17 for '17: Top Heisman Trophy candidates for 2017

College Football 24/7 begins its 17 for '17 series with a look at the top contenders for the 2017 Heisman Trophy.

17. Derwin James, S, Florida State

Defensive players who maintain Heisman momentum typically do so with help from their exploits as a return specialist. So as a defensive player who doesn't return kicks, James should be considered a true dark horse of the field. Still, he's a game-changer who will play multiple roles for a national championship contender, and the Seminoles like to blitz with him, so he can impress Heisman voters not only with interceptions, but sacks as well.

16. Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama

Were it not for Deshaun Watson's heroics, Hurts was two seconds away from the unthinkable last year: quarterbacking a perfect 15-0 season as a true freshman. Suffice it to say he's battle-tested already, but as he enters his sophomore year, his Heisman hopes depend heavily on significant improvement as a downfield passer. By extension, Hurts' Heisman campaign will also require more pass plays called. He attempted 21 or fewer passes in four starts last year. Alabama can win like that, but Hurts can't get to New York like that.

15. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming

The Cowboys gunslinger has drawn plenty of offseason hype as a draft prospect, but can he contend for college football's most prestigious award? His talent suggests he can. His schedule suggests he can't. How does one gain Heisman traction with only two games against Power Five conference opponents? He'll need to play well -- and win -- on his biggest stages against Iowa and Oregon, and ring up huge numbers against the rest of the slate.

14. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

Freeman's Heisman chances are predicated upon a return to his form of 2015, when he rumbled for 1,836 yards, 17 touchdowns, and was a serious receiving threat as well. He was injured last year and wasn't the same player, but he finally began showing flashes of old with 100-yard performances in each of UO's last three games. He's a senior now, so in his final chance to impress NFL scouts, look for another big season.

13. Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State

Francois was fire-tested last year as a freshman, and threw for 3,350 yards despite taking a beating from opposing pass rushes in some of FSU's biggest games. Not all of that was on the FSU offensive line -- Francois needs to develop more awareness for getting the ball out quickly or throwing it away -- but a little improvement on both those fronts would go a long way in 2017. He also has a super chance to seize early Heisman momentum with a Week One, nationally televised date against Alabama on a neutral field.

12. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

Not unlike Freeman, Chubb's junior season had its moments, but didn't meet expectations. At one point, he even voiced displeasure with the Bulldogs' coaching staff. From late 2014 to early 2015, Chubb ripped off 13 consecutive 100-yard games for the Bulldogs and looked like a Heisman candidate. If that Chubb returns for 13 more this fall, watch out.

11. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

In the Cowboys' pass-happy offensive attack, Rudolph averaged 315 yards per game last season and threw just four interceptions in 448 pass attempts. He has a premier wide receiver to target in James Washington, and he plays in a league with more than its share of weak defenses to exploit. A big performance against Oklahoma State's only noteworthy non-conference game -- at Pitt in Week Three -- would help his cause.

10. Jake Browning, QB, Washington

The Huskies' star quarterback put together a legitimate Heisman run last year, aided greatly by UW's team success, but a late-season loss to USC hurt his candidacy. He'll have plenty of help around him once again this year, and Washington is a serious threat to win the Pac-12 again. UW's non-conference schedule won't draw much attention to Browning (Week One at Rutgers, Week Two vs. Montana, Week Three vs. Fresno State), but he could easily amass 1,000 yards passing in that stretch before even taking a snap in a Pac-12 game.

9. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama

The question here is whether we'll see the same Bo Scarbrough all season. Last year, he was used rather sparingly until exploding down the stretch for six postseason touchdowns, including a 180-yard playoff semifinal game against Washington. The Tide is loaded in the backfield with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, and shared rushing loads have a hard time sustaining Heisman momentum. A leg fracture knocked him out of the CFP title game against Clemson and his recovery meant he was limited in spring drills, but he's expected to be fully healthy this fall.

8. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

From an optics standpoint, Barrett's candidacy has a lot going for it. He's a fifth-year senior and the leader of a blue-blood program, and he'll get lots of national exposure from a number of high-profile games, starting with a Week Two home date vs. Oklahoma on Sept. 9. OSU's reliance on a sound running game won't allow Barrett to keep pace statistically with some other quarterback contenders, but if he makes the plays that win the Buckeyes' biggest games, he can make up for that. His rushing skills can help, too -- his worst three passing performances of the regular season last year (vs. Indiana, Michigan State and Michigan) were his best three days as a runner.

7. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State

We know Falk will light up the scoreboard in WSU's Air Raid offense, and as long as he's healthy, we know his numbers will stack higher than just about anyone's by the end of the season. When you throw for roughly 4,500 yards with remarkable consistency for two years in a row, there is no other conclusion to draw about Year Three. What's not nearly as certain is whether his team will win enough to sustain his Heisman campaign.

6. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

The Nittany Lions will ride Barkley heavily this fall, and there's no reason not to. When we last left off with Barkley, he blistered USC for 194 yards on 25 carries in a losing Rose Bowl effort. To the extent that the Heisman has become a quarterback's award, it won't be easy for Barkley to contend. But along with Derrius Guice of LSU, he's one of two running backs who figure to have the best chance. Back-to-back October games against Michigan and Ohio State will go a long way toward determining whether Barkley makes the trip to New York as a finalist.

5. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Not much went right for Rosen last year, beginning with a three-interception game in a loss to Texas A&M to open the season, and ending with a midseason shoulder injury that shelved him for the remainder of the schedule. Nevertheless, he's shown enough in his season-and-a-half as a starter to foretell he has a lot in store for 2017. He'll get another shot at the Aggies -- this time at home, and without Myles Garrett breathing down his neck -- in Week One. But he draws a tough road schedule that includes Stanford, Washington and USC.

4. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

If you only paid attention to LSU football when Leonard Fournette was healthy last year, you might not be aware that the Tigers running game was none the worse without him, or that Guice was the reason why. He managed to establish himself as one of the nation's elite backs with the window of opportunity Fournette's injuries provided, much the way Nick Chubb did in 2014 when Todd Gurley got hurt at Georgia. He finished with 1,387 yards on just 183 carries (7.6 ypc) and 15 touchdowns despite a limited role when Fournette was a go. With quarterback a perpetual question mark in Baton Rouge, if Guice doesn't contend for the Heisman, it won't be for a lack of carries.

3. Sam Darnold, QB, USC

Darnold will be the darling pick of Heisman pundits for as long as his candidacy can be argued for. He led USC's rebound from a forgettable September last fall, ripping off nine consecutive wins from Oct. 1 (vs. Arizona State) through the Rose Bowl (vs. Penn State). He has a big arm and showed uncanny poise for a redshirt freshman. This year's schedule offers him two big non-conference stages, vs. Texas and Notre Dame. He loses a talented target at WR in JuJu Smith-Schuster, but quarterbacks like Darnold make WR1s, not the other way around.

2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

As long as the only back-to-back Heisman winner remains 42 years deep in the history books (Archie Griffin), it's hard to establish a returning winner as the favorite to repeat. Still, Jackson is the most dynamic athlete in college football and it will be no surprise if he's right back in contention for the Heisman at season's end. He accounted for 51 touchdowns last year, and anything close to that in 2017 will be a bedrock of a foundation for Heisman votes. But he sputtered down the stretch last season as Louisville's pass protection progressively weakened, and he'll have a hard time repeating if that happens again.

1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

One of two returning finalists (along with Jackson), Mayfield figures to post huge numbers for the Sooners this year. For one thing, the rushing tandem of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon has moved on. For another, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley isn't afraid to put the ball in the air all day. Most Big 12 defenses will have no answer for him. It's going to be Mayfield's show, and he has the kind of charisma that Heisman winners are made of. If he goes into Columbus, Ohio, and hangs a Sept. 9 loss on Ohio State, his Heisman buzz will grow wings.

*Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter **@ChaseGoodbread*.

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