There’s a young sheriff in Clemson, South Carolina. There’s a new one in Norman, Oklahoma. And across the land, there are hundreds of deputies seeking to earn their badges and join the ranks of college football’s top talent.
Make no mistake: The sport is a team game from top to bottom. But every program’s MVP is lying if they claim they don’t dream of hoisting the Heisman Trophy in front of the legends who came before under the bright lights of Manhattan.
Like a Masters green jacket, the allure of a Heisman Trophy is unparalleled on a number of levels, and 2019’s crop of sheriffs gunning for it all is just one month away from letting loose. In no particular order, here are the top preseason candidates for the collegiate level’s most prized honor.
Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)
It’s hard to believe that Clemson’s sophomore quarterback is still a teenager. When scouts call you a “once in a generation” type of talent, expectations are naturally sky-high.
Somehow, Lawrence has exceeded every one of them. Entering last season as an 18-year-old competing against Kelly Bryant for the starting job, Lawrence casually put up 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 11 starts en route to both the offensive and overall ACC Rookie of the Year honors.
Oh, yeah — he also won a national championship.
Unless college football’s Samson cuts those golden locks of hair, Lawrence won’t be slowing down anytime soon, and he enters the 2019 campaign as the poster boy of college football. Opposing defenses can only hope to limit the damage when facing Clemson’s high-flying athletes, while the rest of us are in for a show all season long.
Tua Tagovailoa (QB, Alabama)
First, Kyler Murray edged Tagovailoa out in last year’s Heisman race. A month later, Lawrence outdid him in the national title game.
Without a doubt, Tagovailoa doesn’t want to finish as runner-up in either category again.
While Murray’s flair and strong play in tight contests may have netted him the Heisman in 2018, Tagovailoa was so dominant that he hardly ever played in a game that was contestable in the fourth quarter. His numbers all across the board speak for themselves: from 43 touchdowns through the air to six interceptions and a completion percentage of nearly 70 percent.
With Jerry Jeudy, a sure-fire top-10 pick in next year’s NFL draft, split out wide at Tagovailoa’s disposal, the Tide are the nearest thing to a “lock” playoff shoe-in that the College Football Playoff era has ever seen. Since Lawrence will still be too young to enter the 2020 draft, Tagovailoa’s stock should rise once again in his second year at the helm, possibly netting him a first-round selection as one of the top quarterbacks selected.
Jalen Hurts (QB, Oklahoma)
Imagine being a top-five quarterback as a freshman for a Nick Saban-led program. Then, after one rough half of play late in your second year at the helm, you lose your starting job for good. Instead of transferring as many would in this day and age, you stay with the team for a year and develop as a backup — only to be called upon to save the program’s season and salvage a conference championship.
Welcome to the life of former Alabama signal-caller Jalen Hurts, now in Oklahoma for his senior season. The young man who took Hurts’ job in Tuscaloosa, of course, is Tagovailoa, but while his upside exceeded that of Hurts, the two gunslingers are virtually equal when it comes to explosive-play potential.
Explosive plays — completions or runs for more than 20 yards — are what made Murray and Baker Mayfield flourish under head coach Lincoln Riley. With the past two Heisman winners and subsequent No. 1 NFL picks hailing from Norman, it’s safe to say Hurts has the biggest shoes of all to fill.
But Hurts has the Superman celebration for a reason, and his play outside of the pocket is as good as that of any dual-threat quarterback in the nation. Oklahoma enjoys putting up 50-plus points on defenses like Klay Thompson when he’s feeling it, so give Hurts the benefit of the doubt when he’s sporting new threads this fall.
Justin Herbert (QB, Oregon)
Born and raised in Eugene, Oregon, Justin Herbert is living out his dream. As a lifelong fan of the Ducks, Herbert was a relatively unknown prospect who received just two Football Bowl Subdivision offers out of high school: Nevada and Oregon.
Eugene’s golden boy stayed home, and by week five of the 2016 season, Herbert was the first true freshman in nearly 25 years to start at quarterback for Oregon. Now entering his senior year, Herbert has truly been through it all during his collegiate tenure — a losing season, three different head coaches, a big injury and more.
Opposing fans wouldn’t expect Herbert, at 6’6” and 234 pounds, to make plays with his legs all that often. Wrong. Herbert’s mobility and physicality in the pocket are complements to his incredible arm and touch on throws down the field, making him perhaps the safest quarterback prospect in next year’s class.
Hebert’s 17-12 career record as a starter doesn’t exactly excite, but with the Ducks gunning for a conference title in his final season, they’ll be one of the tougher, if not most exciting, teams out West. With Auburn lined up for an SEC-Pac-12 showdown in week one, there’s a lot riding on No. 10’s shoulders right from the get-go.
Jonathan Taylor (RB, Wisconsin)
For obvious reasons, quarterbacks are known to dominate the Heisman conversation, but we could see a tailback steal the show for the third time since 2009.
As a sophomore in 2018, Taylor (literally) ran away with the Doak Walker Award, annually given to college football’s top running back. Across two seasons with the Badgers, Taylor has eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark with 29 scores on the ground — stats that are unprecedented at this level of play, let alone against the teeth of Power Five defenses.
With the transfer of starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook, Taylor’s role as the offense’s fuel source could result in a 2,500-yard season, which would not just put him at the top of College GameDay’s early morning topics to discuss, but would make him a no-doubt Heisman contender as well.
Taylor has the tunnel vision of Saquon Barkley and a burst of speed similar to that of Bryce Love — two of college football’s top backs in recent memory. If there’s a non-quarterback to be feared in this year’s Heisman competition, it’s Taylor. If Wisconsin can compete with Ohio State and Michigan atop the Big Ten conference, he deserves at minimum an invitation to New York.
Honorable mentions: Sam Ehlinger (QB, Texas), Jake Fromm (QB, Georgia), Justin Fields (QB, Ohio State), Travis Etienne (RB, Clemson), Jacob Eason (QB, Washington), Adrian Martinez (QB, Nebraska), Jerry Jeudy (WR, Alabama)