The most likely Heisman candidate for each AP Top 25 team thumbnail

The most likely Heisman candidate for each AP Top 25 team

12:05 PM ET

  • ESPN staff

The AP Top 25 college football poll is out. And there’s no surprise that Alabama, defending national champ and home of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, starts on top.

But who could follow DeVonta Smith in lifting the sport’s most iconic trophy? Let’s take a look at the most likely Heisman candidate for each team in the AP’s preseason rankings.

Of course, some of these names are certainly long shots. But, then again, no one was expecting Johnny Manziel, Lamar Jackson or even Smith to be serious contenders this time of year when they ended up taking home the Heisman.


1. Alabama Crimson Tide: QB Bryce Young

Typically first-year starters struggle to generate the kind of name recognition to begin the season as Heisman contenders, but that’s not the case with Tide quarterback Bryce Young. He’s become one of the faces of players profiting off their name, image and likeness, and with good reason. The former five-star recruit is a dynamic playmaker who is comfortable playing inside and outside the pocket. While it would have been nice to return a DeVonta Smith or a Jaylen Waddle, Young will have plenty to work with, whether it’s wideout John Metchie or tight end Jahleel Billingsley. — Alex Scarborough

2. Oklahoma Sooners: QB Spencer Rattler

Oklahoma quarterbacks are always a Heisman threat, and Spencer Rattler comes into his second year as a starter as the Heisman favorite according to Vegas odds. Last season, he overcame some early-season turnovers to pass for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns and led the country in touchdown passes of 25 yards or more. The Sooners gave him even more deep threats this season with the additions of Arkansas transfer Mike Woods, who averaged 19.3 yards per catch last year, and freshman Mario Williams. — Dave Wilson

3. Clemson Tigers: QB D.J. Uiagalelei

It’s a thin résumé for the new Clemson QB, D.J. Uiagalelei, who has just two starts in his career. But those two starts included a dramatic second-half comeback win over BC and a stellar performance in a loss at Notre Dame in which Uiagalelei threw for more yards than any opponent in history against the Fighting Irish. Now the offense belongs to Uiagalelei, and he’s surrounded by a deep receiving corps that should offer him plenty of opportunities to post some huge numbers. Despite impressive stat lines, Tajh Boyd, Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence all failed to land the Heisman hardware. Perhaps Uiagalelei can be the Clemson QB who finally breaks through. — David M. Hale

4. Ohio State Buckeyes: WR Chris Olave

Receiver Garrett Wilson is nipping at Chris Olave’s heels and probably could have been the choice, but the nod goes to Olave, who will be in his final season with the Buckeyes. Olave led the team in receiving yards last season with 729 and in receiving touchdowns with seven. The offense is going to break in a new quarterback, but Olave is as reliable as receivers come and should be one of the more productive players in the conference. — Tom VanHaaren

5. Georgia Bulldogs: QB JT Daniels

JT Daniels is going to be in a great position to win the Heisman if he’s able to keep Georgia’s offense rolling the way it did at the end of 2020 and it lives up to expectations and wins out. In four games last season, Daniels completed 67.2% of his passes for 1,231 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. If he is able to keep that kind of pace over a full season, he’s contending for the Heisman without any doubt. — Harry Lyles Jr.

6. Texas A&M Aggies: RB Isaiah Spiller

During last year’s 9-1 season, the Aggies leaned on a stellar offensive line, leading the SEC in yards per carry and time of possession. Even when opponents could get their hands on him, Isaiah Spiller was hard to bring down, running for 651 yards after contact on the season, seventh best nationally. He broke out with 27 carries for 174 yards and two touchdowns in a win over No. 4 Florida, one of his six 100-yard games. The Aggies are replacing four starters on this year’s O-line, but they like their options, and Spiller will be a key figure in the Aggies’ hopes of making a College Football Playoff run. — Wilson

7. Iowa State Cyclones: RB Breece Hall

Breece Hall finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting last season and certainly could make a jump in 2021 with Iowa State returning most of its most successful team ever from 2020. Hall ran for 1,572 yards on 279 attempts and 21 touchdowns. The only other running back to finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting was Najee Harris, so from a running back standpoint, you have to like his odds despite the Heisman still largely being a quarterback’s award in the modern game. — Lyles

