Quarterback Lamar Jackson became the first Louisville player to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night. Meanwhile, the SEC was noticeably without a finalist for the first time since 2005.
It was a watershed year for the conference, with several new quarterbacks entering the fray. Since every team not named Alabama finished with eight or fewer wins, it’s hard to make the argument that any SEC player deserved an invite.
However, 2017 will be a new year for the SEC. With Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook a senior and with two other of the top-five Heisman finalists likely leaving school after the season, the field should be open. The SEC can fill that void.
Just a note, we left off players like Derek Barnett and Leonard Fournette, considering they are likely NFL-bound. Here are five SEC players who could be Heisman finalists in 2017 — if not win the award.
QB Jalen Hurts, Alabama
Stats: 220-337 for 2,592 yards, 22 TDs, 9 INTs; 162 carries for 841 yards, 12 TDs
If there is one player SEC fans can be sure will be in New York someday, it’s Hurts. In his first season, the true freshman led Alabama to a perfect 13-0 record and No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff. Although the defense did plenty of the work, Hurts was a major playmaker and rushed for the only touchdown in the game vs. LSU.
Despite the success, Hurts needs to grow as a passer, especially on downfield throws. With weapons like Calvin Ridley coming back in 2017, and likely ArDarius Stewart as well, Alabama’s offense could take another step forward. If the Crimson Tide can withstand the loss of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Reuben Foster, Hurts will (deservedly) get the lion’s share of the credit.
WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
Stats: 77 catches for 842 yards, 9 TDs; 11 punt returns for 270 yards, 3 TDs
It’s exceptionally difficult to win a Heisman from the wide receiver position. Michigan’s Desmond Howard was the last one to win in 1991. This year was especially hard on Kirk, as the Aggies shifted to more of a balanced run offense with Trevor Knight at quarterback. Now that Jake Hubenak likely will take over, the offense should move back to pass-happy.
Kirk is the rare playmaker who can affect the game in multiple ways. Even though he’s listed at just 5-foot-11, he’s an effective possession receiver. He also has the ability to get open downfield if he has a quarterback who can connect. His return game also should be a major benefit. With Josh Reynolds gone, Kirk owns the offense.
QB Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Stats: 75-109 for 1,265 yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs (at Baylor in 2015)
Stidham sat out this year after transferring from Baylor, but should take the SEC by storm in 2017. The rising sophomore was rated a 5-star prospect by many services out of high school, and proved it at Baylor. In just 10 quarters as a starter, Stidham threw for 934 yards and 6 touchdowns before going out for the season.
He should be an outstanding fit in Gus Malzahn’s system. When Sean White threw for 200 yards, the Tigers were 5-0 in 2016. That shouldn’t be any problem for Stidham’s big arm. With Kamryn Pettway, Kam Martin and Nate Craig-Myers as developing stars all over the field, the pieces are in place.
RB Derrius Guice, LSU
Stats: 157 carries for 1,249 yards, 14 TDs
Leonard Fournette dealt with nagging injuries throughout the season. Guice took over in his place and made his presence known. Despite receiving double-digit carries just seven times in 11 games, Guice rushed for 1,249 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Now that Fournette is headed to the NFL, the offense will open up for Guice. When he received double-digit carries, Guice rushed for 165.3 yards per game. LSU coach Ed Orgeron promises to open the offense in 2017, and is even trying to add Lane Kiffin to the mix. Adding more carries and tempo opens the door for Guice’s numbers to skyrocket.
DE Arden Key, LSU
Stats: 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 10 QB hurries, 3 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles
It’s exceptionally difficult to win the Heisman as a defensive player (Michigan’s Charles Woodson was the last to do it in 1997), but Key has a shot. Even though he doesn’t play offense, like many of the top defensive candidates do, he’s electric enough of a playmaker that the voters could overlook it.
With Derek Barnett likely leaving for the NFL, Key is the SEC’s leading returning sack master. In addition, he’s able to contribute with the intense pressure he brings even against the run. LSU’s defense probably would need to overtake Alabama’s in national ranking for him to have a shot, but Key deserves consideration.