Heisman Trophy 2018: Ranking the Top 10 Candidates

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 15, 2018

Heisman Trophy 2018: Ranking the Top 10 Candidates

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    Nobody is anywhere near Alabama when it comes to ranking college football's top teams. It's much the same when ranking the sport's top player, too.

    Right now when discussing the Heisman Trophy, it's Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and everybody else. Even though the sophomore isn't playing full games, he's putting up staggering numbers that are impossible to ignore.

    The only players currently within striking distance of him are another pair of first-year-starter signal-callers. There is a dynamic, do-it-all star on the list and a couple of running backs who could wind up making noise, too.

    Though West Virginia quarterback Will Grier endured a major slide after the Mountaineers' first loss of the season Saturday night in Ames, Iowa, against Iowa State, he could still surge up the list with a strong second half.

    But it's all about Tua currently. Against Missouri, he didn't play a full game yet again, but this was due to an injury rather than Alabama's annihilation of another opponent. It's going to be interesting to see just how much Heisman voters dock him for playing partial games.

    The guess here is not much.

    Let's take a look at the top 10 competitors for college football's greatest individual honor. Players were ranked according to their performances so far, play against top-tier opponents, team success and impact on their respective teams.

10. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

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    There is absolutely no chance a collegiate defensive tackle could win the Heisman Trophy, right?

    That's most likely the case. But if anybody can, it would be Houston's Ed Oliver, who continues to be the most dominant defensive player in the nation. If you think it's because he destroys American Athletic Conference foes, think again. When the Cougars play tough competition, he elevates his play.

    Just when you thought he could do no more, Oliver had the best game of his season so far with 13 tackles against Tulsa. This week, he racked up six tackles and a pair of sacks in a 42-20 win over East Carolina.

    It will hurt Oliver that he plays for the Cougars and they don't get national-spotlight games every week, but there is no question he is deserving of all the publicity he gets.

    Oliver is going to be one of the top three or four picks in the NFL draft if he elects to come out a year early, and there's no reason to believe he won't. Then, we'll get to see him excel in the NFL. It doesn't matter if you double- or triple-team Oliver—he's going to make plays.

    When he chose to stay home and put on for his city, it made headlines, and Oliver has continued to rack them up throughout his college career. He may march to a different drum, but he's stayed true to himself and still blossomed into one of the top players out there.

    He just plays a position that can't win the Heisman. Still, to even be on this list shows what kind of impact he's made.

9. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

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    The Heisman Trophy is predominantly a quarterback award, and there are a lot of good ones in college football this year. But perhaps the biggest pro prospect of them all is hovering around the bottom of the top 10.

    He may end up moving up the list if he continues to perform the way he has lately.

    Oregon's Justin Herbert has all the measurables the NFL could want and a cannon for an arm. But he may get overlooked after a disappointing overtime loss to Stanford a few weeks ago. The Ducks should have won that one and been undefeated heading into Saturday's showdown with Washington.

    Instead, they have that lone blemish on their resume after upsetting the Huskies in overtime to continue what has been a topsy-turvy season in the Pac-12.

    Herbert threw for just 202 yards against a quality defense, but he accounted for a pair of touchdowns in a big win. No, there weren't many style points for Herbert, but he has been steady at times this season and spectacular at others.

    His 346-yard performance against Stanford was a gem that should have resulted in a victory, and he began the season with nine touchdown strikes and just two interceptions in the Ducks' first two games. During his past two outings (wins over California and the Huskies), he's played turnover-free in big games.

    Right now, he's on the outside of the conversation, but the Ducks have positioned themselves as favorites in the Pac-12. If he leads the team to that conference title under first-year coach Mario Cristobal and Oregon somehow sneaks into the College Football Playoff, look out.

    He has the ability to post major numbers, and though he is a long shot for the award, at least he's got a shot.

8. Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis

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    When Memphis coach Mike Norvell elects to use his game-breaking running back, big things happen. In a battle of Group of Five fringe Heisman Trophy candidates with Central Florida's McKenzie Milton on Saturday, Henderson more than held his own.

    He finished with 199 rushing yards and a score, and he had another long touchdown run called back. He has already eclipsed 170 rushing yards five times this season.

    Unfortunately for the junior runner from South Panola High School in Mississippi, Milton brought UCF back late to beat the rival Tigers, 31-30, and remain unbeaten in its last 19 games.

    That doesn't change just how incredible Henderson has been this year, and he gets the slight edge over Milton (who would be No. 11) on this list. He leads the nation with 1,133 rushing yards and an astounding 10.3 yards per carry.

    He also is second to only Florida Atlantic's Devin Singletary with 13 rushing scores, one behind the Owls back.

    Henderson nearly led his team to victory against the Knights. With just under eight minutes left in the game, he broke free from 32 yards out for what looked like the go-ahead touchdown. Instead, the Tigers had been whistled for holding, bringing it back.

