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Stan Becton | | August 21, 2023

The Heisman candidates and dark horse contenders for every conference

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The 2023 college football season is almost here. Before the season kicks off, let's take a look at some of the top Heisman candidates — and a few dark horses — from every FBS conference.


QB Michael Pratt | Tulane
  • Top candidate
    • QB Michael Pratt | Tulane
  • Contenders
    • QB Frank Harris | UTSA

The American Athletic Conference has two talented quarterbacks who should have their teams in contention for New Year's Six Bowls in Michael Pratt and Frank Harris. Pratt is the preseason leader from the conference after leading the Green Wave to a Cotton Bowl win last year.

RANKINGS: Preseason AP Poll | Every college football ranking


QB Jordan Travis | Florida State
  • Top candidate
    • QB Jordan Travis | Florida State
  • Contenders
    • QB Cade Klubnik | Clemson
    • RB Will Shipley | Clemson
    • QB Drake Maye | North Carolina
  • Dark horse
    • DE Jared Verse | Florida State

Quarterback Jordan Travis has plenty of hype surrounding him and preseason-No. 8 Florida State entering 2023. Travis could be the Heisman favorite after September, thanks to potential top-10 contests against LSU and Clemson. Speaking of Clemson, running back Will Shipley is the best player on the Tigers, while quarterback Cade Klubnik could take the next step after a full offseason as the starting quarterback.

One can't sleep on potential top NFL draft pick Drake Maye at North Carolina either. If Maye can have the Tar Heels in the ACC title hunt in November, he could have the wins to back up Heisman-worthy numbers.

The dark horse Heisman contender in the ACC is Jared Verse. Verse is arguably the best edge rusher in college football, but he doesn't play the headlining quarterback position at Florida State. Nonetheless, Verse could overtake Travis as the lead Heisman contender on the Seminoles at some point this season.

HEISMAN: Every winner and runner-up since 1935 | Colleges with the most Heisman Trophy winners

Big 12

QB Quinn Ewers | Texas
  • Top candidate
    • QB Quinn Ewers | Texas
  • Contenders
    • QB Jalon Daniels | Kansas
    • WR Xavier Worthy | Texas
  • Dark horse
    • RB Richard Reese | Baylor

If Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers holds off highly-regarded freshman Arch Manning throughout the season, then Ewers should be performing at a Heisman level under center. Ewers was once a highly-regarded recruit himself, and his performance against Alabama last year — pre-injury —  showed flashes of the elite. The Longhorns play the Tide in Week 2 this year, giving Ewers a shot at an early Heisman moment.

Ewers' top target Xavier Worthy could also be in the Heisman race, regardless of who the quarterback at Texas is, thanks to his blazing speed. Meanwhile, quarterback Jalon Daniels helped Kansas receive an AP ranking for the first time since 2009 last year before going down with an injury. A healthy Daniels could electrify the Big 12. 

Baylor running back Richard Reese is the dark horse Heisman candidate out of the Big 12. As a freshman, he rushed for 972 yards and 14 touchdowns.

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Big Ten

WR Marvin Harrison Jr. | Ohio State
  • Top candidate
    • WR Marvin Harrison Jr. | Ohio State
  • Contenders
    • RB Blake Corum | Michigan
    • QB J.J. McCarthy | Michigan
    • QB Drew Allar | Penn State
    • RB Nick Singleton | Penn State
    • DE Chop Robinson | Penn State
    • RB Braelon Allen | Wisconsin
  • Dark horse
    • QB Taulia Tagovailoa | Maryland

Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr. could be the next wide receiver to win the Heisman. Harrison Jr. was dominant against eventual national champion Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals before a controversial big hit knocked him out of the game. He now returns to the FBS as arguably the top player in the entire sport.

The Big Ten also has plenty of Heisman contenders from preseason top-10 teams. Blake Corum and J.J. McCarthy lead a loaded Michigan backfield, while Nick Singleton stole the show last year as a true freshman for Penn State. The Nittany Lions also have one of the best edge players in the country in Chop Robinson, and quarterback Drew Allar could provide excitement to an offense that bored at times under Sean Clifford.

