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Top 10 Heisman Trophy candidates for 2016

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Julie Jacobson / Associated Press
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson missed out on the Heisman this season, but might be the favorite in 2016.

If you're looking forward to who will follow Derrick Henry as the next Heisman Trophy winner (and who isn't?), history tells you not to expect a senior to handle the hardware.

Since 2004, only one senior has won the Heisman Trophy (Troy Smith, Ohio State, 2006) as opposed to two freshmen, three sophomores, and seven juniors. This is not surprising, since many of college football's top players leave for the NFL after their junior season.


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In accumulating my top 10 candidates to walk away with the 2016 Heisman Trophy, I found one rising junior and one rising senior at the top of the list. So will Clemson's dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson or one of the seven other non-seniors listed below take the trophy home after another productive season? Or will "old men" like Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield (following in the footsteps of 2003 winner Jason White) or Houston's Greg Ward, Jr. (Andre Ware, 1989) lead their respective teams to an undefeated season next year, earning the respect of Heisman voters across the country?

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If the 2016 college football season has even a shred of the drama that played out this fall, it's going to be fun finding out the answer.

Assuming Henry doesn't return to take another run at the Heisman in 2016, here's my ranking of the top 10 Heisman candidates for next season.

1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson's a true dual threat, ranking in the top 10 in the country in total offense due to his ability to throw over the top of defenses and run for long gains. If receiver Mike Williams can be healthy for 2016, Watson will have plenty of options through the air for his junior season (along with Deon Cain, Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett) as well as the athleticism that keeps opposing coaches up all night.

2. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Mayfield could be the one senior that makes a run for the Heisman in 2016 (especially if he leads the Sooners to a championship this year). He doesn't throw for 300 yards every week (five times in 12 games this fall), but he's made plays when his team needed him to -- and his 35 passing touchdowns against just five interceptions is quite impressive. No quarterback in the country has shown more grit and leadership, as his willingness to gut out a first-down or goal-line run (420 rushing yards this year, with seven scores) makes him a fan and team favorite. The Sooners' rising junior running back, Samaje Perine, is also an excellent talent, but voters should figure out who makes Bob Stoops' team tick.

3. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Barrett is near the top of this list because, unlike this year, he should be the hands-down leader of the Buckeyes in 2016. Urban Meyer will have his job cut out for him, though, as he's likely to lose a ton of talent on both offense and defense after this season. Meyer's recruiting and coaching ability should keep the Buckeyes in the Big Ten race, and Barrett's ability to run the offense and make plays with his feet make him a no-brainer pick as a Heisman contender.

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4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Approaching 2,000 rushing yards in an injury-filled season could portend a huge junior season in 2016, especially with his offensive line and quarterback continuing to improve throughout the course of the offseason. If the Seminoles are to challenge Watson and the Tigers for the ACC championship, it will be thanks to Cook's vision, strong cuts and feet in constant motion.

5. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
I believe McCaffrey is the nation's top player this season. Now that he has a year on the national radar, there won't be any more excuses for voters regarding his playing location. On the other hand, McCaffrey will be the focus of defensive coordinators, as well, especially if the Cardinal can't find a worthy replacement for senior quarterback Kevin Hogan. So, even if he plays as well as he did this year, the results might not be quite as fantastic. However, the mid-October clash with Deshone Kizer and Notre Dame could be his springboard back to New York. And his ability to carry an offense and excel on special teams could make him a Heisman finalist even if his team doesn't repeat its conference championship.

6. DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame
The Irish have an extremely kind schedule in 2016, with only the season-ending game at USC a true road challenge. After stepping in early in his redshirt freshman season after an injury to Malik Zaire, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Kizer often looked like a veteran, getting the ball to his playmakers and cruising downfield for big rushing gains. Whoever wins the starting job between Zaire and Kizer in preseason practice (or whoever stays healthy) will likely get Heisman recognition.

7. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The fact that Fournette was not invited to Manhattan for this year's Heisman ceremony was a complete joke. His performances against Alabama (31 yards on 19 carries) and Arkansas (91 yards on 19 carries) took the sizzle out of his campaign, but he still led the nation in rushing yards per game for a team with the 110th-ranked passing offense in the country. He'll have to face Alabama again next year, but improvement around him could be enough to push him toward the top of the list.

8. Greg Ward, Jr., QB, Houston
Unfortunately, it would probably take an undefeated season for the Cougars to get Ward an invite to New York. But they nearly pulled it off this year ... if Ward could have played against UConn, the Cougars would have finished off a 12-0 season. Ward's top five receivers are scheduled to return to Houston for 2016, and his supreme quickness with the ball in his hands will baffle defenders all season long. If Ward leads his team to a win over Oklahoma in the 2016 season opener (it wouldn't be the first time a running QB gave Bob Stoops' troops a hard time), his Heisman campaign will be in full force.

9. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
If this list was based on pure talent, Rosen would be much closer to the top. But, his Bruins teammates have to help him by winning conference games (5-4 this year) and playing better defense (62nd-ranked unit in the country). Rosen also loses his safety valve, senior receiver Jordan Payton, to the NFL. His accuracy and poise should help him get younger receivers to step up in Payton's absence ... and it will be a great help to him if junior tight end Thomas Duarte and running back Paul Perkins return to Westwood next year.

10. Adoree' Jackson, CB/WR/KR, USC
I'm going with Jackson over his teammate, supremely talented wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, because Jackson makes an impact in all three phases of the game. There are a lot of questions about what the Trojans will look like in 2016. If new head coach Clay Helton can find a new quarterback to get the ball to Smith-Schuster and Jackson on offense, the rising junior will turn the heads of voters on that side of the ball. Jackson's ability to stop opposing receivers, and provide a jolt as both a punt and kick returner, gives him plenty of chances to make headlines across the country ... but he'll only have a Charles Woodson-type Heisman season if the Trojans are in the hunt for a Pac-12 championship.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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