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

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJune 10, 2021

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

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    Iowa State QB Brock Purdy
    Iowa State QB Brock PurdyRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    College football fans (and the sportsbooks that take their money) have come to the conclusion that the 2021 Heisman is most likely to be one of Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler, Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei or Alabama's Bryce Young.

    But betting on the favorite(s) isn't much funnor has it been lucrative in recent years—so we've assembled a list of sleepers for college football's stiff-armed trophy.

    To be considered a sleeper for the Heisman, a player must have betting odds on DraftKings of 50-1 or longer. That cut line eliminates these 15 players from the conversation: Rattler, Uiagalelei, Young, JT Daniels, C.J. Stroud, Sam Howell, Matt Corral, D'Eriq King, Bijan Robinson, Kedon Slovis, Jayden Daniels, Emory Jones, Desmond Ridder, Breece Hall and Casey Thompson.

    Outside that group, everyone is eligible for this list.

    However, making the cut requires a healthy dose of anticipated success by player and team alike. With the exception of independent BYU's Zach Wilson, everyone who finished top 10 in last year's Heisman vote played for a team that reached its conference championship. In each of the past three seasons, both the winner and the first runner-up played in the College Football Playoff.

    Simply put, there's a reason the five guys with lines of 12-1 or better are the projected starting quarterbacks for the projected five best teams in the country.

    The Heisman doesn't often come from that club, though.

    As a wide receiver, DeVonta Smith didn't meet that description last season. Joe Burrow's LSU Tigers opened the 2019 campaign at No. 6 in the AP poll, behind both Alabama and Georgia in the projected SEC standings. Oklahoma debuted at No. 7 the year Baker Mayfield won, and again when Kyler Murray won. And the year that Lamar Jackson was named the Heisman, Louisville opened the season at No. 19 in the AP poll.

    With that in mind, let's go searching for potential diamonds in the rough.

    Players are listed in alphabetical order by school.

Honorable Mentions

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    UCF QB Dillon Gabriel
    UCF QB Dillon GabrielJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Michael Penix Jr., Indiana QB (50-1)

    If you're betting on any Heisman candidate coming back from a late-season torn ACL, it's probably Miami's D'Eriq King. Let's not forget about Indiana's lethal lefty, though. One week prior to suffering his injury, Penix lit up Ohio State's secondary for 491 yards and five touchdowns. The only other quarterbacks to eclipse 300 yards against the Buckeyes last year were the first runner-up (Trevor Lawrence) and second runner-up (Mac Jones) for the Heisman.


    Malik Willis, Liberty QB (Not Listed)

    In nearly leading Liberty to an undefeated season in 2020, Willis averaged 225.0 passing yards, 94.4 rushing yards and 3.4 total touchdowns per game. It took about a month for most people to even realize what he was accomplishing so far below the radar, but now he's a consensus late-first-round pick in 2022, per NFL Mock Draft Database. People will be paying attention to Willis earlier in the year this time, and he'll get some significant opportunities late in the year against Ole Miss and Louisiana. If the Flames flirt with perfection again, Willis might flirt with a Heisman.


    Kyren Williams, Notre Dame RB (100-1)

    Notre Dame QB Ian Book placed ninth in last year's Heisman vote, but Kyren Williams was the heart and soul of that offense, averaging nearly 120 yards from scrimmage per game. He'll need to kick that up another notch to have realistic hope of winning the Heisman as a running back. But if the Fighting Irish manage to get back to the College Football Playoff for a third time in four years, Williams will likely be the brightest star of that show (now that Book is gone).


    Dillon Gabriel, UCF QB (50-1)

    After a surprising breakout as a freshman in 2019, Gabriel stepped into the spotlight as a sophomore. He led the nation in passing yards per game (357.0) and racked up 32 touchdowns against just four interceptions (in 10 games). Were it not for the four losses suffered because of atrocious defense, he would've been a legitimate Heisman candidate. If the Knights can bounce back to national relevance—and if Gabriel can make a loud Week 1 statement in a Thursday night win over Boise State—he'll be in business.

John Metchie III, Alabama WR

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    John Metchie III
    John Metchie IIIJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: 80-1

    In 2020, Alabama's DeVonta Smith became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman since Desmond Howard did it in 1991.