Yet, the dark horse Heisman contender in the Big Ten is Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. Taulia is the younger brother of 2018 Heisman finalist Tua Tagovailoa. Taulia has weapons on the outside and a schedule with ranked opponents that could lead to his contention for college football's premier award. 

SCHEDULE: Click or tap here for game times, TV channels and scores from every game


QB Austin Reed | Western Kentucky
  • Top candidate
    • QB Austin Reed | Western Kentucky
  • Contenders
    • RB Anwar Lewis | Jacksonville State
  • Dark horse
    • WR Jarod Bowie | Jacksonville State

Quarterback Austin Reed threw for 4,744 yards and 40 touchdowns last year and returns to the Hilltoppers as the leading Heisman contender in the C-USA. Jacksonville State running back Anwar Lewis could impress in JSU's first full FBS season while fellow Gamecock Jarod Bowie enters the season as a dark horse after finishing as a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy in Division II last year. 

SCOREBOARD: See scores and stats from every college football game


QB Sam Hartman | Notre Dame
  • Top candidate
    • QB Sam Hartman | Notre Dame
  • Contenders
    • LB Leo Lowin | Army

Sam Hartman is the starting quarterback at Notre Dame after transferring from Wake Forest. If Hartman can transfer his success from the Demon Deacons to the Fighting Irish, he should be in the Heisman conversation. Army's Leo Lowin rounds out the independent Heisman contenders after winning Army-Navy Game Player of the Game honors last year.

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QB Kurtis Rourke | Ohio 
  • Top candidate
    • QB Kurtis Rourke | Ohio 
  • Contenders
    • RB Marquez Cooper | Ball State
    • RB Samson Evan | Eastern Michigan
    • RB Sieh Bangura | Ohio
    • LB Dallas Gant | Toledo

Kurtis Rourke threw for 3,256 yards and 25 touchdowns last year to lead Ohio to the MAC East title. As the top returning quarterback in the conference, he leads the MAC Heisman contenders. Other contenders include a trio of running backs that can take over a game and one of the top linebackers in the conference, Dallas Gant.

Mountain West

QB Chevan Cordeiro | San Jose State
  • Top candidate
    • QB Chevan Cordeiro | San Jose State
  • Contenders
    • QB Taylen Green | Boise State
    • RB George Holani | Boise State

Chevan Cordeiro led the Mountain West in passing yards and touchdowns last year, ahead of eventual fourth-round NFL draft pick Jake Haener. Cordeiro's return has him atop the list of Heisman candidates from the Mountain West, while the always-competitive Boise State Broncos have two players from its backfield that could contend.


QB Caleb Williams | Southern California
  • Top candidate
    • QB Caleb Williams | Southern California
  • Contenders
    • QB Shedeur Sanders | Colorado
    • QB Bo Nix | Oregon
    • QB DJ Uiagalelei | Oregon State
    • QB Cameron Rising | Utah
    • QB Michael Penix Jr. | Washington
    • QB Cameron Ward | Washington State
  • Dark horse
    • DE Braelen Trice | Washington

Obviously, the top Heisman contender from the Pac-12 is reigning Heisman winner Caleb Williams. However, the Pac-12 has a litany of other talented quarterbacks that could unseat Williams from his throne. It may come down to who wins the conference.

Beyond the quarterbacks, Braelen Trice had 70 pressures last year (per PFF) to lead the FBS. He's the top non-quarterback Heisman contender in the Pac-12.

2022: How USC QB Caleb Williams won the 2022 Heisman Trophy


Jaydon Daniels LSU
  • Top candidate
    • QB Jayden Daniels | LSU
  • Contenders
    • QB KJ Jefferson | Arkansas
    • RB Raheim Sanders | Arkansas
    • TE Brock Bowers | Georgia
    • RB Quinshon Judkins | Ole Miss
    • QB Spencer Rattler | South Carolina
    • QB Joe Milton | Tennessee
  • Dark horse
    • LB Dallas Turner | Alabama
    • DE Mykel Williams | Georgia
    • LB Harold Perkins | LSU

The SEC always has plenty of talent, but quarterback Jaydon Daniels gets the top spot as a Heisman favorite from the conference. The signal-caller plays a premier position for the preseason No. 5 LSU Tigers and built plenty of momentum for himself last year. 

