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Is Saquon Barkley a Legitimate Heisman Contender?

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It only took until week two of Saquon Barkley's true freshman season for him to literally leap into the hearts and imaginations of the Penn State fanbase. During the final quarter of a sluggish victory against Buffalo, it quickly became evident that Barkley had the most raw talent of any running back on the roster by a mile, and that Penn State was in for a treat during the next three or four years. Blessed with an extremely rare combination of vision that allows him to make awe-inspiring cuts to avoid would-be tacklers, quickness to get through the smallest of holes for major yardage, and strength to pick up yards after contact, Barkley went on to become Penn State's first 1,000-yard rusher as a true freshman despite missing three-and-a-half games and being practically the lone focal point for defensive coordinators.

As Barkley continued to turn heads, the hype surrounding the rising sophomore has grown. Recently, ESPN declared Barkley as a darkhorse candidate. But can Barkley really take the giant leap to take home the most coveted trophy in football and etch his name among the most legendary figures in college football history? Let's take a deep dive to carefully consider the merits of Barkley's candidacy.

Opportunities

Let's start with the most obvious- Barkley will be one year more experienced and wiser as a sophomore. Not only will he have a better feel for the game, he'll also have the added plus of being acclimated to college life and what is expected of him to become a team leader. He also now has a full offseason in the weightroom, which should provide a sizable difference in Barkley's productivity. And what an offseason it's been for Barkley- not only did he record the fastest 40-yard dash on the team, he also set a Penn State program record for the power clean that was previously held by defensive tackle (yes, defensive tackle) Anthony Zettel.

As previously mentioned, Barkley played in a vanilla offense as a true freshman where he was the sole focus of the offense for stretches of time. With new offensive coordinator bringing a multiple-look offense that aims to spread the ball around, opposing defenses won't be able to key in on Barkley like they did a year ago. Penn State will also have much more depth and experience at the running back position, meaning that Barkley should be able to maintain fresh legs throughout the season and his likelihood of missing time with injuries will decrease.

Barriers

The 2016 Heisman race could be one for the ages, with several of last year's finalists returning for another year of eligibility in the fall (more on this later). Several players will be considered Heisman frontrunners before the season kicks off, meaning they will need to fall out of the race somewhat for Barkley to start receiving national consideration.

As previously mentioned, Barkley will have more help in the backfield with the likes of Mark Allen, Miles Sanders, Jonathan Thomas and Andre Robinson all competing for carries, with all likely too talented to keep off the field. This will equate to less time on the field, and therefore, touches for Barkley. This could certainly work out to Barkley's advantage- just imagine a rested Barkley tearing through a tired defense in the fourth quarter and try not to jump for joy. However, Barkley will need to make the most out of his touches, and it's not very likely he'll be able to put up the numbers needed to rocket to the top of the Heisman front-runners list is he ends up with about 15 carries a game.

What could ultimately negate Barkley's chances the most is Penn State's record. Coming off a 7-5 season and replacing three-fourths of the defensive line, a three-year starting quarterback and offensive coordinator, the team won't be receiving much national attention to start the season, and will not play in many premiere games unless they can manage to get off to a hot start and vault up the rankings (and win enough to stay there). Even if Barkley manages a 2,000 yard, 25 touchdown season, he'll still be considered an also-ran if the team finishes around 7-5 again (a strong possibility considering inexperience and turnover). Simply put, Barkley will need a few meaningful games against the Big Ten elite where the eyes of the nation are on Penn State.

The Competition

Christian McCaffrey- RB, Stanford

McCaffrey had an incredible late-season surge to nearly win the Heisman, eventually coming in second to Alabama and current Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. Despite a slow start to the season, McCaffrey managed 276 all-purpose yards per game. On paper, he may be the most likely Heisman winner in 2016- he does it all, leading the team in both rushing and receiving while excelling as a punt and kick returner. Not only will he be the main focus of the Stanford offense, he'll be running behind perhaps the best offensive line in college football once again.

