College Football Predictions: Sleeper Picks for Major College Football Awards
Preseason award watch lists have been released. Chances are, it says more about a player if he isn't on a watch list than if he is, but the bottom line is that there's a clean slate and everyone has a chance to win.
There are early favorites to take home some hardware, sure. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota are just two of the names figured to be called on awards night, provided they stay healthy.
But who are some sleeper picks who could make a surprise run during the 2014 season? The following 10 players stand out as those who could have big years and take home some postseason hardware.
Heisman Trophy: Miami RB Duke Johnson
The question here is whether to go with a lesser-known quarterback or abandon the position altogether in favor of a top player at another position. The Heisman, after all, has become nothing more than a second Davey O'Brien Award.
Miami (Florida) running back Duke Johnson gets the nod here. If you're not a quarterback, there are basically two roads to New York for the Heisman ceremony: be the cornerstone of an offense and/or be a utility player.
It's possible Johnson could be both for the Hurricanes. With a big, mostly experienced offensive line and a new quarterback, Miami's strength will be in the running game. Johnson will get his touches. Furthermore, he's an experienced kick returner who averages about 32 yards per return for his career with two touchdowns.
Johnson also has two other things going for him: name recognition and a story. Entering his junior year, he is already known around college football circles as being one of the fastest and most exciting players in the game. In addition, he had a season-ending ankle injury, so the "new and improved Duke Johnson" angle is there for the taking.
Add those factors together in a Heisman formula, and Johnson has a chance.
Maxwell Award: Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight
The Maxwell Award, sometimes unofficially known as the Heisman consolation prize, is given every year to college football's most outstanding player. It's also gone to a quarterback almost exclusively over the past 10 years.
A sleeper here would have to be someone other than Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota or UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley—the early favorites for the Heisman and other top awards.
Enter Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight, who isn't even considered the best quarterback in his own conference (that title belongs to Baylor's Bryce Petty).
If Knight takes the momentum from January's Sugar Bowl win over Alabama and progresses as a passer, he's the most dangerous offensive weapon in the Big 12. And if Oklahoma wins, he is going to receive a lot of attention.
Knight has a lot of preseason hype, so this is still a wait-and-see prediction. But he has a ton of potential.
Walter Camp Award: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
The Walter Camp Award, given to college football's player of the year, could break away from the big-name quarterbacks. This prediction's sleeper is Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon.
OK, perhaps Gordon isn't entirely off the radar.
Wisconsin loses some key members of its 2013 team, like wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and linebacker Chris Borland, but it returns four starting offensive linemen. That should be more than enough to pave the way for Gordon, who carried the ball 206 times last season—and still averaged 7.8 yards per rush.
There's no doubt Gordon is the leader of the Badgers this season. With question marks at wide receiver, the offense will likely go through the reliable running back, meaning he should put up amazing numbers again. The only thing that could potentially detract from that is if dual-threat quarterback Tanner McEvoy takes over the starting job.
Doak Walker Award: LSU RB Leonard Fournette
LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette told Sports Illustrated this spring that one of his goals for 2014 was to win the Heisman.
You have to respect that kind of confidence, but the early guess is that Fournette will come up just a tad short on that front. However, he could establish himself as the best running back in college football and win the Doak Walker Award.
LSU's offense should have a run-heavy feel to it with Fournette and, possibly, freshman quarterback Brandon Harris. Already listed at 6'1" and 230 pounds on the official LSU roster, Fournette is physically able to be an every-down back right out of the gate.
“I mean, who wouldn’t love the opportunity to play in the same backfield with that kind of guy?” said fellow Tigers running back Terrence Magee during SEC media days (h/t Matt Hayes of Sporting News).
Davey O'Brien Award: Houston QB John O'Korn
Time to give someone who plays in a non-power conference some preseason love. Who knows, it may be the last time he gets any for the next several months.
That's why the sleeper for the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's best quarterback, is Houston's John O'Korn. As a freshman, O'Korn threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns and was named the American Athletic Conference's Rookie of the Year.