8. Cincinnati Bearcats: QB Desmond Ridder

As the 2020 season progressed, Desmond Ridder kept getting better as Cincinnati advanced to the Peach Bowl undefeated, before losing to a Georgia team that had found its rhythm with J.T. Daniels. Ridder completed 66.2% of his passes for 2,296 yards, 19 touchdowns and six picks. The Bearcats have two big early nonconference road games at Indiana and Notre Dame, which could help Ridder make his case if he’s able to lead Cincinnati to wins with monster performances. — Lyles

9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: RB Kyren Williams

Charles Woodson was the only defensive player to win the Heisman, so it doesn’t seem realistic to list Kyle Hamilton. Kyren Williams had the ninth most rushing yards of any FBS running back last season with 1,125, and he also had 13 touchdowns. Notre Dame has a new quarterback in Jack Coan, who transferred from Wisconsin, so the Irish are going to need to rely on Williams to help Coan settle in. That could mean more opportunities and another season with big numbers. — VanHaaren

10. North Carolina Tar Heels: QB Sam Howell

You don’t need to go off the board to find a serious Heisman candidate at North Carolina, where junior Sam Howell has established himself as arguably the best QB in the country over the past two seasons. He helms an explosive offense — UNC averaged nearly 42 points per game last season — and as a sophomore, he showed he can be a threat with his legs (five rushing TDs) to go with one of the biggest arms in college football. Howell needs 40 passing touchdowns to set the ACC career mark, and that might be enough to get him his share of Heisman votes, too. — Hale

11. Oregon Ducks: DE Kayvon Thibodeaux

Kayvon Thibodeaux is not going to win the Heisman. It would take such a significant break from tradition to allow for that, even as a game-changing pass-rusher. He is, however, the type of player — former No. 1 overall recruit and potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick — who could wind up in New York as a finalist. If the Ducks make a run at the playoff, Thibodeaux will likely be the face of that push. — Kyle Bonagura

12. Wisconsin Badgers: RB Jalen Berger

Quarterback Graham Mertz started last season hot, but he was up-and-down throughout the rest of the season. Jalen Berger was a true freshman, but he ran for 316 yards and two touchdowns on 60 carries. He was splitting duties with Garrett Groshek, who had 67 carries, and Nakia Watson, who had 53 attempts. Groshek and Watson are both gone, and Berger has a chance to improve his numbers from last year and take over as the lead back. — VanHaaren

13. Florida Gators: QB Emory Jones

The Gators had two Heisman candidates last year in Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts, but both of them are gone. With such a young offense returning for this season, the most logical candidate would be quarterback Emory Jones, who has waited three years for this opportunity. He is a different quarterback than Trask because he is a true dual threat. But Jones, who has seen situational work mostly on quarterback runs, can do more than that. Coach Dan Mullen has repeatedly praised his arm strength. Mullen also recruited and signed Jones specifically for the offense he wants to run. Expect the Florida offense to look different and the potential for Jones to take off. — Andrea Adelson

14. Miami Hurricanes: QB D’Eriq King

Quarterback D’Eriq King is the easy choice here. When King decided to return for one more season, it would have been easy to put him on any preseason Heisman list. But a week later, he hurt his right knee in the bowl game against Oklahoma State. King has spent the last seven months aggressively rehabbing the injury and is poised to make his return in the opener against Alabama. By every indication, King is ready to have a huge year, building off what he did in Year 1 with the Hurricanes in 2020, when he threw for 2,686 yards, 23 touchdowns and five interceptions while adding 538 yards rushing and four touchdowns. — Adelson

15. USC Trojans: QB Kedon Slovis

Kedon Slovis checks all of the Heisman candidate boxes: quarterback, major brand, huge market, individual name recognition, pass-heavy offense. Winning is the most important variable for Slovis’ chances, and that will be impacted significantly by how he plays. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where USC wins the Pac-12 and Slovis isn’t, at minimum, a top-10 vote-getter. — Bonagura

16. LSU Tigers: DB Derek Stingley Jr.

Quarterback Max Johnson has promise. So does wide receiver Kayshon Boutte. But let’s think a little outside the box and consider Derek Stingley Jr. here. He’s been arguably the most talented cornerback in college football the past two years. And with Eli Ricks playing opposite him, opposing quarterbacks shouldn’t be able to simply stop throwing in his direction this season. But even if they do, Stingley has an ace up his sleeve in that he’s also a talented punt returner. What’s more, there’s been some talk that he would eventually play both ways at receiver, as he did in high school. While that hasn’t happened yet, doing so could launch Stingley into the stratosphere. — Scarborough

