The Overrated, Underrated and More: Your guide to Heisman Trophy candidates

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Ken Lund/Creative Commons

The race for the Heisman trophy is headed down the home stretch. While many college football analysts and fans believe there is a clear front-runner at the moment, there are a number of talented playmakers on the rise as the final weekend of the regular season nears. Although every player on this list has had a phenomenal season, only a few will be invited to the announcement ceremony in New York on Dec. 10.

The overrated: D’Onta Foreman (RB, Texas) and Christian McCaffrey (RB, Stanford)

Don’t get me wrong, both of these tailbacks have had fantastic seasons. Foreman broke the Texas record for consecutive games with at least 100 yards rushing, recording his 12th straight in Saturday’s 24-21 loss to Kansas. The junior from Texas City, however, has been receiving a ridiculous number of touches in recent weeks, including 52 this past weekend, which not only explains why his numbers appear to stand out so much but also explains Texas’ 5-6 record. With an offense that is too one-dimensional, the Longhorns have struggled mightily after beginning the year on a high note, leading to the reported firing of scrutinized head coach Charlie Strong. So much for Foreman’s Heisman chances.

McCaffrey will go down in Stanford football history as one of the most dominant student-athletes to ever represent the Cardinal. But a mixture of injuries, inconsistent quarterback play and overall offensive struggles has hindered his chances of returning to New York after losing out to Alabama’s Derrick Henry last year. He can at least smile about the fact that he broke some more records against rival Cal this past weekend.

The underrated: Donnel Pumphrey (RB, San Diego State) and Baker Mayfield (QB, Oklahoma)

Playing football for San Diego State means that tailback Donnel Pumphrey doesn’t get a ton of chances to be showcased in front of a national audience. The senior trails only Foreman for total rushing yards in the nation and has broken 200 yards on the ground in four different games this year. Not to mention that his team is an impressive 9-2 overall. While a lack of national attention and a mediocre performance last week against Wyoming may cost him the Heisman, he has made a name for himself on the all-time FBS rushing list after passing former Pittsburgh tailback Tony Dorsett for third place this weekend.

Mayfield deserves a huge shoutout for turning Oklahoma’s season around after the Sooners suffered a catastrophic start to the year. The redshirt junior holds an impressive 35:8 touchdown-interception ratio and has led the once 1-2 Sooners on an eight-game winning streak. While fellow quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson have captured the majority of the nation’s attention, Mayfield leads all quarterbacks in QB passer rating. He’s severely underrated and deserves more dialogue in the Heisman conversation.

Sleepers: Jabrill Peppers (LB, Michigan) and Dede Westbrook (WR, Oklahoma)

The last defensive player to win the Heisman trophy? Charles Woodson from the University of Michigan. This year, Peppers — Jim Harbaugh’s safety turned defensive star/tailback/return man — can do it all unlike any other. For those who follow the Pac-12, he’s arguably better than USC’s Adoree’ Jackson, who many believed was the most versatile player in all of college football. Peppers plays on one of the top ranked teams in the nation and has been one of the more popular players all year, but it will take a lot for him to overcome the stigma of being a defensive player competing for the Heisman trophy. But if the Wolverines succeed in reaching the College Football Playoff, his chances will undoubtedly increase.

Mayfield’s success is in part due to the speed and athleticism of his go-to target, Dede Westbrook. Despite recording only 70 catches on the year heading into the season’s final week, Westbrook is second in the nation in receiving yards with 1,354, for an astounding average of 19.3 yards per catch. His 15 touchdown catches are tied for third with Washington’s John Ross, and with one more, he’ll hold the Sooner record for most touchdown receptions in a single season. Don’t be surprised if he finishes the year with another breakout game.

Looming wild card: J.T. Barrett (QB, Ohio State)

The unspoken leader of Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes, Barrett has quietly become one of the most dominant quarterbacks in all of college football over the past few years. The reason why he isn’t a “sleeper” pick is because he’s been around for so long and people expect him to play at the consistent level that he’s shown in the past: He only has four interceptions on the season, while scoring eight rushing touchdowns. He has led Ohio State to a well-deserved No. 2 ranking behind Alabama, putting the Buckeyes in good position with the Wolverines coming to Columbus this Saturday. While his quarterback rating and lack of eye-popping throwing statistics don’t make him the most popular Heisman candidate, his leadership and poise have resulted in success.

