Heisman Forecast: Everyone's chasing Stanford's Bryce Love in 2018 trophy race
No school has had quite the tortured relationship with the Heisman Trophy that Stanford has.
Last season, Bryce Love gave the Cardinal a record sixth runner-up, five of which have come in the past nine years, and two in the past three votes. It's a level of heartbreak that the folks out in Las Vegas seem to think the program, and its running back, will live through yet again, with the Love receiving the second-best odds of winning the trophy as we head in to the 2018 season.
The odds-makers' favorite? That would be Tua Tagovailoa, who announced his arrival by turning a 13-0 halftime deficit into Alabama's fifth national championship under Nick Saban. That status may feel like jumping the gun (more on that later), and may be a slight toward Love, the only returning finalist and the nation's top returning rusher, who eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark during Stanford's Alamo Bowl loss to TCU.
But maybe, just maybe, the odds-makers are just paying attention to their history.
Sixteen times a player has returned to school after being the runner-up, and it's resulted in just four wins, the last coming in 1982 with Herschel Walker. Add in that the Cardinal have had other opportunities for a second-place finisher to win the next season -- Andrew Luck in 2011 and Christian McCaffrey in '16 -- and it didn't happen, and that no 2,000-yard back has returned to school the following year and hoisted the trophy, and the deck is stacked against Love.
Then there's the the take on Stanford's forecast for the season. It was the media's pick to finish behind Washington and its own Heisman contender in Jake Browning in the Pac-12 North.
Nonetheless, Love benefits from a schedule that includes just two Power 5 rush defenses that were ranked higher than 47th a year ago and seven that were 51st or lower.
History isn't on his side, but as second to Baker Mayfield in last year's vote, Love sits atop this list of the top contenders as we head into the 2018 season. As for who will be challenging the Cardinal RB, here are most logical challengers heading into the season.
Jake Fromm, QB Georgia
As a freshman, Fromm's game was largely centered around handing off to talented running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in helping Georgia reach the national championship game. Seventy eight passers had a completion percentage better than Fromm's 62.2, and he wasn't in the top 30 in passes over 15 yards (69) or 25 yards (28). That wasn't helped by his averaging just over 17 attempts through the SEC title game, but playoff Jake Fromm had 29 (Oklahoma) and 32 (Alabama) attempts and minus Chubb and Michel -- though there are still uber-talented backs still on the roster -- Fromm could get a chance to air it out more in 2018. He'll be pushed by the arrival of heralded freshman Justin Fields, but as the poster boy of a national title contender, Fromm will be a major factor.
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Jonathan Taylor, RB Wisconsin
Taylor was sixth in voting last season, the best finish for a true freshman since Adrian Peterson was second in 2004, and finished the year with 1,977 yards, the most in history for any first-year player. He'll benefit from not having to face the Big Ten's two best rush defenses from a year ago in Ohio State and Michigan State, and the rest of the Badgers' schedule averaged a ranking of 63rd in FBS last season, including four of 74th or lower within the conference. There will be tests, but considering Wisconsin's offensive philosophy and that schedule, Taylor is a legitimate threat to reach 2,000 yards as a sophomore.
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Tua Tagovailoa, QB Alabama
A QB sees the field sparingly throughout the season, plays a key part in helping to claim a national title, then gets throw into the top of the Heisman conversation the following year ... where have I heard this one before? It's not exactly a rekindling of Tim Tebow, who went from a backup in 2006 to the '07 Heisman winner for Florida. For starters (pun intended), we don't even know if Tagovailoa will open the season as QB1. Alabama's primary passer last season, Jalen Hurts -- who is 26-2 at the helm of the Crimson Tide offense -- is still in Tuscaloosa. If Tagovailoa beats out Hurts, then you have to consider him a legit threat. Until then, let's put a player whose candidacy hinges on two quarters of play and his team entering the season atop the poll on the back burner.
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Trace McSorley, QB Penn State
With Saquon Barkley suiting up for the New York Giants the spotlight is squarely on McSorely for the fifth-year senior's final season in Happy Valley. He's already the program's leader in completion percentage at 61.8 percent at pass efficiency at 152.9 among his 15 Nittany Lions records and holds the nation's longest active streak with 28 straight games with a TD pass. Along with Barkley, McSorely is going to have to adjust to life without tight end Mike Gesicki, and he'll be backed by a defense with plenty of questions as just three starters are back. But of the four preseason Top 25 teams Penn State plays, three of them (Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin) are all at home.
