2019 Heisman Update: Group of 5 and Independents

I cover the Heisman Trophy for RoadTripSports.com and the College Football America Yearbook. As we start looking ahead to the 2019 Heisman Trophy race, I put the spotlight on players among the Group of 5 schools and Independents that could vie for the trophy.

QB Ian Book, Notre Dame

The name recognition of being Notre Dame’s returning starting quarterback will put him at the top of the list of Heisman hopefuls among Group of 5 schools and Independents. He won’t have to fight nearly as hard for coverage as the other players on this list. But his numbers and the quality of Notre Dame’s season will still have to measure up. In 2018 Book didn’t start the season as the starter, but he ended the season leading the Irish to the College Football Playoff. Book ended up throwing for 2,628 yards, 19 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He was one of college football’s most efficient passers, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. He also only started nine of the Irish’s 13 games. But his numbers will have to take a significant leap for Heisman consideration in 2019. The Irish will also need to be nearly as good as they were a year ago, when they went 12-0 in the regular season. The 2019 schedule closely resembles 2018, but it has more difficult road games at Georgia, Michigan and Stanford. USC comes to South Bend. Four ACC bowl teams also meet up with the Irish — Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke and Boston College. There are enough opportunities there for Book to prove himself worthy of the award. A Notre Dame player has not won the award since 1987. Book is going to have to have a huge season to be a contender.

QB Mason Fine, North Texas

Fine returns for his senior season in Denton, Texas, after another great year at quarterback for the Mean Green. Last season Fine threw for 3,793 yards, 27 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Plus, Fine has already demolished the UNT record book. From his Mean Green bio:

All-time leading passer in program history for his career (9,358 yards), second in passing touchdowns (64), first in passer efficiency (140.05), is the record-holder in career completions (774), career pass attempts (1,229), second in career completion percentage (63.0 percent), has the most 300-yard passing games in program history (13).

He was the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year in 2018 and has already led the Mean Green to one Conference USA title game in 2017. The key to his candidacy would be to not only get the Mean Green to another C-USA title game but thread together an undefeated season in the process. Remember Brennan? Well the year he was a Heisman finalist he shredded the NCAA career record book, led Hawaii to an undefeated regular season and earned a trip to New York City. Fine has the potential to put together that type of season. The key will be winning 13 games. Aside from UNT’s Conference USA games, its hardest games on the non-league schedule appear to be a road game at California and a home game against Houston. And that could be viewed as a Heisman Group of 5 “elimination game” because …

D'Eriq King
Houston quarterback D’Eriq King. (RoadTripSports.com photo by Matthew Postins)

QB D’Eriq King, Houston

King has a new weapon and he’s not on the field. Head coach Dana Holgorsen coaches the kind of football that provides quarterbacks huge numbers. West Virginia’s Will Grier was No. 9 in passing yards in 2018 (3,864 yards) and threw 37 touchdowns. That’s the sort of potential King could have in this offense, and King has already been highly productive at Houston. In 2018, despite missing two and a half games to injury, he led the American Athletic Conference in touchdowns responsible for with 50 and led the nation in points responsible for with 27.5. King threw for 2,982 yards and 36 touchdowns last year, and rushed for another 674 yards and 14 touchdowns. That’s more than 3,600 yards in total offense. So pair King’s impressive talent with Holgorsen’s offense and this could be a lot of fun. One advantage King has over Fine is a better schedule. The Cougars open the season at Oklahoma and host Washington State. I’m not sure the Cougars can win both of those games. But win one — and have King perform well in the other — and win Conference USA with a 12-1 record and King might have an outside shot at a trip to New York City. I think he has to have at least 4,000 yards in total offense to be on the radar. That’s possible.

QB Cole McDonald, Hawaii

McDonald is the leading returning passer among Group of 5 Conference quarterbacks. He threw for 3,875 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last year for an 8-6 team that reached the Hawaii Bowl. He was an All-Mountain West Honorable Mention last season, and at least one of those All-Conference quarterbacks is returning in 2019 — Utah State’s Jordan Love. But unlike Love, McDonald isn’t dealing with a coaching change (USU head coach Matt Wells left for Texas Tech after the season). Like any Group of 5 player, McDonald is going to have to put up pinball numbers to get noticed. But it has happened. Colt Brennan was a Heisman finalist in 2007 after throwing for 4,343 yards, 38 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. So that’s the bar we’re talking about here. Hawaii’s schedule affords McDonald some opportunities to shine against Power 5 competition, as the Rainbow Warriors start the season against Arizona, Oregon State and Washington. But Hawaii needs to win them all.

RB Michael Warren II, Cincinnati

Warren is probably the best returning back among the Group of 5 and the Independents. He was certainly the most productive among the returning backs. In 2018 he rushed for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns. He has seven 100-yard rushing games in 2018, including a 166-yard, 2-touchdown outing in the Bearcats’ bowl game. It looks like he’ll be the focal point of the offense again in 2019, so there’s a good chance for Warren to match, or exceed those numbers. He’ll definitely need to exceed them to be considered a candidate for this award. As for an undefeated season, you can forget about that. The Bearcats may beat UCLA, but that trip to Ohio State will likely be a loss. But, if the Bearcats can run the table after that and win the American Athletic Conference, with Warren as their star, well, maybe there’s a shot.

UCF quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (RoadTripSports.com photo by Matthew Postins)

QB Brandon Wimbush, UCF

With McKenzie Milton out for 2019, Wimbush landed in a great spot to end his college football career. The system should fit him like a glove. Wimbush is a dual threat quarterback who as a junior in 2017 put up more than 2,700 yards rushing and passing and was responsible for 30 touchdowns. Milton put up huge numbers in this offense in 2017 and 2018 before his injury. If the offense elevates Wimbush’s game and the Knights can remain undefeated in the regular season, that will certainly catch the attention of some voters. The Knights’ big opportunity to make a statement is against Stanford.

As you might imagine, it’s going to be very difficult for a player from the Group of 5 or an Independent to win this award. I’m not kidding myself about this. The needle these players must thread just to be a finalist is as narrow as you can imagine. Along with Notre Dame not having a Heisman winner since 1987, the last time any player from the current Group of 5 or the Independent ranks won the award was 1990 when BYU’s Ty Detmer won it. So while you’re not likely to hear any of their names in New York City in early December, these are the players from this pool that are the most likely to pull it off.

The staff at RoadTripSports.com and College Football America are working hard on the 2019 edition of the Yearbook, which will be out this summer. If you’d like updates or a heads-up when the Yearbook is released, just e-mail our editor at mpostins@gmail.com and he’ll add you to the list. And if you want to see a list of our previous Yearbooks, click here.

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