College football is just around the corner -- we’re less than 11 weeks away from the Gophers’ season opener against New Mexico State on Aug. 30. So, with that in mind, I’ll be examining some story lines, players and trends to watch over the next few weeks. Here’s today’s installment:
A way-too-early look at Heisman Trophy hopefuls
Sure, the snaps that count won’t begin until late August and recent Heisman winners have come out of nowhere – Lamar Jackson in 2016, Johnny Manziel in 2012, Cam Newton in 2010 – but here are some players who could be candidates as the season plays out.
Bryce Love, Stanford: He’s the nation’s leading returning rusher (2,118 yards, 19 touchdowns and an 8.05-yard average per carry in 2017), and the Cardinal should be in contention to win the Pac-12 North. Stanford running backs have been Heisman runners-up recently -- Christian McCaffrey in 2015, Toby Gerhart in 2009 – and Love could break through to win the stiff-armed statue.
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin: After rushing for 1,977 yards and 13 TDs as a freshman last year, Taylor has a chance to build on that. The Badgers return what might be the best offensive line in the country, so Taylor will have plenty of holes through which to run. Wisconsin is deep and talented enough to be in the College Football Playoff hunt, and that will only showcase Taylor.
AJ Dillon, Boston College: As a freshman last year, Dillon rushed for 1,589 yards and 14 TDs. The Eagles fed him the ball 300 times in 2017, which ranked third nationally, so expect more of the same this fall.
J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State: Dobbins was highly effective as a freshman, with 1,403 yards on only 194 carries. His workload should increase, and the Buckeyes are the favorites to win the Big Ten.
Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic: Chances of a Conference USA player winning the Heisman are slim, but Singletary might deserve at least a look if he can match his sophomore stats of 1,920 yards and a nation’s-best 32 TDs.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: With All-Everything running back Saquon Barkley off to the NFL, the keys to Penn State’s offense belong to McSorley. The dual-threat QB amassed 4,061 yards of total offense (3,570 passing, 491 rushing) and accounted for 39 TDs (28 passing, 11 rushing). He completed 66.5 percent of his passes last year but is prone to gambling, as his 10 interceptions show.
Jake Browning, Washington: Browning showed his potential in 2016 when he passed for 3,430 yards 43 TDs while leading the Huskies to the national semifinals. Though his 2017 stats fell off – 2,719 yards, 19 TDs – he’s entering his fourth year as a starter and should have Washington in the Pac-12 title race.
Will Grier, West Virginia: The Mountaineers are known for their offense, but not so much for their defense. That means Grier will be passing often and putting up big stats. In 11 games last year, the Florida transfer passed for 3,490 yards and 34 TDs. He could be a Heisman factor, especially if he excels in the final four games – at Texas, vs. TCU, at Oklahoma State, vs. Oklahoma.
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama: As a freshman last year, Tagovailoa rescued the Crimson Tide in the national championship game by passing for three touchdowns, including the winner in overtime against Georgia, after replacing an ineffective Jalen Hurts after halftime. If Tagovailoa wins the starting job over Hurts, who also has a national title win to his credit, he’ll have the reins of a perennial championship contender. That’s a boost in any Heisman candidacy.
Khalil Tate, Arizona: Tate does much of his damage with his legs, rushing for 1,411 yards and 12 TDs last year. He also passed for 1,591 yards and 14 TDs but will have to develop more as a passer to be in the hunt.
An argument for the defense
Ed Oliver, DT, Houston: The mobile, 6-3, 290-pounder announced after his sophomore season that he’s declaring early for the 2019 NFL draft. The reigning Outland Trophy winner has one more college season to dominate, after amassing 138 tackles, 38.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in his first two years. He might be the best college lineman since Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh.