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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

O'Boyle: Darnold's hype should not overshadow the rest of the NCAA's talent

The 2017 college football season has already begun, though only a handful of teams has played so far.

And if offseason hype’s any indication, that means we’re currently in the year of Sam Darnold. Ever since his Rose Bowl comeback victory over Penn State, analysts across the country have been obsessed with Darnold’s talent, and oddsmakers have made the USC quarterback the comfortable favorite for the Heisman Trophy.

I can’t deny the fact that Darnold is talented. He’s clearly a special player, he deserves to be among the leading Heisman candidates and earned his spot as the top quarterback on the board for the 2018 NFL draft. In an ordinary year, maybe the hysteria around Darnold could be warranted. But in a year with so many other talented quarterbacks returning, the talk about Sam Darnold has clearly been disproportionate.

Maybe it’s because he seems more likely to become an NFL star than his rivals, but Darnold’s hype has overshadowed many other proven and talented players. Too many analysts seem to have conflated the idea of 2017 being the year of Sam Darnold among NFL scouts and it being the year of Darnold among college football fans.

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the other big names returning to college football. There’ll be dark horses for the Heisman too, of course, but right now it’s the obvious non-Darnold candidates who need more recognition.

J.T. Barrett was among the best players in the nation three years ago. His trajectory since has been disappointing, but he remains a star and leads one of the best teams out there. It’s hard to write off a player with Barrett’s experience in Urban Meyer’s system.

Jake Browning threw for 43 touchdowns and ran for another four last year, while taking a Washington team lacking top recruits to the College Football Playoff. He struggled down the stretch and lost his top receiver this offseason, but considering how well he played at times he surely proves Darnold isn’t the only star signal-caller out west worth staying up late for.

Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois showed last year that his toughness under pressure was elite. This year, he finds himself on a playoff-contending team with a stronger defense. He should be perfectly-placed to make signature Heisman plays in the biggest games, starting this weekend.

Baker Mayfield posted an incredible 173.3 passer rating in his first year with Oklahoma and topped it last year, breaking the all-time record with a rating of 196.4. His numbers have been nothing short of astonishing since transferring to the Sooners and after losing running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, he’ll be prepared to carry his team more than ever. Mayfield could quite easily finish second all-time, and first among power conference members, in career total touchdowns, and yet nobody’s talking about it. He’s already among the most accomplished college quarterbacks to not win a Heisman, and he deserves to be talked about like it.

But the most shocking thing about this offseason’s Heisman hype has been the lack of talk about the defending champ. Lamar Jackson ended the 2016 campaign poorly, but for the first half of the season he was incredible, and his slump was mostly due to the struggles of his offensive line. No Heisman winner has ever returned to so little fanfare, and there’s a good chance Lamar Jackson soon reminds the college football world why it became so infatuated with him to begin with.

There are others too: Jalen Hurts may not have been asked to do much, but his achievement as a true freshman leading Alabama cannot be understated; Mason Rudolph could have a big senior year with the help of wide receiver James Washington; Josh Rosen was an elite recruit for a reason and those are just the quarterbacks. Saquon Barkley  was a superstar last season, while Derrius Guice, who should benefit from new LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada, is my personal pick.

But this isn’t about picking who will win the award. The point is that right now, in August, with an all-time great cast of returning players at the quarterback position, maybe people need to spread the focus around and not center it all on one star who still has things to prove.