Way-Too-Early Heisman Candidates for 2021 College Football Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 15, 2021

Way-Too-Early Heisman Candidates for 2021 College Football Season

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    Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler
    Oklahoma QB Spencer RattlerMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    If you're the type to bet on Heisman odds almost an entire year before the next ceremony, recent history suggests you might want to avoid the favorites.

    DeVonta Smith was getting 80-1 odds this time a year ago. Joe Burrow was famously a 200-1 long shot the summer before he won the 2019 Heisman. And while Kyler Murray was at least somewhat on the Heisman radar in January 2018, his 35-1 odds put him in a tie for 15th-most likely to win.

    If you're trying to throw a dart in that general direction, we'll get things started here with a list of deep sleepers and less-deep sleepers, before diving into what we would consider the eight most likely Heisman candidates for 2021.

    DraftKings has posted early odds for the Heisman, and it's no surprise that everyone in our top eight appears in their top 12. Save for agreeing on Spencer Rattler as the favorite, though, our ranking is a good bit different for reasons we'll attempt to explain within.

The Deep Sleepers

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    Notre Dame RB Kyren Williams
    Notre Dame RB Kyren WilliamsMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Sean Clifford, QB, Penn State (100-1)

    Penn State's 2020 season was awful, but the Nittany Lions should bounce back next year if they get more consistent play out of their quarterback. Sean Clifford threw eight interceptions during the five-game losing streak to open the season. But he has shown at times in the past two years that he could be a college football star.


    Kyren Williams, RB, Notre Dame (100-1)

    Kyren Williams was one of the biggest breakout stars of the 2020 season. He had only 29 total yards from scrimmage in 2019, but he went for 1,438 yards and 14 touchdowns while carrying Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff this year. The Fighting Irish don't have many sure things on the roster heading into next year, but Williams is a big one.


    Kayvon Thibodeaux, Edge, Oregon (150-1)

    A wide receiver just won the Heisman for the first time in three decades. Next up? Maybe a defensive player for the first time since 1997? Kayvon Thibodeaux racked up 9.0 sacks in the final 10 games of his true freshman season in 2019, and he had 9.5 tackles for loss in only seven games this year. The former No. 2 overall recruit could have a Chase Young type of year in 2021.


    Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB, UCLA (150-1)

    UCLA went only 3-4, but the offense is finally starting to look like what was expected when the Bruins hired Chip Kelly before the 2018 season. They averaged more than 35 points and 455 total yards per game, and year No. 4 with DTR at quarterback could bring about another spike in production.


    C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State (Not Listed)

    Throughout the 2020 season, Ohio State's depth chart listed true freshmen Jack Miller III and C.J. Stroud as co-backups to Justin Fields at quarterback. Neither one attempted a pass this season, and it's far too early to have any idea which one (if either) will win the starting job in 2021. And yet, Miller is listed at 40-1 for the Heisman while Stroudthe much higher-rated recruit, for what it's worthis unlisted. Seriously? Ohio State's tight end (Jeremy Ruckert) is given 250-1 odds, but no sign of its possible starting quarterback? That seems like a major mistake.

The Less-Deep Sleepers

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    Ole Miss QB Matt Corral
    Ole Miss QB Matt CorralChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Casey Thompson, QB, Texas (50-1)

    After four years and 127 total touchdowns, Sam Ehlinger's time as quarterback of Texas is over. And the new regime might be even better. Casey Thompson threw for six touchdowns in only 17 pass attempts this season, and new head coach Steve Sarkisian figures to make this offense more innovative. I doubt Texas is back, but this offense is going to be all sorts of fun.


    Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati (50-1)

    Desmond Ridder averaged better than 3.0 total touchdowns per game while leading Cincinnati to the brink of an undefeated season. And over his final four games, he averaged 285.0 passing yards and 49.5 rushing yards. Cincinnati might never have a real chance at playing for a national championship, but Ridder could win the Heisman with numbers like those.


    Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss (50-1)

    Matt Corral needs to cut down on the turnovers. Three lost fumbles and 14 interceptions in a 10-game season is far too many. But he did average 384.3 combined passing and rushing yards and 3.3 total touchdowns per game. The leader of Lane Kiffin's offense will be a strong candidate for the Heisman if he can significantly reduce his turnovers.


