Considering a bet for the 2021 Heisman Trophy? Avoid these favorites and consider these 5 candidates
Friends don’t let friends waste money betting on preseason Heisman Trophy favorites.
It’s bad business. I say it every year. You’re essentially giving away money if you, reader of this column, put down $100 on Spencer Rattler to win the Heisman at +800 (all odds courtesy of FanDuel). I won’t let you do it.
Why? As I say each and every year, this became a narrative-driven award in the 2010s, not a lifetime achievement award like it once was prior to Tim Tebow becoming the first sophomore to win the Heisman back in 2007. Fatigue plays a part in it. Living up to lofty preseason expectations to be the single best player in college football is, as history shows, a brutal challenge.
Here’s what I mean. Dating back to 2009, there was just 1 instance in which a preseason top-2 Heisman candidate actually won the award. That was Marcus Mariota, who had the second-best Heisman odds before the 2014 season. Other than that, Baker Mayfield is the only other player to start in the preseason top-3 of the Heisman odds who actually won the award since 2009.
That trend continued last year with DeVonta Smith, who was +10,000 to win the Heisman last February. Hopefully, you got 100-1 on your money.
Last year when I did this column in the preseason, I told you to stay away from Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Those were terrible odds at +350 and +400, respectively. I instead advised taking a flyer on Kyle Trask (30/1), Sam Howell (30/1), Dylan McCaffrey (75/1), Tanner Morgan (125/1) and Malik Cunningham (150/1). Trask might not have won, but how good were you feeling if you put $100 on Trask in the preseason knowing that he was perhaps a shoe throw away from earning a $3,000 payday?
And again, betting on the Heisman in the preseason is all about upside. If the last decade plus tells us it’s a dart throw, why not get a bigger reward for your dart throw?
That leads us to 2021. FanDuel has some early Heisman odds out there. If you haven’t seen them, here’s the top 20:
- Spencer Rattler +800
- DJ Uiagalelei +1100
- JT Daniels +1200
- Bryce Young +1200
- Sam Howell +1600
- D’Eriq King +1600
- CJ Stroud +1600
- Matt Corral +1800
- Kedon Slovis +2500
- Bijan Robinson +3000
- Desmond Ridder +3000
- Jayden Daniels +3000
- Brock Purdy +3000
- Breece Hall +4000
- Casey Thompson +4000
- Emory Jones +4000
- McKenzie Milton +4000
- Dorian Thompson-Robinson +5000
- Sean Clifford +5000
- Malik Willis +5000
Yes, I also find it interesting that a year after a wide receiver won the award for the first time since 1991, not a single receiver is listed among the preseason top 20. Of those 20 players listed, 18 are quarterbacks. Hall and Robinson are both tailbacks listed there.
Using our logic that a top-3 preseason candidate has only won 2 of the last 12 Heismans, I have no problem saying avoid Rattler, Uiagalelei, Daniels and Young. Even though first-time starters can follow that Heisman narrative, there’s not enough upside baked into those odds.
These are the 5 candidates I’d take a chance on:
1. Bijan Robinson, Texas RB
Odds — 30/1
I dubbed 2021 as “return of the back” in the SEC (trademark pending), so why can’t that be a theme across college football? It’s true that in the 2010s, 9 of the 10 Heismans went to quarterbacks with Derrick Henry being the lone exception in 2015. But we’re coming off a year in which voters opened their minds a bit by rewarding a non-quarterback for a historic season.
If a running back is going to win this award in the 2020s, Robinson is an ideal candidate. He’s incredibly efficient (8.2 yards per carry as a true freshman), he can make the home-run play that gets the internet buzzing (PFF had him for runs of 10-plus yards on 30% of his carries in the last 4 games) and he plays at a high-profile program with a coach who somewhat quietly dialed up some remarkable running back success the last couple years with Najee Harris. In 2 seasons with Steve Sarkisian, Harris averaged:
- 1,710 scrimmage yards
- 25 total touchdowns
- 35 catches
- 365 receiving yards
Sarkisian would be wise to use the explosive Robinson in a similar fashion. The talent is certainly there. Also add in the fact that Texas returns 4 of 5 starters from the offensive line to develop under respected offensive line coach Kyle Flood, who Sarkisian brought with him from Alabama, and it’s not crazy to project Robinson becoming the star of college football in 2021.
