Way-Too-Early 2019 Heisman Predictions

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 11, 2019

Way-Too-Early 2019 Heisman Predictions

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    Tua Tagovailoa
    Tua TagovailoaJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson's Trevor Lawrence are the co-favorites to win college football's 2019 Heisman Trophy, but which phenomenal quarterback is No. 1 in our top 10?

    Recent history has provided us with two axioms for filling out a preseason Heisman ranking:

    1. At least 40 percent of the top 10 will be quarterbacks, and it's usually more. Heck, all six of last year's top guys were QBs. The last time three or fewer quarterbacks placed in the top 10 was 2006. And most of the non-quarterbacks will be running backs.
    2. The preseason favorites almost never win. Bryce Love, Sam Darnold and others can attest to that. Marcus Mariota (2014) was the only one in the past decade to get the job done.

    Let's ignore that second point, though, as it would be incredulous to not have Tagovailoa and Lawrence in the top two spots. It's possibleperhaps even probablethat neither receives the coveted stiff-armed trophy, but we're not trying to get cute with the top two spots.

    The quarterback from a 4-8 team at No. 3, though? And a defensive player in the top 10?

    That's the type of cuteness we can get behind on this way-too-early list.

    As with the actual Heisman voting, the ranking is based on a combination of (projected) individual and team success. The former is more important than the latter, but you better at least play for an eight-win team if you expect anyone to care about your stats.

Honorable Mentions

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    Jake Fromm
    Jake FrommButch Dill/Associated Press

    Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia

    Fromm might be the most underappreciated quarterback in the country. He had a 171.3 passer-efficiency rating last year for a team that went 11-1 during the regular season, yet he didn't finish in the top 10 for the Heisman award. Perhaps he'll be even more efficient for an undefeated team, but we've got a different Dawg in our top 10.

                   

    Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

    With Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs out of the picture, it should be Najee's time to shine in Alabama's backfield. He was the Crimson Tide's most efficient rusher last season in 117 attempts, and he should put up incredible numbers with two or three times as many carries. However, the return of Tagovailoa and all five of his top targets is likely to bury Harris as a Heisman afterthought.

               

    Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama

    If any wide receiver is going to finish in the top 10, Jeudy is the obvious candidate. He had 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and he could've done more if Alabama ever needed to pass in the fourth quarter. However, there have only been two receivers in the past six seasons who finished top 10 for the HeismanAmari Cooper in 2014 and Dede Westbrook in 2016so the odds aren't great. It doesn't help matters that he is one of four returning members of this receiving corps who had at least 40 receptions and six touchdowns last year.

                       

    Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

    Taylor rushed for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and only finished ninth in the Heisman vote. Unless he somehow cranks that up to 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns or unless Wisconsin surprises everyone by getting into the College Football Playoff huntCFB expert Phil Steele doesn't even have the Badgers in his preseason top 25—it's unlikely Taylor will get any additional Heisman votes this year.

                 

    Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

    Like Taylor, Moore had more than 2,200 all-purpose yards last season, but that wasn't enough for him to even finish in the top 10 for the Heisman. Unless Purdue breaks through for 10 or more wins for the first time since 1979, chances are he'll be overlooked in the race for the stiff-armed trophy once again.

10. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 204 carries, 1,658 yards, 8.1 YPC, 24 TD; 12 receptions, 78 yards, 2 TD

    Over the past seven seasons, there has only been one instance of two offensive players from the same team finishing in the top 10 of the Heisman vote. That was Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook, who took third and fourth place, respectively, in 2016. With so many worthy candidates every season, it's always a challenge to simultaneously argue for two teammates as the best player in the country.

    Thus, since Trevor Lawrence serves as Clemson's most likely Heisman candidate, we're projecting Travis Etienne a few slots lower than you were probably expecting. But there was no way we could justify omitting the man who ran rampant en route to last year's national championship.

    Per Sports Reference, Etienne became one of just six players since 2000 to average at least eight yards per carry while rushing for more than 1,600 yards. The only other ones to do so at a Power Five program were forfeited 2005 Heisman winner Reggie Bush and 2017 Heisman runner-up Bryce Love.

    Etienne rushed for at least 120 yards seven times last season, even though he only received more than 16 carries twice. He made good defenses look average, and he made the bad ones look like they didn't have enough players on the field.

    With Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice both gone, Etienne should receive an even bigger piece of the rushing pie in 2019. If that gets him to 2,000 yards with 25 or more touchdowns, he'll have a strong case for more votes than his quarterback.

9. Chase Young, DE, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 33 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 5 passes broken up

    In each of the last three seasons, at least one defensive player made it into the top 10 of the Heisman vote. Alabama's Quinnen Williams placed eighth this past year, Georgia's Roquan Smith finished 10th in 2017, and Michigan's Jabrill Peppers and Alabama's Jonathan Allen were fifth and seventh, respectively, in 2016.