The contenders list out of the SEC has plenty of notable names, but the dark horses are the edge rushers after players like Aiden Hutchinson, Will Anderson and Chase Young all contended for the Heisman late in the season across recent years. Dallas Turner could be the next great Alabama pass rusher, while Mykel Williams and Harold Perkins had significant impacts as true freshmen. If a defensive player is going to win the Heisman for the first time since 1997, it could very likely be one of these three.

PERFECT: Looking at all undefeated national champions since 1936

Sun Belt

Grayson McCall CCU
  • Top candidate
    • QB Grayson McCall | Coastal Carolina
  • Contenders
    • RB Frank Gore Jr. | Southern Miss

Quarterback Grayson McCall has had Coastal Carolina as one of the better teams in college football throughout his reign as a starter, keeping the Chanticleers in or near the top 25 rankings. His return in 2023 keeps him as the Sun Belt's Heisman leader. Another contender from the Sun Belt could be running back Frank Gore Jr. He has the name recognition to catch the eyes of voters and the play (1,382 rushing yards) to back it up.

RECORD: Frank Gore Jr. sets FBS bowl game record for rushing yards. Who did he beat?

Non-FBS Heisman contenders

No non-FBS player has ever won the Heisman trophy since the separation of divisions, but there's always a chance 2023 could be the year. Here's a look at some of the top contenders from outside of the FBS.


Michael Hiers Samford
  • Top candidate
    • QB Michael Hiers | Samford
  • Contenders
    • RB Jaden Shirden | Monmouth
    • RB Geno Hess | Southeast Missouri State
    • QB Mark Gronowski | South Dakota State

Since the formation of the FCS in 1978, only six FCS players have ever finished in the top 10 of Heisman voting. It typically takes a spectacular season for an FCS player to contend for the Heisman, and a handful of FCS players have a shot this year.

Quarterback Michael Hiers had a record-setting year in his first FCS season, completing 76.6 percent of his passes. Running back Jaden Shirden was a finalist for the 2022 Walter Payton Award (the FCS Heisman), and Geno Hess has long been one of the best in the FCS at his position. Then there's quarterback Mark Gronowski. Gronowski has gone 22-1 against the FCS, leading South Dakota State to a 2023 FCS championship win.

FCS players to finish top 10 in Heisman voting
YEAR Athlete School Heisman Finish
1980 Neil Lomax Portland State 7
1981 Rich Diana Yale 10
1984 Jerry Rice Mississippi Valley State 9
1986 Gordie Lockbaum Holy Cross 5
1987 Gordie Lockbaum Holy Cross 3
1994 Steve McNair Alcorn State 3

MORE FCS: Click or tap here for everything FCS football


Jada Byers VUU
  • Top candidate
    • RB Jada Byers | Virginia Union
  • Contenders
    • QB Brandon Alt | Bemidji State
    • QB TJ Davis | Nebraska-Kearney
    • QB John Matocha | Colorado School of Mines

No Division II player has ever finished top 10 in Heisman voting. Could 2023 be the year?

Running back Jada Byers is the top candidate to break through from Division II after rushing for 1,920 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. Elsewhere, a trio of quarterbacks that all finished as Harlon Hill Trophy finalists (the DII Heisman) are all contenders.

MORE DII: Click or tap here for everything DII football


Braxton Plunk Mount Union
  • Top candidate
    • QB Braxton Plunk | Mount Union
  • Contenders
    • RB Jhe'Quay Chretin | Aurora
    • LB Robert Coury | Carnegie Mellon
    • RB Giovanni Weeks | Wheaton

In 1985, Plymouth State's Joe Dudek became the first Division III player to finish top 10 in Heisman voting, finishing ninth overall. Thirty-eight years later, Mount Union's Braxton Plunk looks like the front-runner to be the next DIII player to receive votes. Plunk leads Mount Union into 2023 with the longest active regular-season win streak in all of NCAA football at 54 games.

MORE DIII: Click or tap here for everything DIII football

Other contenders include running backs Jhe'Quay Chretin and Giovanni Weeks, who both return after rushing for 14 and 18 touchdowns last year, respectively. On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Robert Coury stands out after leading Carnegie Mellon to an undefeated regular season last year.

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