Breaking Down ESPN’s Top Heisman Candidates List
By Joel Deering
ESPN Experts put out a poll a couple days ago consisting of the top Heisman Trophy candidates for the 2018 College Football season. The list gives us the top 14 names based on 10 expert opinions. My thoughts exactly. Why is it the top 14? You’d think they could have thrown at least one more name in there to make the list 15, but for whatever reason they stopped at 14. Makes perfect sense.
Anyway, if you look at the list of names (Find the list of names and voting here) (I would suggest following the link on a phone), only the top five players are really being given a chance to win the Heisman this year. From numbers six to fourteen, nobody was given more than four points in total voting. Even though there’s only five players being given a real chance to win the award, I’m still going to break down each of the top fourteen candidates. In my breakdowns I’ll cover why each player is on this list, as well as the biggest challenge holding them back from being the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner.
1. Bryce Love, Stanford RB
Why He’s Ranked Here: Bryce Love being ranked first on this list only makes complete sense. He came second in Heisman voting last year, and if wasn’t for a historically good season by QB Baker Mayfield, Love may have ended up with the award. Love was second among running backs in rushing yards last season, running for 2,118 yards. Love also ranked second among running backs in yards per carry (8.1) and fourth in rushing TD’s (19). It’s obvious Love was the main reason for Stanford’s success. Expect Love to have another big season for Stanford as he runs his way through every defense he plays against.
What’s Holding Him Back?: Although Stanford had a winning record, they were 9-5 overall, which doesn’t exactly look Heisman worthy. Getting your team wins should be more of a factor than your stats, although I don’t feel like that’s been the case in recent years. Another thing holding Love back from blowing Heisman voters away is his receiving stats. Love only had six catches for 33 yards last season, and he didn’t have any receiving touchdowns. For a better chance at winning the Heisman, Love needs to get more involved in the passing game. As long as his rushing stats stay up, his receiving numbers don’t need to blow anyone away, but they do need to be better.
2. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin RB
Why He’s Ranked Here: In his first College Football season, Jonathan Taylor ran for just under 2,000 rushing yards (1,977). He only broke Adrian Peterson’s freshman rushing record, so no big deal. It was only his first year, so he’s only going to become a better rusher as he gains more experience. To help Taylor build on his incredible Freshman campaign is his offensive line. The Wisconsin offensive line is considered to be the best in College Football by many. A stud running back with a stud offensive line sounds great for a Heisman winning season. Also on Taylor’s side is the team record. Last season they were 13-1. Many expect them to have a similar record this season, which would only help Taylor’s case.
What’s Holding Him Back?: Jonathan Taylor has a similar problem to Bryce Love. Much like Love, Taylor wasn’t much of a threat as a receiver. He had 8 receptions for 95 yards and no receiving touchdowns. Taylor needs to get better as a receiver in order to truly wow the Heisman voters. Taylor also needs to increase his rushing touchdowns in order to make himself stick out. 13 rushing touchdowns is good, but it won’t be enough compared to other running backs contending for the Heisman.
3. Ed Oliver, Houston DT
Why He’s Ranked Here: Ed Oliver is the best DT in College Football right now. There’s a reason why he’s in the conversation for being the number one overall pick in the next NFL Draft. All he’s done in his two seasons at Houston is be a disruption to opposing offenses. In two seasons he has 138 total tackles, 38.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 9 pass deflections, and 4 forced fumbles. Oliver is going to be a hot commodity come draft time.
What’s Holding Him Back?: How many defensive players have won the Heisman? One. There’s only been one player who primarily played defense to win the Heisman Trophy. You have to do something spectacular to win the Heisman as a defender in today’s world. Something has to get you to stick out from the other Heisman contenders, which is tough when you have guys like Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, and Bryce Love running around in today’s football world. Jackson and Mayfield are gone, but my point is that QB and RB numbers are flashy while defensive stats are not. Oliver is an impressive player, but I don’t think his stats will get him Heisman votes. Honestly, he should be ranked a lot lower on this list.
4. Will Grier, West Virginia QB
Why He’s Ranked Here: Before Grier got injured last season, he was second in the nation in passing touchdowns and third in passing yards. Expect him to be one of the top passers again this season. Grier has a group of receivers who are considered to be one of the top receiving groups in the country, so he shouldn’t have a problem airing it out every game. He’ll definitely have his fair share of opportunities to rack up the passing yards.
