Deshaun Watson

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 is that college football is incredibly difficult to prognosticate.

Never ones to shy away from a challenge, the folks at PointAfter — a sports visualization site in the Graphiq network — decided to look ahead to the 2016 season and rank the top 25 candidates to take home college football’s highest individual honor. Players made the cut based on a number of factors, including past performance and expectations for next season, as evidenced by various preseason awards watch lists. 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.

2015 Heisman finalists Christian McCaffrey and Deshaun Watson are back for another shot at the award, as well as Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who finished fourth in the voting last season.

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. QB Chad Kelly, Ole Miss

Chad Kelly

2015 stats: 298-for-458, 4,042 yards, 31 TD, 13 INT; 107 carries, 500 yards, 10 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien

Kelly finished second in the SEC with a quarterback rating of 155.9 and led the conference in yards and touchdowns. His dual-threat abilities were fully on display at the end of the season, as he rushed for 338 yards and six touchdowns in the team’s last four games, which included wins over LSU, Mississippi State and Oklahoma State.

The man whose nickname is “Swag Kelly” certainly doesn’t lack in confidence, as he declared himself the nation’s best quarterback. Though that might be up for debate, Kelly’s rapping skills are definitely not up to Heisman standards. His gun-slinging mentality makes him susceptible to mistakes, but he can also produce highlight-worthy results that make him a must-watch player in 2016.

#24. QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State

Mason Rudolph

2015 stats: 264-for-424 (62.3%), 3,770 yards, 21 TD, 9 INT
2016 Award Watch Lists: Maxwell, Davey O’Brien

Through 10 games last 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 two talented wideouts in James Washington and Marcell Ateman to work with. A Sept. 24 matchup at Baylor could give Rudolph a chance to make his way into the Heisman conversation early on.

#23. RB Bo Scarbrough, Alabama

Bo Scarbrough

2015 stats: 18 carries, 104 yards, 1 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Doak Walker

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 — Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake — Scarbrough seems to be the next in line. Scarbrough was ranked as ESPN’s No. 2 high school athlete in the class of 2014, 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 Scarbrough can reach those types of numbers, he’ll be in the discussion. He’s already garnered plenty of hype this offseason, and the 6-foot-2, 230-pound back was called a “great talent” by LSU star running back Leonard Fournette. Scarbrough will have to share carries with sophomore Damien Harris, another talented back who made the Doak Walker Award watch list despite limited playing time. Our bet is Scarbrough emerges as the go-to guy in the Tide’s backfield, and the experts seem to agree — the man with only 18 career carries is 20/1 bet to win the award, according to Westgate Las Vegas.

#22. RB LJ Scott, Michigan State

LJ Scott

2015 stats: 146 carries, 699 yards, 11 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: None

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-foot and 238 pounds, he’s a physical runner that should only get stronger as he gets older. The Spartans have a crowded backfield, meaning Scott will have to perform to get enough carries for awards consideration. But with a new quarterback in tow, expect MSU to run the ball often.

#21. RB Josh Adams, Notre Dame

Josh Adams

2015 stats: 117 carries, 835 yards, 6 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Doak Walker

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 five games, rushing for 570 yards on 83 carries while starter C.J. Prosise dealt with injury. With Prosise gone to the NFL, Adams will be the feature back in what should be a preseason top-10 team.

#20. CB Adoree’ Jackson, USC

Adoree' Jackson

2015 stats: 35 tackles, 1 INT, 8 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble; 27 catches, 414 yards; 7 carries, 36 yards; 24 punt returns, 251 yards; 30 kick returns, 690 yards; 5 total TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Bednarik, Bronko Nagurski, Jim Thorpe, Lott IMPACT

After a breakout freshman campaign, Jackson improved upon his reputation as an all-purpose game-changer in 2015. He was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection at cornerback and was the team’s second-leading receiver, finishing the season with 1,437 all-purpose yards.

An accomplished long jumper (he’s a two-time Pac-12 champion), Jackson skipped out on USC’s spring practice to focus on track in hopes of qualifying for the Olympics. He fell short of that goal but is now back with the team. The Trojans plan to have Jackson spend more time on defense next year, which might hurt his Heisman chances, but his talent is too undeniable to leave him off the list entirely.

#19. S/CB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

Jabrill Peppers

2015 stats: 45 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 10 pass breakups; 18 carries, 72 yards, 2 TD; 8 catches, 79 yards; 17 punt returns, 194 yards; 8 kick returns, 223 yards
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Bednarik, Bronko Nagurski, Lott IMPACT

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 appeared 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 obvious 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.

