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Anthony Chiusano | NCAA.com | August 29, 2016

Heisman Watch: Early favorites to take home the trophy in 2016

  LSU running back Leonard Fournette is a top Heisman pick after rushing for 22 touchdowns in 2015.

Last year’s Heisman race was the closest in four years as Alabama’s Derrick Henry edged Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey by only 293 votes to take home the coveted award.

Now entering 2016, there’s plenty of returning star power and exciting newcomers to ensure this year’s battle for the award will be just as thrilling.

Let’s take a look at some of the top preseason contenders for the Heisman:

Chad Kelly – Ole Miss senior quarterback

Ole Miss Football: Kelly 27-yd TD
We start the list with the top quarterback out of the SEC and the leader of the No. 11 team in the nation.

Kelly led the Rebels to a convincing 48-20 win over Oklahoma State in last year’s Sugar Bowl en route to being named the game’s MVP. He finished his junior campaign with 4,042 passing yards and 31 touchdowns to only 13 interceptions in his first year after transferring from junior college.

Kelly showed that he thrives in primetime matchups, as he led the Rebels to four wins over ranked teams in 2015 including a September win over eventual CFP champion Alabama, where he passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Ole Miss plays a trio of top five teams this year in Florida State, Alabama and LSU, so if Kelly can repeat his clutch performances, he’ll make a significant case for the award.

RELATED: Will Ole Miss make the Playoff?

One thing to keep an eye on early on will be who will replace departed star receiver Laquon Treadwell as Kelly’s top target.

Greg Ward Jr. – Houston senior quarterback

In his first full year starting under center for the Cougars, Ward excelled in first-year coach Tom Herman’s offensive system.

The mobile quarterback was one of two players last year to record at least 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the season, joining Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.

Houston has no notable flaws on offense, as it boasts a solid offensive line, returning weapons and new additions via transfers in running back Duke Catalon and wide receiver Ra’Shaad Samples. With this surplus of skill, there’s no reason to believe Ward won’t continue to develop and prove his AAC program deserves to be respected alongside elite Power Five teams.

MORE: 5 non-Power 5 offensive stars to watch

For those still unfamiliar with the rapid rise of Ward and Houston, look for the senior to shine on the national stage when the Cougars face No. 3 Oklahoma at NRG Stadium in their opener. Something tells me Houston – and Ward, in particular – savor this opportunity to show off against a top-five team.

Jabrill Peppers – Michigan junior linebacker/defensive back/wide receiver

Yes, quarterbacks and running backs have seemed to dominate the past decade or so in Heisman voting, but that doesn’t mean versatility will be undervalued this year.

Look no further than the do-it-all athlete Peppers, who will see plenty of playing time in a variety of positions in 2016.

Peppers made his home in the defensive backfield, starting all 12 games for the Wolverines in 2015 while tallying 45 tackles and 10 pass deflections. But he also played in the box some, took handoffs out of the backfield and on reverse plays, caught balls out wide and returned kicks to make him one of Michigan’s most valuable players.

MORE: Peppers caps off intense hands drill with backflip

Between rushing, receiving and kick returning, Peppers accumulated 374 offensive yards and two touchdowns.

Now Michigan plans to use him as even a greater part of its offense in addition to shifting him to more of a linebacker’s role on defense. How he adjusts to this greater workload and different positioning will be important in terms of his effectiveness, but he has the perfect blueprint to follow in former Michigan greats and Heisman winners Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard, who also each played the part of receiver, defensive back and kick returner.

The two-way player is becoming a lost commodity, so Peppers has a chance to be one of the most intriguing and dynamic players this year. If it all comes together, he is certainly Heisman-worthy.

Dalvin Cook – Florida State junior running back

It was not a pretty ending to 2015 for Cook, as his Seminoles fell to Houston 38-24 in the Peach Bowl while he was held to a season-low 33 yards and 1.8 yards per carry.

Look for this uncharacteristic blip in the road to motivate Cook in 2016, one of the premier running backs in the league with the ability to break off huge chunks of yards on any carry.

MORE: 5 most feared running backs in 2016

Cook rushed for 1,691 yards last year on only 229 attempts while being limited with a couple of minor injuries that held him out of one game and took him out of another one early. Cook is the key to No. 4 Florida State’s offense this year, especially with questions at quarterback, so his health will be of the upmost importance this year.