    Max Johnson, QB, LSU (50-1)

    As with Ohio State, LSU's quarterback situation is a huge question mark, and it isn't for lack of options. As far as we know, Myles Brennan, TJ Finley and Max Johnson will all be back, and the Tigers are adding a recruit in Garrett Nussmeier who conceivably could win the job as a true freshman. But Johnson did solid work in the season-ending wins over Florida and Ole Miss and is probably the slight front-runner. If the depth chart ever becomes clear, LSU's starting quarterback deserves better than 50-1 odds.


    John Metchie III, WR, Alabama (80-1)

    Could an Alabama wide receiver win the Heisman for a second straight year? Probably not. But if it's going to happen, John Metchie III did just have one heck of a "That Other Guy in Alabama's Offense" season, ending up with 55 receptions for 916 yards and six touchdowns. He should be Bryce Young's go-to receiver.

8. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

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    North Carolina QB Sam Howell
    North Carolina QB Sam HowellLynne Sladky/Associated Press

    2020 Per-Game Stats: 298.8 passing yards, 12.2 rushing yards, 3.0 total touchdowns, 0.6 interceptions, 179.1 rating

    DraftKings Odds: 8-1

    Sam Howell is a star. There's a better-than-decent chance he'll be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. It's perfectly understandable for him to have the fourth-best odds of winning the Heisman.

    But I wouldn't touch those 8-1 odds with a 10-foot pole.

    In Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, the Tar Heels offense is losing 4,761 total yards from scrimmage and 48 touchdowns. That's 396.75 total yards per game, which is more than what Florida State's entire offense averaged in 2020.

    And for a quarterback who wasn't even a top-10 finisher for the Heisman this year, that's just too much talent to replace in one offseason.

    Josh Downs, British Brooks and others are ready to step into those vacancies, and both Howell and North Carolina should have fine seasons. Winning the Heisman just seems a bit far-fetched, though.

    It might come off as hypocritical to have Howell this low while putting Bryce Young and D.J. Uiagalelei above him considering their teams also need to replace all of their 2020 stars, but Alabama and Clemson have much stronger talent pipelines and are far more likely to factor into the College Football Playoff mix. Those are two critical details when considering Heisman odds.

7. D'Eriq King, QB, Miami

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    Miami QB D'Eriq King
    Miami QB D'Eriq KingJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    2020 Per-Game Stats: 244.2 passing yards, 48.9 rushing yards, 2.5 total touchdowns, 0.5 interceptions, 152.7 PER

    DraftKings Odds: 12-1

    For the 80 hours or so between when D'Eriq King announced he would be returning for a sixth season and when he suffered a knee injury in the Cheez-It Bowl, there was a case to be made that he deserved to be the way-too-early favorite for the Heismanor maybe the co-favorite with Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler.

    But now that we know he needs to recover from a torn ACLin the same knee in which he suffered a torn meniscus in 2018, no less—we need to factor some "if he's healthy" into his Heisman case.

    As if it isn't bad enough that he'll be asked to return to the field barely eight months after having that ACL surgery, Miami is scheduled to open the season against Alabama, which has made a habit of embarrassing an ACC opponent in Week 1. In four of the past eight seasons, Alabama has gotten things started against Virginia Tech, Florida State, Duke and Louisville, and the average final score of those games was 38.0 to 8.5.

    If he's able to play that game at full strength and if Miami's offense doesn't get trounced by the Crimson Tide defense, game on.

    The Hurricanes don't face Clemson during the regular season, and their other nonconference games are all at home against Appalachian State, Michigan State and Central Connecticut. There will be definite opportunities for stat-padding, so as long as King isn't out of the Heisman conversation after that first game, he should be able to stay in it for awhile.

    But that's a major "as long as" clause against an annual juggernaut.

6. Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State

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    Iowa State RB Breece Hall
    Iowa State RB Breece HallEric Gay/Associated Press

    2020 Per-Game Stats: 131.0 rushing yards, 15.0 receiving yards, 1.9 total touchdowns

    DraftKings Odds: 33-1

    It looks like Breece Hall will be the only top-10 finisher in the 2020 Heisman vote to return to school next year, which probably means we should expect big thingssimilar to when Stanford's Bryce Love came back for his senior year in 2018, or when Jonathan Taylor entered his junior year with two top-10 finishes already under his belt.

