The Heisman Trophy won’t be won in Week 1. Just ask former Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill, who was anointed “Kenny Football” after throwing for 511 yards in the 2014 opening win at South Carolina. He was benched by the second half of the season and transferred.
The Heisman Trophy won’t be wrapped up by Week 8. Just ask LSU star Leonard Fournette, who was averaging 193 rushing yards per game at that point last season and looked like the runaway favorite. He averaged 76.7 yards over the next three games and didn’t even get invited to New York.
The Heisman race is truly a marathon — with a lot of sprinting involved. But we here at SEC Country will monitor the contenders’ progress every step of the way in 2016. Recent history suggests the SEC will have at least one player in the mix.
The league has produced a Heisman finalist each of the last 10 seasons, including five winners: Florida’s Tim Tebow (2007), Alabama’s Mark Ingram (2009), Auburn’s Cam Newton (2010), Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (2012) and Alabama’s Derrick Henry (2015).
So, with a new season upon us, who’s next?
First, some basic requirements. Since Charles Woodson (absurdly) beat Peyton Manning for the 1997 Heisman, every winner has been a quarterback or running back. Since 2000, 12 of 16 winners have played for a national championship — and all but one played on a team that won at least 10 games (Tebow’s ’07 Gators were 9-4). In other words, touch the ball a bunch on a great team or forget about it.
With that in mind, our first look at the SEC’s Heisman hopefuls, ranked:
1. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: The 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior is an NFL prototype who has rushed for nearly 3,000 yards in two seasons, including 1,953 in just 12 games last year. No returning Power 5 player scored more touchdowns than Fournette’s 23 as a sophomore. Week 1 offers a chance for an early Heisman statement against a Wisconsin defense that ranked fourth nationally against the run in 2015 — and with ESPN’s College GameDay in town for the showdown at Lambeau Field. Health is always a concern for a guy who carried the ball 300 times last fall and just returned to practice after a preseason ankle injury, but Fournette is built to last and has a more than capable backup in Derrius Guice to share more of the workload this year.
2. QB Chad Kelly, Ole Miss: He has a relatable redemption story, is the best quarterback in the SEC and will put up monster numbers in Hugh Freeze’s offense. If the rest of the Rebels are good enough and Ole Miss puts together a second straight 10-win season, Kelly could be in the mix. The nephew of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly threw for 4,000 yards, ran for 500 and accounted for 41 total touchdowns last season, putting himself squarely on the radar in 2016. Like Fournette, he gets a major Week 1 showcase — against fellow Heisman contender Dalvin Cook — when No. 11 Ole Miss meets No. 4 Florida State next Monday night.
3. RB Nick Chubb, Georgia: If not for the knee injury that cut short his sophomore season, Chubb might be higher on this list. Assuming he returns to old form, the 5-foot-10, 228-pound powerhouse will be in the Heisman conversation. In 19 career games, he’s produced 16 runs of 30-plus yards (10 of at least 40 yards) and totaled 2,294 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing. And guess what? He, too, gets a big Week 1 stage: The 18th-ranked Bulldogs play 22nd-ranked North Carolina at the Georgia Dome on Saturday evening. We wonder, though, whether a timeshare in his own backfield might hurt his chances. Sony Michel has rushed for 1,571 career yards and filled in capably after Chubb’s injury last fall.
4. WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama: This is a long shot, depending on which history you’re looking at. The last wide receiver to win a Heisman was Desmond Howard 25 years ago, but the Crimson Tide has produced a Heisman finalist in five of the last seven seasons, including receiver Amari Cooper in 2014. Ridley is Bama’s best candidate this fall, coming off an 89-catch, 1,045-yard debut season. No Power 5 freshman in the country had more receptions or yards than him. And oh, by the way, another marquee Week 1 matchup to make a statement: He’ll square off with All-American cornerback candidate Adoree’ Jackson when the No. 1 Tide faces No. 20 Southern California on Saturday night.
5. RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: If the ninth-ranked Volunteers are as good as advertised and contend for an SEC title with Hurd leading the way, he could vault into contention. He’s an imposing figure at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and already has produced 2,187 rushing yards, 411 receiving yards and 21 total touchdowns in two seasons in Knoxville. Among SEC backs, only Fournette and Heisman winner Derrick Henry had more runs of 10-plus yards than Hurd’s 43 last season. Like Chubb, though, his stats could suffer from a talented backfield partner. Former Alabama signee Alvin Kamara produced nearly 1,100 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season with the Vols.
1. QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
2. RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
3. RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State
4. QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
5. QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Stay tuned all season, as we’ll update the SEC’s Heisman contenders and their place in the overall race each week.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.