    "I was running down to the end zone, and I heard a whistle, saw the ref do something and then I looked back and saw the flag," Memphis quarterback Brady White told the Daily Memphian's Don Wade of going to celebrate with Henderson. "I was hoping it was on them. But it was on us."

    In the loss, Henderson moved to second all-time on Memphis' rushing list behind legendary Tiger DeAngelo Williams. When will people take notice that he's not just a good "small school" player?

7. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin's season is already a disappointment but only because of the lofty expectations the Badgers had, which included winning the Big Ten and heading to the College Football Playoff.

    After Saturday night's lopsided 38-13 loss to Michigan, the second of those goals is out of the question. The Badgers have to do more than they have so far to have any chance of beating the Wolverines or Ohio State in the conference championship, too.

    That includes getting star running back Jonathan Taylor the ball more. He had 17 rushes for 101 yards against the Wolverines as the home team steadily built its lead. Meanwhile, it looked like Wisconsin pinned its hopes on quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who struggled against Michigan once again.

    Taylor is second nationally with 950 rushing yards, following up his brilliant freshman season with another sterling one at Camp Randall. He's averaging nearly seven yards per carry and has reached paydirt eight times.

    The 5'11", 214-pound workhorse is the best Power Five runner in the nation, and he is only getting better. That's why coach Paul Chryst needs to lean on him.

    "He's one of the best backs," Michigan linebacker Devin Bush told the Detroit News' Angelique S. Chengelis. "His patience. He's probably the most patient runner we're going to go against, and I think he's really good at what they ask him to do."

    Taylor has all the attributes that make the best runners, and his peers realize that. It's a testament to how great he is that teams know they've got to take him out of the game to have a chance. Michigan slowed him, and it was enough. Games like this are why he's stagnated in the middle of the list.

6. Will Grier, QB, West Virginia

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    Before Saturday night's game against Iowa State, Will Grier and the West Virginia Mountaineers were riding high. They were ranked in the Top Six, looking like Oklahoma's top competition in the Big 12 and Grier was zipping his way toward the top of the Heisman Trophy race.

    A 30-14 rout by the Cyclones put a halt to all that.

    Now, the Mountaineers are facing an uphill battle to the College Football Playoff, and Grier's Heisman hopes took a huge hit. He couldn't muster anything against an opportunistic Iowa State secondary.

    WVU had averaged 527 yards of offense and 7.5 yards per play entering the contest, and Grier was third in the nation in total offense. Iowa State kept them to 152 total yards and nine first downs.

    The Mountaineers were 1-of-10 on third-down conversions and ran 42 offensive plays, the lowest output since 2013, according to SI.com's Scooby AxsonGrier finished with just 100 passing yards and was sacked seven times.

    Nothing worked.

    DraftWire.com's Luke Easterling discussed the ramifications of Grier's ineffectiveness.

    "This showing will not only be a huge blow to those team hopes, but also negatively impact his draft stock and chances of taking home the sport's most prestigious individual honor," he wrote.

    There are several big games left for Grier to rally and get back up near the top. But Saturday's loss was a major setback.

5. Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado

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    The meteoric rise of Laviska Shenault Jr. has become almost legend this year, especially as he has begun surging to the tips of college football pundits' tongues this season.

    He didn't play football until late in his high school career and wasn't a starter until he was a junior, when he emerged as a sought-after recruit. When he decided to go to Colorado, he was going to a coach in Mike MacIntyre who promised to use his skill set in a lot of different ways.

    That's coming to fruition this season.

    The sophomore has taken college football by storm. Last weekend, in a 28-21 win over Arizona State, Shenault was responsible for all four touchdowns. Before getting injured against USC in the Buffaloes' first loss of the season Saturday night, he scored again.

    So far, he has 60 catches for 780 yards and six receiving touchdowns and has added five more on the ground.

    "For a receiver, the numbers have to be ridiculous," Fox Sports South reporter Cory McCartney told the Mercury News Jon Wilner in regard to Shenault's chances.

    To win the award, Shenault needed a massive season and for Colorado to walk into the Pac-12 Championship Game. Saturday was a major blow to those hopes after a 31-20 loss to the Trojans, who now control their own destiny.

    The toe injury that kept Shenault from being a bigger factor in the game also won't help matters. This was one game a lot of the national voters would have watched, simply because he was going against the high-profile Trojans. Now, it's an uphill battle for the sophomore star.

4. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

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    It's difficult to believe that Clemson's offensive leader isn't getting the recognition he deserves so far this season, but that's the case with Travis Etienne.

    The 5'10", 200-pound playmaker wasn't one of the most heavily recruited players in the country, but it turns out he's one of the best. While the Tigers sort out their quarterback issues with Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence, Etienne carries the team.

    The Tigers have other productive backs, but none are as well-rounded as Etienne.

