Heading into the 2015 college football season, Alabama running back Derrick Henry was not considered among the clear-cut favorites. Yes, his name was mentioned as part of the discussion, but he was considered “second tier” by Sports Illustrated, had the 12th-highest preseason odds according to Bovada, and was not even mentioned in Grantland’s preseason Heisman watch.
The point of this recap is that college football is incredibly difficult to prognosticate.
Never ones to shy away from a challenge, the folks at PointAfter decided to look ahead to the 2016 season and rank the top 25 candidates to take home college football’s highest individual honor. In order to do this accurately, we had to speculate a bit on draft-eligible players who will and will not be returning to college next season. As part of this speculation, we’ll project Henry will be in the NFL next season, leaving the opportunity for a new winner in 2016.
Players made the cut based on a number of factors, including past performance and expectations for next season. Expected team success will also play a big role, because as we’ve seen in recent years, a Heisman winner has to play for a successful team. Since 2008, the combined record for each Heisman winner’s teams at the time of the ceremony is 94-8.
We’ll start at No. 25 and work our way up to the top Heisman candidate for next season. Though it’s too early for these players to book flights to New York City, they should at least start thinking about their acceptance speeches, just in case.
#25. Mason Rudolph, QB Oklahoma State
Through 10 games this season, Rudolph led the Cowboys to a perfect 10-0 record and a No. 6 spot in the College Football Playoff ranking. Two losses and a foot injury to Rudolph dashed OSU’s title hopes, but there’s plenty to be excited about in Stillwater for 2016. Rudolph finished third in the Big 12 in yards per pass attempt and fourth in passer rating, and he’ll have his top wide receiver James Washington returning next season. A Sept. 24 matchup at Baylor could give Rudolph a chance to make his way into the Heisman conversation early on.
#24. Josh Adams, RB Notre Dame
Adams served well as Notre Dame’s No. 2 back for the first part of the season. He assumed a bigger role in the last four regular season games, rushing for 492 yards on 69 carries while starter C.J. Prosise dealt with injury. With Prosise graduating after this season, Adams will be the feature back in what should be a preseason top-10 team.
#23. Jabrill Peppers, CB Michigan
Peppers was the No. 2 high school player in the country from the class of 2014, according to ESPN, and arrived at Michigan with plenty of hype. He played in just three games in his freshman season but played all over the field in 2015, seeing time at cornerback, running back, receiver and as a return specialist. Peppers’ versatility has drawn comparisons to Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman winner. Jim Harbaugh has said that Peppers might spend more time at tailback next season, and if that’s the case he’ll have a better shot at generating serious Heisman buzz.df
#22. Adoree’ Jackson, CB USC
After a breakout freshman campaign, Jackson improved upon his reputation as an all-purpose game-changer in 2015. He made 35 tackles and had one interception en route to being named a first-team All-Pac-12 selection at cornerback. He also was the team’s second-leading receiver, with 414 yards on 27 catches with two touchdowns. Jackson also had two punt return touchdowns and finished the year with 1,437 all-purpose yards.
#21. Damien Harris, RB Alabama
It seems like whoever earns the job as Alabama’s starting running back deserves a spot on this list. With the Tide losing its two leading rushers next season — Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake — Harris seems to be the next in line. Harris was ranked as ESPN’s No. 2 high school running back in the class of 2015, and he should see a big increase in carries in 2016. Alabama has had its leading rusher run for at least 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns in four of the past five seasons. If Harris can reach those types of numbers, he’ll be in the discussion.
#20. LJ Scott, Michigan State
Scott had an impressive freshman campaign in 2015, highlighted by his Big Ten championship-clinching touchdown run in the final minute against Iowa. At 6’0″ and 233 pounds, he’s a physical runner that should only get stronger as he gets older. The Spartans will have a new starter at quarterback next season, which means Scott will be counted on more heavily in 2016.
#19. Christian Kirk, WR Texas A&M
In a crowded Texas A&M receiving corps, Kirk separated himself from the pack and was the Aggies’ leading receiver as a true freshman. He had 1,009 receiving yards with seven touchdowns and also proved to be a dangerous return man. Though the Aggies have question marks at quarterback, Kirk is a proven playmaker who should shine in 2016.
#18. Calvin Ridley, WR Alabama
Ridley was Alabama’s leading receiver in 2015 and looks to be poised for stardom. He has the unenviable position of being compared to former Alabama wideout Amari Cooper, but so far appears to be handling the expectations well. The Tide will have a new starting quarterback in 2016, and whoever wins the job will be wise to throw the ball to Ridley early and often.
#17. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR USC
Smith-Schuster was the go-to target for USC in 2015, and that figures to be the case in 2016. The sophomore haulded in 10 touchdown catches and a Pac-12-leading 1,454 yards despite playing the second half of the season with a broken hand. Smith-Schuster will be the Trojans’ top playmaker on offense next season and will have to develop rapport with a new starting quarterback. If he can do that, he should continue to put up big numbers.
#16. Jalen Hurd, RB Tennessee
With Derrick Henry and LSU’s Leonard Fournette garnering most of the attention, Hurd flew under the radar for the most part in 2015. He quietly had a strong season and could become a more household name in 2016 if the Volunteers can compete for an SEC East title. Tennessee faces a four-game gauntlet in the first half of next season against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama. If Hurd puts up big numbers in those high-profile games, he’ll be on everyone’s Heisman radar.
