With the first games of the 2018 season set for Saturday, we're counting down college football's best in a variety of categories in our 18 for '18 series, including a look at the top candidates for this year's Heisman Trophy.
Note: This post was first published in May and has been updated with the CFB season about to get underway.
The explosive Akers wasted no time showing why he was the nation's No. 1-ranked running back out of high school in his freshman year at FSU. His 1,024 rushing yards broke Dalvin Cook's FSU freshman record, and he did it with opposing defenses challenging the run more after QB Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. In the first of his four 100-yard games, he was credited with 11 broken tackles against ACC Coastal Division champ Miami. If Akers is in the Heisman hunt late in the season, a Nov. 10 game against Notre Dame will draw the eyes of a lot of Heisman voters.
Consider this credential as a dual-threat quarterback: in a league that's produced Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel, it's Fitzgerald who owns the SEC record for most 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback (14). Still, consider him a Heisman dark horse for multiple reasons. When Dan Mullen took the Florida coaching job, Fitzgerald lost the designer of the offense in which he's had so much success, although he'll be working with another offensive-minded HC in Joe Moorhead. He'll also be coming off a broken ankle suffered last November. Will he be as effective as before? Will MSU win enough to keep national attention on the Bulldogs' season?
It's hard enough for a defensive player to win the Heisman, much less one from a Group of Five conference. But the award is intended for college football's most outstanding player, and Oliver fits the bill. He moves like a linebacker at 292 pounds, and two years into his college career, he already has an Outland Trophy -- which is essentially the Heisman for linemen -- under his belt. Credit UH for the most creative Heisman promotion to date, a bobblehead of Oliver riding Oreo, a horse he owned as a child.
We saw only flashes of Haskins' ability last season as the redshirt freshman backup to J.T. Barrett, and if his preseason Heisman consideration were charged with being more hype than substance, the plea would have to be guilty. But Heisman votes aren't reserved for upperclassmen the way they used to be, and past winners such as Lamar Jackson and Jameis Winston have proven the award can be won in the absence of much prior experience. Haskins has a fabulous arm, and if a program as prominent as OSU thrives with him, Heisman talk will follow.
Among quarterbacks, the Wildcats junior is the most exciting rusher in the college game. Just ask Colorado -- he set an FBS record for QBs with 327 yards on the ground on only 14 carries against the Buffaloes last October. To contend for the Heisman, however, new coach Kevin Sumlin will need to turn him loose as a passer. Tate didn't attempt more than 17 passes in a game last season until Nov. 4.
To see Etienne play is to understand why he shouldn't be discounted in this race. Etienne rushed for a team-high 766 yards last year as a freshman -- not exactly a Heisman-level foundation -- but his explosiveness in the open field is elite, and his full potential is far from tapped. His average of 7.2 yards per carry ranked fourth in school history. To contend for the Heisman, he'll need to become more of a focal point in a Clemson offense that typically spreads touches to many weapons. He should see an increase in opportunities in his sophomore year.
It's hard to wrap the senses around the fact that one quarterback (Jalen Hurts) led the Crimson Tide to two national championship games, yet another Tide QB (Tagovailoa) is the stronger Heisman candidate, but here we are. Coach Nick Saban could platoon the duo, at least early in the season, but word from inside the UA program is that Tagovailoa had the stronger fall camp of the two. Though lacking experience, he's the more dynamic and dangerous downfield passer.
Last season illustrated Herbert's value to the Ducks in the simplest terms: Oregon won four of five to open the year, then Herbert was injured and the team lost four of five without him. Upon his return, he won two straight to lead the Ducks to bowl eligibility. There isn't a more talented quarterback in the college game, but in order to make a serious Heisman run, Herbert will need to stay healthy. Oregon's non-conference schedule is weak, so Herbert likely won't gather much early-season Heisman momentum.
Lock's 44 touchdown passes last season led the entire FBS, one more than the Heisman winner, Baker Mayfield, and in one fewer game played. The question on Lock's candidacy isn't whether he can put up the necessary numbers; it's about whether the Tigers can improve enough as a team to put Lock in the Heisman spotlight. Another 7-6 kind of season won't cut it, regardless of production -- just ask Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, who had a similar experience during his time at Texas Tech.
