The Top Heisman Contenders for 2015
I recently identified the commonalities of Heisman winners and top vote getters. In this article, I apply those filters to the 2015 player pool to identify the top quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers who fit the Heisman mold. At the bottom, I provide my projected top 10 finishers.
The trick with this year is that almost none of the premier teams have a quarterback that fits the bill of lots of passing touchdowns, balanced offense, low percentage of team’s rushing yards. None of Brandon Harris (LSU), Kevin Hogan (Stanford) and Jacob Coker (Alabama) have thrown enough touchdowns. There are a few guys that stand out, though.
1) Paxton Lynch, Memphis, Age 21.9
Even if none of the recent winners have been from smaller conferences, we have seen guys like Jordan Lynch (third, 2013) and Colt Brennan (third, 2007) finish highly. Paxton Lynch makes the list on the strength of his performance, his team’s undefeated record and his ascending national buzz. He hasn’t thrown touchdowns frequently enough, but he has a signature win over Ole Miss and two more opportunities to make an impression against ranked teams (Temple and Houston) down the stretch.
MS Rush Yards = 10.4%, MS Total Yds = 64.2%, Touches/G = 42.4, Pass TD/G = 2.3
2) Baker Mayfield, Age 20.7
It would be easily to fall for the Baker Mayfield narrative, but the numbers are just as impressive as the story. In 2013, at Texas Tech, Mayfield was Big 12 offensive freshman of the year as a walk on. Then, he decided to transfer to Oklahoma, where he didn’t have a scholarship offer, and walk on there. He was forced to sit out in 2014 due to a complication with his transfer, but has starred for OU in 2015. He’s accounted for four or more touchdowns in five games and his team is No. 1 in Jeff Sagarin’s power ratings with TCU, @ Baylor and @ Oklahoma State still on the schedule. Mayfield has positioned himself beautifully to make a late push for the award.
Market Share (MS) Rush Yards = 10.4%, MS Total Yds = 64.5%, Touches/G = 41.1, Pass TD/G = 3.1
3) Connor Cook, Michigan State, Age 22.9
Cook is 32-3 as the Spartans’ starter and has MSU in the race for the National Title. He doesn’t quite throw enough touchdowns to make a serious case for the award, but if he wins at Nebraska this weekend and at Ohio State later this month, it might not matter. Think: lifetime achievement invitation.
Market Share (MS) Rush Yards = 5.1%, MS Total Yds = 64.4%, Touches/G = 35.9, Pass TD/G = 2.1
4) Chad Kelly, Ole Miss, Age 21.8
I’m bending the rules to include Kelly in this group, since his team has two losses 1. However, I’m not sure anyone would care if his team won the next three games (Arkansas, LSU, @ Mississippi State) and captured the SEC West crown. He needs to get his touchdown stats up, but otherwise he fits the blueprint.
Market Share (MS) Rush Yards = -0.7%, MS Total Yds = 63.9%, Touches/G = 43.3, Pass TD/G = 2.2
Remember, we’re looking for players who have a high percentage of their team’s rushing yards and offense. Additionally, they touch the ball a lot and score touchdowns in bunches.
1) Trevone Boykin, TCU, Age 22.4
Boykin was the fourth-place vote-getter last season and is having a better campaign this year. He surpasses most of the historical benchmarks and his importance has been palpable in several come-from-behind efforts this year. To date, Boykin has three games of 500+ yards from scrimmage and has lead his team in rushing four times. With a November slate that includes three top 20 matchups, and a stat-padder against Kansas, Boykin has positioned himself marvelously to make a serious run at the award. The only potential blemish on his profile is his age, which is six months older than the oldest dual-threat QB in the comparison group.
MS Rush Yards = 28.9%, MS Total Yds = 70.0%, Touches/G = 48.1, Total TD/G = 4.3
2) Dak Prescott, Mississippi State, Age 22.4
Prescott was the eighth-place vote-getter last season and, like Boykin, is arguably performing even better this year. His team isn’t as good, but they could still make some noise in the SEC West and, to date, nobody has played LSU closer. Last weekend he went for 348 pass yards, 117 rush yards and six total touchdowns in a performance that should get him some more buzz. His next four contests include a Thursday night game against Mizzou, Alabama at home and Ole Miss at home. He’s notably older than any of the recent dual-threat winners, but if things break right, I think he could finish better than eighth this year.
MS Rush Yards = 31.0%, MS Total Yds = 67.9%, Touches/G = 41.5, Total TD/G = 2.6
3) Deshaun Watson, Clemson, Age 20.3
Coming into the season with as much hype as anybody to be a national breakout star, Watson has been really good, if not great. In four of his eight games he’s been held to “only” two touchdowns, but his recent outburts against Boston College and NC State, coupled with Clemson’s No. 1 ranking in the new College Football Playoff poll likely have erased any memories of an sluggish start. If the Tigers can get past Florida State this weekend, they’ll be a heavy favorite to make the playoff and Watson will be the centerpiece of that effort. Statistically, he needs more touches and scores, which should come now that the schedule is getting tougher and he’ll play deeper into games.
