With the first two games of the 2019 college football season set for Saturday (Miami vs. Florida, Arizona at Hawaii) before the campaign gets in full swing next week, here are my top 11 candidates for this year's Heisman Trophy. Spoiler alert: Don't be shocked if an Oklahoma QB takes home the hardware for the third straight year. And even if the Sooners don't accomplish the three-peat, definitely don't be surprised if a passer receives the trophy for the ninth time in 10 years. This is largely a QB award, and there are seven signal-callers on my list.
When Martinez lit up Colorado for 304 yards of total offense in his first college game last year, notice was served that he was no ordinary freshman. He went on to play some of his best football against more of NU's toughest competition, namely Ohio State and Wisconsin. Entering 2019, the dual-threat QB has a season of experience to draw from and a sure handle on Scott Frost's explosive offense. Working against his Heisman hopes is the requirement that the Cornhuskers make a major turnaround in the win column after back-to-back 4-8 seasons. A complete flip to 8-4 probably wouldn't even be enough; four-loss seasons typically make afterthoughts of Heisman hopefuls, with Lamar Jackson's 9-4 campaign at Louisville in 2016 being a rare exception.
Moore established himself as one of the most exciting players in college football as a true freshman last year. That included the kind of marquee performance -- 12 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns in a stunning upset of Ohio State -- that can punch a ticket to New York as a Heisman finalist. Moore's bright-lights opportunities this fall include road trips to Penn State and Wisconsin. His size (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) will eventually draw question marks from NFL scouts, but at the college level, it's part of what makes people marvel at his production.
Etienne's explosiveness makes him a threat to score from anywhere, and with 24 rushing touchdowns a year ago, his nose for the end zone is proven. He averaged a whopping 8.1 yards per carry for the Tigers, and as the lead horse in the backfield of the defending national champions, he'll draw a lot of attention from Heisman voters, especially in both the South and Mid-Atlantic Heisman regions. His biggest hurdle might be having to split votes with a teammate -- QB Trevor Lawrence could take up too much Heisman oxygen for a fellow Tiger to breathe in the race much.
Ehlinger made big strides last season mainly by drastically cutting his interception rate, committing just five in 425 attempts. He also showed an impressive nose for paydirt by punching in 12 rushing TDs from inside the opponents' 5-yard line. If his game hits yet another level in 2019, he could put himself in position for serious Heisman consideration. Facing LSU at home in Week 2 will be a major early test in front of an ABC audience that could draw plenty of attention for Ehlinger.
The Buffaloes' do-it-all offensive threat should electrify the Pac-12 for the second year in a row, after an 86-catch, 1,011-yard season as a sophomore. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he's no easy tackle in the secondary, yet he also has the speed to score from long-distance field position. CU will line him up all over the field, and it's a good bet he'll see a spike in rushing attempts (17 last year) as the Buffs look to maximize his knack for big plays. That sort of versatility tends to garner interest from Heisman voters.
Hurts' college football journey has already been one to make a movie about, and the ending hasn't even been written. The former Alabama star has been the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, and he's been benched. He's been criticized for accuracy, and glorified for replacing an injured Tua Tagovailoa and leading a come-from-behind win in the SEC title game. He'll now close his college career at OU under Lincoln Riley, who has produced two consecutive Heisman Trophy winners with quarterbacks who transferred in just like Hurts. If he's a more consistent passer in OU's always-explosive offense than he was at UA, a third straight Oklahoma QB winning the Heisman isn't out of the question.
Herbert enters his final college season as the Pac-12's flag-holder at the quarterback position. In his first year as Oregon coach last fall, Mario Cristobal unleashed Herbert with 404 pass attempts, just 57 fewer than the total from the QB's previous two years combined. A starter since his freshman season in 2016, Herbert sees the field with ease at 6-foot-6 and has as much arm strength as any passer in the college game. A season-opening, high-profile game against Auburn will be crucial to his Heisman hopes -- a big performance in a winning effort would begin the foundation of a Heisman resume. A poor performance in a loss could knock him out of the conversation indefinitely.
The ever-productive Taylor has finished in the top 10 in the Heisman voting in each of his first two college seasons, although with the award trending toward quarterbacks, three top-10 finishes might be the best he can hope for. After all, what more could he have done last season than rush for 2,194 yards? Just ask Melvin Gordon, who tallied nearly 2,600 yards for the Badgers in 2014 only to finish second. Taylor moved the chains a whopping 91 times last season despite defenses keying on the Wisconsin rushing attack, and he also made significant strides in cleaning up a fumble habit, cutting that total in half (8 to 4) from his freshman to sophomore season.
The Bulldogs' signal-caller carries a calm-but-commanding presence in any circumstance -- against the toughest of defenses, home or away, and with high stakes on the line. He's deadly accurate and has thrown just 13 interceptions in nearly 600 attempts over two seasons. Georgia's offense, as always, will rely heavily on a running game that features star rusher D'Andre Swift, who might garner some Heisman votes of his own. That could make it hard for Fromm to post the eye-popping numbers week after week that are more common in the Big 12 and Pac-12, particularly with a lack of experienced receivers. A breakout season from WR Demetris Robertson, a blazing-fast transfer from Cal who couldn't crack Georgia's starting lineup last year, could help Fromm's Heisman case in a big way.
The best pure passer in the college game wasn't in the race a year ago, in part because he didn't take over the starting job until Week 5. From there, however, the freshman played like a seasoned senior in leading the Tigers to 11 consecutive wins and a national championship win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff. Despite playing behind the now-transferred Kelly Bryant for a month, Lawrence finished the year with robust totals of 3,280 yards, 30 TDs and only four interceptions. On the outside, he has two explosive and experienced receivers in Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, and behind him, a top-flight running back in Travis Etienne to take the pressure off and keep defenses more honest.
As last year's Heisman runner-up, Tagovailoa garnered 299 first-place votes -- and in the wake of finishing second, he outplayed the winner (Kyler Murray) in a College Football Playoff semifinal. If that isn't enough to staple the junior's name to preseason front-runner status, throw in college football's most talented corps of wide receivers. Tagovailoa's top four targets from a record-setting 2018 are all back, including Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy. Tagovailoa's production totals suffered last year from spending the majority of second halves watching his backup polish off Alabama blowout wins, and this year will likely be no different. Assuming Heisman voters don't penalize him for that, his candidacy couldn't look much stronger.