Imagine Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields delivering the Heisman Trophy-winning moment — a Lawrence TD pass against Notre Dame, or a spectacular play from Fields to beat rival Michigan — without a throng of fans there to roar. Or some of the top contenders for the award opting not to play for part or all of 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the college football season in all sorts of ways, and it already has wiped out most non-conference games at the Power Five level. It will make for a Heisman race unlike any before it, should a season take place, and if the Heisman Trophy Trust sets a voting deadline after conference title games as usual, the announcement will come a few weeks later than normal, due to rescheduling.
Lawrence and Fields carry the best two sets of Heisman credentials entering the season, and hopefully, judging them and the rest of the field of contenders won’t be made impossible by unbalanced variables stemming from coronavirus. With that, here are NFL.com’s top 10 candidates to win the 2020 Heisman Trophy.
10. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
Moore’s challenge in winning the Heisman is two-fold — like anyone else, the junior will have to stand out individually with prolific numbers and big plays in big moments. But beyond that, he’ll need to play a leading role in helping Purdue take a big step as a program. The Boilermakers have posted just two winning seasons in the last 12 years, and nothing will make Heisman voters ignore Moore faster than another pile of losses. He’ll face that challenge coming off a hamstring injury that limited him to four games last year. As a freshman in 2018, however, he established himself as one of the game’s most exciting talents as a receiver, returner and occasional rusher (FBS-high 114 catches, school-record 2,215 all-purpose yards). But his candidacy will have as much to do with the scoreboard as the stat sheet.
9. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
There wasn’t a better true freshman in college football last year than Howell, who ran away with the ACC Rookie of the Year award in garnering 49 of 60 votes. On the strength of a 38:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he notched upsets of rivals South Carolina and N.C. State, and he came within a couple points of upsetting then-No.1-ranked Clemson in a 21-20 loss. He’s a dark-horse candidate to be sure, a true sophomore on a team that finished 7-6 last year, needing a bowl win over Temple to crest the .500 mark. It also remains to be seen exactly how tough Howell’s road will be — the ACC has released an 11-game schedule model but hasn’t yet released the schedule itself. Howell already has lost a canceled game against Auburn, but Notre Dame is among its slate of opponents for the upcoming season.
8. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
The Trojans found their quarterback of the future last year in Slovis, who emerged to win Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year honors. Try this for impressive bookends: in his first career start, he lit up Stanford for 377 yards on 28-of-33 passing, and he closed the regular season with a 515-yard day against rival UCLA. With Justin Herbert and Jacob Eason now in the NFL, center stage in the Heisman’s West Coast voting region could be his. A previously scheduled Week 1 clash with Alabama is now a casualty of coronavirus, eliminating what would have been a golden chance to begin his candidacy. But he still has two high-profile opponents late in the season, with November dates against Washington and Oregon.
7. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Etienne’s candidacy faces two primary hurdles: the Heisman is usually a quarterback’s award, and it just might be his quarterback’s award. A quarterback has won the trophy in nine of the last 10 years. And it’s going to be awfully hard to pile up a winning vote count when the Heisman voters who see him most could be split between him and Tigers QB Trevor Lawrence. All that said, Etienne’s resume is an eye-opener: He’ll go for his third straight ACC Player of the Year Award, which has never been done, and enters the season already holding the league’s record for career rushing TDs (56). Explosively fast, he can break off six points from anywhere on the field and has averaged nearly 8 yards per carry for his career.
6. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Sharing receptions with two first-round picks in Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy kept Waddle’s production in check the last two years — and yes, 1,408 career receiving yards is in check, compared with what the Texas native is capable of producing. Even with another top pro prospect in DeVonta Smith still in Tuscaloosa, there is every reason to believe Waddle will explode for his best season in 2020. He combines Ruggs-level speed with much of the open-field shiftiness that made Jeudy so effective. What’s more, he’s college football’s most electrifying punt returner, having led the nation last year with a 24.4-yard average — nearly 4 yards better than No. 2-ranked Jalen Reagor of TCU, a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles this year. He’ll need to dominate in that area again, just as past Heisman winners at the position have (Tim Brown, Desmond Howard).
5. Tanner Morgan, QB, Minnesota
Morgan is the toast of the Minnesota campus, having just led the Golden Gophers to their first season with more than 10 wins since 1904. Everything sets up for another big year for the fourth-year junior: he’ll be protected by a massive offensive line that returns all five starters and averages 340 pounds a man; plus, he has a fabulous receiver in Rashod Bateman. Following a 3,253-yard, 30-TD season, he’ll bring veteran experience with support from a solid rushing attack to the offense. Only one Minnesota player has ever won the Heisman — halfback Bruce Smith in 1941.
4. Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State
Hubbard is one of the fastest players in the college game, having clocked a 100-meter-dash time of 10.60 seconds. He ran rampant over Big 12 defenses last year, leading the FBS in rushing (2,094 yards). He was a big-play threat from any spot on the field, and the way Oklahoma State spreads the field helps him find plenty of open space. Not surprisingly, he recorded 15 rushes of 30-plus yards, also most in the FBS. The biggest stages on Hubbard’s schedule include a road game at Oklahoma and a home game against Texas. He’ll need to shine in both to stay in contention. Still, if there’s a running back who can pry the Heisman out of a quarterback’s hands, Hubbard is the best bet right now.
3. Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas
Ehlinger lost an early chance to gain a foothold in the Heisman conversation when the Longhorns’ visit to face defending national champion LSU on Sept. 12 was canceled. Nevertheless, Ehlinger is a prolific dual-threat talent, amassing 4,326 yards of total offense in 2019 for the second-highest total in school history. He plays with a fearless –bordering on reckless, in fact — style, at once a headache to defenses and endearing to fans. A key hurdle to overcome, however, is that he lost his top two receivers from 2019 to the NFL draft (Collin Johnson, Devin Duvernay).
2. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
In his first year as a starter, on a new team, the former Georgia backup lit up the Big Ten in leading the Buckeyes to a College Football Playoff berth. He brings a dynamic skill set with a big-play arm — Fields averaged a robust 9.25 yards per attempt, ranking seventh among all FBS passers — and a rugged running style befitting a player of his size (6-3, 228, per school measurements). Playing for one of the game’s highest-profile programs won’t hurt his Heisman chances, either — OSU is going for its fourth straight Big Ten title and figures to contend for the CFP once again with Fields at the wheel. One of the few things that separate Fields and Trevor Lawrence as Heisman contenders is that Fields faces a tougher league in the Big Ten, which could sway voters. He’s also the only 2019 Heisman finalist returning to the college game — Fields finished third in the voting, behind 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow and second-rounder Jalen Hurts.
1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Lawrence is the biggest star in the college game. Combine his outrageously talented arm with a 25-1 record as a Clemson starter (3-1 in the College Football Playoff with a 2018 national title), and you have the makings of front-runner Heisman status to enter the season. At 6-foot-6, he sees the field easily from the pocket but is a dangerous passer on the run, as well. He’ll have to navigate an inexperienced receiving corps that will be missing one of college football’s elite players at the position in Justyn Ross, who is out for the season after undergoing spinal surgery. Lawrence threw for 3,665 yards and 36 touchdowns last season, with no interceptions over his last eight starts. And he began stretching his rushing legs like never before in the CFP with 156 yards on 26 carries over two games. Lawrence finished seventh in the Heisman voting last year.
Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.
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