5 candidates from SEC to challenge Lamar Jackson for 2017 Heisman Trophy
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, becoming the youngest player in history to take home the award.
Despite the fact that Jackson is just a sophomore and will be back with the Cardinals for at least one more season, he’s a long shot at best in 2017. Ohio State running back Archie Griffin (1974-75) is the only two-time winner.
The SEC failed to produce a serious candidate — Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen did finish seventh in the voting, however — and is hoping to become a bigger part of the conversation once again next year. Improved quarterback play would be a good start, of course, as 2016 was a rough one for passers in this league.
Here are five potential contenders for the Heisman this coming season that will suit up in the best conference in America.
Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
Recently named the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year, Hurts is a dual threat the likes of which we haven’t seen with the Crimson Tide.
Just a freshman, Hurts quickly unseated the more experienced Blake Barnett and took the ‘Bama offense to the next level. He completes 65.3 percent of his passes and has assembled a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 22-to-9.
In addition to his arm talent — he can already make all the throws and will only improve as a passer — Hurts is doubly dangerous as a runner. He has added 841 yards and a team-leading 12 TDs on the ground. His ability to augment the Tide’s north-and-south ground assault with serious speed to turn the corner is truly devastating.
The loss of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will be worth watching in Tuscaloosa. He deserves a lot of the credit for Hurts’s effectiveness.
LSU RB Derrius Guice
Leonard Fournette is the most celebrated running back in Tigers lore. Believe it or not, his replacement might be just as good.
Earlier this season, Fournette — his final season in Baton Rouge was largely wrecked by injury — set a school record with 284 yards rushing vs. Ole Miss. Guice broke that record with 285 in the finale at Texas A&M.
Only starting for about half the schedule due to Fournette being in and out of the lineup, Guice still finished second in the SEC with 1,249 yards rushing and tied for first with 14 scores on the ground. Two years into his career on the bayou, the 5-foot-11, 212-pounder averages a simply astonishing 8.1 yards per carry.
The Bayou Bengals are yet to hire a new offensive coordinator. Whomever it ends up being, Guice will carry the load in 2017.
Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald
While the Bulldogs only posted a 5-7 record and failed to compete in the West, Fitzgerald put up jaw-dropping numbers both passing and running.
With the unenviable task of taking over for Dak Prescott, who is currently starring as a rookie for the Dallas Cowboys, Fitzgerald threw for 2,287 yards, ran for 1,243 more — third in the league — and totaled 35 touchdowns.
The Richmond Hill (Ga.) native has a long way to go as a traditional quarterback, as many of his throws are predetermined at the line of scrimmage, but coach Dan Mullen added more pro-style passing concepts for Prescott as he progressed through the program. There’s reason to think that Fitzgerald can improve from the pocket.
One way or another, when he decides to tuck it and run, he’s unstoppable at times. Fitzgerald can help his case by winning more games.
Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk
Positively electric in the open field, Kirk is the only player in the nation to score three times in 2016 on punt returns.
Nevertheless, his receiving statistics as a sophomore are actually a step back from what he put together as a freshman the year before. Kirk’s yards-per-catch average dropped from 12.6 in 2015 to 10.9 this season.
Still, he led the conference in receptions with 77 — nine more than Mississippi State’s Fred Ross — and was fourth in TDs through the air with 9. With 148 yards in the Texas Bowl against former Big 12 foe Kansas State, Kirk can eclipse 1,000 yards receiving for the second time with the Aggies.
What Kirk needs is more consistent quarterback play. If he ever had an ace passer, there’s no limit to what he could do.
Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham
An outside-the-box pick, Stidham just committed to the Tigers after most recently sitting out a year at the JUCO ranks.
He was at Baylor in 2015 and played well in the wake of Seth Russell’s injury, connecting on 68.6 percent of his passes with a gaudy TD-to-INT ratio of 12-to-2. But once the Bears came apart at the seams due to scandal, he left Waco.
The incumbent on The Plains is Sean White, who showed out in stretches — especially during a midseason six-game winning streak — but doesn’t possess a lot of top-end ability. According to the composite rankings at 247Sports, Stidham was the No. 4 QB for the class of 2015. White was 11th nationally the previous cycle.
Like White, Stidham isn’t known as much of a runner. That being said, Stidham can stretch the field vertically in ways that White can’t.
John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.