    What are the odds a different Alabama wide receiver can make it back-to-back years of such a rare feat?

    Well, those odds are 80-1.

    But if you're searching for a non-quarterback to bet on, recent history suggests Tuscaloosa is the place to look.

    Twelve of the last 15 Heisman winners were quarterbacks. The exceptions to that rule? Alabama's Smith, Alabama's Derrick Henry and Alabama's Mark Ingram.

    John Metchie III did more than enough last season to suggest he could turn that trio into a quartet.

    When Jaylen Waddle suffered a dislocated ankle on the first play of Alabama's fifth game of the season, the offense didn't even skip a beat. Metchie stepped effortlessly into the No. 2 WR job with seven catches for 151 yards that day. He ended the year with 55 catches for 916 yards and six touchdowns.

    As was the case with Smith heading into the 2020 campaign, the big question is: Will he become the best receiver in the nation now that he's the offense's primary threat, or was he merely the "can't double team everyone" beneficiary of an offense that produced five of the top 24 overall picks in the 2021 NFL draft?

    My assumption is that he'll land somewhere in between those two extremes, but there has to be a better than 80-1 chance of the former. It's a question of whether you think a wide receiver can win the Heisman again. If so, Metchie's your man.

Brock Purdy, Iowa State QB

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    Brock Purdy
    Brock PurdyOrlin Wagner/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: 50-1

    Given the axiom that the best Heisman odds go to the projected starting quarterbacks of the projected best teams, Brock Purdy at 50-1 makes absolutely no sense.

    At worst, he should be listed at 15-1.

    Iowa State brings back just about every starter from last year's team that went 8-1 in Big 12 play. The Cyclones will presumably open the season somewhere in the Nos. 6-8 range of the AP Top 25. There's a chance they start 10-0 before the massive road game against Oklahoma on Nov. 20. Even if they lose that game, they could get their revenge on the Sooners in the Big 12 championship.

    The College Football Playoff potential is definitely there.

    And unlike Bryce Young, DJ Uiagalelei and whomever Ohio State chooses to be its quarterback, Purdy has a long track record of collegiate success.

    In each of his three seasons as Iowa State's starting quarterback, Purdy completed at least 65.7 percent of his pass attempts and had a better than 2.0 TD-INT ratio. He has also rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns in his college career.

    Perhaps the numbers aren't gaudy enough. He could be considered more of a game manager than a stat-sheet-stuffing Heisman contender.

    But judge a man by the company he keeps.

    Here's the full list of players in the past decade to amass at least 8,800 passing yards and 800 rushing yards with a completion percentage of 66 or better: 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, 2016 Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson, 2017 Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, 2019 Heisman winner Joe Burrow, 2020 Heisman runner-up Trevor Lawrence, Brett Hundley and Purdy.

    I have to assume the real reason Purdy's line is only at 50-1 is because of Breece Hall. Iowa State's running back led the nation in total rushing yards in 2020 and placed sixth in the Heisman vote. He is viewed by many as Iowa State's best chance at winning the Heisman. But because he's a running back, even he isn't getting great odds (40-1).

    Might as well play it safe and bet on both of Iowa State's underappreciated stars.

Derek Stingley Jr., LSU CB or Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon EDGE

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    Derek Stingley Jr.
    Derek Stingley Jr.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: Kayvon Thibodeaux 150-1; Derek Stingley Jr. Not Listed

    One important step in the Heisman sleeper vetting process is assessing NFL mock drafts, as preseason hype can play a big part in this postseason vote. At any rate, if two players—one a projected top-five pick; one not expected to go in the first roundhave similarly impressive stat lines by the end of September, the former will generate way more Heisman buzz than the latter.

    So let's talk about Thibodeaux and Stingley, each of whom is a projected top-seven pick in every at-least-half-baked mock draft under the sun. Because even though Charles Woodson (1997) was the only primarily defensive player to ever win the Heisman, both of these warrant consideration for the stiff-armed trophy.

    They were both rated in the top three the 2019 recruiting class by 247Sports, and they have both done a fine job of living up to that hype. Stingley picked off six passes and was a first-team AP All-American as a true f