    Of course, neither of those running backs actually won the Heisman, and only one running back (Derrick Henry) has done so in the past decade. DeVonta Smith temporarily broke up the quarterback monopoly, but what are the odds we see a non-QB win the trophy in back-to-back years?

    That's why Hall is listed at 33-1 behind eight quarterbacks. But if I had to place a Heisman bet today, it would probably be on him.

    Iowa State is bringing back all of the offensive starters from a team that went 9-3 and played in (and won) a New Year's Six Bowl, and Hall is easily the biggest star of that offense. The Cyclones have never opened a season ranked higher than 20th in the AP poll, but they should be comfortably in the Top 10, maybe even the Top 5 to open the 2021 campaign.

    Now, that doesn't guarantee anything. We were in a similar boat with Chuba Hubbard and Oklahoma State at this time one year ago. He only tallied 625 rushing yards in an injury-ravaged junior season while the Cowboys offense barely averaged 30 points per game. But if the Cyclones can stay healthier than Oklahoma State was this year, Hall should at least be the top non-QB Heisman candidate.

5. Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

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    Alabama QB Bryce Young
    Alabama QB Bryce YoungL.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    2020 Total Stats: 13-of-22, 156 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, minus-23 rushing yards

    DraftKings Odds: 4-1

    Three Alabama players have won Heismans, and all three did so in the past 12 years.

    None of them were quarterbacks, though. And if Mac Jones couldn't win it while averaging 346 passing yards and 3.2 touchdowns per game, what hope does Bryce Young have?

    With Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle all at his disposal, it was a foregone conclusion that Joneswho wasn't even announced as the starter until a few days before the season openerwould be viewed by many as a benefactor of an elite offense as opposed to an orchestrator of it.

    Before his injury, the "Waddle 4 Heisman" bandwagon was filling up fast. Harris and Smith got a ton of attention all season long. But it wasn't until Trevor Lawrence got COVID-19 and Justin Fields had his dud against Indiana that most people started seriously entertaining Jones as a Heisman candidate.

    So Young's chances of winning the Heisman seem better, as the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2020 class will enter the year as the team's brightest star.

    Following in the footsteps of Tua Tagovailoa and Jonesnot to mention leading an annual title favorite that just went 13-0Young will face a lot of scrutiny. We'll see how that plays out for a guy who hasn't taken any meaningful snaps yet in his college career. But we can't leave Alabama's quarterback out of the top five candidates when an Alabama quarterback has finished among the top three in two of the last three Heisman races.

4. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

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    USC QB Kedon Slovis
    USC QB Kedon SlovisAshley Landis/Associated Press

    2020 Per-Game Stats: 320.2 passing yards, 2.8 touchdowns, 1.2 interceptions, 144.1 rating

    DraftKings Odds: 20-1

    Kedon Slovis played in only six games this fall, but even in the delayed and truncated season, he impressively picked up right where he left off at the end of 2019. And given how pathetic USC's rushing attack has been over the past two years, there's a good chance he'll lead the nation in passing in 2021.

    At 44.0 attempts per game, he threw the ball more often than any other quarterback this past season. And this came after he averaged 39.4 attempts for 346.3 yards and 3.1 touchdowns over the final eight games of his freshman campaign.

    After losing Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns to the NFL draft, Slovis will need to break in a few new favorite targets. But the quartet of Drake London, Bru McCoy, Gary Bryant Jr. and Kyle Ford might be the most talented receiving corps in the country. You could argue that both Oklahoma and Ohio State are slightly better in that regard, but the Trojans are at least in the conversation.

    Add it all up, and big numbers are forthcoming for Slovis. The question is whether USC will be relevant enough for him to factor into the Heisman race.

    Seven of the last nine Heisman winners played in either the College Football Playoff or the BCS Championship. The two exceptions were Johnny Manziel and Lamar Jackson, both of whom produced constant highlights with infinitely more scrambling ability than Slovis possesses, and who still narrowly finished ahead of guys who played in that year's national championship (Manti Te'o and Deshaun Watson).

3. JT Daniels, QB, Georgia

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    Georgia QB JT Daniels
    Georgia QB JT DanielsL.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    2020 Per-Game Stats: 307.8 passing yards, 2.5 touchdowns, 0.5 interceptions, 178.5 rating

    DraftKings Odds: 18-1

    I said earlier that if I had to place a Heisman vote today, it would probably be on Breece Hall.

