10 players that could win the Heisman Trophy

Pat Forde
College football and basketball columnist

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (antidepressants sold separately in Cincinnati, where the Bearcats have lost eight straight American Athletic Conference games and 12 straight to teams not named East Carolina):

More Forde-Yard Dash: CFP rankings primer | Spoiler alert | Butch Jones/Tennessee

FIRST LOOK AT THE HEISMAN RACE

There is no reason for in-depth Heisman Trophy discussion in September or October. Some preseason speculation is fine, but the weekly conjecture is empty calories for the 24/7 news cycle. Nothing to take seriously.

Better to let two-thirds of the season play out, then sort out of the contenders (below) from the early pretenders (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, et. al.). And upon close inspection heading into November, this has shifted from a predicted Year of the Quarterback Heisman race to one rife with quality running backs.

The Dash offers a list of 10 candidates, four of which are running backs, five quarterbacks – and one versatile linebacker. First, the running backs:

Saquon Barkley (21), Penn State. The selling point: Leads the nation in all-purpose yardage at 206 per game, and routinely produces dazzling plays. He’s scored twice on game-opening kickoffs (Indiana and Ohio State), nine times running from scrimmage, three times as a receiver, and also threw a touchdown pass against the Hoosiers. He is a highlight waiting to happen on a high-profile team that is in the College Football Playoff mix, which means he checks all the marketability boxes. The downside: Barkley has been a less-than-effective runner between the tackles most of the year. While much of that is attributable to a weak offensive line, Barkley also is prone to circling back and losing more yardage than if he plows straight ahead. He had eight negative-yardage plays in the second half alone Saturday against Ohio State, and he ranks just 26th nationally in rushing yards per game at 100.1.

Bryce Love (22), Stanford.  The selling point: Leads the nation in rushing yards per game at 198.1, which is 35 more than second place. If Love can maintain that pace (not easy), it would be the highest per-game average in 21 years and the fifth-highest in FBS history. He leads the nation in runs of 20 yards or more (22), 30 yards or more (18), 40 yards or more (11) and 50 yards or more (nine) – so it makes sense that his 10.27 yards per carry easily leads the nation among any rushers with 70 or more attempts. He stands an excellent chance of breaking the NCAA season record for yards per carry. The downside: He’s been hard to see, due to late kickoff times and an ankle injury that kept him out last week against Oregon State. (Stanford’s dreadful offensive showing without him in that game actually should underscore his importance to the team.)

Stanford running back Bryce Love, right, celebrates his rushing touchdown with teammate K.J. Costello during its win over Arizona State. (AP)

Josh Adams (23), Notre Dame. The selling point: Sixth nationally in rushing yards per game (146.1) and second in yards per carry (8.9) among backs with 70 or more attempts. And that’s against quality competition (Notre Dame has played two of the top six rushing defenses in the country and three of the top 20). Against ranked teams the past two weeks, Adams has pounded out 393 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Only The Dash saw him coming in August as a Heisman contender, but everyone sees it now. The downside: In terms of production, it’s hard to beat Love. In terms of flash and versatility, it’s hard to beat Barkley.

Jonathan Taylor (24), Wisconsin. The selling point: He’s fifth in the country in rushing, just ahead of Adams. He tied the NCAA record for fastest freshman back to 1,000 rushing yards, reaching that mark in his seventh game. Among those Taylor now shares the record with: Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson. Decent company. Taylor quickly became the key cog in the offense of an undefeated team that stands a good chance of finishing the regular season 12-0. The downside: Taylor left Wisconsin’s win over Illinois with a leg injury and is listed as questionable for this week against Indiana. The Badgers haven’t yet faced much this season in terms of competition, both overall and in terms of rushing defense.