Yes, the Heisman usually goes to a team in the Playoff hunt, which Texas isn’t expected to be in Year 1 with Sarkisian. That’s why Robinson’s odds are 30/1 and not 15/1. Still, though. You can do a whole lot worse than the dynamic Longhorn back.
2. Emory Jones, Florida QB
Odds — 40/1
Nobody will make this comparison because their games are wildly different, but there could be a Mac Jones-type path to Emory Jones’ 2021 season. The guy did the atypical thing waited his turn for 3 years and gets some late-season experience. He got a chance to start in Year 4 with a superior offensive mind in his ear and because of how good his predecessor was, there’s a preseason expectation that the offense will take a step back.
Did I just describe Mac Jones or Emory Jones?
Say what you want about Dan Mullen’s outbursts in 2020. That season solidified that he’s on the short list of elite offensive minds. History shows us that when quarterbacks get a chance to develop in his system, they’re better off for it. I’m not sure what we know Jones’ ceiling. Because of his rushing ability, he probably won’t have to constantly hear the comparisons to Trask’s prolific year leading the nation’s No. 1 passing offense.
Jones will have 3 marquee opportunities to shine in the regular season, including at home against Alabama in mid-September. If he leads an upset — that’s a major “if” — his odds will soar from 40/1. Ask Johnny Manziel what it means to take down the Tide as a first-year starter. Granted, this is a different Alabama defense, but Jones is a much better preseason flyer than a midseason bet because beating either Alabama or Georgia would drastically change his value.
3. Casey Thompson, Texas QB
Odds — 40/1
Did you notice that I didn’t put Thompson directly after Robinson? That was to not make it look like I’m all in on Texas being back.
Consider my Longhorn dart throws as a hat tip to Sarkisian, who had 3 offensive players finish in the top 5 of the Heisman voting in 2020, and he would’ve had another in 2019 had Tua Tagovailoa not gotten hurt. Oh, and Sarkisian also just delivered the 2 best Alabama offenses ever in his 2 seasons in Tuscaloosa. Noteworthy was that Sarkisian did it with 2 different starting quarterbacks, both of whom were already on campus for 2-plus years when he arrived. We know how well it went from Tagovailoa (206.9 QB rating as a starter under Sarkisian in 2019) and Jones (203.1 QB rating as a starter with Sarkisian in 2020).
Thompson is in a similar boat, albeit with tempered expectations. The argument against putting any money down on him for the Heisman is that even though he’s considered the favorite, he might not even win the battle to replace Sam Ehlinger. Redshirt freshman Hudson Card is vying for that spot, though he didn’t get the benefit of shining late in the year like Thompson did in the second half of the Alamo Bowl (8-10, 170 yards, 4 TDs).
1 throw and I’m sold on
Casey Thompson 🔥 pic.twitter.com/5QxSVG5vIv
— Will Blackmon 🍷 (@WillBlackmon) December 30, 2020
Neither Card nor Thompson have starting experience, and with a new staff, nothing is guaranteed. But picture this. If Thompson is announced as the starter tomorrow, how dramatically will those Heisman odds be impacted? Will he go to 20/1? Now would be the better time to take a chance on Thompson, who gets the benefit of the aforementioned Robinson to take some attention away. The offensive line has to be able to pass protect better in 2021 (2.3 sacks taken per game in 2020), and obviously, if the Longhorns are 7-5, even the “Texas is back” jokes will get old in a hurry.
But the combination of the small, promising sample size with Sarkisian’s offensive wizardry is worth rolling the dice on Thompson at 40/1.
4. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU CB
Odds — 100/1
I’m normally not that guy. You know, the guy who tries to sell you on this finally being the year that we see a defensive player win the Heisman in the 21st century. And with someone entering 2021 as arguably the best defensive player in America, Stingley sort of falls in that camp of the quarterbacks with massive preseason expectations. Living up to that ain’t easy. There’s also the likely scenario that Stingley doesn’t get thrown at nearly as much as he did when he set the world on fire as a true freshman in 2019 (he saw the second-most targets in FBS).
So where’s the logic in listing Stingley as an intriguing Heisman long shot?
If 2020 showed that we can think a bit differently about the award, perhaps 2021 is the year in which a cornerback can win the award without needing to lead the country in interceptions. We have so much data now to track a defensive player like Stingley, who should still at least get thrown on a bit because of how good fellow LSU corner Eli Ricks is in man coverage. If quarterbacks have a passer rating of 27.8 when targeting Stingley, that should help his Heisman candidacy.
Yes, it helps that Stingley is expected to be used in all 3 facets of the game. No, I’m not crazy about the idea of the LSU star getting reps at receiver, but that’s his decision. The second Stingley does anything on offense, we’ll hear the Charles Woodson comps. Michigan tried to do it with Jabrill Peppers and it earned him a Heisman invite in 2016, but I’d argue Stingley is better at his main gig (playing corner) than he was.
At the very least, Stingley’s path to the Heisman includes him performing at 2019 levels at corner with a touchdown or 2 (either as a returner or a pick-6), a few offensive highlights AND LSU being in the Playoff hunt. That’s a lot, but are any of those things that far-fetched? Nope. Stingley’s redemption year in the post-Bo Pelini era could follow a unique Heisman narrative.
5. Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina QB
Odds — 100/1
I know, I know. A non-Power 5 player (excluding Notre Dame) hasn’t won the Heisman since Ty Detmer squeaked past Rocket Ismail in 1990. That’s why McCall is +10000. If you’re going to be graded on the non-Power 5 curve, you have to put up monster numbers. Even Zach Wilson, who McCall beat last year, only finished No. 8 for his breakout 2020 campaign. We haven’t seen a non-Power 5 player finish in the top 4 in the Heisman voting since Jordan Lynch finished No. 3 in 2013. There hasn’t even been a non-Power 5 runner up since Marshall Faulk was No. 2 in the voting in 1992 (remember that’s still excluding Notre Dame).
So why does McCall have the ability to be the first? Well, he’s got a few factors working in his favor.
Rattler is the only returning quarterback in America who had a better PFF grade than McCall in 2020. McCall is a dual threat in Jamey Chadwell’s unique take on the triple-option offense. In his first year as the starter, McCall averaged 10 yards per passing attempt and 5 yards per carry. He averaged 3 touchdowns per game as a redshirt freshman, and did so for a team that went unbeaten in the regular season.
Grayson McCall (RFr.), Quarterback, Coastal Carolina
Skill Sample – Deep Accuracy pic.twitter.com/xItNAfptdG
— Felix Sharpe (@sharpereview) October 5, 2020
There’s another thing McCall has working in his favor. Last year, Coastal Carolina sort of became America’s team. The mullets, the rescheduling of the Liberty-turned-BYU game, the WWE postgame celebrations … it all gained national traction. There’s a decent chance that continues in 2021, and not just because Chadwell will be in full mullet for the season opener. The Chants return 89% of last year’s production — including McCall’s top 2 targets and the entire offensive line — and they’re a good bet to start in the Top 25.
Speaking of bets, there’s a pretty decent chance they’ll be favored in every regular season game of 2021. So you’ve got a star quarterback with 2 years in the spotlight who puts up gaudy numbers for an unbeaten team that’s well-liked by the masses. Yes, it would probably take McCall at least getting to the 45-50 touchdown range (he had 33 in 11 games last year) to even have a shot, and he’ll need even more of those off-platform throws to go viral.
But a year removed from seeing the Heisman receiver drought end just shy of 3 decades, maybe it’s time for the non-Power 5 player drought to end in 2021.