Deshaun Watson- QB, Clemson

Watson will enter 2016 with the most hype for any individual player. He will return to lead a highly-ranked team that could be the front-runner for a national championship and will have the spotlight of being the likely number one overall draft pick at the start of the season. Watson is extremely difficult to defend with his mix of accuracy and lightning speed to escape the pocket when an open receiver isn't immediately available. He will be an extremely productive leader on a team that should have many marquee games throughout the season.

Leonard Fournette- RB, LSU

Fournette seemed to be the obvious Heisman winner for most of 2015 until he ran into a historically-good Alabama defensive line that limited him to just 31 yards on 19 carries in LSU's biggest game of the season. Outside of that game, he proved himself to be among the top talents in college football and finished just shy of a 2,000 yard rushing season. LSU returns plenty of experience in 2016, and he will have the opportunity to jump right back into the spot of the Heisman favorite.

Barkley's Journey to the Heisman

So what exactly is needed for Barkley to receive the coveted invitation to Manhattan as a Heisman finalist? Well, plenty. First off, he will need to make a splash early to make others across the nation take notice. He will have the opportunity with early games against Pitt and Michigan, and two 200-plus yard and multiple touchdown efforts will get him on the Heisman radar. Penn State will need to come out victorious, as a win against a much-hyped Michigan squad will vault them into the rankings and regain attention in Happy Valley for national voters. Barkley would need to continue to churn out yardage and pad his stats against the likes of Minnesota and Maryland, before carrying the team to an upset against Ohio State in late October to really build some momentum. With the team turning a corner and Barkley gaining more traction with Heisman voters, he will then need to put on a show against tough defenses in home contests against Iowa and Michigan State- games that suddenly have playoff implications. A few highlight-reel plays in less-viewed games against Purdue, Indiana and Rutgers will keep him in the minds of voters as his jaw-dropping plays are repeated over and over on SportsCenter. A breakaway touchdown against the Spartans in the final week of the season that clinches a victory and a Big Ten East Division championship becomes Barkley's "Heisman moment" that ensures his trip to New York in mid-December.

Barkley will also need plenty of help outside of State College as well. Fournette stumbling in a week one contest to Wisconsin could get him out of the picture early. If not, he could be eliminated from the race in marquee games against stingy defenses against Florida or, once again, Alabama. Watson could find himself on the outside looking in early as well if he throws multiple interceptions in a week one loss to Auburn. There is also the potential of a few upsets in the first half of the season against Georgia Tech, Louisville and NC State that could take him off the radar. If they make it through the first half of the season unscathed, a poor performance in a loss to Florida State on Oct. 29 could seal his fate. A poor showing by McCaffrey in a primetime week two clash against USC could lessen his chances, and all eyes will be on him in a showdown at Notre Dame on Oct. 15. If a tough Irish defense can hold him to under 80 yards, it may be enough to take him out of the picture even if he accumulates video game numbers against inferior PAC 12 opponents for the rest of the season.

Will it Happen?

When you consider all of the factors at play, the likelihood isn't very promising. Unlike previous seasons with wide-open races, 2016 will start with a few clear-cut favorites. The three aforementioned finalists will have every opportunity to claim the Heisman, and they will each need to experience major setbacks for someone like Barkley to establish himself.

The largest barrier though is the fact Barkley probably won't play in as many marquee games needed to firmly establish himself as a Heisman candidate. McCaffrey, Fournette and Watson all have the luxury of playing on teams that will be considered strong playoff contenders for most, if not the entire season, will Penn State is still trying to turn the corner and rejoin the elites of college football.

The more likely scenario is that Barkley establishes himself as one of the best running backs in the nation, finishes 5th-7th in Heisman ballot, and enters the following season as one of the top finalists on a team that will have the talent and experience to make a push for a Big Ten title, and hopefully more, in 2017.