    JT Daniels being listed at 18-1 is why I'm only willing to give that a "probably."

    Daniels missed almost all of the 2019 season after suffering a torn ACL while at USC, and he wasn't able to make his 2020 debut until late November while he recovered from that injury. But in his first game in more than 14 months, he went out and threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns against a Mississippi State secondary that had not allowed 400 passing yards in a game in five years.

    Not to Mac Jones this year. Not to Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa last year. Just Daniels.

    Daniels also threw for 392 yards in the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati, another usually excellent defense.

    Up until Daniels was finally unleashed, Georgia had been a heavily run-first offense dating back to 2014, relying mostly on game managers at quarterback. But the Bulldogs are ready to dive into the 21st century with a passing attack that could rival what LSU and Alabama have done in recent years.

    Not only do they have Daniels back, but running backs Zamir White and James Cook and wide receivers Kearis Jackson and George Pickens are all returning. One lineman (Ben Cleveland) might be all they need to replace on offense. If they're able to snare former LSU tight end Arik Gilbert from the transfer portal, even better. And UGA's defense is getting gutted by NFL draft declarations and transfers, making it even more likely that Daniels will be throwing a ton in 2021.

2. D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson

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    Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei
    Clemson QB D.J. UiagaleleiJosh Morgan/Associated Press

    2020 Total Stats: 78-of-117, 914 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 146.4 rating; 60 rushing yards, 4 touchdowns

    DraftKings Odds: 13-2

    Like Bryce Young at Alabama, D.J. Uiagalelei will enter 2021 as the biggest star of Clemson's offense. Travis Etienne, Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell are all presumably off to the NFL draft, leaving tight end Braden Galloway and his 369 receiving yards in 2020 as the most productive returnee.

    But the Tigers still have a copious amount of talent for Uiagalelei to work with.

    Both Frank Ladson Jr. and Joe Ngata were top-10 wide receivers in the 2019 class. E.J. Williams was the No. 13 wideout in the 2020 class, and he has already flashed major star potential. And 2021 signee Beaux Collins is a top-100 overall recruit who played high school ball with Uiagalelei at St. John Bosco.

    And while we got a glimpse of it in the games that he started against Boston College and Notre Dame, most college football fans don't yet realize how much of a dual threat Uiagalelei is going to be.

    He isn't a "conventional" dual threat. He doesn't have Lamar Jackson's speed or anything. But at 6'4" and 250 pounds, he's built a lot like Cam Newton, making him difficult to bring down.

    Uiagalelei didn't run a ton in high school, but he did have more than 1,000 rushing yards, per MaxPreps. And he has a howitzer of an arm, capable of launching the ball well over 60 yards downfield.

    It's almost unfair that Clemson gets to go straight from Trevor Lawrence to this phenom, but it's a safe assumption that the Tigers will have a quarterback finish in the top seven of the Heisman vote for the fifth time in seven years.

1. Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler
    Oklahoma QB Spencer RattlerMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    2020 Per-Game Stats: 275.5 passing yards, 14.5 rushing yards, 3.1 total touchdowns, 0.6 interceptions, 172.6 rating

    DraftKings Odds: 3-1

    Apologies for being predictable and putting the early favorite at No. 1 on the list, but, well, there's a reason Spencer Rattler is the early favorite.

    There were some minor growing pains early on in Rattler's first year as a starter. He annihilated Missouri State in the season opener, but he proceeded to throw a combined four interceptions in back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Iowa State.

    After that, though, Rattler led the Sooners to eight consecutive wins and 45.0 points per game. They weren't quite as dominant on offense as Alabama, but they were doggone good.

    Now for the scary part: Oklahoma was never anything close to full strength this season.

    Running back Kennedy Brooks opted out of the 2020 season. Jadon Haselwood, the No. 4 overall recruit in the 2019 class, caught only four receptions because of a knee injury he suffered in the spring. Trejan Bridges, another top-100 overall recruit in 2019, didn't make his season debut until the bowl game because of an NCAA suspension.

    Rattler put up big numbers even without those key cogs, as Marvin Mims and Theo Wease became breakout stars instead.

    With all five of those weapons at his disposal, Rattler's ceiling is limitless. Oklahoma averaged 48.4 points per game during Kyler Murray's Heisman season, and it isn't hard to envision even more scoring in 2021.