    "The sophomore effectively saved Clemson's season with a monster second half against Syracuse, then exploded with touchdown runs of 59 and 70 yards against Wake Forest," ESPN.com's David M. Hale wrote. "For the year, his 11 touchdowns are second among Power Five backs, his 761 yards are third and his 9.2 yards-per-carry average is the best for a P5 back with at least 50 carries."

    If national writers are beginning to realize this, why aren't the people who do the Heisman watch lists? Hopefully, Etienne will continue to get some publicity, and if that happens, he'll gradually creep up the list.

    Games like this weekend's battle for ACC Atlantic division supremacy against North Carolina State are the resume games that can help his cause. He may not be at the very top of the list, but the sophomore back should be right at the top of the second tier.

    The best thing for Clemson is he's got a couple of seasons left to play, too.

3. Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    There was no way for Kyler Murray to hurt his stock with a bye this week, so he watched as guys like Will Grier and Jonathan Taylor saw their stock drop.

    He's staying strong at a sturdy No. 3, with just one disappointing game so far, which came in Oklahoma's stunning near-loss to Army, a contest the Sooners escaped with a 28-21 overtime victory. Even then, Murray's "bad" game included three passing touchdowns to just one interception.

    He added seven carries for 71 yards and another score in that eventual win.

    Though the Sooners lost to Texas their last time out, it wasn't because of Murray, who threw for 301 yards, four touchdowns and ran for 92 and another score.

    He is as good as anybody in the nation at beating teams with his arm or feet, and the Sooners haven't really missed program-changing quarterback Baker Mayfield because of him. The Texas A&M transfer, who is expected to leave football and fulfill his obligations as the Oakland A's top draft pick, has been great so far.

    Murray thrives in coach Lincoln Riley's offensive system, and OU's explosive offense deserves better than its one-loss record. However, the defense hasn't been up to the challenge yet, which is why Mike Stoops was fired.

    With all the distractions, Oklahoma was fortunate to have a week off. Now, Murray has to get right back to carrying the load for the Sooners, who still aren't out of the College Football Playoff race despite the loss to Texas. They need to win out, and Murray needs to continue posting huge numbers to catapult past the duo in front of him.

2. Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State

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    All these partial games may wind up coming back to haunt Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's Heisman Trophy hopes, after all. 

    Ohio State signal-caller Dwayne Haskins has been making his case the past couple of weeks, becoming the only Buckeyes quarterback ever to throw for 400-plus yards twice in his career. Against Minnesota, he led OSU from a second-quarter deficit with a 33-of-44 performance for 412 yards.

    Haskins must continue posting ridiculous numbers against poor competition and then light up Michigan in the season finale to really put the pressure on. If he does that, the media could view him as the favorite over Tagovailoa.

    Fox Sports analyst Brady Quinn told CBS Sports' Chip Patterson he believes Haskins is the "leader in the clubhouse," and that was before Saturday.

    "I think looking at what Dwayne's done, in the second half against TCU with the deficit, and the fourth quarter against Penn State to bring his team back, and the fact he's leading the country right now in touchdown passes, I'm just saying right now, you can make a better case for Haskins than you can for Tua." 

    It's difficult to argue with Haskins' numbers. This year, he's thrown for 2,331 yards, 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Coach Urban Meyer has tailored his spread offense to fit the dropback abilities of Haskins, and Ohio State is better because of it.

    Against Minnesota, he stood tall in the pocket, getting sacked three times and pressured nine more, according to B/R colleague Adam Wells. Yet he still posted those gaudy numbers.

    He distributes the ball to all of his weapons, and he is unquestionably the best passing quarterback Meyer has ever coached, surpassing Alex Smith from his days at Utah.

1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

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    Bryant-Denny Stadium held its collective breath, and the place became eerily quiet Saturday night when Tua Tagovailoa went down with a knee injury against Missouri.

    Though Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters his star signal-caller was "fine" after the game, it kept him from putting up massive numbers again in what turned out to be a 39-10 win over the Tigers. Tagovailoa still finished 12-of-22 for 265 yards and three touchdowns.

    It was an opportunity to torch one of the worst secondaries in the SEC, and he did. But the third-quarter injury prevented him from really lighting up the stat sheet. Next week, he gets the chance to pick on Tennessee's young defensive backs if he's healthy enough to go.

    If he's not, it may allow Dwayne Haskins to close the gap even more.

    Even if he does, Alabama has several marquee games remaining against teams like LSU, Auburn and the SEC Championship Game against presumably Georgia or Florida. If he's dominant in those games, it'll be hard to keep the hardware out of his trophy case.

    He's been incredible so far in limited action, completing 71.5 percent of his passes for 1,760 yards, 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He is the most exciting player on the most dominant team, and that will carry weight with the voters, as well.

    But Haskins' numbers are better. If they continue to be much better, he will bypass Tua, and it's certainly within reach considering Alabama's remaining schedule is tougher. It's going to be a fun race to the finish.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats 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.