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2021 Heisman Trophy predictions: Wide-open field littered with quarterbacks

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This story is part of USA TODAY Sports' 25 days to college football countdown.

It's rare to have a complete reset of the Heisman Trophy race from one season to the next. But with none of last year's top-five finishers returning in 2021, the chase for the Heisman is wide open and unpredictable.

Only once since 2003 has none of the top five not come back the following year.

That leaves several returning quarterbacks and skill players in the mix for the 2021 Heisman with no clear favorite heading into the start of the regular season.

But when in doubt, ask this question: Which quarterback will put up the best numbers for the teams pegged to contend for the national championship?

Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma

Spencer Rattler and Oklahoma are looking for an eighth consecutive Big 12 title.
Spencer Rattler and Oklahoma are looking for an eighth consecutive Big 12 title.

After throwing five interceptions in the first four starts of his redshirt freshman season, Rattler tossed just two picks against 15 touchdowns the rest of the way to pace Oklahoma's latest Big 12 championship and blowout of Florida in the Cotton Bowl. His development and coach Lincoln Riley's track record suggest Rattler will be the latest OU quarterback to make a run at the Heisman. The Sooners open the year ranked No. 3 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and one of two teams to earn first-place votes, joining No. 1 Alabama.

DJ Uiagalelei, Clemson

It's rare for any quarterback to be labeled a Heisman contender without having spent at least one full season as the starter, especially one with just two career starts. But those were some impressive starts: Uiagalelei went for 781 yards and four touchdowns without an interception in games against Boston College and Notre Dame. He seems very prepared to step into some large shoes as Trevor Lawrence's successor.

Kedon Slovis, Southern California

Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis looks to throw  against the Arizona State at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis looks to throw against the Arizona State at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Slovis will be the designated Heisman favorite coming out of the Pac-12 as he heads into his third year as the Trojans' starter. What are two keys to a successful candidacy? One will be No. 14 USC's efforts to develop new contributors at receiver after losing key pieces from last season's rotation. Another is to get over the hump against Oregon and win a conference title — six of Slovis's 16 interceptions in his first two seasons have come in two games against the Ducks.

Sam Howell, North Carolina

Production alone won't win Howell the Heisman, though the high probability that he throws for 35 or more touchdowns and contends for the national lead in every major statistical category will make the third-year starter an elite contender. With so many other quarterbacks in the mix, the question for Howell is whether No. 9 UNC will take another step forward and compete for the playoff. If so, that combination could make him the player to beat.

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JT Daniels, Georgia

Daniels came into his own after taking over as No. 5 Georgia's starter for the final four games of last season. Unsurprisingly, his move into the lineup sparked a four-game winning streak and saw the Bulldogs' offense find a rhythm and an explosiveness largely missing throughout coach Kirby Smart's tenure. With Georgia as Alabama's biggest threat in the SEC, Daniels will have many opportunities to make his Heisman case.

Breece Hall, Iowa State

The most accomplished back in the country, Hall led the FBS in carries (279) and yards (1,572) and finished second in rushing touchdowns (21) during the pandemic season. Now more of a household name, Hall will have a great case for being voted as a Heisman finalist if No. 8 Iowa State beats OU, wins the Big 12 and finishes in the top four.

Bijan Robinson, Texas

Robinson exploded in the last month of his true freshman season as the centerpiece of the Longhorns' offense, running for 542 yards (11.1 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. The chance to get more touches as a sophomore and be part of new Texas coach Steve Sarkisian's dynamic offensive system makes Robinson a very intriguing contender. Numbers aside, there is the question of whether UT will be enough of a conference or national factor to put Robinson on the Heisman map.

Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

Ridder will be the most high-profile skill player in the Group Five next season after averaging more than three touchdowns per game in leading No. 10 Cincinnati to the Peach Bowl. Once again, the Bearcats are seen as the team to beat in the American and even a legitimate contender for the national semifinals. Ridder and Cincinnati will have two major opportunities to make noise: at Indiana on Sept. 18 and at Notre Dame on Oct. 2. What would a win in South Bend do for Ridder's reputation?

Bryce Young, Alabama

Any questions over whether Young could slide seamlessly into the starting lineup have been answered during his impressive offseason. All the talent is there for the former five-star recruit to make a run at the postseason hardware, but there is also his lack of experience and some lingering questions about how well Alabama will reload at every position group on offense. Even still, the baseline for Young is to contend for all-conference honors and for the Tide to win the SEC and reach the playoff.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Preseason predictions for Heisman dominated by QBs