The Heisman Trophy is an award like no other, steeped in tradition, lore and a lifetime of athletic immortality. Win it and your life will change forever, dispelling notions that the award has lost a little something off its fastball this century.
Sizing up the 2016 Heisman contenders hasn’t changed much since this process began before spring. Offseason injuries haven’t been a factor, fortunately, and with six returners having finished in the top 10 of the Heisman vote at some point in their careers this figures to be the most competitive race to New York City in recent memory.
Without further ado, here's my 2016 preseason Heisman Watch list.
10. Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett
Garrett is college football’s single most dominant defender, a modern-day Julius Peppers who’ll get cover on the opposite side from Daeshon Hall. And as the nation’s premier pass rusher, with the sack total to back it up, Garrett will be the ideal candidate for those voters steadfast in their belief that defensive players get jobbed when it comes to the game’s signature individual award.
9. Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
Quarterback of a ranked, high-visibility program? Check. Next-level talent? Check. Sure, Kizer will share snaps with Malik Zaire in the opener with Texas, but he’s the guy Brian Kelly will lean on hardest this season to operate his offense. Kizer’s biggest concern will be a lack of proven targets, not a lack of reps. Otherwise, all signs point to him taking the next big leap in a career that began auspiciously—and unexpectedly—after Kizer went down last September.
8. Michigan LB Jabrill Peppers
Pound-for-pound, Peppers just might be the most complete amateur in the country. And he’ll be even more productive for new coordinator Don Brown as a linebacker. However, while college football connoisseurs understand Peppers’ potential, many Heisman voters follow the sport passively. So, unless Jim Harbaugh liberally unleashes No. 5 on offense, the sophomore will have a difficult time making it to New York City.
7. Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough
Being Nick Saban’s feature runner is a good place to start for a Heisman wannabe. A Bama back won the award in 2009, Mark Ingram, and again last year, Derrick Henry. The average fan hasn’t seen Scarbrough run, but the sophomore is liable to lift his veil of anonymity in the USC opener. He’s a quintessential Tide power back, motoring as if channeling his inner-Henry. Scarbrough must be extra special to ascend higher, since wide receiver Calvin Ridley is actually the program’s best all-around offensive player.
6. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
Mayfield wound up fourth in the Heisman vote last December. Duplicating—or surpassing—last year’s finish, though, could become complicated in 2016. The Sooners have earned a reputation for failing to fulfill lofty preseason expectations, which is going to obliterate Mayfield’s chances if his team fails to win the Big 12. Plus, there’s the issue of the supporting cast. He’ll sorely miss wide receiver Sterling Shepard and could lose some voting punch to his own teammate, running back Samaje Perine.
5. Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey
Terrific playmaker. The best all-around offensive weapon in college football. No arguments. But McCaffrey will be impacted this season by the graduation of quarterback Kevin Hogan, which is going to make it less risky for opposing defenses to focus all of their energy and resources to corralling No. 5 in the open field. Plus, any Cardinal drop-off as the Pac-12 team to beat is going to directly impact McCaffrey’s ability to remain in the center stage of the Heisman chase.
4. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Numbers won’t be a problem for Watson, who’ll pile them up this fall at the expense of overmatched defenses. And his Tigers will hover around the top 5 for the entire campaign, never leaving the playoff picture. But, fair or not, Watson’s candidacy will pass or fail on the result of the Oct. 29 trip to Tallahassee. Clemson will fall to Florida State and running back Dalvin Cook, and Watson won’t have another chance against Syracuse, Pitt, Wake Forest and South Carolina to regain lost ground.
3. LSU RB Leonard Fournette
Fournette is a grown man competing against student-athletes, the basis for another prolific season before turning pro at the conclusion of his third season in Baton Rouge. Provided Fournette stays healthy, he has a relatively clear path to New York City on the second Saturday in December. Still, he does absorb a lot of contact, and he’s already tweaked his ankle this month. More important, can he avoid the drop-off versus the Bama D that derailed last year’s quest for immortality?
2. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
In this Year of the Running Back, none will shine brighter than Cook, who sometimes gets lost in the shadow of Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. Cook is as gifted as any amateur back, which he’ll flash repeatedly throughout his final year in Tallahassee. He’ll rise into the Heisman high rent district—and essentially box out Deshaun Watson—with a monster 200-yard effort in the Noles’ Oct. 29 win over Clemson. It’ll be interesting to see how sharing a backfield with rookie quarterback Deondre Francois impacts Cook’s production.
1. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
The Buckeyes will win the Big Ten and earn a playoff bid in 2016. And no one in Columbus will benefit on the awards circuit more than Barrett. The situation lines up perfectly. Cardale Jones is gone, as are the distractions that came with a quarterback controversy. Moreover, Barrett is in the right offense with the right coach to recapture his 2014 form, when he placed fifth in the Heisman. Being the veteran leader of a young squad that chases titles will resonate loudly with voters after Barrett guides Ohio State to season-ending wins over Michigan and Iowa in the conference title game.