NCAAF
September 21, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

7 Dark Horse Heisman Candidates in 2020

There’s something about the Heisman Trophy that makes it virtually impossible to predict. There have been so many years when the favorite before the season has completely fallen off the map. Just look at Leonard Fournette in 2016. He was the runaway favorite before the season, only to be limited to seven games because of injury.

Meanwhile, Joe Burrow was nowhere near the favorite ahead of the 2019 season with odds as low as +15000 before the season started. Things could get even more wide open in the 2020 Heisman race due to the coronavirus pandemic. If you’re looking for the next Burrow to come out of nowhere and win the Heisman, here are some under-the-radar Heisman candidates you should know about.

Kyle Trask, Florida

If there’s one quarterback who might be able to come out of nowhere the way Burrow did last year, it could be Trask. He was pressed into duty in the middle of 2019 because of an injury and handled himself well under difficult circumstances. Over his 10 starts, Trask tossed 24 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions. More importantly, Trask completed 67% of his passes and showed incredible poise and maturity. If he can build off that performance, the Gators quarterback has a chance to have a special season and make Florida a College Football Playoff contender.

Like a lot of Heisman candidates, his hopes are tied to his team’s success. If the Gators win the SEC East and have a shot at the CFP, Trask will be a big reason why and will become a Heisman contender in the process.

Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

If you’re looking for a running back who can gain Heisman attention thanks to crazy numbers, look no further than Hubbard. It’s almost unfair that he didn’t receive more votes last season when he rushed for over 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. Even good Big 12 defenses couldn’t stop him, as Hubbard had four games with over 200 yards, including 296 rushing yards against a solid Kansas State defense.

Assuming he stays healthy, there’s a strong chance that Hubbard can reach the 2,000-yard mark again in 2020. If he does that and Oklahoma State can put together a strong season, there’s no reason why Hubbard shouldn’t garner serious Heisman consideration at the end of the campaign.

Travis Etienne, Clemson

If Trevor Lawrence wasn’t his teammate, Etienne would be getting a lot more Heisman hype this year. He’s been one of the best running backs in the country in each of the past two seasons, gaining over 1,600 yards on the ground in back-to-back seasons. Last year, Etienne added another element to his game by catching 37 passes for over 400 yards.

If Clemson ends up winning another ACC title and returning to the CFP, it’ll be hard not to view Lawrence as the Heisman frontrunner. But don’t sleep on Etienne as a Heisman hopeful and a big reason for Clemson’s success. If he’s able to surpass 2,000 all-purpose yards for a second straight season, he’ll be equally deserving of Heisman attention as Lawrence.

Brock Purdy, Iowa State

If you haven’t seen Purdy during his first two seasons at Iowa State, you’ve been missing out. He’s one of the most exciting and overlooked dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. He burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2018, averaging over 10 yards per pass while throwing for 16 touchdowns and rushing for five more.

Purdy wasn’t quite as explosive as a sophomore in 2019, although he was more consistent. Between his arm and his legs, he tallied 35 touchdowns. He was also just a little short of the 4,000-yard plateau as a passer. Of course, the key to his Heisman candidacy is Iowa State’s success, and getting upset in their season-opener sure won't help. If the Cyclones can bounce back, they're a serious dark horse in the Big 12 this year, and if they make a run for the conference title, Purdy is bound to be a big reason why.

If Iowa State is relevant in November, Purdy should find himself in the Heisman conversation.

Sam Howell, North Carolina

North Carolina has never had a Heisman winner, but Howell might give them a fighting chance. As a true freshman, he was the biggest reason the Tar Heels were able to turn things around so quickly and get to a bowl game last season. After tossing 38 touchdown passes in 2019, Howell is expected to take things to another level in 2020. There’s no doubt that he’s talented, and the supporting cast around him puts him in a great position to put up impressive numbers.

The caveat, of course, is that the Tar Heels need to live up to their preseason ranking and become a serious player in the ACC title race. But if that happens, Howell will work his way into the Heisman conversation.

Najee Harris, Alabama

Derrick Henry was the last non-quarterback to win the Heisman, so Alabama’s current running back can’t be overlooked. Harris has improved every season in Tuscaloosa, gaining over 1,200 rushing yards in 2019. In fact, he had some of his best games late in the year against quality teams, rushing for at least 136 yards against LSU, Auburn and Michigan. In addition to his 13 rushing touchdowns, Harris also added 27 catches for over 300 yards, including seven scores.

With a new starting quarterback, the Crimson Tide will lean on Harris, giving him plenty of opportunities to touch the ball. If Alabama continues to dominate the SEC, Harris pushes for 1,500 rushing yards and continues to be a threat in the passing game, don’t count him out of the Heisman race.

Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

Mond is the prototypal Heisman dark horse candidate. He’s been good but not great as the Texas A&M starter over the past two seasons, racking up 6,000 passing yards and 44 touchdown passes during that span. If everything comes together for him as a senior, Mond is talented enough to put up Heisman-caliber numbers. Keep in mind that he has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns over the past two seasons, so his running stats will also help him to stand out.

As usual, the Aggies are a sleeper in the SEC West. If Mond can lead Texas A&M to a few big wins and make them contenders for the SEC title and a spot in the CFP, he will catapult himself into the Heisman race. 

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