Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields were in the same high school class coming out of the same state, Georgia. While Lawrence was an immediate star, Fields didn’t blossom until transferring after his freshman season. They met in the Fiesta Bowl, with Lawrence leading Clemson to a win in the national semifinals.
Come the start of the 2020 season, the Tigers and Buckeyes will be at or near the top of every preseason poll. Just as the two teams stand poised to battle for the national championship, Lawrence and Fields will enter next season as the overwhelming co-favorites for the Heisman Trophy.
Now that the deadline has come for players to declare for the NFL draft, let’s revisit the crop of returning standouts to take the early temperature of the 2020 Heisman race. Lawrence and Fields lead.
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One running back expected to throw his hat into the ring for the NFL, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, instead opted to return for his redshirt junior season. Over with the Cowboys’ in-state rival, Spencer Rattler is ready to be the latest Oklahoma quarterback to be a Heisman factor after redshirting this season behind Jalen Hurts.
Here’s how things shake out as we get ready for the long offseason:
QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
In a way, that Lawrence struggled in Clemson’s loss to LSU may help him avoid the inevitable backlash that often comes with being anointed the top prospect in a given draft class. It might also spark a monster junior season: Lawrence will almost certainly be motivated to make up for his first career loss.
QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
The preseason Heisman field will have Lawrence and Fields — or Fields and Lawrence, depending on how you feel — and then a wide gap of space. Look for Fields to be even better as a second-year starter with the Buckeyes in 2020, though he’ll have less help in the backfield with running back J.K. Dobbins headed to the NFL along with several key receivers departed.
RB Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Hubbard’s decision to come back in 2020 is surprising on its face, given the recent trend for productive backs to leap to the NFL in the first shot at draft eligibility. Then again, this year’s class is loaded at the position, with Dobbins, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Clemson’s Travis Etienne and others topping the rankings, so returning for his junior campaign might only help Hubbard’s draft stock.
QB Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
There’s nothing to go on in terms of experience, even if Rattler did replace Hurts in the fourth quarter of the Sooners’ blowout loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl. This is more about his potential, which has been obvious for years, and coach Lincoln Riley’s recent track record of development at the position. Expect Oklahoma’s offense to regain the throwing success it had under Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
LB Micah Parsons, Penn State
The next great Penn State linebacker, Parsons will enter his junior season as the preseason favorite for most major defensive awards after a dominant showing in the Nittany Lions’ win against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl. His freakish athletic gifts should help Parsons put together the sort of highlight reel a defender needs to factor into the Heisman race.
QB Kedon Slovis, Southern California
Slovis threw for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns as a freshman despite not playing in most or all of three games, which speaks to his overlooked ability as a recruit and the friendliness of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s scheme. Like most second-year starters, Slovis will take another step forward in 2020. He needs his team to do the same, however.
QB Sam Ehlinger, Texas
There’s power in being the starting quarterback at Texas, but only if Texas shakes off last year’s mediocrity to make a run at the Big 12 championship and New Year’s Six. If not, Ehlinger will put up solid numbers for a team that falls short of expectations while fourth-year coach Tom Herman’s job security dominates headlines.
CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
Clemson tested Stingley just six times through the air during the national championship. The Tigers knew what Stingley was capable of as a freshman. As he heads into his second season, Stingley is a known commodity as a defender and might begin to dabble in things on the offensive side of the ball, giving him some more highlight moments for voters.
QB Sam Howell, North Carolina
After the most productive season by a freshman passer in Bowl Subdivision history, Howell returns as the face of a team aiming to vault into the Top 25. Even if Clemson rules the ACC, the Tar Heels could make noise as the best team in the Coastal Division and the Tigers’ biggest threat. Howell will assume the mantle of college football’s best quarterback as soon as 2021.
RB Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
While he would’ve been the Tigers’ biggest star had quarterback Brady White not come back in 2020, White’s return will ensure the sort of balance on offense that helped Gainwell account for 2,069 yards of total offense during a terrific freshman season. Better yet, Gainwell figures to play a huge role for a team capable of making another New Year’s Six bowl.
The wild cards
That includes the to-be-named starting quarterbacks at LSU and Alabama. Houston transfer D’Eriq King, who may very well land at LSU, is another. Nebraska junior Adrian Martinez is an option, though he might need to retain his hold on the starting job at a position that coach Scott Frost hasn’t publicly said is up for debate. Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond is the most experienced passer in the SEC. Alabama running back Najee Harris will return in 2020 and could be the centerpiece of the Crimson Tide’s offense. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book will soar up the list if he can carry into a strong November and bowl game into his final season. LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase is the new face of the Tigers’ offense, but what will that offense look like in 2020?