The 2017 Heisman race projects to be even more competitive than usual. Reigning recipient Lamar Jackson returns for Louisville looking to become only the second repeat winner in college football history. He’ll hardly be the only standout quarterback next year, though. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, who has twice finished in the top four in the Heisman voting, and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett are two of the bigger names in the national spotlight, but it’s USC redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold being pegged as the preseason favorite by the oddsmakers.
It’s tough to label anyone a clear favorite given how wide-open this year’s race might be, but Darnold is certainly deserving of this distinction. USC completely turned its season around after Darnold became the starter four weeks into what initially looked to be a disappointing 2016 season. The Trojans went on to win nine of their final ten games, including that thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, and the projected top pick in next year’s NFL draft threw 31 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions along the way.
However, preseason Heisman favorites have been cursed over the past decade or so. In fact, no preseason favorite has won the award since 2004, and that just happened to be the last year I could find reliable preseason Heisman odds, so the drought may date back even further.
Oftentimes winners come out of nowhere. Lamar Jackson was listed at 50/1 last preseason, behind seventeen other players. Meanwhile, Johnny Manziel (2012) and Cam Newton (2010) were so far off the radar that you couldn’t even bet on them before their respective seasons. Recent recipients like Derrick Henry (25/1), Jameis Winston (35/1), and Robert Griffin III (20/1) could be categorized as long-shots winners, as well.
Moreover, some of the “safest” bets to win have underperformed, relative to the high expectations assigned to them. Take two of last season’s preseason darlings, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. Neither were even invited to be one of the five finalists at the Heisman award ceremony, and their teams underachieved so greatly that both future top ten picks opted to turn their attentions to the upcoming NFL draft rather than play in the Nacho Tortilla Chip Bowl presented by Geico. Cleary the extra attention paid by defensive coordinators and the media has its consequences.
So here’s the key takeaway for my fellow gamblers: be wary of backing public favorites like Darnold, Jackson, and Mayfield. They each might have spectacular seasons and take their teams to soaring heights, but history says they are a shaky bet to win the Heisman.
Instead, look to the following quarterbacks (because QB’s have won fourteen of the past seventeen Heisman’s) if you’re thinking of making a speculative bet:
- Jalen Hurts, QB Alabama (20/1): His dual-threat ability–he threw 23 touchdowns and ran for 13 last year–gives him an opportunity to post the huge passing and rushing numbers that voters are enamored with.
- Deondre Francois, QB Florida State (12/1): The incoming sophomore was erratic last season, but when he was at his best (i.e. his 419-yard performance against Ole Miss), Francois showed he had definitive Heisman potential.
- Jarrett Stidham, QB Auburn (15/1): There’s a bit of an unknown with Stidham, a transfer from Baylor who has never started a full season. Yet his relatively high Heisman odds, along with dazzling reports out of SEC media day, indicate that he could be next season’s breakout player.
Sam Darnold photo courtesy of Icon Sportswire