MS Rush Yards = 22.1%, MS Total Yds = 59.8%, Touches/G = 37.1, Total TD/G = 3.0
4) Greg Ward Jr., Houston, Age 20.5 (unofficial)
Even if Ward’s smaller conference roots will keep him from winning it, like Paxton Lynch earlier, I mention him here because he’s an outstanding performer. If he could increase his market share of total offensive yards, he’d be a dead ringer for the historical profile. Moreover, his team is undefeated, including wins over Louisville and Vanderbilt, and he has a few more higher-profile games down the stretch (vs Memphis, potential AAC championship game) to garner attention.
MS Rush Yards = 32.4%, MS Total Yds = 62.0%, Touches/G = 41.4, Total TD/G = 3.4
Honorable mention: Seth Russell (Baylor)
Here we’re looking for runners who have the ball in their hands a lot and produce strong yardage totals. Overall, there is a deep pool of premium running back contenders this year and I think we could see the first running back winner since 2009.
1) Leonard Fournette, LSU, Age 21.0
One of only two players to surpass 100 rush yards in every game this season, Fournette has been better than anyone could have imagined when he was the #1 high school running back recruit just two years ago. He leads all college rushers in terms of market share of offensive yards in addition to leading the country in yards from scrimmage. By most accounts, he’s the leader in the clubhouse right now and if he can lead the Tigers to a win over Alabama in their next game, he’ll have the award all but won, in my opinion.
MS Touches = 40.3%, MS Total Yds = 43.2%, Touches/G = 26.1, Total Yds/G = 201.4
2) Dalvin Cook, Florida State, Age 20.4
Compared to the top five running backs on this list, Cook is relatively under-utilized, but still has production that bests everyone but Fournette. On a team looking to replace the #1 overall pick in the draft, Cook has consistently made breathtaking plays and done so while at less than full health. He’s currently fifth in the nation in scrimmage yards and gets two statement games in November, at Clemson and at Florida, to make a final push for the award.
MS Touches = 31.6%, MS Total Yds = 41.3%, Touches/G = 20.3, Total Yds/G = 174.0
3) Devontae Booker, Utah, Age 23.6
Booker has been the workhorse runner on a Utah team that started the season unranked but has emerged as a front-running Pac 12 contender. Statistically, he passes all the hurdles, but he’s also significantly older than any of the running backs in my historical focus group. Also, his team leads the Pac 12 South, which means he’ll get the benefit of being the star player on a conference championship finalist. (Related: Is Devontae Booker a premium prospect or a playground bully?)
MS Touches = 42.1%, MS Total Yds = 41.0%, Touches/G = 29.1, Total Yds/G = 159.1
4) Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, Age 19.6
Potentially standing in Booker’s way in the Pac 12 championship race is McCaffrey, who I think might be the most valuable player in the country. On arguably the best team since week 2, McCaffrey has kept pace with the historical Heisman running back profile, while also playing a mammoth role on special teams to the tune of 73 return yards per game. Overall, he’s averaging more than 240 total yards of production per game. If Stanford wins out, as ESPN’s FPI projects them to do, McCaffrey will check all of the boxes and could very well finish in the top three of the voting.
MS Touches = 37.6%, MS Total Yds = 39.2%, Touches/G = 25.0, Total Yds/G = 171.3
5) Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State, Age 20.4
Besides Fournette, “Zeke” is the only other player in America to rush for at least 100 yards in every game. Despite the quarterback carousel in Columbus, Elliott has gotten his production and helped carry the Buckeye offense that has looked surprisingly sluggish at times this year. Thanks to his efforts down the home stretch in 2014, and the air tight case he’s made so far this year, Elliott probably has as much name recognition as anyone. Ending the season vs Michigan State and at Michigan will give him all the spotlight he needs to make a closing argument. (Related: Ezekiel Elliott and a brief history of young running back dominance)
MS Touches = 34.4%, MS Total Yds = 34.7%, Touches/G = 23.8, Total Yds/G = 161.3
6) Royce Freeman, Oregon, Age 19.9
In 2014 it was Marcus Mariota and this year it’s Royce Freeman who is carrying the Oregon offense. The 19 year old sophomore has been spectacular, accounting for at least 100 scrimmage yards in every game. The real issue for him is his team’s record, which is probably preventing him from getting more attention. Also hurting his cause is the fact that two other Pac 12 running backs are ahead of him on this list. Regardless of that, I’d put Freeman as a better prospect than Booker or McCaffrey.
MS Touches = 29.6%, MS Total Yds = 32.2%, Touches/G = 22.9, Total Yds/G = 165.6
7) C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame, Age 21.6
Coming into the season as the backup to Tarean Folston, Prosise only had 46 career touches and was better known for his special teams contributions. However, Folston tore his ACL in the opening contest and Prosise has accounted for at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game for the Irish, until last weekend’s showdown with Temple. Helping Prosise’s case is that he has made the life of backup quarterback Deshone Kizer that much easier. Of his four remaining opponents, only one is ranked, but, if he can play a slightly bigger role down the stretch for a playoff-contending team, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him earn a trip to New York.