#18. WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

Christian Kirk

2015 stats: 80 catches, 1,009 yards, 7 TD; 11 carries, 54 yards; 14 punt returns, 341 yards, 2 TD; 22 kick returns, 385 yards
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Biletnikoff

In a crowded Texas A&M receiving corps, Kirk separated himself from the pack and was the Aggies’ leading receiver as a true freshman. In addition to his exploits on offense, he also proved to be a dangerous return man. The Aggies will have a new quarterback next year in Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight, and he’ll most likely make Kirk his go-to option in 2016.

#17. WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama

Calvin Ridley

2015 stats: 89 catches, 1,045 yards, 7 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Maxwell, Biletnikoff

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.

#16. RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee

Jalen Hurd

2015 stats: 277 carries, 1,288 yards, 12 TD; 22 catches, 190 yards, 2 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Maxwell, Doak Walker

With Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette garnering most of the attention in the SEC, 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. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC

JuJu Smith-Schuster

2015 stats: 89 catches, 1,454 yards, 10 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Biletnikoff

Smith-Schuster was the go-to target for USC in 2015, and that figures to be the case again in 2016. The sophomore led the Pac-12 in receiving 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 a rapport with a new starting quarterback. If he can do that, he should continue to put up big numbers.

USC faces a daunting schedule next season, meaning it’ll be difficult for the Trojans to win enough games for the stars to stay in the Heisman watch. On the other hand, it also provides their playmakers ample opportunity to have their proverbial “Heisman moment.”

#14. RB Myles Gaskin, Washington

Myles Gaskin

2015 stats: 227 carries, 1,302 yards, 14 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Maxwell, Doak Walker

As a true freshman in 2015, Gaskin finished fourth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns, becoming the focal point of the Huskies offense. He gained steam as the season went on, rushing for over 100 yards in seven of the team’s last nine games, including a season-high 181 yards on 26 carries against Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Gaskin and quarterback Jake Browning, a fellow true freshman, flashed signs of future greatness in 2015 and will be a formidable duo in 2016 and beyond. A Sept. 30 matchup against Stanford at home looks to be Gaskin’s best chance at a coming-out party.

#13. QB Chad Ward Jr., Houston

Greg Ward Jr.

2015 stats: 232-for-345, 2,828 yards, 17 TD, 6 INT; 198 carries, 1,108 yards, 21 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Water Camp, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien

Ward finished second among quarterbacks last season in rushing yards — trailing only Navy’s Keenan Reynolds — and led Houston to a magical season. The Cougars jumped out to a 10-0 start and finished 13-1, capped by a win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Ward missed basically all of Houston’s 20-17 loss to Connecticut with a sprained ankle, dashing the team’s hopes at an unbeaten season.

The biggest hurdle standing in the way of Ward’s Heisman chances is Houston’s strength of schedule (or lack thereof). The American Athletic Conference isn’t exactly a murderer’s row of opponents, but the Cougars do open up against Oklahoma in what’s essentially a home game at the Houston Texans’ NRG Stadium. A standout performance by Ward could vaunt him firmly into the Heisman discussion for the rest of the season.

#12. QB Luke Falk, Washington State

Luke Falk

2015 stats: 447-for-644, 4,561 yards, 38 TD, 8 INT
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien

Ever since his days at Texas Tech, quarterbacks coached by Mike Leach have made 4,000-yard passing seasons commonplace, and Falk continued the tradition in 2015. 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 awards contention. The Cougars face Oregon, Stanford and UCLA in consecutive weeks to begin October, giving Falk ample opportunity to prove his mettle on the big stage.

#11. QB DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame

DeShone Kizer

2015 stats: 211-for-335, 2,884 yards, 21 TD, 10 INT; 134 carries, 520 yards, 10 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien

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 last year 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 regular season 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.

#10. RB Nick Chubb, Georgia

Nick Chubb

2015 stats: 92 carries, 747 yards, 7 TD; 4 catches, 32 yards, 1 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Watler Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker

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’s status for the Bulldogs’ season opener against North Carolina remains questionable, though he did participate in spring practice. If he can regain his past form, he’ll be among the favorites to win the Heisman in 2016.

#9. QB Josh Rosen, UCLA

Josh Rosen

2015 stats: 292-for-487, 3,670 yards, 23 TD, 11 INT
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien

Rosen was heralded as the “Chosen One” before he even enrolled at UCLA. Though the Bruins went 8-5 last season and fell short of some lofty expectations, their freshman quarterback largely lived up to the hype.

