But what about the “Gang of Five” conferences? Is there anyone from outside the Power 5 leagues that has a chance at winning college football’s highest honor?
It’s certainly possible. Sure, the “Big Boy” conferences get all of the press, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented for a player outside of a major conference to win the Heisman. Ty Detmer of BYU (WAC) pulled of this rare feat in 1990, taking home the trophy over Notre Dame’s Raghib Ismail and Colorado‘s Eric Bieniemy, who led Colorado to a share of the national championship.
More recently, Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois earned the honor of being a Heisman finalist in 2013. He finished third in the race behind A.J. McCarron of Alabama and winner Jameis Winston. Other players from schools now under the Gang of Five umbrella have finished in the top five in the past 20 years: Randy Moss and Chad Pennington did so when at Marshall in the late 1990s.
Although no other player from a “mid-major” has won the Heisman Trophy since Detmer did 25 years ago, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that one could do so this year. After all, the trophy is supposed to go to the “most outstanding player in college football,” right?
Here’s a list of seven players outside of the Power 5 conferences who best fit that description heading into the season. As the season progresses, the list could possibly look much different.
7 – Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo – One of most underrated running backs in college football, Hunt finished third in the nation rushing yards per game (163.1), trailing only current NFL players Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman in that department. While he had fewer rushing yards per game than these two players – who each finished in the top 10 in last year’s Heisman voting – Hunt averaged more yards per carry (7.96) than Gordon (7.54) and Coleman (7.54), and ran for at least 5 yards per carry in every game. He also thrived against top competition, running for 148 yards on just 15 carries against Missouri. With a big game against Arkansas in front of a large TV audience (SEC Network), Hunt could climb into the Heisman conversation, which is hard to do for a running back.
6 – Fredi Knighten, QB, Arkansas State – Knighten is one of the most exciting players to watch in college football. He finished 12th nationally in total offense last season (312 yards per game), averaging more yardage than previous Heisman winner Jameis Winston did. He’ll continue to give opposing defensive coordinators headaches again this season, as he’s a dangerous passer (3,277 yards, 62.3%, 24/7 TD-to-INT) and an explosive runner, breaking at least one 20-yard run in eight of thirteen games last season. He could move up the list very quickly with a strong showing against USC and Missouri to open the season.
5 – Rashard Higgins, WR, Colorado State – I don’t know why Higgins wasn’t a finalist last year.
Higgins was clearly the most explosive receiver in college football in 2014, leading the nation in both receiving yards (1,750) and touchdowns (17). Considering that those numbers were better than Heisman finalist Amari Cooper’s, he certainly deserved a trip to New York. He has an excellent shot to earn one this fall with games against Minnesota, Colorado, Boise State, and Utah State early in the season. Provided he continues to put up these Playstation-like numbers against this type of competition, Higgins could be near the top of most ballots by the time November rolls around.
4 – Gunner Kiel, QB, Cincinnati – Kiel has an advantage over every other “mid-major” candidate because the voters already know who he is. Once considered the top high schoool quarterback in the country, Kiel had an excellent first season as the Bearcats’ starter, throwing for 3,241 yards and 31 TDs. With most of his top weapons coming back, his numbers should be even better this fall. He could vault to the top of this list if he could lead UC to the inaugural AAC Championship Game.
3 – Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State – When completely healthy, Keeton is the best quarterback in college football. He’s had a solid career as the Aggies’ starting signal caller, throwing for 6,387 yards with 58 TDs and only 17 INTs. If he can avoid the injury bug – something that’s plagued him for the past two years – there’s no reason to think that he won’t post some solid stats again this season. Should Utah State win its division and earn a spot in the Mountain West Championship Game, Keeton would have the opportunity to showcase his skills in front of the entire country, giving him a chance to prove to the voters that he’s the most outstanding player in college football. Having this forum is just enough to place him ahead of the other well-qualified candidates on this list.
2 – Greg Ward, QB, Houston – A great football player is someone whose mere presence makes everyone around him better. Ward provided that for the Cougars last year after taking over the job as the No. 1 quarterback, sparking the UH offense to 400-plus-yard performances in eight starts. Despite not assuming the role until midseason, Ward still managed to throw for 2,010 yards and run for an additional 573. These stats should easily double this year with the installation of new head coach Tom Herman’s offense. If the Cougars capture the AAC championship and the “Gang of Five” bid to a New Year’s Day Bowl, Ward should have a strong enough resume to make it to the presentation ceremony.
1 – Brandon Doughty, QB, Western Kentucky – Ty Detmer won the Heisman Trophy in 1990 because his stats were so much better than anyone else’s. Brandon Doughty could do the same thing this year, thanks to Jeff Brohm’s pass-happy offense. In his first year in the new system, Doughty became college football’s top passer, leading the nation in both yards (4,830) and touchdowns (49). Since the Hilltopper offense returns eight starters this fall, he will post similar – if not better – stats than he did last season. If that doesn’t make him one of the top dark horse candidates to win the award, nothing will.