What’s Holding Him Back?: The first thing I notice when I look at Will Grier for the Heisman, is the record West Virginia had last season. West Virginia was 7-6. 7-6 isn’t going to be good enough to stick out from all the other Heisman contenders. Grier will have to put up big numbers to win the Heisman, but he’ll also have to lead his team to the top of the Big 12. Grier also needs to show he can protect the ball a little better. He threw 12 interceptions last season, which isn’t super high, but he could do better.
5. Khalil Tate, Arizona QB
Why He’s Ranked Here: Could Khalil Tate be the next QB to have a Lamar Jackson like season? Tate is a serious dual threat QB. So far in his college career he has shown he’s more of a running QB, but he can also throw the ball very well. Last season he had a QB rating of 152.4 and completed 62% of his passes. As a rusher, Tate ran for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns. He needs to have a similar season on the ground in order to have a shot at the Heisman.
What’s Holding Him Back?: While Tate is a pretty good passer when he throws the ball, he doesn’t throw that often. Last season he only threw 179 pass attempts in 11 games. Tate threw for 1,591 yards and 14 touchdowns, which doesn’t look impressive for a QB. When Lamar Jackson won the Heisman, he passed for over 3,500 yards and ran for over 1,500. Tate’s rushing numbers are very close, but his passing numbers are about 2,000 yards off, so he’s got some work to do to really be considered a true contender.
6. Justin Herbert, Oregon QB
Why He’s Ranked Here: Justin Herbert started eight games last season, but then got hurt and was out for the rest of the year. When Herbert went down with an injury, we saw how valuable he was to the Ducks offense. When Herbert started last season, the Ducks averaged 52.1 points per game. When Herbert was no longer playing, Oregon averaged 15 points per game. That says a lot about how good Herbert was playing for the Ducks. Herbert ranked fourth in the country in QB rating. Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph, who are now in the NFL, were two of the quarterbacks ahead of Herbert. McKenzie Milton, who is also on this list, was the other QB ahead of Herbert. If Herbert can return to pre-injury form, he’s got a real chance at winning the Heisman Trophy.
What’s Holding Him Back?: Health is obviously a concern for Herbert. He has to stay healthy in order to truly compete for the Heisman. If he only plays eight games again, there’s no way he’s winning. Herbert needs to help Oregon make a return to the top of the Pac-12 and College Football. Oregon hasn’t been the same team we saw competing for National Championships a few years ago. This will be a tough challenge for Herbert, especially when he has teams like Washington, Stanford, and USC trying to knock them off.
7. Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma RB
Why He’s Ranked Here: In his sophomore season, Anderson rushed for 1,161 yards and 13 touchdowns. Those numbers don’t look Heisman worthy, especially when you compare them to those of Bryce Love and Jonathan Taylor, but you have to remember that this was Baker Mayfield’s team last year. Anderson was a good weapon for Mayfield, but he wasn’t the focal point. With Mayfield now gone, Anderson should have an increased role, which means increased stats.
What’s Holding Him Back?: Much like Bryce Love and Jonathan Taylor, Anderson needs to be more involved in the passing game. His stats are a little better than theirs, having 17 catches for 281 yards last year, but that’s still not enough to wow anyone. If I’m going to see a running back win the Heisman, I want to see them do everything a running back should be doing. Being a threat on the ground and in the passing game is something I want to see from these Heisman contending backs.
8. Trace McSorley, Penn State QB
Why He’s Ranked Here: Since becoming the starting QB for Penn State, Trace McSorley has been nothing but consistent. In both his sophomore and junior seasons, McSorley threw for over 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns. McSorley can also get it done on the ground. Over the last two seasons he’s rushed for 856 yards. The rushing numbers aren’t huge, but they do show his ability to make plays with his legs as well as his arm. McSorley also leads one of the better teams in College Football, which is always a plus in the Heisman race. If he can lead Penn State to another good season, expect his name to be thrown around in this race.
What’s Holding Him Back?: Was McSorley’s success last season a result of Saquon Barkley’s rushing ability? With Barkley gone, can he become more of the focal point in the offense? Those are both relevant questions to consider with McSorley. His numbers don’t blow me away, but he should have more opportunity to rack up the stats. If he puts up numbers similar to what he did last year, I don’t think he’s a legit Heisman candidate.
9. McKenzie Milton, UCF QB
Why He’s Ranked Here: Milton led the “National Champions” to an undefeated season last year. If he can keep UCF up there in the rankings again this year, his recognition will only increase. Milton had the second best QB rating in the country last season. He was second to Heisman winner, Baker Mayfield. In other words, he was pretty dang good. Mitlon threw for over 4,000 yards, and had 37 touchdowns to go along with that. Those numbers aren’t too far off from Mayfield’s during his Heisman campaign. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country, so he absolutely deserves to be on this list. He could be higher and I wouldn’t have any problem with it.
What’s Holding Him Back?: I don’t feel like UCF gets a lot of love. People don’t take them seriously because they’re UCF. UCF isn’t one of these big schools we all love to watch like Alabama, Ohio State, or Oklahoma. Part of the reason for that is because of their opponents. They don’t have a tough schedule at all, so it’s not like they’re playing teams who could compete for a National Championship. In fact, there’s not a single ranked opponent on their schedule this season.
10. AJ Dillon, Boston College RB
Why He’s Ranked Here: AJ Dillon had a really productive freshman season, running for over 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns. He should only get better and gain more opportunities to increase his stats this season. He’s a focal point for this offense, which is always a must when you’re contending for the Heisman. Expect big things from Dillon this year.
What’s Holding Him Back?: Again with a running back who doesn’t have a presence in the passing game. Dillon didn’t have a single catch last season. That needs to change. Then there’s the fact that Boston College isn’t a good team. They’ll need to be legit contenders in the ACC for Dillon to have a chance, which won’t be easy.
11. Drew Lock, Missouri QB
Why He’s Ranked Here: Drew Lock is supposed to be one of the top quarterbacks in the upcoming draft, so it makes sense for him to be in the Heisman conversation. Lock threw for 3,964 yards last season. The number that sticks out to me most is the number of touchdowns he threw. Lock threw 44 touchdowns. He knows how to get the ball in the end zone. Lock had the fifth best QB rating last year, just behind fellow Heisman contender, Justin Herbert.
What’s Holding Him Back?: You can lead a mediocre team and still be a high pick in the NFL Draft, but you can’t lead a mediocre team and win the Heisman, unless your stats are absolutely insane. Lock’s stats are good, but not that good. He’s not that good of a runner, so his stats will come pretty much all through the air. Anyway, Missouri was 7-6 last season, 4-8 the year before, and 5-7 the year before that. Lock doesn’t have a history of winning in College Football, so I don’t expect him to lead one of the top teams this year.
12. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama QB
Why He’s Ranked Here: One of the biggest reasons Tagovailoa is on this list is because everyone knows who he is now. He came into the National Championship game for Jalen Hurts and threw three touchdowns on his way to winning the game for Alabama. He performed well on the biggest stage, which is why many believe he’ll win the starting QB job and have a great season as the full time starter. When you win championships, people know who you are.
What’s Holding Him Back?: For starters, he hasn’t even been named the starting QB yet. Let’s put his Heisman campaign on hold at least until he’s officially the starter. If he does become the starter, will he be the focal point of the offense? Alabama quarterbacks don’t usually put up big numbers because the running backs are always the featured guys. Tagovailoa seems like he could put up big numbers if given the chance, but that’s if he’s given the chance. Nick Saban is about doing what he has to do to win games, not win his players a Heisman Trophy, although it’s probably always nice when they do.
13. Jake Browning, Washington QB
Why He’s Ranked Here: Jake Browning is the leader of a Washington team expected to be one of the best teams in the country. I’ve already seen several predictions putting Washington in the College Football Playoff. If he can lead the Huskies to a great season, he’ll be in the Heisman conversation. Browning is a very accurate QB. He completed 68.5% of his passes last season. That should help his team win games and help him move up on the Heisman radar.
What’s Holding Him Back?: After throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns in 2016, Browning regressed by only throwing for 2,719 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. He needs to have a better season than his 2016 in order to be a true contender. Browning also isn’t a threat as a runner, so he won’t get any boost in the Heisman race for his rushing stats. Browning also has his teammate on this list of Heisman candidates, so that could take attention away from him.
14. Myles Gaskin, Washington RB
Why He’s Ranked Here: Myles Gaskin is a great running back. He’s one of the reasons why Washington is expected to be a good team this season. Last season he ran for 1,380 yards with 21 touchdowns. Gaskin can score, which will definitely help his chances of winning the Heisman.
What’s Holding Him Back?: The other teammate on the list for Jake Browning is Myles Gaskin. One of the things holding Browning back in the Heisman race is something holding Gaskin back. Two Heisman candidates on the same team could mess things up for these guys. Gaskin and Browning are both good players, but I think they’ll take away from each other when it comes to putting up big numbers.