Now, the quarterbacks:

J.T. Barrett (25), Ohio State. The selling point: America’s hottest candidate, coming off that brilliant clutch performance against Penn State. Barrett vaulted to third nationally in pass efficiency after that game, and his 25-to-1 touchdown-interception ratio is the best in the land. And don’t forget about his running ability: 454 yards and five touchdowns this year. With some big games to go and leading a high-profile contender, he’s in a great spot. The downside: Three of the Big Ten’s five best pass-efficiency defenses remain on the Ohio State schedule. Will Barrett’s production drop off against quality defenses, with the possibility of bad weather and Urban Meyer’s tendency to go conservative in close games?

Baker Mayfield (26), Oklahoma. The selling point: He’s a close second nationally in pass efficiency (195.6), completion percentage (72.5) and yards per attempt. (11.1) Mayfield significantly outdueled Barrett head-to-head on the road in September, and his season efficiency rating is 21 points higher on third down (155). He’s had an extraordinary 18 consecutive games with an efficiency rating of 167 or higher, indicating his consistency. Mayfield has been a Heisman finalist twice, and there might be some sympathy out there for him to win it on his third and final try. The downside: Defenses are catching up with the offenses in the Big 12, but Mayfield may still be fighting perception that he’s playing in a touch-football league. He still hasn’t faced the two best pass defenses in the Big 12.

Mason Rudolph (27), Oklahoma State. The selling point: Leads the nation in passing yards per game (358) and most completions of 30-plus (25) and 40-plus (16) yards. He leads a league stacked with good quarterbacks in total offense per game (366) – and if you thought Mayfield’s third-down efficiency was good, check out Rudolph’s rating of 172. (Their showdown Saturday will be huge on many fronts, Heisman included.) Rudolph is 29-7 as the Oklahoma State starter, a winning percentage of .806; Mike Gundy has won 64.1 percent of his games at the school with someone other than Rudolph as his starting QB. The downside: Doesn’t quite have the accuracy or efficiency rating of either Barrett or Mayfield, and lacks the program profile. Last two games have been his lowest efficiency performances of the year.

Khalil Tate (28), Arizona. The selling point: Has taken the West Coast by storm in the last month since being elevated to the starter. Dazzling athlete has run for 840 yards in the last four games, on just 59 carries, and set an NCAA quarterback rushing record against Colorado with 327 yards. He’s also thrown for six touchdowns and has yet to have a single-game efficiency rating of lower than 190 as the starter. Perhaps most notably, he’s dramatically affected the bottom line: Arizona has gone from 2-2 to 6-2 with Tate starting. The downside: It’s hard to win the Heisman after barely playing the first four games. Also: how many people are paying attention? The Wildcats quickly played themselves off-radar with that 2-2 start, and have played just one ranked opponent in then-No. 25 Washington State.

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate (14) stiff-arms Washington State safety Jalen Thompson (34) in the first half during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Lamar Jackson (29), Louisville. The selling point: The largely dismissed 2016 Heisman winner is putting up bigger numbers in 2017 – Jackson leads the nation in total offense (426 yards per game, up from 393 last year). His passing yards per game are up from 273 to 312; and his accuracy has risen from 56 percent to 60. The downside: Largely due to a lousy defense, Louisville is just 5-4 on the season and has played its way well off the national radar.

Now, the world’s only linebacker-quarterback:

Joel Lanning (30), Iowa State. The selling point: He’s an indispensable part of one of the biggest turnaround stories in recent memory, as the Cyclones have gone from 3-9 to 6-2 and tied for the Big 12 lead. Middle linebacker Lanning is sixth nationally in tackles per game at 10.9, and has six tackles for loss, 2 ½ sacks, one interception, two broken up passes and two quarterback hurries. Then there’s his work at his old position of quarterback, where he’s run the ball 23 times, primarily in short yardage, and thrown three passes (completing two). There is no comparable two-way player in the college game. The downside: Linebackers don’t win the Heisman. Neither to players from Iowa State.

Notably lacking from a 10-man list: Anyone from the SEC. The best player in the league might well be Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, but his full impact is difficult to quantify. Georgia is doing everything by committee. Everyone else blends into the scenery.