowns. That's tied for 14th nationally. He hasn't turned the ball over yet and also has 93 rushing yards.

    The fact is Alabama doesn't need to put him in harm's way. He could beat any team with his arm or feet, and nobody in the country throws a prettier deep ball. There wasn't much of a question this offseason that he was more talented than Jalen Hurts, who has started his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa.

    For a program that loves its football like no other, Tagovailoa has the potential to be the most decorated signal-caller in ages. Though the hallmark of Nick Saban's Alabama has been its defense, it's the offense this season that is rightfully getting all the headlines in what may be UA's most dominant team.

    It's going to be interesting to see how the Heisman voters weigh limited repetitions and impact-per-rep versus the statistics of those players playing entire games. Is Tagovailoa that important to Alabama, or is Alabama just that good?

    One thing is for certain: Alabama is exceptional, even by its own lofty standards. The biggest reason the Tide look like they may reach heights of dominance even they haven't in this recent, historic run is they have the nation's best player leading the offense.

    If the quality of his play continues, he'll leapfrog into the top spot.

1. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State Quarterback

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    Dwayne Haskins' path to stardom mirrors that of Tagovailoa's. Both waited their turns behind incumbent starters who were excellent but not nearly as talented. Now that they've taken over at the most high-profile positions at their prestigious programs, they've upgraded their offenses.

    For Haskins, he had to wait behind J.T. Barrett. But after watching the former Maryland prep standout as a starter this year, you almost wonder why he didn't get more starting reps a season ago. 

    The 6'3" sophomore took his show to Texas on Saturday night and shredded TCU. He threw for 344 yards as the Buckeyes disposed of the Horned Frogs, and Haskins has thrown for 890 yards this season while completing an incredible 72.5 percent of his passes.

    He has 11 touchdown passes and just one interception and has a rushing touchdown, too.

    Most importantly, the Buckeyes didn't miss a beat during head coach Urban Meyer's suspension because they have a player at the helm who has revolutionized their offense. In a brilliant piece, 247Sports' Chris Hummer talks about how Haskins is doing that:

    "In the framework of Buckeye history under Urban Meyer, there isn’t a passer who’s finished a season with 3,000 yards, 65 percent passing and nine-plus yards an attempt. Through three games Haskins is projected to eclipse those totals easily. In fact, he’s projected to smash the program record for single-season passing yards (3,330 – 3,560) and touchdowns (35 – 44). Those projections are for a 12-game season, by the way. The Buckeyes are a near lock to play 13-plus games."

    If Haskins leads the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff, it's going to be difficult to keep the trophy out of his case, especially if his numbers dwarf Tagovailoa's. It's going to be hard punishing an elite player just because he doesn't play for Alabama.

    This is going to be a remarkable case study if things continue to go the way they have in the first quarter of the season. Stay tuned!


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com and recruiting data courtesy of 247Sports. Odds provided by OddsShark.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.