Given the Cougars' history of being a pass-happy offense, there will be plenty of opportunities for O'Korn to put up big numbers. Not to mention that he has a legit No. 1 receiver, Deontay Greenberry, to throw to.
Don't be surprised if O'Korn eclipses 4,000 yards passing as a sophomore and wiggles his way into postseason award conversations.
Biletnikoff Award: Kansas State WR Tyler Lockett
Folks in Big 12 country know how good Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett is. Jake Trotter of ESPN.com recently named him the second-best player in the conference behind Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty.
The question is this: Do people outside the Big 12 circle know how good Lockett is?
The wide receiver class for the 2014 NFL draft was one of the best in recent memory, so it's no surprise if Lockett went overlooked. Still, he had 1,262 receiving yards and a pair of 200-yard games in a run-first offense.
This year, receivers like USC's Nelson Agholor and Baylor's Antwan Goodley will get early Biletnikoff publicity.
Just keep your eye on Lockett, though. He has one of the better passers in the Big 12, Jake Waters, throwing to him, and he's a tremendous route-runner.
Outland Trophy: Ohio State DT Michael Bennett
Ohio State's defensive line is a bad, bad unit. Of course, we mean "bad" in the best way possible. It's easily one of the best, if not the best, D-lines in college football.
Anchoring that line will be defensive tackle Michael Bennett. A disruptive force a season ago, Bennett had 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks.
Stopping any kind of run is important, no matter how much or how little an opposing offense pounds the rock. If the Buckeyes can do that and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, it opens up a lot of options behind them.
Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff has to be the early favorite for the Outland, and Stanford tackle Andrus Peat may get some consideration as well. Bennett could be one of the biggest impact players along the defensive line, however.
Bednarik/Nagurski Awards: Oregon DB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
The Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards are given to the defensive player of the year. For simplicity, we've combined them into one slide.
This prediction's sleeper is Oregon defensive back Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who may be the best at his position in the country. That could be good enough to earn him the Thorpe Award by season's end, but is he good enough to be named the best defensive player in the country?
When you start going through the short list of big defensive names, you find out quickly it's a top-heavy crowd: Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, Texas defensive end Cedric Reed, Florida State defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and so on.
In an era where emphasis is put on pass rush and sacks, specialists in that category—whether linebackers or defensive linemen—have an edge.
But Ekpre-Olomu is an All-Pac-12 and All-American player. He's a complete player, good in coverage and tackling. While all the focus is on Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota, Ekpre-Olomu is the star on Oregon's defense. That side of the ball hasn't received nearly as much credit lately as it deserves.
Butkus Award: Mississippi State LB Benardrick McKinney
UCLA's Myles Jack is the easy front-runner for the Butkus Award, given to college football's best linebacker. Olahoma's Eric Striker could also be an early favorite.
Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney could be in the conversation as well. Much like the Bulldogs as an SEC West sleeper, McKinney is a sleeper to be named college football's best linebacker. The junior led the team in tackles (71), tackles for loss (7.0) and sacks (3.5).
According to Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger, McKinney ranks No. 4 among the most important players on Mississippi State's team. McKinney also got some headline love from USA Today when the watch list was released.
He's definitely on some radars, even if he's not the early favorite to win.
Thorpe Award: Virginia Tech DB Kendall Fuller
If Kendall Fuller's last name sounds familiar, it's because he comes from a long line of great football players. Fuller's three older brothers, Vincent, Corey and Kyle, were former Virginia Tech players who went on to play in the NFL.
Not surprisingly, Kendall Fuller is quickly becoming one of the top defensive backs in the ACC. A second-team all-conference selection and freshman All-American (FWAA, Sporting News, 247Sports), he started 12 games and had six interceptions.
Other names, like Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu or Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III, may get early Thorpe consideration, but Fuller has to be in the conversation as well. He has a natural feel for the position, even though he's entering only his second year as a starter.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and respective athletic profiles.