Tim Tebow became the first underclassman to win the Heisman Trophy in 2007, and when he returned to campus, people wouldn’t say his name in vain. Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman, and carried the honor of his sport as his surname. Jameis Winston claimed the Heisman and a national title in his first season at Florida State, and was expected to be the top pick in the NFL draft.
Last December, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson became the youngest player to win college football’s most prestigious individual award, and the dynamic dual-threat’s career is treated as if it has peaked.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold (+400) and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (+700) are both being given better odds to win the award this year, with Jackson (+800) receiving the same chance as two other quarterbacks, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett.
“I wasn’t trying to win it last year. It happened,” Jackson said this summer. “I’m not thinking about the Heisman. I have one of my own. I want to win a national championship.”
Since Archie Griffin became the first two-time Heisman winner in 1975, nine players have failed to repeat.
Altered expectations frame everything Jackson, a 20-year-old junior, will accomplish this year after sprinting from the shadows of the ACC. Different will appear better, or at least more interesting.
Everything has changed, as Griffin reminded Jackson after the Cardinals star won.
“He just talked to me, saying, ‘You’ve got to play harder this year because they’re going to be coming after you,’ ” Jackson said. “I do have something left to prove.”
So does the loaded field of contenders.
While Jackson wowed the nation with an incredible start to last season, Darnold looked even better at the end. As a redshirt freshman, who didn’t start until the fourth game of the year, Darnold led the Trojans to nine straight wins to end the season, and returns to a national title contender. He is the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Barkley, last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year, will attempt to become just the second running back since 2010 to win the Heisman, after finishing with 22 touchdowns and 1,496 rushing yards, while LSU’s Derrius Guice takes the torch of preseason hype from former backfield mate Leonard Fournette, having averaged 7.6 yards per carry last year.
Like Darnold, several other talented quarterbacks could become stronger candidates, playing on potential playoff teams.
Mayfield is a two-time Heisman finalist. Barrett finished fifth in the voting as a freshman in 2014. Washington’s Jake Browning, Florida State’s Deondre Francois and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts all return to loaded squads, following dominant offensive campaigns last year.
None could match Jackson last season. This year, matching him may be enough.
Alabama vs. Florida State (in Atlanta, Sept. 2)
A national championship preview could be held at the start of the season, between the SEC and ACC favorites. The Crimson Tide fell seconds short of claiming a second-straight national title, and could be even better this season, with quarterback Jalen Hurts back for his sophomore season. However, Seminoles safety Derwin James and fellow defensive back Tarvarus McFadden, both returning, could make Hurts look like a freshman again.
Oklahoma at Ohio State (Sept. 9)
The Buckeyes reached the College Football Playoff for the second time last season, thanks to a 45-24 win at Oklahoma, and the winner again will hold a marquee non-conference victory few teams can match. Sooners coach Lincoln Riley enters his first season with two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield, who will duel with fellow star quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Florida State at Clemson (Nov. 11)
The annual de facto ACC title game takes place at Death Valley this year. Even with Deshaun Watson’s departure, the defending national champion Tigers could be back in the playoff, behind another stout defense, which will face its toughest challenge in Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois. These rivals have combined to win the past six ACC championships.
Ohio State at Michigan (Nov. 25)
Arguably the best rivalry in college football produced the best regular-season game last year, with Ohio State pulling out a 30-27 overtime win. With the Big Ten even better this year, a playoff spot may not come down to these two teams, but the East division could be on the line. Jim Harbaugh is 0-2 against Urban Meyer, having lost at The Big House, 42-13, in 2015.
Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 25)
The Crimson Tide have dominated the Iron Bowl recently, winning the past three meetings and five of the previous six, but Auburn could turn the rivalry upside down again. Tigers coach Gus Malzahn has received a lot of heat after going 11-13 in the SEC over the past three seasons, but quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a transfer from Baylor, could put Auburn back in national-championship contention for the first time since 2013, when Jordan-Hare Stadium witnessed the “Kick Six.”
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