With the college football season finally complete, it’s time for the final installment of my Heisman Watch series—an early preview of 2015’s potential candidates.
1. Braxton Miller/J.T. Barrett/Cardale Jones, Ohio State QB(s)
So nobody knows who’s going to start at quarterback next fall for the national champion Buckeyes. There’s a ton of hearsay and a lot of rumors, and most likely none of this will fully get sorted out until next August. But I press onward!
Miller is a senior coming off shoulder surgery that sidelined him the entire 2014 season. He’s on track to graduate this spring, which means he can transfer to any school and play immediately. He’s been connected to several schools, most notably Florida State. Miller was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in both 2012 and 2013.
Barrett replaced Miller following his injury and had an incredible year, finishing fifth in Heisman voting. He broke his ankle in the regular season finale against Michigan and will probably be limited at spring practice.
And Jones became a national sensation overnight, leading Ohio State to three postseason wins and a national title. Multiple people believe he should declare for the NFL Draft, avoiding a possible return to clipboard holding or a lost year sitting out as a transfer. But remember, he’s only started three games.
Regardless, Ohio State is loaded next year, and whoever wins the starting quarterback job should be considered the preseason frontrunner.
2. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State RB
Perhaps even more crucial to the Buckeyes’ championship run was Elliott. During the regular season, Elliott ran for 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns. Respectable numbers, but it was the three-game postseason run that made him a household name.
Against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, Elliott ran for more than 200 yards in each game and a total of eight touchdowns. He clinched the semifinal upset over the Tide with this 85-yard score and dismantled the Ducks to clinch the title.
Elliott is the complete package, a blend of speed and power. With Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Todd Gurley and Ameer Abdullah all moving onto the pros, Elliott one of college football’s best returning runners.
3. Trevone Boykin, TCU QB
The footnote to this season’s inaugural College Football Playoff was how TCU was excluded, despite entering the final weekend ranked in a seemingly comfortable spot at No. 3. There was even this sign at the national championship.
Boykin finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2014 and will return for his senior season. He threw for 33 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions, but must improve on his accuracy and decision-making. Even in TCU’s 42-3 blowout win in the Peach Bowl, he tossed three picks.
4. Nick Chubb, Georgia RB
As a true freshman, Chubb filled in for the suspended and injured Gurley and led Georgia in rushing. His 1,547 yards ranked 17th in the country, and among players who averaged more than 10 attempts per game, he ranked eighth in yards per carry with 7.06.
5. Royce Freeman, Oregon RB
Another true freshman running back, Freeman will be the focal point of the Ducks’ high-octane offense next season now that Marcus Mariota is officially going pro. Freeman had six 100-yard rushing games and seven games with multiple touchdowns.
However, Freeman was a complete no-show during the College Football Playoff. In two games against Florida State and Ohio State, he ran for a minuscule 66 yards on 22 carries.
6. Cody Kessler, USC QB
Kessler was overlooked all year until he demolished media darling Notre Dame on the final weekend of the regular season—372 yards and six touchdowns.
That wasn’t a one-game anomaly, however. Kessler was consistently good all season long and finished with 39 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Still, losing top target Nelson Agholor to the NFL may cause some growing pains with a young receiving corps.
7. Leonard Fournette, LSU RB
Fournette had so much preseason hype going into last fall, many believed he would become the first true freshman to win a Heisman. That didn’t exactly materialize, battling seniors Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee for carries.
8. Derrick Henry, Alabama RB
Like Fournette, Henry split time in the backfield with T.J. Yeldon, who has since declared for the draft. Despite getting 22 fewer carries than Yeldon and having less name recognition, Henry actually outrushed his teammate. He’s a 240-pound bruiser with a 4.4 40-time.
9. Dalvin Cook, Florida State RB
There’s a theme here. Cook, a true freshman, didn’t quite become a household name this season since he split time with senior Karlos Williams. Cook’s role increased steadily throughout the season, culminating in three straight 100-yard games to close the year.
He needs to take care of his ball security issues, however. He coughed up two fumbles in the Playoff semifinal against Oregon, both of which led to touchdowns.
10. Deshaun Watson, Clemson QB
For a while this past season, Watson was a fringe Heisman candidate after wresting the starting job away from Cole Stoudt. Then Watson broke his hand Oct. 11, missed three games, came back and tore his ACL.
Injury problems aside, Watson threw just two interceptions in 137 passes while averaging 10.7 yards per attempt. Consider him a dark horse.
Honorable Mentions: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State QB; Samaje Perine, Oklahoma RB; Paul Perkins, UCLA RB