Cook maybe took a backseat at times to other big names at his position last year, but he has all the tools and the game-breaking ability to justify Florida State’s high preseason. Look for him to further prove he belongs in the upper echelon of running backs.

Baker Mayfield – Oklahoma redshirt junior quarterback

Oklahoma Football: Mayfield forces 2OT
It’s safe to say Mayfield found a home in Norman, Oklahoma last season for the Sooners.

The Texas Tech transfer and two-time former walk-on started all 13 games in his first year at Oklahoma, passing for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns while leading the Sooners to an appearance in the College Football Playoff.

MORE: 7 things to know about Baker Mayfield

Mayfield finished fourth in Heisman voting last year. Leading No. 3 Oklahoma to a second-straight Big 12 title and a return to the CFP in 2016 will line himself nicely for another shot at the trophy.

With Samaje Perine returning to carry the Sooners’ stellar run game, Mayfield will have plenty of opportunities to go over the top and create some more big, highlight-reel plays.

Christian McCaffrey – Stanford junior running back

Stanford Football: McCaffrey untouched 28-yd TD
How do you follow up a year where you broke the NCAA single-season all-purpose yards record and finished second in Heisman voting?

That’s the task McCaffrey has at hand, as he looks to return to the trophy presentation ceremony and lead the No. 8 Cardinal to its first CFP.

McCaffrey totaled an unworldly 3,864 yards after leading his team in rushing (2,019 yards) and receiving (645), while also passing for a pair of touchdowns and amassing 1,200 more yards returning kicks and punts.

MORE: Will Stanford make the Playoff?

McCaffrey is no one-trick pony at running back and this offensive versatility – like Peppers – no doubt gives him an advantage when it comes to voting.

If McCaffrey’s performance in Stanford’s 2015 Rose Bowl blowout victory was any indication (370 all-purpose yards), there will be no slowing down the Cardinal’s sparkplug this season.

Deshaun Watson – Clemson junior quarterback

Watson led Clemson to a No. 1 ranking last season and a second-place finish behind Alabama in the 2015 national championship game. With top targets Artavis Scott and Mike Williams back with him on the offense, the sky is the limit for him and Clemson’s offense in 2016.

The playmaking Watson finished with 4,104 passing yards, 1,219 rushing yards and 47 total touchdowns last year coming off a previous season where he underwent surgery for a torn ACL.

MORE: Deshaun Watson embracing the spotlight

Watson carries all the essential tools of a star quarterback plus some, as he’s a smart decision maker, possesses above-average arm strength, can throw accurately on the run as well as keep it in his hands to create his own plays with his legs.

Watson finished third in Heisman voting last season to become Clemson’s first finalist in program history. There’s every chance this season that he becomes the Tigers’ first winner.

Leonard Fournette – LSU junior running back

What’s not to like about Fournette?

The 6-foot-1, 235-pound workhorse is the nation’s most powerful running back that can run over any defender in his way. Then there’s his explosive speed that lets him take any carry to the house once the first guy misses.

Fournette tops the list of 2016 Heisman hopefuls for good reason after posting 1,953 yards and 22 rushing touchdowns in 2015.

Fournette reached the 200-yard mark in three consecutive games last September and topped 150 on nine separate occasions. Nothing stopped Fournette in 2015 except for Alabama, whose defense stifled Fournette and held him to just 31 yards on 19 carries.

MORE: X-factors that may decide Week 1's top games

This letdown makes this season’s Nov. 5 matchup between LSU and Alabama extra important for Fournette’s 2016 Heisman campaign. Another dud against the nation’s top defense on the national stage would severely hurt his chances.

But outside of that matchup on the horizon and worries about staying fresh the entire season on a run-heavy LSU team, Fournette is a favorite to take home college football’s top individual honor.

Other contenders to keep your eye on: J.T. Barrett (Ohio State junior quarterback), Seth Russell (Baylor senior quarterback), Josh Rosen (UCLA sophomore quarterback), Brad Kaaya (Miami Fla. junior quarterback), Royce Freeman (Oregon junior running back), Nick Chubb (Georgia junior running back), Calvin Ridley (Alabama sophomore wide receiver)

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