MS Touches = 30.5%, MS Total Yds = 30.5%, Touches/G = 20.8, Total Yds/G = 151.1
8) Derrick Henry, Alabama, Age 21.5
Considering the voters’ recent willingness to endorse Alabama players, and Henry’s preseason buzz, it seemed almost inevitable that he would be in contention come November. Well, here we are. Through the first eight games of his season, Henry has at least one rushing touchdown in every game and has surpassed 95 rushing yards in every game except one 2. With a huge game against LSU this weekend, followed by another against a ranked Mississippi State next weekend, Henry is going to have every opportunity to climb up this list and finish with a bang.
MS Touches = 31.5%, MS Total Yds = 33.0%, Touches/G = 23.5, Total Yds/G = 139.1
While a receiver is highly unlikely to win, they can earn votes by accounting for a large percentage of their team’s receptions and posting strong yardage totals; touchdown totals are less important. Here are the 2015 receivers who most closely fit the bill, ordered by my evaluation of their overall résumé.
1) Josh Doctson, TCU, Age 23.1
More so than record-breaking Corey Coleman, Doctson fits the archetype of Heisman-worthy wide receiver. Catching passes from the aforementioned Trevone Boykin, Doctson is one of the most prolific receivers in the country in terms of raw stats and market share. He’s more than a year older than any of the top-ten vote-getting receivers since 2000, so that might skew the perception of him, if anyone is paying attention. He’ll lose votes to his teammate, Boykin, but no receiver has an overall profile more deserving of consideration than the TCU senior.
MS Rec = 33.8%, MS Total Yds = 25.5%, Rec/G = 8.9, Total Yds/G = 157.1
2) Corey Coleman, Baylor, 21.5
On pace to break the FBS receiving touchdown record, Coleman’s shortcomings, as it pertains to matching the Heisman receiver profile, probably come from his team being too good. Coleman and his Baylor running mates have been so lethal that they haven’t needed to play much in the second halves of games, erroding his market share stats. That said, he’s still very close to the profile on a receptions and total yards basis. The touchdown record would be the cherry on top. (Related: Is Corey Coleman a System WR or Elite Talent?)
MS Rec = 32.9%, MS Total Yds = 21.0%, Rec/G = 6.7, Total Yds/G = 144.4
3) Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State, Age 22.0
Connor Cook gets most of the attention for the Spartans, but I think Burbridge is more deserving of Heisman consideration. He has been the engine of the offense and is just a whisker below the raw production needed to get more serious national consideration. It doesn’t help his cause that he’s only now breaking out in his senior season, which puts him a bit behind the more household names like Doctson and Coleman.
MS Rec = 35.6%, MS Total Yds = 25.5%, Rec/G = 6.5, Total Yds/G = 105.6
4) Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh, Age 21.2
Boyd has racked up the receptions and been dynamic in several facets of the game. Missing the season opener slightly hurts his raw stats, but his team is in the thick of the ACC Coastal race and he played well last Thursday night in primetime. This week he has a home game vs Notre Dame to make his case. He’s an underdog to finish in the top 10, but undoubtedly one of college football’s best players this season.
MS Rec = 49.2%, MS Total Yds = 29.3%, Rec/G = 9.0, Total Yds/G = 103.0
5) JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC, Age 19.1
The only receiver on this list who is not eligible for the 2016 NFL Draft, JuJu might be the best receiving prospect in the 2017 class. The 6 foot, 2 inch, 215 pound sophomore is still a month away from his 19th birthday, but is playing the game like a grown ass man. He’s in the ball park of the historical profile, but in a loaded wide receiver year, it will take a lot for him to finish in the top 10. Also, he just suffered a hand injury, which may force him to miss some time down the stretch.
MS Rec = 28.1%, MS Total Yds = 24.9%, Rec/G = 6.5, Total Yds/G = 120.0
6) LaQuon Treadwell, Ole Miss, Age 20.5
Probably the best-known name in this group of receivers, Treadwell started the season off slowly, but has come on like a menace over the past five games. There’s a very real possibility that Ole Miss wins the SEC West, which would advance Treadwell’s cause. Also, that he is a projected first-round NFL talent likely helps his case. (Related: The Good and Bad News About Laquon Treadwell’s NFL Outlook)
MS Rec = 26.3%, MS Total Yds = 20.5%, Rec/G = 6.8, Total Yds/G = 106.6
My Heisman Ballot
Based on what I know today, and how I think the rest of the season will play out, here are my projected top 10 finishers in the final Heisman voting:
1) Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
2) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
3) Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
4) Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
5) Dalvin Cook, RB, FSU
6) DeShaun Watson, QB, Clemson
7) Devontae Booker, RB, Utah
8) Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
9) Josh Doctson, WR, TCU
10) Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma