HOOVER, Ala. — Two SEC names are no-brainers for Heisman Trophy consideration. They’re both bona fide stars who should be washed in college football’s brightest spotlight if they lift their teams to memorable seasons.
Then there are two others bursting with potential, both prepared to pounce onto the national stage.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and LSU running back Derrius Guice? It’s easy to envision either taking a chunk out of the Big Apple in December if momentum continues after monster seasons in 2016.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson? Don’t be surprised if either muscles his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation with heavy lifting and a little luck.
“For the life of me, I can’t have that list without Nick Fitzgerald on it,” SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears told SEC Country at SEC Media Days. “I think Shea Patterson is a dark horse, believe it or not. … It’s not just Derrius. Derrius, to me, is probably the safest bet to think that he’ll end up in New York.
“But there are a couple guys with tremendous talent in this league that could possibly have crazy seasons, and we’re sitting here in December saying to ourselves, ‘We kind of thought it, but we didn’t see it coming.’ So it’s those three [quarterbacks] — Fitzgerald, Jalen and Shea Patterson, to me, [that] have a shot.”
It’s hard to pin down who has the best shot at the Heisman Trophy during these slow July days. Everything said now on the subject is hot bluster until reputations are formed on fields this fall, with all best guesses subject to change after the hits start coming.
But too often, the Heisman horse race becomes a predictable popularity contest that crowns the best player from one of the sport’s top teams.
For that reason, it’s easier to picture Hurts and Guice becoming true contenders to hoist college football’s greatest individual prize. Alabama will again be King Kong in the SEC West, and Hurts showed much promise last season while throwing for 2,780 yards with 23 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.
LSU, meanwhile, can become a huge national story in a hurry if it snaps a six-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide. Guice, who ran for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, figures to be the biggest benefactor of any major movement by the Tigers in Ed Orgeron’s first full season as LSU’s coach.
“That’s a huge compliment,” Guice said of the Heisman Trophy talk. “I’m grateful to be considered one of those. I’m very humbled to hear my name even be brought up in the Heisman [conversation]. But my goals stand the same. I want better for this team. It’s not about me.
“I feel like me being in the Heisman competition is a compliment to this team. I can’t do it alone. So that’s obviously saying something about the O-line, the receivers down field, the play-calling. That’s just a compliment to the team.”
However, it would be a compliment to the SEC if either Fitzgerald or Patterson made noise, too. That would mean greater depth was achieved in the SEC West.
Fitzgerald is the more logical choice. It’s no accident that he drew the most chatter of any Mississippi State player at SEC Media Days, even though he stayed far from the hectic hallways at the Wynfrey Hotel. He threw for 2,423 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season as the Bulldogs finished 6-7 with a victory over Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Yes, there was that mediocre 54.3 completion percentage. Yes, he must be better for Mississippi State to have a puncher’s chance against Alabama, Auburn and LSU.
But the junior has the smarts and the tantalizing build at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds to be special.
“I wasn’t surprised, even though I know coming out of high school he wasn’t a very highly rated player, [and he] didn’t have all of the accolades that a lot of other recruited players had,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said of Fitzgerald’s impact in 2016.
“But I knew he had the skill set, and I got to see it every day at practice that not everybody else got to see. I really wasn’t shocked with some of the success he had last year.”
It wouldn’t be shocking to see Patterson take a similar step forward. Of course, there are factors beyond his control that could affect his national reputation. Ole Miss must deal with an ongoing NCAA investigation and the continued questions about coach Hugh Freeze’s future.
Both are prickly issues, and they won’t go away soon. But the former 5-star prospect has Johnny Manziel-like skill without the TMZ intrigue. Patterson showed as much by throwing for 880 yards with 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in three games last season. It’s possible that he’ll grow into difference-maker sooner than some expect.
“Ever since high school, I’ve just been me, going out there and doing what I love,” Patterson said. “Whatever else comes with it, comes with it. I’m all about the team. As long as we win, that’s what I care about.”
If all four SEC players do a bunch of winning in 2017, they’ll tickle the imaginations of Heisman Trophy voters. From there, who knows?
Sure, all Heisman talk now is hot air. But it’s not crazy to envision Hurts, Guice, Fitzgerald and Patterson creating heat of their own in the coming months.