17. Indiana Hoosiers: QB Michael Penix Jr.

Indiana was one of the best stories in college football last season, and it was in part because of Michael Penix Jr.’s play. Before tearing his ACL, Penix threw for 1,645 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’ll likely have to get his completion percentage up from 2020 (56.4%) to contend, but if he’s able to stay healthy and Indiana repeats much of its success from last season, Penix can contend with his skills. — Lyles

18. Iowa Hawkeyes: RB Tyler Goodson

With Mekhi Sargent off to the NFL, Tyler Goodson is going to have every opportunity to shine at Iowa. He led the team in rushing yards last season with 762 yards and also had seven rushing touchdowns. He has center Tyler Linderbaum blocking for him, he has quarterback Spencer Petras back, and there’s every reason to believe Goodson should have an even better season in 2021 than he did in 2020. — VanHaaren

19. Penn State Nittany Lions: WR Jahan Dotson

Jahan Dotson has been a playmaker for Penn State at wide receiver and has come up big in times of need. He had 884 receiving yards last season with eight touchdowns in nine games. Dotson has a new offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich, who will bring an air attack to the Nittany Lions. The new offense should give Dotson even more opportunities to make dazzling plays and put up big numbers in his final season. — VanHaaren

20. Washington Huskies: OL Jaxson Kirkland

Let’s, for a moment, pretend an offensive lineman can win the Heisman Trophy, because it’s premature to put Huskies quarterback Dylan Morris in the conversation. If that were to change, he’ll likely have Jaxson Kirkland to thank. The mammoth left tackle is among the best at his position in college football and will likely be headed to the NFL after this season. — Bonagura

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Check out highlights from Texas RB Bijan Robinson as he looks to have a strong sophomore campaign with the Longhorns.

21. Texas Longhorns: RB Bijan Robinson

Bijan Robinson dazzled as a freshman, averaging a school-record 8.2 yards per carry … but to the dismay of Texas fans, he got just 86 carries. With Steve Sarkisian’s arrival, Robinson takes center stage. Sarkisian has made it clear that he expects his running back to be ready to carry the load this year, and Sarkisian’s success in finding ways to get the ball to his backs, including in the passing game, will make Robinson a factor in the Heisman race. He finished last season with 355 yards on just 19 carries in wins at Kansas State and in the Alamo Bowl win over Colorado, an average of 18.7 yards per carry. — Wilson

22. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers: QB Grayson McCall

It’s going to take many more games like the prime-time win over BYU last season to launch a Heisman campaign for upstart Coastal Carolina. But if anyone can do it, it’s quarterback Grayson McCall, who dazzled the college football world last season, winning Sun Belt Player of the Year and Sun Belt Freshman of the Year after throwing for 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions in 11 games. What’s more, he rushed for 569 yards and seven scores. If Coastal makes another New Year’s Six bid, maybe he can make a run at New York. — Scarborough

23. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns: QB Levi Lewis

If the Ragin’ Cajuns make a run at the College Football Playoff — and that’s not out of the question if they can beat Texas in the season opener — then don’t be surprised if quarterback Levi Lewis becomes the face of the program and a long shot Heisman contender. He’s the rare super senior who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility afforded to players due to COVID-19. He’s already third in program history in passing yards and second in passing touchdowns. But more than career numbers, he’s a dynamic player who can score just as easily with his feet as with his arm. — Scarborough

24. Utah Utes: QB Charlie Brewer

The Heisman Trophy has been, oddly enough, an award for transfer quarterbacks in recent years. So while Charlie Brewer hasn’t even beaten out Cameron Rising to win the starting job yet, he still feels like the best bet for Utah after arriving from Baylor, where he started for four years. Brewer needs just 300 yards passing to reach 10,000 for his college career. — Bonagura

25. Arizona State Sun Devils: QB Jayden Daniels

Last season was supposed to be a national coming-out party for quarterback Jayden Daniels. After starting as a true freshman in 2019, Daniels was positioned to lead the Sun Devils to a big season, only for COVID-19 to wreak havoc — even compared to the rest of the Pac-12 — on their season. This year, just about everyone is back, and assuming the NCAA investigation doesn’t hamper the team’s on-field performance, Daniels could become a nationally recognized name. — Bonagura