    It's just a matter of identifying which defender is the top candidate to break up the duopoly of quarterbacks and running backs, and Ohio State's Chase Young makes perfect sense for that role.

    For starters, most of the way-way-way-too-early 2020 NFL mock drafts have Young projected as a top-five pick. That includes B/R draft guru Matt Miller, who listed Young as the No. 1 overall pick when he gazed into his crystal ball in late April. Needless to say, there will be a lot of eyes on the pass-rusher expected to terrorize the Big Ten.

    Perhaps even more noteworthy for Heisman buzz, though, is that Young could be the centerpiece of the country's most improved defense.

    By Ohio State's standards, its 2018 defense was abysmal. The Buckeyes allowed 25.5 points and 404.0 yards per game. In both departments, it was by far their worst season since 1999, when they went 6-6 and allowed 23.9 and 362.4, respectively.

    Even if they don't have a top-10 unit, if the Buckeyes can get those numbers down into the 20 and 340 vicinity, Young will get a ton of fanfare as the nation's most valuable defender.

8. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 69.2% completion, 328 yards, 4 TD, 173.7 passer-efficiency rating; 42 carries, 266 yards, 4 TD

    No player will be under more pressure to succeed than Justin Fields.

    A transfer quarterback has won the Heisman Trophy in each of the past two seasons, so why not Fields?

    Ohio State's quarterback (Dwayne Haskins) annihilated program records by throwing for more than 4,800 yards and 50 touchdowns last season, so why not Fields?

    And one of the two quarterbacks who jostled for the title of highest-rated recruit in the 2018 class (Trevor Lawrence) won the national championship as a true freshman, so why not Fields?

    Moreover, Fields' decision to transfer from Georgia to Ohio State directly led to Tate Martell's and Matthew Baldwin's transfers out of Columbus, so he is essentially the only option the Buckeyes have at QB.

    That's a rough situation for a kid who has taken maybe three meaningful snaps in his college career, but there's no question he has the arm and legs to handle it. Fields showed off the arm on a 98-yard TD pass in Ohio State's spring game, and the legs were primarily what he got to display during his underutilized season with the Bulldogs.

    But with the bar set so high, Fields is at a disadvantage in this debate.

    A Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray type of season would get him the trophy, but anything less would feel like a letdown, as preposterously unfair as that is. So if Fields puts up numbers similar to players such as Jalen Hurts, Sam Ehlinger or Adrian Martinez, he would probably receive fewer votes because more is expected of him—even if Ohio State has a better season than Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska.

7. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 72.9% completion, 765 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT, 196.7 passer-efficiency rating; 36 carries, 167 yards, 2 TD

    Dating back to 2000, only seven FBS quarterbacks have amassed career totals of at least 5,500 passing yards, 1,900 rushing yards and 45 passing touchdowns with a passer-efficiency rating of 148 or better. Those seven are: 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow, 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, two-time top-three Heisman finisher Deshaun Watson, Ohio State's all-time passing leader J.T. Barrett...and Jalen Hurts.

    Suffice it to say, lack of efficiency or mobility were not the reasons he lost his starting job at Alabama. He just wasn't a great deep passer and had a nasty habit of running out of gas before the finish line, throwing for fewer than 140 yards in each of the final three games of both his freshman and sophomore seasons.

    Also, that Tua fella is pretty good.

    Hurts now gets a chance to start over with Oklahoma. He joins a program that has produced the last two Heisman Trophy winners. He also gets to play nine games against the Big 12 instead of eight against the SEC, which can't be a bad thing for any quarterback—let alone one who has only thrown three interceptions in his last 390 pass attempts.

    But can Hurts exceed what Mayfield and Murray did, and could he make a strong case for the Heisman if he doesn't?

    As was the main argument for keeping Fields out of our top five, it feels like the bar has been set impossibly high for Hurts. He'll be impressive, he'll win a lot of games and he'll get a good number of Heisman votes. He would need to be unbelievably special to win it, though.

6. Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 64.7% completion, 3,292 yards, 25 TD, 5 INT, 146.8 passer-efficiency rating; 164 carries, 482 yards, 16 TD

    Mayfield doesn't like Sam Ehlinger.

    Neither does Terry Bradshaw.

    But far be it from us to criticize one of the few players in the past two decades to rack up at least 25 passing touchdowns and 15 rushing scores with a passer-efficiency rating of 145 or better.

    Only five other players from Power Five programs have hit all three of those plateaus in a single season, and all fiveTebow, Cam Newton, Manziel, Mariota and Lamar Jacksonwon the Heisman.