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Will Grier, QB West Virginia
He'll have the numbers, the promotional push and it doesn't hurt that Grier has got the off-the-field intrigue nailed down with his former NFL cheerleader of a wife and brothers that happen to be viral video stars. But can Grier break through where Major Harris, Steve Slaton and Pat White couldn't? The Mountaineers have never had a finish higher than Harris' third in 1989 and last had a top-10 finisher when White came in seventh in 2008. Grier and Co. won't face a preseason Top 25 squad until the first weekend in November, which could mean gaudy stats and little national spotlight, but a run of No. 23 Texas, No. 16 TCU, Oklahoma State and No. 7 Oklahoma in the final month could be a nice road to a spot at the trophy ceremony.
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Dwayne Haskins, QB Ohio State
Similarly to Tagovailoa, we haven't seen much of Haskins, whose first season in Columbus included one game in which he had more than eight pass attempts -- that would be 23 against UNLV -- in throwing for 565 yards, four touchdowns and an interception on 57 tries. But he enticed in the win over Michigan, and Haskins has the support of the Buckeyes' last winner in Troy Smith. The expectation is that with the tandem of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, the pro-style Haskins should be able to do some serious damage downfield. The Buckeyes haven't ranked higher than 36th in passing offense since 1998, but Haskins may flip the script on that narrative.
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Jake Browning, QB Washington
Browning was sixth in 2016 when he helped the Huskies reach the College Football Playoff. While he threw for a career-low 2,719 yards last season, he hit on 68.5 percent of his passes last season, making him the nation's most accurate returning QB. As pinpoint as he's been, Browning's top returning pass-catcher, Aaron Fuller, had only 26 catches last season, though the QB does have a 1,300-yard rusher behind him in Myles Gaskin. Sitting 1,117 yards from becoming the Huskies' all-time leading passer, Browning could get lost in a star-studded Pac-12 that's headlined by the preseason trophy favorite, but what Browning has working for him is that Washington may stand as the conference's best bet for a return to the playoff. Pull that off and Browning will be at the center of every Heisman conversation.
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Cam Akers, RB Florida State
After breaking Dalvin Cook's freshman rushing record, Akers is poised to become a household name in new coach Willie Taggart's Gulf Coast Offense. Think RPO and plenty of chances for Akers -- who had as many runs of 10 or more yards (29) than Penn State's Saquon Barkley despite nearly 30 fewer attempts -- to take advantage of getting the ball in space and create more explosive plays. Akers could be vying for attention with whoever wins the QB battle between Deondre Francois and James Blackmon, but with the likelihood that the Seminoles won't be rolling with just one passer this season in their first year in a new offensive system, the smart bet is with Akers.
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Khalil Tate, QB Arizona
No returning Power 5 quarterback ran for more yards than Tate's 1,411 as a sophomore, but the last time we saw him he threw for 302 yards and five touchdowns in the Wildcats' Foster Farms Bowl loss to Purdue. It's a tantalizing thought to imagine what new coach Kevin Sumlin will do with arguably his most naturally gifted runner at QB since Johnny Manziel gave him a stiff-armed trophy at Texas A&M in 2012. Tate is going to have to contend with a number of contenders in his own conference, and he'll be operating behind an offense line that returns just two starters. But the schedule weighs in Tate's favor as the Wildcats play the 81st-ranked slate per Phil Steele.
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Ed Oliver, DT Houston & McKenzie Milton, QB UCF
While Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver and UCF passer McKenzie Milton are among the game's biggest stars, both are playing from behind when it comes to this race. No strictly defensive player has ever won, and no one from outside what's currently the Power 5 programs has claimed the trophy since BYU's Ty Demter in 1990. They had two memorable mailers, with Houston sending out a bobble head of Oliver on his favorite horse while UCF pushed out black leis for Milton, a Hawaii native. Could either be enough of a factor to reach finalist status? Without question. But, historically speaking, ending the Power 5's stranglehold on the award seems unlikely.