Rosen ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in passing yards and set a school record for consecutive passes thrown without an interception (245). UCLA will have a lot of new faces on offense next season — leading receivers Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte, leading rusher Paul Perkins, and starting offensive linemen Alex Redmond, Jake Brendel, and Caleb Benenoch all graduated or left school early — but Rosen proved himself able to adapt quickly as a freshman and should improve in his sophomore campaign.

#8. QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

J.T. Barrett

2015 stats: 93-for-147, 992 yards, 11 TD, 4 INT; 115 carries, 682 yards, 11 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien

Given the circus situation that went on at quarterback last season, it’s easy to forget Ohio State went 12-1 with a win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Barrett split time with Cardale Jones, and neither was able to run away with the starting gig.

No longer having to look over his shoulder, the job is all Barrett’s heading into 2016. As a freshman in 2014, Barrett threw for 2,834 yards with 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, along with 938 rushing yards and 11 scores on the ground. Barrett finished fifth in the 2014 Heisman voting and was a First-Team All-Big Ten selection, and though he won’t have Ezekiel Elliott alongside him in the backfield, he should be in the Heisman conversation all year long.

#7. RB Samaje Perine, Oklahoma

Samaje Perine

2015 stats: 226 carries, 1,349 yards, 16 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker

Perine followed up a record-setting freshman campaign with a strong sophomore season in 2015, leading the Big 12 in rushing touchdowns and finishing third in rushing yards. 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.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle between Perine and Heisman glory is his backfield mate, Joe Mixon. Perine has gotten a ton of touches the past two seasons, and Bob Stoops might want to split carries more evenly in 2016. Even if that’s the case, Perine should remain the featured back and be among the Heisman favorites all season long.

#6. QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Baker Mayfield

2015 stats: 269-for-395, 3,700 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT; 141 carries, 405 yards, 7 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien

Mayfield went from walk-on to finishing fourth in Heisman voting in 2015, leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff. He performed particularly well on the road last year, which bodes well for Oklahoma in 2016, as the Sooners face tough road match-ups at Houston and TCU in their first four games. Last year’s leading receiver Sterling Shepard is gone, but with Perine, Mixon and wideout Dede Westbrook back in the fold, Mayfield will have plenty of weapons to work with.

#5. RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State

Dalvin Cook

2015 stats: 229 carries, 1,691 yards, 19 TD; 24 catches, 244 yards, 1 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker

After a strong freshman season, Cook performed even better as a sophomore in 2015. He led the ACC in rushing yards and 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 get more touches and put up even bigger numbers.

#4. RB Royce Freeman, Oregon

Royce Freeman

2015 stats: 283 carries, 1,836 yards, 17 TD; 26 catches, 348 yards, 2 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker

The Ducks largely fell out of the national spotlight after their dismal 3-3 start, but Freeman was a consistent workhorse all season long. The sophomore rushed for 100-plus yards in 11 out of 13 games and was the steadiest contributor of Oregon’s high-powered offense.

With the team breaking in another new starting quarterback next season, Freeman will again be the focal point of the offense, and he should be on the short list of serious contenders all season. He’s been the definition of a workhorse, with 577 touches in 28 career games (20.6 per game) in the past two seasons. Freeman hasn’t missed a game during that time, but with Taj Griffin and Kani Benoit also in the fold, perhaps Mark Helfrich will try to ease up on his talented tailback in 2016.

#3. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU

Leonard Fournette

2015 stats: 300 carries, 1,953 yards, 22 TD; 19 catches, 253 yards, 1 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker

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, doing things like this on a regular basis.

Fournette quickly fell out of the race during the team’s three-game losing streak to start November, as he had just 230 yards and averaged 3.7 yards per carry during that skid. He still finished sixth in Heisman voting, and he’ll have lofty expectations for his junior season.

#2. RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

Christian McCaffrey

2015 stats: 337 carries, 2,019 yards, 8 TD; 45 catches, 645 yards, 5 TD; 15 punt returns, 645 yards, 1 TD; 37 kick returns, 1,070 yards, 1 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker

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.

McCaffrey won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player and was named the AP Player of the Year. Though he wasn’t 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. QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson

Deshaun Watson

2015 stats: 333-for-491, 4,104 yards, 35 TD, 13 INT; 207 carries, 1,105 yards, 12 TD
2016 Award Watch Lists: Walter Camp, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien

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. There’s a case to be made that he was the most deserving finalist, even more so than Henry or McCaffrey.

Though Clemson fell short in the national title game against Alabama, Watson shined with 405 passing yards and four touchdowns in the 45-40 loss. 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.

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