#15. Joe Mixon, RB Oklahoma
Prior to Oklahoma’s Orange Bowl matchup with Clemson, Mixon spoke to the media for the first time since serving a one-year suspension for punching a woman and entering an Alford plea on aggravated assault charges. He drew plenty of deserved criticism for his apparent lack of remorse and refusal to directly address the issue. Though this clouds any chance at a future Heisman campaign, he was a dynamic playmaker in the high-octane Sooners offense and could become part of the discussion for the award if he continues to improve.
#14. Myles Gaskin, RB Washington
As a true freshman in 2015, Gaskin finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 1,302 rushing yards. He tied for the conference lead with 14 rushing touchdowns and was the focal point of the Huskies offense. Gaskin and quarterback Jake Browning, a fellow true freshman, flashed signs of future greatness in 2015 and be a formidable duo in 2016 and beyond.
#13. Seth Russell, QB Baylor
Russell threw for 2,104 yards and 29 touchdowns with just six interceptions through seven games in 2015 and was firmly in the Heisman discussion. A neck injury brought an abrupt end to his season, but he’s expected to make a full recovery. If he picks up where he left off and Baylor stays in the national title picture, Russell will be among the frontrunners for the Heisman in 2016.
#12. Luke Falk, QB Washington State
Ever since his days at Texas Tech, quarterbacks coached by Mike Leach have made 4,000-yard passing seasons commonplace. Falk continued the tradition in 2015, with 4,561 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. This time, however, all those gaudy passing numbers translated into wins. Washington State’s 9-4 record was the program’s best mark since 2003, and the Cougars were a missed field goal away from beating Stanford and winning the Pac-12 North in 2015. If the team can build on this success next season, Falk can vault himself into serious award contention.
#11. Nick Chubb, RB Georgia
Chubb became an immediate star for the Bulldogs as a true freshman, rushing for 1,547 yards and 14 scores in 2014. He was on his way to besting those numbers in 2015 before suffering a gruesome knee injury against Tennessee. Chubb reportedly underwent successful surgery and plans on being ready for the start of next year. If he can regain his past form, he’ll be among the favorites to win the Heisman in 2016.
#10. Josh Rosen, QB UCLA
Rosen was heralded as the “Chosen One” before he even enrolled at UCLA. Though the Bruins went 8-5 and fell short of some lofty expectations, their freshman quarterback largely lived up to the hype. Rosen threw for 3,670 yards with 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, setting a school record for consecutive passes thrown without an interception. He’ll have a lot of new faces to work with on offense next season, but Rosen proved himself able to adapt quickly as a freshman and should improve in his sophomore campaign.
#9. Shock Linwood, RB Baylor
Assuming he doesn’t enter the NFL draft, Linwood should once again be the lead option in Baylor’s talented backfield. He racked up 1,329 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Baylor’s vaunted offense will put up plenty of points next season, and Linwood will be at the center of it all if he chooses to return to school.
#8. Samaje Perine, RB Oklahoma
Perine followed up a record-setting freshman campaign with a strong sophomore season in 2015, rushing for 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s just 1,056 yards away from the school’s career rushing record, and he could be in line for plenty of accolades in 2016.
#7. DeShone Kizer, QB Notre Dame
Big things were expected of Notre Dame’s quarterback in 2015, but it wasn’t supposed to be Kizer. Malik Zaire was poised to make his mark this season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Virginia. Kizer took the job and ran with it, becoming a serious dual-threat signal-caller and leading the Irish to a top-10 finish. Though he might have to fight for his job with a recovered Zaire, our bet is that he’ll remain the starter and build on his breakout 2015 campaign.
#6. Baker Mayfield, QB Oklahoma
Mayfield went from walk-on to finishing fourth in the Heisman voting in 2015, leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff. He threw for 3,700 yards with 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions, adding 405 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He’ll combine with Perine and Mixon to form a lethal offense next season and should be in the Heisman conversation all year long.
#5. Dalvin Cook, RB Florida State
After a strong freshman season, Cook performed even better as a sophomore in 2015. He ended the season with 1,691 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, finishing seventh in the Heisman voting. Cook will be the focal point of the Seminoles offense next season as the team breaks in a new quarterback, meaning he could put up even bigger numbers in 2016.
#4. Royce Freeman, RB Oregon
The Ducks largely fell out of the limelight after their dismal 3-3 start, but Freeman was a workhorse all season long. The sophomore rushed for 100-plus yards in 10 out of 12 regular season games and was the steadiest contributor of Oregon’s vaunted offense. With the team breaking in another new starting quarterback next season, Freeman will again be the focal point in 2016, and he should be on the short list of serious contenders all year long.
#3. Leonard Fournette, RB LSU
Through his first seven games, Fournette seemed like a surefire Heisman lock. He ran for 1,352 yards and 15 touchdowns as the Tigers jumped out to a 7-0 record. Fournette quickly fell out of the race during the team’s three-game losing to start November, as he had just 230 yards and averaged 3.7 yards per carry. He still finished sixth in the Heisman voting, and he’ll have lofty expectations for his junior season.
#2. Christian McCaffrey, RB Stanford
Few Heisman runner-ups in college football history have a stat sheet as impressive as McCaffrey’s. The sophomore broke Barry Sanders’ record for all-purpose yards in a single season but still fell short of winning the Heisman in 2015. Not yet a household name at the start of 2015, the man known as “Wild Caff” won’t sneak up on anybody next season and will be the driving force behind Stanford’s playoff push.
#1. Deshaun Watson, QB Clemson
After an impressive yet injury-riddled freshman season, big things were expected of Watson in 2015. He put everything together during his sophomore season, winning the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s best quarterback and finishing third in the Heisman voting. Watson, McCaffrey and Fournette will be the clear favorites at the start of next season, and the dual-threat quarterback earns the slightest of nods in our early forecast.