In six short months, the stretch run of college football begins, with the final two weeks of the regular season sure to shape the playoff pairings and races for major awards. All this week, we're looking forward to late 2016, when the Power 5 conferences jockey for postseason position.
On Tuesday, we answered the question of which teams were overrated College Football Playoff contenders. Today, we'll examine the sleeper Heisman Trophy candidates from each conference.
ACC: Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
Jackson is already in elite company as one of only three quarterbacks to both throw and rush for 200 yards in a bowl game. The other two flanking Louisville's sophomore quarterback: 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Vince Young, the 2005 runner-up. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino has finally settled on the dual-threat star, and Jackson could reward Petrino's trust by becoming the midseason Heisman favorite in 2016. Louisville hosts Florida State on Sept. 17 and travels to Clemson two weeks later; both opponents should be ranked in the preseason top five. Jackson can then feast on a soft five-game stretch in the middle of the season, building his numbers before making a final case at Houston on Nov. 17. Jackson and the Cardinals will have a chance to knock off three preseason playoff contenders and quite possibly a fourth in the ACC championship game. — Jared Shanker
Big 12: Baylor QB Seth Russell
Russell doesn't even enter the summer as Baylor's unquestioned No. 1 quarterback, yet it's not unthinkable for the Bears' trigger man to enter November as a Heisman contender. Last season, Russell was well on his way to Big 12 offensive player of the year contention and Heisman candidacy with 2,104 passing yards, 29 touchdowns and just six interceptions before a neck injury against Iowa State ended his season after seven games. Russell didn't go through a full spring as he returns from the injury, making him far from a cinch to run Baylor's offense in 2016. Yet if Russell returns to his pre-injury form and holds off rising sophomore Jarrett Stidham for the starting spot, he could put up numbers that look right in line with Heisman contenders of the past. — Brandon Chatmon
Big Ten: Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
With the exception of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, no player in the Big Ten is on the radar in early Heisman handicapping. Barkley could vault into the conversation with a big September. He's primed for a huge sophomore season as the Nittany Lions attempt to ease the transition for a new quarterback. Barkley emerged in a big way in 2015, shattering the Penn State freshman rushing record with 1,076 yards. He broke off runs of 56 yards against Michigan and Ohio State and led the Big Ten, ranking 11th nationally, with 16 runs of 20 yards or longer. At 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, he's built to endure punishment. And who doesn't appreciate a physical back in the Penn State white and blue? The opportunity for statement performances arrive early at rival Pitt and in the league opener at Michigan. — Mitch Sherman
Pac-12: UCLA QB Josh Rosen
Rosen, who went from touted super-recruit to true freshman starter last fall, is already being projected as the top overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. That sort of seems silly, unless you've seen Rosen throw the ball. He was solid to good in his first year of college, launching more than a few throws that inspired gasps of appreciation even from fans of the opponent. If he shows significant improvement, he could challenge Clemson's Deshaun Watson as the best quarterback in the country, which would make Rosen a default Heisman candidate. The biggest question for Rosen, in fact, isn't his ability or the new, pro-style offense that has been installed to take advantage of his skills. It's the Bruins' void at receiver, as they lose most of their top performers from 2015. Rosen's Heisman run is more likely to happen in 2017, but the fact we're typing that suggests he should be on the radar this fall.— Ted Miller
SEC: Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd
He's not the most talked-about player in his conference, his position or even on his own team. Some early Heisman odds have him trailing Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb and Bo Scarbrough among SEC running backs, and Scarbrough has never started a game. Even Hurd's teammate, quarterback Joshua Dobbs, steals his thunder. Making matters worse, fellow Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara steals his carries. But forget that! Hurd is a beast. Have you seen the video of him running 23.1 mph on a treadmill? Ridiculous. The 6-4, 240-pound junior is an athletic marvel with the ability to run with power and speed, as well as catch the football. Think of him as the SEC's version Christian McCaffrey. With 2,187 rushing yards and 21 career touchdowns, Hurd should be a household name by now. If Tennessee competes for a spot in the playoff, as many expect, he will be before long. — Alex Scarborough