Heisman Forecast: Expect winner to come from this list

Recent races figure to provide us with little in the way of a road map for this year’s Heisman Trophy race.

We’re coming off a season in which preseason favorite Marcus Mariota was the one leaving Times Square with the trophy, but expecting that to set this up for this season would be treacherous territory. Before the Oregon quarterback, it had been 10 years since anyone had gone wire-to-wire, when USC’s Matt Leinart claimed the award.

But on the flip slide, before Mariota, the Heisman had gone to a procession of out-of-nowhere winners, with Mark Ingram, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston claiming four out of five awards from 2009-13.

This year, we voters figure to find our golden boy somewhere in the middle.

TCU’s Trevone Boykin has the look of the early leader, especially with the litany of Ohio State contenders surely taking attention away from each other. But with a number of defined stars across the country, Boykin is going to have a deep group of competitors.

A stunning winner could happen, but chances are the latest entrant into the Heisman fraternity is going to come from this list:

He set a slew of records in his first full season — eight to be exact — in throwing for 3,901 yards and 33 touchdowns and Boykin’s 354.5 yards per game ranked fourth in FBS and are the best of any returning player. He’s one of 10 returning starters in an absolutely loaded offense and with a schedule that Phil Steele ranks as the the 49th toughest in the nation, he should have more than a manageable road with just two preseason Top 25 foes and they’re in the last two games (Nov. 21 at No. 19 Oklahoma and Nov. 27 vs. No. 4 Baylor). Fourth in the voting as year ago, even if he can’t bring the school its first win since Davey O’Brien in 1938 — making it the longest drought of any Power 5 school with at least one win — he needs to come in second for the Horned Frogs’ best finish since Jim Swink in 1955.

A running back last won with Ingram in ’09 and he was the first — technically, with Reggie Bush’s victory was vacated — since Ron Dayne in 1999. But Chubb may be the position’s best chance this time around. With inexperience at QB he’ll without question be the focal point of the Bulldogs’ offense and considering he had 166 of his 219 carries in ’14 over six games, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could challenge the SEC record 385 rushes Herschel Walker had in 1981. At the very least, he’s a legit threat to post the position’s best finish since Trent Richardson was third in 2011.

A year ago he was being compared to Adrian Peterson and Michael Jordan. The reality was something much more mortal as Fournette had 200 yards through four games. He did finish strong in hanging 146 yards on Texas A&M and 143 on Notre Dame — that one part of 246 yards of total offense — plus he had 113 vs. Ole Miss and its vaunted Land Shark D. If that becomes the norm, the Tigers can all but count on having an offensive player in the top 10 in voting for the first time since RB Charles Alexander was fifth in 1978.

He has just two career starts under his belt, but one of those was in last year’s season opener when Nick Marshall was suspended and Johnson completed 12 of 16 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. That came against an Arkansas defense that ended the season ranked 10th in the nation in total D, second in the SEC. Gus Malzahn has always adapted, think of his days at Arkansas with the Darren McFadden and Co., with the wildcat formation, and his work with Cam Newton and later Nick Marshall. He hasn’t had a more prototypical passer since Casey Dick with the Razorbacks in 2006 and this figures to be more of a vertical passing game than the Tigers have shown of late.

If the NFL draft were tomorrow, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg or Michigan State’s Connor Cook may go ahead of Kessler, but when it comes to the prototypical passers, he may have the best shot at the award. A year ago his 70.7 completion rate was the highest for any QB who threw for more than 3,500 yards, coming in just above Mariota at 68.3. The Trojans were tied with Notre Dame and Ohio State with the most Heismans at seven and if USC is going to get back to their level it’s on Kessler’s shoulders.

He went from one of the top candidates to eighth in the voting as the Bulldogs’ season slipped out from under them after carrying the No. 1 ranking, as they dropped two of their last three in the regular season and went on to lose the Orange Bowl to Georgia Tech. Prescott threw for 3,449 yards and 29 scores in ’14 and ran for another 986 yards and 14 scores and he’ll have name recognition and playing the SEC in his corner. The problem, though, is that in Starkville they have just eight starters back, including three others on offense, and three new faces on the offensive line. 

Can he stay on the field? If so, he figures to be the ACC’s best hope of making it three consecutive years of having a player in the top six — following Winston’s win in 2013 and sixth-place a year later — which has never happened in the conference’s history. The schedule sets up nicely with his first two Top 25 opponents being No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 16 Georgia Tech, whose defenses ranked 71st and 79th, respectively, last season, then finally, No. 10 Florida State, which was 61st. Now, on to the Ohio State part of the proceedings …

Both are listed as the starter on the top-ranked Buckeyes’ depth chart going into the opener at Virginia Tech and both are expected to play. Obviously sharing the job would be a major detriment to either’s chances and Urban Meyer’s comments this week — "I would anticipate throughout the course of the year we’ll play both quarterbacks," he said on this week’s Big Ten teleconference — would further drive that point home. The best case scenario is either Barrett or Jones outplays the other and mounts a serious candidacy. Then there’s the more likely outcome, where both put up impressive numbers and go back and forth, meaning neither if going to be a legit contender. Especially with …

Per sports book Bovada, Elliott has the second-best odds of winning behind Boykin. He ended 2014 on a tear with 220 yards on Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, 230 against Alabama in the national semifinal and 246 vs. Oregon in the championship game. Those numbers have undoubtedly set Elliott up to be a big factor in this race, but not since 2004 and ’05 with Leinart and Reggie Bush have teammates produced a winner and another player in the top five in voting. What’s more likely is Elliott and the other Buckeyes split votes a la ’08 when Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell was fourth and Michael Crabtree fifth. It’s not a knock against Elliott, who on another team could be the favorite, but he has two QBs to draw voters’ interests, along with this guy …

We all know what Percy Harvin was able to do in Meyer’s offense at Florida, becoming a first-team All-American in the H-back role, which is where Miller now finds himself in his final season in a Buckeyes uniform. Of course, he could add the other dimension of being able to throw the ball, which might make Miller the most exciting player in the nation. But being the "most outstanding" is another story and while someone needs to be the face of this star-studded team, the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year would be a logical choice, but he has the QBs and Elliott to deal with, plus the added issue of now being in a spot where he’s not going to be touching the ball on nearly every down. The year Harvin was a firs-team All-American was in ’08 and he didn’t even finish in the top 10 in voting. But his QB, Tim Tebow, did, taking third. Miller’s year could be penning a similar narrative.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney