Ralph D. Russo
AP College Football Writer
NEW YORK — Even before the Heisman Trophy is handed out Saturday night, it is tempting to look ahead to 2016 and what could be a doozy of a race for college football’s most famous bronze statue.
While Alabama’s Derrick Henry is likely to both win the Heisman and head to the NFL after the Crimson Tide’s playoff run, the other two finalists, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Stanford scat back Christian McCaffrey, are sophomores who will return.
Add Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and LSU’s Leonard Fournette and there is a strong chance five of the top eight Heisman vote-getters from this year will be back in 2016.
“It’s a monster class,” said Chris Huston, a Heisman historian and editor-in-chief of Heisman.com.
Henry, Watson and McCaffrey arrived Friday in New York from Atlanta, where they attended the ESPN awards show at the College Football Hall of Fame. They were greeted in the Big Apple by a traffic jam that turned a 7-mile trip from LaGuardia Airport to the Times Square into a 2-hour journey. The delay cost them lunch at an Italian restaurant, but otherwise all was well.
“I’m just enjoying the moment and happy to be here,” Henry said.
Being a finalist is a once-in-lifetime event for most players, often the culmination of a great career. For Watson and McCaffrey, maybe this is just a test run.
“Of course, next year I want to be back. And if I happen to stay my senior year I want to be back then,” Watson said.
Only twice (2008 and ‘10) in the previous 10 seasons have at least two of the top three finishers in the Heisman voting returned to school the next year. Only twice in the last 10 seasons (2012 and ‘06) have five of the top eight returned the next season.
The contenders in 2016 aren’t confined to just those players whose names will show up in the final voting Saturday night.
Georgia’s Nick Chubb, one of the preseason favorites this year, will return from an injury, as well as Washington State’s Luke Falk and Baylor’s Seth Russell. Though maybe Jarrett Stidham will be the Baylor quarterback with the Heisman hype?
Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett should be the Buckeyes starting quarterback from Day 1 and there is a good chance people will start noticing that Oregon’s Royce Freeman is as good as all those stud running backs down South.
Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. will be trying to build upon breakout seasons.
UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley are primed for fantastic follow-ups to their fabulous freshman seasons.
The Heisman race should have a very different feel from this season, when none of last year’s finalists were back.
“The race was kind of a slow burn,” Huston said.
TCU’s Trevone Boykin was the presumptive favorite after finishing fourth in the 2014 voting, but that back-loaded Big 12 schedule didn’t do him any favors. Then he threw four interceptions in his first really big game, a loss to Oklahoma State on Nov. 7.
Fournette was rolling along as the favorite heading into that Saturday, but the race flipped in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Tide stuffed Fournette and Henry ran for 210 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries, assuming the role of front-runner.
McCaffrey, Watson and Mayfield made late pushes, but Henry just kept chugging along. Conventional wisdom is the voting for the 80th Heisman will be relatively close, but Henry is the odds-makers’ choice to become the second Alabama player to win the Heisman and the first running back to win it since the Tide’s Mark Ingram in 2009.
Seniors have won 56 Heisman trophies, but this will be the ninth consecutive season with a non-senior winner — the last was Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006 — and everything is lined up for 2016 to be more of the same.
Top players are arriving on campus more prepared to play than ever before, with an eye toward jumping to the NFL after three years. For college coaches, there is no sense trying to save that talent.
“If you’re in a program like Texas, for example, and you’re going to have NFL players, I don’t think you can redshirt them anymore,” said former Longhorns coach Mack Brown, who is now an analyst for ESPN. “You just got to play them. You’re not going to get more than three years out of a great player, most likely.”
Like Watson and McCaffrey, Cook, Fournette, Chubb, Freeman and Barrett will be juniors next season.
“Now I know what it takes,” McCaffrey said about becoming a finalist, “following with anything less than that is unacceptable for me.”