As part of our ongoing college football preview coverage, each week we will highlight the top Heisman Trophy candidates and hopefuls from our featured conference. This week, we begin with a look at who from the American Athletic Conference will look to make conference Heisman Trophy history.
It is rare to see a true Heisman contender from outside the power conferences. What is or isn’t a power conference changes as the years go by, and realignment has certainly had an extreme impact on what conferences and teams are currently considered “power conferences,” but we know that the Heisman Trophy is almost always won by a player from a power conference. Since 1977, the only Heisman winner not from a power team was Ty Detmer of BYU in 1990. (People like to quote Andre Ware of Houston’s Heisman in 1989 as a “mid-major” Heisman winner, but Houston was a member of the Southwest Conference at the time, very much a power conference until it broke up in 1992.)
As our college football season previews begin here at The Comeback, we are committed to covering even the Group of 5 conferences, which many college football fans overlook. As such, we will be presenting Heisman Hopefuls from every conference. However, that means that we have to admit that our Heisman Hopefuls from the Group of 5 conferences are more Heisman Pipe Dreams, if even that. There are some players who can generate small amounts of buzz (Brett Rypien of Boise State and Tanner Mangum of BYU come to mind), but it takes some serious homer-colored glasses to ever expect a player from outside the Power 5 to be a legitimate Heisman contender.
Which is why it is such a pleasure to be able to write a Heisman Hopeful preview for the AAC this year. Because, in this incredibly rare instance, a Group of 5 conference has a legitimate Heisman contender. Keep an eye out for the South Florida Bulls this year, because if they do well — and the schedule sets up for it — there may very well be some serious Heisman love coming South Florida’s way this year.
Last Heisman Winner From Conference Member: Andre Ware, QB (Houston, 1989)
2017 Heisman Hopefuls
1. Quinton Flowers, QB, South Florida, Sr.
If you don’t yet know the name Quinton Flowers, you really should. Flowers earned his starting job at the beginning of his sophomore year in 2015, but didn’t garner much notice, even though he threw for almost 2,000 yards and ran for almost 900 yards during the regular season. College football fans first stood up and noticed him in the 2015 Miami Beach Bowl at the end of that year. He threw for over 300 yards and ran for over 100 more, doing so in electrifying fashion. Flowers suddenly wasn’t a no-name, inflated-stats, dual-threat, mid-major quarterback. He was a legitimate dual-threat quarterback who performed on the national stage.
Last season, Flowers was once again relegated to the back of most college football fans’ minds. During that year, though, his stats were jaw-dropping. He threw for 2,800 yards and 24 touchdowns, while running for 1,500 yards and 28 touchdowns. Those are jaw-dropping numbers — or would be, in a year when Lamar Jackson isn’t doing Lamar Jackson things. Flowers was overshadowed by Jackson and Deshaun Watson, and it didn’t help that USF was kept out of the national spotlight by starting the season 6-2, including a 20-point loss to Florida State.
Things should be different this year, though. After USF won its final five games to end the 2016 season, the Bulls ended the year as the No. 19 team in the country. They are on several “way-too-early” Top 25s and will certainly get a good number of votes in the preseason polls. Add that to interest in how new coach Charlie Strong will do, and people will be watching USF’s games to start the season, at least as long as the Bulls continue to win.
USF will likely be in the New Years’ Six conversation all season with an easy schedule that lends itself to running the table, which means that people will discuss whether the Bulls deserve a shot at the College Football Playoff (they won’t, not with that schedule, but conversation about it means that people will watch them). All of this adds up to Flowers getting plenty of time to showcase his skills on television, along with plenty of airtime being given to his highlights. If he does everything that he’s capable of, he will get enough time on the air to have a real Heisman chance, especially if some of the other contenders (like Lamar Jackson) don’t quite live up to their potentials.
It’s possible to identify a few more players in the conference who can be in the national spotlight with huge seasons, but none of them are on anywhere near the same level as Flowers. Flowers is a legitimate Heisman dark horse. No one else in the conference is, but some players still deserve mention as having the potential to receive national attention.
Ed Oliver, DT, Houston, So.
Oliver was a monster at tackle all year, but he finally received his deserved recognition in Houston’s demolition of Louisville last year. He had 60 tackles and five sacks, and became the first-ever freshman to win the Bill Willis Trophy. Unlike last year, Houston won’t have many games on the national stage, but Oliver will get his chance in the spotlight when the Cougars play USF in November.
Riley Ferguson, QB, Memphis, Jr.
One more player to keep an eye on this season is Riley Ferguson. Ferguson threw for almost 3,700 yards as a quarterback at Memphis last year, and he will have a September game against UCLA to showcase his talent. Throwing for a ton of yards in the AAC won’t earn any Heisman buzz, but Ferguson will deserve a few mentions on highlight shows.