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Who are the 2020 Heisman contenders?

Including dark horses to watch.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The college football season isn’t going to happen, but if it does (it won’t), there’s a Heisman race to be had. It’s impossible to predict the Heisman race, but it can be easy to catch on to trends or narratives just as they’re rising. Players come out of nowhere to win the Heisman, but if I (an idiot) can write a Heisman race piece called “The Year of Joe Burrow” just four games into his Heisman run, you too can spot those trends.

Winning the Heisman requires a number of things going right, namely (1) leading a team to national title contention, (2) having huge games to shape your narrative, (3) head into voting season with upward momentum, and (4) put up ridiculous numbers. There are exceptions to those rules — just look at Lamar Jackson carrying a mediocre Louisville team — but we can use that guide to look at the Heisman field.

(Big Ten and Pac-12 contenders are disqualified at this time, because there’s no set time for their seasons to resume, if at all. Justin Fields would have been the heavy favorite otherwise.)

Dark Horse Contenders

Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

If there’s a Johnny Manziel-type breakout of a charismatic player who leads his upstart team to a slew of high-scoring wins, it’s Sam Howell of North Carolina. He’s a great talent, puts up numbers (3,641 yards and 38 TDs last season) and he plays for a team poised for a breakout. Howell also plays in the ACC Coastal, probably the worst division in major college football, so there’s a chance he goes undefeated against a pitiful schedule. On the flip side, there aren’t many “Heisman moment” type games, unless he goes undefeated and upsets Clemson in the ACC Championship.

Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State

In order for a running back to win the Heisman, they have be a damn monster, carry their team towards title contention, and the contending QBs have to flop. That could all happen for Hubbard, particularly the final piece of that, as Trevor Lawrence is the only proven QB in this race and he’s slumped before.

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

Following the same steps as Hubbard, Etienne would need to carry Clemson with Lawrence scuffling.

Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia

Jamie Newman is a very good quarterback who will be playing in a conservative offense on a defense-first team. Even if Newman is technically perfect — no mistakes, occasional big play, clutch game management — he will be held back by a run-first offense. Newman would have to follow the Troy Smith Heisman model: go undefeated, play perfect conservative football, and everyone other contender disappoints.

Sam Ehrlinger, QB, Texas

It’s so easy to chalk this up to Texas hype. Ehrlinger is a really good player, super tough and has a great feel for the game, but man, he should not be a top--five pre-season contender. There will be big games, lots of voters watching his every game, and all sorts of hype for his “Heisman moment” performances, but that’s a lot to invest in team that went 9-5 last season and lost their two best receivers.

[Insert Defensive Megastar]

If Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2009, no defender will ever again win the Heisman. Players like Derek Stingley and Patrick Surtain are fun to root for, but it’s not happening unless they’re special teams savants.

The Favorites

D’Eriq King, QB, Miami (FL)

My pre-season pick to win the 2019 Heisman (I was being audacious), D’Eriq King disappointed and disappeared from an injury-plagued Houston Cougars team. He has since transferred to Miami and looks to carry them into contention. Unlike Howell, King’s ACC Coastal schedule is fairly tough, as they have away games at Clemson, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. A Heisman run could happen with a couple road upsets, but Miami is an erratic team that might struggle on offense even with King at the helm.

Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

The talk around Rattler is simple: Oklahoma takes talented quarterbacks, puts them in the best possible environment and turns them into Heisman contenders. The issue, however, is that at some point greatness is expected, not rewarded. I thought that would happen last year, when Jalen Hurts went through all sorts of highs and lows, but he still finished second place in the voting. That fatigue could hurt Rattler, who needs to outperform Hurts, be as efficient as Kyler Murray, and probably win as many games as Baker Mayfield, all as a freshman.

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

Lawrence has to be the heavy favorite, if only because this apparent two-horse race is now missing Justin Fields. Lawrence is just so much better than any other quarterback playing, his team is a ready-made national contender, and this could be something of a career award in his final season. Much was made about his struggles at the beginning of 2019, but once he got out of his slump, he was as good as anyone not named Joe Burrow. If he’s just steady all season — nothing spectacular, just good QB play and lots of wins — I still think it’s his award to lose.