Best chances next year: Sam Darnold (QB, USC) and Jalen Hurts (QB, Alabama)

It’s never too early to start making predictions for next season, especially when Darnold and Hurts have been two of college football’s brightest young stars this year. After replacing Max Browne in mid-September, Darnold blossomed into the Trojans’ unquestioned offensive leader. He has turned USC’s season completely around from a disastrous 1-3 start and has the Trojans riding a seven-game winning streak heading into the final weekend. Two months ago, it would have seemed impossible for USC to make a run at a top-15 team ranking, but Darnold and head coach Clay Helton have done just that. Look for Browne to seek transfer opportunities and for Darnold to be a likely Heisman favorite in next year’s pool.

The Crimson Tide are not just the best team in college football this year. A more accurate way of looking at Nick Saban’s team would be to view it as one of the best teams ever. While past Alabama teams have featured star running backs such as Mark Ingram, T.J. Yeldon and Henry, Hurts has provided a unique spark from under center that Alabama hasn’t seen in recent years. While a 64.8 percent completion rate as a freshman in the SEC and 19 passing touchdowns is impressive, how about more than 800 rushing yards and 11 scores on the ground? Alabama can attribute its commanding No. 1 ranking to a number of playmakers on the team, but Hurts is undeniably one of the biggest pieces to what has been a historic year already. He should enter next season as the one to catch for next year’s Heisman Trophy.

Had the best shot … and lost it: Deshaun Watson (QB, Clemson) and Jake Browning (QB, Washington)

These two quarterbacks were in prime position to be the top challengers at dethroning Jackson’s dominance atop nearly everyone’s Heisman trophy rankings. While both Watson and Browning still have a shot to make things interesting, inconsistent play and key team losses have played a role in derailing each player’s chances.

Watson, McCaffrey’s co-runner-up to Henry last season, was leading the then-No. 2-ranked Tigers to a potential undefeated regular season, when an underrated Pittsburgh team ruined the party by handing Clemson a shocking 43-42 loss two weekends ago. Before that game, Watson was on his way to making two consecutive trips to New York and was fresh off a 54-0 rout of Syracuse. Although he passed for an ACC-record 580 yards in the loss to Pitt, he also threw three crucial interceptions and was unable to put the game away late. The loss provided a brutal blow to Clemson’s playoff chances and Watson’s Heisman campaign, which isn’t dead yet but is not looking as good as it once did. Despite some recent struggles, he is still projected to be an early selection in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Just a few weeks ago, Browning, like Watson, was leading an undefeated team toward a potential national championship. Unlike most of the other players on this list, Browning is just a sophomore and has already improved tremendously upon his freshman year campaign. Prior to a devastating 24-13 loss at home to Darnold and USC, Browning’s resume included a near-flawless 34:3 touchdown-interception rate, including three games with at least five touchdown passes. Despite struggling against the Trojans and Arizona State the week after, Browning is still ranked fourth overall in quarterback passer rating and trails only Toledo’s Logan Woodside in touchdown passes with 37. Not bad for a sophomore who still has at least another year of leading one of the nation’s most promising offenses.

Who should win: Lamar Jackson (QB, Louisville)

He began the year on fire and has not looked back since. Although the Cardinals suffered a heart-breaking 36-10 loss at Houston on Thursday evening, they’ve proved doubters wrong all year long since beginning the season ranked No. 19. After accounting for 23 offensive touchdowns last season for the Cardinals, Jackson evolved into a national star, captivating social media and smashing records left and right in the early going. In 11 starts this year, leading his team to a 9-2 record and a share of the lead in the ACC Atlantic division, Jackson has accounted for 47 offensive touchdowns, 28 through the air and 19 on the ground. Yes, you read that right. He has passed for more than 3,000 yards while at the same time rushing for nearly 1,400, leading the offense to six games with more than 50 points. While it would have helped his cause even more for his team to have finished the year strong in the rankings, Jackson is the deserved clear front-runner for this year’s Heisman. He’s just a sophomore but has already received NFL comparisons to Michael Vick and Vince Young, and many believe there are big things in store for him down the road in addition to a potential Heisman trophy award.

Contact Josh Yuen at [email protected].