Early Heisman hopefuls include several established stars

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A handful of familiar faces could make this a Heisman race for the ages.

Four, count 'em, four of the top six finishers from last year's Heisman Trophy voting are back for another season. Clemson's prolific quarterback Deshaun Watson is among them, along with a trio of stars that includes Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and LSU running back Leonard Fournette.

The scrutiny and hype for the foursome will be intense from day one. Watson says it comes with the territory of being one of the nation's top players.

"That's something I already knew before," Watson said. "I'm a confident player and I expect to be in this position. That's why I work, that's why I grind."

Though it's uncommon for so much Heisman-caliber talent to return for another season, it's not unprecedented.

A recent example is 2011, when Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Oregon running back LaMichael James, Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson returned after finishing two through six in the voting behind Auburn's Cam Newton in 2010.

Interestingly, none of them won. Instead, it was Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III who came out of nowhere to take home the trophy. Luck was the runner-up for a second straight season.

Watson, who helped lead Clemson to the College Football Playoff title game before a loss to Alabama, finished third in the voting in 2015 behind Alabama's Derrick Henry and McCaffrey.

Clemson's team success was one big reason Watson was in the Heisman mix. The quarterback said any of his individual accomplishments will be directly tied to what the Tigers do this fall.

"I wouldn't be in this position without the coaching staff and my players, the offensive line and the skill guys that make me look good," Watson said. "So I give them all the credit."

McCaffrey is an obvious Heisman front-runner since he was second last season. The 6-foot, 200-pound junior broke the NCAA single-season record with 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015.

Stanford coach David Shaw said to expect more of the same this season with McCaffrey being a threat in the running game, passing game and on special teams.

"I think when you have a great player, the last thing you want to do is pump the brakes," Shaw said last month. "You want to push the accelerator."

A little more on the early favorites:

FOURNETTE: LSU's bruising runner was probably the favorite to win the Heisman midway through last season before his production slipped in the final month. The 6-1, 230-pound junior still finished with 1,953 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns. The Tigers return a talented team, and likely will play several high-profile games that can showcase his talent to a national audience. It remains to be seen if LSU's passing game will be good enough to take some of the load off Fournette.

MAYFIELD: The 6-1, 210-pound Mayfield started as a walk-on at Texas Tech before transferring to the Sooners. After sitting out a season because of NCAA transfer rules, he won the starting job last fall and completed more than 68 percent of his passes for 3,700 yards, 36 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.

MCCAFFREY: The Stanford star had one of the best overall seasons in college football history in 2015, finishing with 2,019 yards rushing, 1,070 yards on kick returns, 645 yards receiving and 130 yards on punt returns. He even threw two touchdown passes. McCaffrey might be hard-pressed to match those numbers, but another big season is certainly expected.

WATSON: The 6-2, 210-pound junior was fantastic as the Tigers made it to the national title game. He completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 4,104 yards, 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while also running for 1,105 yards and 12 touchdowns. Clemson is loaded again and is expected to have a great shot at winning the ACC and making it to the College Football Playoff again.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Florida State running back Dalvin Cook finished with 1,691 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns while averaging 7.4 yards per carry last season. ... Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett had to split time under center last season with Cardale Jones, but now the position appears to be his. The 6-2, 222-pounder completed 63.3 percent of his throws last season while throwing for 11 touchdowns and running for 11 more. He was 5th in the Heisman balloting in 2014. ... Mississippi quarterback Chad Kelly, the nephew of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, threw for 4,042 yards last season, including 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last year.


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