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Eight likely-to-return players primed for a 2018 Heisman run

Baker Mayfield has won the Heisman Trophy.

That’s nice and all, but what about next year?

For everyone not still shouting “Boomer Sooner!” toward Oklahoma’s senior quarterback, it’s time to look toward who could join him on stage at the Heisman ceremony in 2018.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that quarterbacks Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold and Lamar Jackson will turn pro. Throw in the draft-eligible running backs (Bryce Love, Saquon Barkley, Ronald Jones II, etc.) as well. And if that changes and any of them return, add them to this list retroactively.

With that caveat out of the way, here’s a look at the top candidates, in alphabetical order, to take home next year’s Heisman Trophy and a handful of contenders who deserve close attention:

Ohio State DE Nick Bosa: It’s not easy for a defensive player to get invited to New York, but the sophomore has two things going in his favor: brand and name recognition. He can thank big brother and his university for that. But what Bosa does on the football field should speak for itself. He’s a disruptor at defensive end, earning Freshman All-American honors in 2016 and a first-team All-Big Ten selection this past season, racking up 11 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in the process.

Clemson QB Kelly Bryant: His numbers don’t inspire you? So what? What Bryant did in his first season starting -- not to mention replacing a legend in Deshaun Watson -- says it all. Bryant led his team to the No. 1 ranking and threw for 2,678 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions in the process. He also ran for 646 yards and 11 scores. He has all the tools to be a star, if he isn’t already, and the experience and confidence he’s gaining now should lead to even better, possibly Heisman-caliber, numbers next season.

Alabama QB Jalen Hurts: For all the consternation over his ability as a passer, all the sophomore quarterback does is make plays and win games. His overall record as starter speaks for itself: 25-2. He was the first true freshman to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker, and followed that up as a sophomore with 2,708 total yards, 23 touchdowns and just two turnovers this season. If he carries Alabama to a third straight playoff next season, it will be hard to deny the dual-threat QB a trip to New York.

West Virginia QB Will Grier: The junior could enter the NFL draft. After all, other than winning a Big 12 title, what does he have left to prove? He threw for 3,490 yards, 34 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season. He even ran for a couple of touchdowns, stating his case along with Mayfield as one the most productive quarterbacks in college football. But if he returns, he could be looking at a Mayfield-like Heisman run in 2018. If he posts similar numbers and wins a conference championship, he should get a trip to New York.

Houston DT Ed Oliver: Wake up, people. Everyone sleeping on the Group of 5 needs to turn on the tape of Houston’s prodigious defensive lineman and soak it in. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound sophomore does things that no 6-3, 290-pound person should be able to do. Even from the interior of the line, he makes plays. Just look at his stat line the past two seasons: 135 tackles, 37.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 12 passes defended, five forced fumbles and one blocked kick. If the Heisman voters sleep on him, you'd better believe the owners of the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft won’t.

Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham: As it turns out, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was right and Stidham did need a little bit of time to get his feet under him. But once the former Baylor transfer did, he showed why he was worth the hype. From Week 3 on, he completed an eye-popping 68.5 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and three interceptions, leading Auburn into playoff contention. He even added a running element to his game, rushing for three scores. With a full year under his belt and most of his receivers back, he could be primed for a strong junior season.

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor: It’s OK if you’re late to the party on this 5-foot-11, 214-pound running back from New Jersey. He’s just a freshman, after all. But boy, can the young fella play, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors thanks to 1,847 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns this season. No Power 5 back had more rushes of 10 or more yards this season than Taylor’s 60.

Arizona QB Khalil Tate: Speaking of being late to the party, let’s try not to fall victim to the Pac-12 After Dark conspiracy next year. Tate deserves that extra pot of coffee after dinner for everyone in the South and Northeast. All the man does is make plays. Five times he has combined for 300-plus total yards, and on three separate occasions he rushed for more than 200 yards in a game. After coming out of nowhere this season, he should be on everyone’s radar in 2018.

Five more to keep an eye on: Florida State RB Cam Akers, Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins, Oregon QB Justin Herbert, Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray, Georgia RB D’Andre Swift.