McSorley is a seasoned veteran who has performed with great consistency over two seasons as a starter. He figures to be an even bigger part of the PSU offense this fall now that Saquon Barkley is in the NFL, but he'll have to do it without two more 2018 draft picks catching his passes: TE Mike Gesicki and WR DaeSean Hamilton. He's not likely to put up the numbers of some other quarterbacks listed here, but he could still keep himself in the Heisman discussion as long as Penn State is a College Football Playoff contender.
As a transfer from Baylor, Stidham lived up to expectations at Auburn, where the bar is always set high. Stidham was the SEC Newcomer of the Year and played some of his best football in beating the two teams that met in the national title game (Georgia and Alabama). This year, he'll get an early chance to impress Heisman voters with a neutral-site opener against Washington. And on his last chance to do so, just days before votes are cast, he'll be going for his second career win over national champion Alabama.
Dobbins took over the Buckeyes' backfield as a freshman last year to place himself among the most prominent running backs in the college game. He broke Maurice Clarett's OSU freshman rushing record with 1,403 yards, finishing as one of three Big Ten rushers to average more than 100-plus per game. He has a compact, powerful build that affords him plenty of leverage at the point of attack. And at OSU, he should find himself in plenty of high-profile games.
A year ago, there wasn't any thought that Fromm would even be the Bulldogs' starting quarterback. Now, he's a no-brainer for Heisman candidacy after a huge freshman season that nearly lifted UGA to its first national title since 1980. Fromm's signature win came at the Rose Bowl against last year's Heisman winner, Baker Mayfield, in the CFP semifinal game. Granted, Georgia's rushing attack led the way against the Sooners, but the unflappable Fromm calmly threw for two touchdowns and played a full game plus two overtimes without a turnover.
Bryant helped lead Clemson all the way to the College Football Playoff last season in his first year as a starter, taking over for Deshaun Watson. He's an exciting dual-threat quarterback like Watson was, but will need to improve significantly on a 13-8 TD-INT ratio if he is to contend for the Heisman. Of course, another prerequisite is holding off exciting freshman Trevor Lawrence as the Tigers' starter, but if it's Bryant's show, expect a spike in production.
The Badgers' running back led the Big Ten in rushing as a freshman last season with 1,977 yards, which broke an NCAA freshman record previously held by Adrian Peterson. Perhaps equally frightening for opposing defensive coordinators is that the Badgers return their entire starting offensive line in 2018, which could foretell an even better year from Taylor.
When the NCAA officially cleared Patterson for immediate eligibility, following a transfer from Ole Miss, his Heisman candidacy was cleared for takeoff. In Patterson, coach Jim Harbaugh has a creative improviser at quarterback for the first time since he took over at UM. Patterson averaged more than 300 passing yards per game in seven contests last year for the Rebels before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Much of that production came outside the pocket, making big plays out of broken ones.
The Cardinal star comes in a small package (5-foot-10, 195 pounds), but it's an explosive one. He set an FBS record with 13 rushes of 50-plus yards last year en route to a 2,118-yard season that led all rushers from Power Five conferences. Consider Love the best-positioned Heisman candidate among non-quarterbacks, thanks to a variety of factors, including a proven track record and Stanford's commitment to the running game under coach David Shaw. He'll also have a big opportunity to impress voters outside the West Coast region with a marquee non-conference matchup at Notre Dame on Sept. 29.
With Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph cleared out of his path, Grier figures to be the face of the Big 12 this fall. He has a dynamic receiving threat in David Sills V, and the kind of coach in Dana Holgorsen who will air it out with the play calling. It's been a long road back for Grier since a NCAA suspension at Florida, and subsequent transfer to WVU, froze his career for a season and a half. But he's primed for a big finish and the WVU schedule includes two Power Five opponents in non-conference play (Tennessee, N.C. State).