    Ehlinger didn't come anywhere close to winning it, but there are three simple explanations for that. First, he had the misfortune of doing it in the same season that Murray, Tagovailoa, Haskins, Will Grier and Gardner Minshew put up ridiculous numbers. Second, he wasn't a household name at the start of the year. And third, Texas lost two of the first three games after it became nationally relevant, and Ehlinger suffered a shoulder injury early in the other one.

    He'll still need to contend with the likes of Tagovailoa and Lawrence, but if he puts up similar numbers this season and shines in Week 2 against LSU and/or the big rivalry game against Oklahoma in mid-October, the Heisman hype will be instantaneous and fierce.

    The big question is: Is Texas back?

    If the Longhorns go 11-1 (or 12-0) and make a serious push for the College Football Playoff, lock Ehlinger in as a Heisman finalist. It's hard to imagine they can pull that off without a huge year from him. But if the defense is still a disaster, and that results in three or more losses, Ehlinger will be out of sight, out of mind for Heisman voters.

    We're splitting the difference and slotting him at No. 6, but he's one of the biggest wild cards on the board.

5. D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 163 carries, 1,049 yards, 6.4 YPC, 10 TD; 32 receptions, 297 yards, 3 TD

    As a rule of thumb, Heisman voters apparently hate offensive players from Georgia.

    Linebacker Roquan Smith (2017), linebacker Jarvis Jones (2012) and cornerback Champ Bailey (1998) have made appearances in the top 10 of the Heisman vote in the past quarter century, but the Dawgs' last quarterback, running back or wide receiver to do so was Eric Zeier, who placed seventh in 1994.

    It's not like there haven't been options. Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, Aaron Murray, A.J. Green, Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb and Fromm were all strong candidates in good seasons for the Bulldogs, but to no avail.

    Maybe D'Andre Swift will be the man who breaks that drought.

    He got off to a surprisingly slow start in 2018. In five September games, he averaged a meager 48.0 rushing yards per contest and 4.6 yards per carry. He wasn't much of a factor in the passing game, either, tallying six receptions for 60 yards.

    But as the schedule got tougher, so did Swift. From Week 6 through the end of the regular season, his rushing average more than doubled to 103.1 thanks to a much more efficient 8.3 yards per carry. Swift gashed Florida, Kentucky and Auburn for at least 100 rushing yards in consecutive weeks. And he became a significant threat on passing downs, making multiple receptions in seven of his final nine contests.

    Considering Georgia lost Swift's backfield partner in crime (Elijah Holyfield) and every noteworthy member of the receiving corps aside from Jeremiah Holloman, chances are the rising junior will shoulder a heavier load in 2019. If he can maintain 90 percent of his efficiency while jumping from 14 touches per game to 20 or more, he'll have Heisman-worthy numbers. If the Bulldogs also go 12-0 during the regular season, that's even better for Swift's chances.

4. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

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    Timothy J. Gonzalez/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 59.4% completion, 3,151 yards, 29 TD, 8 INT, 144.6 passer-efficiency rating; 71 carries, 166 yards, 2 TD

    This is a strange truth for a player who probably would have been the top quarterback selected if he had entered the 2019 NFL draft, but Justin Herbert has plenty of room for improvement.

    The sub-60 completion percentage is a bit alarming, especially considering his two worst games in that department last year were against Bowling Green and San Jose State. Once Pac-12 play began, Herbert only had one contest with at least 300 passing yards (vs. Stanford) and only one game with three or more total touchdowns (at Utah)and the Ducks still lost both of those contests.

    We make these notes not to disparage Herbert but rather to present optimism for his Heisman potential, because "room for improvement" is far from the norm for borderline top-10 preseason Heisman candidates.

    If a guy like Etienne or Tagovailoa can improve his already ridiculous 2018 numbers by 10 percent, he would be an obvious front-runner for the Heisman. But that's next to impossible for players who were elite on perfect or near-perfect teams.

    Herbert, on the other hand, could improve by 20 percent, as could Oregon's win total. And if he throws for 3,800 yards and 35 touchdowns with a 175 rating for an 11-win College Football Playoff contender, it will get a heck of a lot of attention. And Herbert might have hit those marks as a sophomore if he hadn't broken his collarbone in September 2017, so it's not wild speculation.

    Let's also point out two causes for pessimism, though, in the sake of fairness.

    First, Herbert's star receiver (Dillon Mitchell) is gone, so he'll need to find some new targets he trusts. Second, recent history has not been kind to the "I can't believe he turned down the NFL draft to come back for another year, but he's going to contend for the Heisman!" club. (See: Love, Bo Scarbrough, Chad Kelly, etc.)

3. Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 64.6% completion, 2,617 yards, 17 TD, 8 INT, 139.5 passer-efficiency rating; 140 carries, 629 yards, 8 TD

    It's hard to know what the previous record was for most preseason hype surrounding the quarterback of a team coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons, but it seems safe to assume Nebraska's Adrian Martinez has shattered that record.

    The Cornhuskers couldn't do much of anything on defense last year, allowing at least 28 points in nine of 10 games played against Power Five opponents. The true freshman, dual-threat quarterback made them competitive anyway. They won four of their final seven games, with the three losses coming by a combined margin of 11 points. Hence the anticipation for a vintage, mid-1990s type of campaign for Nebraska in 2019.

    In six of those final seven games, Martinez completed at least two-thirds of his pass attempts, threw for at least 210 yards and accounted for a touchdownusually several of them. And he was just as dangerous with his legs, rushing for at least 55 yards in seven of 11 games played.

    Despite the abridged seasonMartinez suffered a knee injury late in the opener against Colorado, missed the subsequent game against Troy and was far from 100 percent for the tough matchup against Michiganhe became just the fifth freshman in the past seven years to throw for 2,500 yards and rush for 500 yards in a single season. Two of the other four (Mariota and Manziel) won a Heisman, the third (Hurts) is one of the top candidates to win it this year and the fourth (Barrett) is merely Ohio State's all-time leader in passing yards.

    Not bad company for Martinez, and good reason for extreme optimism in Lincoln.

    The big question is: Will Nebraska be nationally relevant enough for Martinez to win the Heisman?

    The schedule is favorable. The Cornhuskers don't play Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State; they get both Ohio State and Wisconsin at home; and their toughest nonconference game (at Colorado) is, at worst, a coin-flip proposition. One would hope that a Top 20-caliber team could win at least nine games against that slate. And that improvement of five (or more) wins would be huge.

1B. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 65.2% completion, 3,280 yards, 30 TD, 4 INT, 157.6 passer-efficiency rating; 60 carries, 177 yards, 1 TD

    One year ago, the unanswerable, never-ending debate surrounding Lawrence and Tagovailoa was whether each should start at quarterback for his respective title contender. Now that each has been cemented as a star, the impossible task is trying to pick a singular preseason favorite to win the 2019 Heisman.

    It's a shame we can't just wait until after the national championship to conduct the voting, since all signs point to another 14-0 Clemson vs. 14-0 Alabama showdown for all the marbles.

    We're giving the slightest edge to Tagovailoa for three reasons: Etienne will steal some of Lawrence's thunder, Alabama has a greater quantity of elite receivers and the Tide face a much more difficult path to 14-0, which would give Tagovailoa's numbers a boost in the eyes of most voters.

    That said, only a fool would be expecting anything less than greatness from Lawrence.

    The true freshman threw for at least 250 yards in seven of his final nine games, and it's hard to fault him for the other two, since Clemson's backfield was so busy stomping a mudhole through the front sevens of Louisville and Pittsburgh that it didn't much need the quarterback.

    When the Tigers did require his services in the College Football Playoff, he was masterful, tallying at least 325 yards and three touchdowns in each contest—with no picks. The dimes that Lawrence was dropping to Justyn Ross in the national championship game had everyone wondering why this phenom has to stay in school for two more years before he can turn pro.

    If Lawrence throws like that for an entire season, even Tagovailoa might not be able to keep pace.

1A. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    2018 Stats: 69.0% completion, 3,966 yards, 43 TD, 6 INT, 199.4 passer-efficiency rating; 57 carries, 190 yards, 5 TD

    One of the biggest reasons we're rolling with Tagovailoa in the top spot is the incredible arsenal of receivers at his disposal.

    Lawrence has two excellent NFL-caliber targets in Tee Higgins and Ross, but Tagovailoa has Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, which is just ridiculous. Most teams are lucky to have one returning player with at least 42 receptions, 693 yards and six touchdowns. Alabama has so many of them that one needs to come off the bench.

    Unless Tagovailoa has to battle through another season of knee and ankle injuries, how can you hope to stop this offense?

    Remember, through the first eight games of last season, Tagovailoa had 25 touchdowns without a single interception and never had to play in the fourth quarter. To that point, his "worst" game as far as passer-efficiency rating is concerned was the four-touchdown, 306-yard beatdown of Tennessee, for which he received a rating of 199.7.

    He was the clear-cut favorite for the Heisman until he got banged up and started facing elite defenses while Oklahoma's horrendous D forced Murray to don his Superman cape week after week.

    So, if he can stay a little healthier this year, he should become the third consecutive player to win the Heisman a few short months before becoming the NFL's No. 1 overall pick.

                             

    Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames. Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.

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