B/R CFB Community: Evaluating Your Dark-Horse Heisman Candidates

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterAugust 26, 2021

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson celebrates after his long run for a touchdown in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Colorado, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Once upon a time, a man placed a $50 bet on Joe Burrow to win the 2019 Heisman Trophy. He was given 200-1 odds. No one, at least initially, gave it much thought. 

Less than six months later, he was $10,000 richer.

Recent history tells us there's a good chance an unlikely player will win the sport's highest individual award. Before he crushed record books at LSU, Burrow was an Ohio State transplant with intriguing potential.

Last season carried this theme forward. Alabama wideout DeVonta Smith was considered the second-best wideout on his team at the start of the year but triumphed over a dazzling group of quarterbacks to win the award.

And so, as the 2021 season begins, we are wondering where our next unlikely Heisman will emerge from.

We asked B/R readers to deliver us their dark-horse selections. And they delivered.

Translation: Spencer Rattler, D.J. Uiagalelei and Bryce Young will not appear below.

To tie it all together, we're using odds from DraftKings to show just how bold these predictions are. Let us explore.


Another BreakthroughThis Time from the Group of Five

Matt Stamey/Associated Press

User: @spence_k27

Player Suggested: Malik Willis

Heisman Odds: +8000 (bet $100 to win $8,000)

What a way to start.

The quarterback at Liberty—by way of Auburn, which is not a reminder the fanbase needs to hear any more than it already has—had a delightful season in 2020. In only 10 games, Willis accounted for 34 touchdowns and tossed only six interceptions. He also nearly ran for 1,000 yards while averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

In terms of pure ability, it wouldn't be shocking to see Willis' performance evolve. The NFL scouting world is buzzing about his potential, and that is expected to be on display throughout the season.

He's a fabulous player who has yet to hit his ceiling and is guided by a coach in Hugh Freeze who might help him reach it. 

But Heisman voters could struggle with independent Liberty's schedule. This speaks to the way we view players outside Power Five conferences regarding this award, which is a larger problem.

Back-to-back games with Ole Miss and Louisiana should provide chances to shine. But Willis will have to be magnificent if he's to overcome this stigma and win the award despite playing outside a major conference.

I can't wait to watch him try.


A Defensive Player Cashes In

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

User: @Cheezygordito

Player Suggested: Kayvon Thibodeaux

Heisman Odds: Not Listed

Selfishly, I want this to happen. 

Better yet, I need this to happen.

I need to see a defensive player win the Heisman in my lifetime. A wide receiver was wonderful, although it should not stop there.

If a defensive player is to win it, Thibodeaux is a likely bet. That said, it speaks volumes that the Oregon defensive end doesn't have Heisman odds on DraftKings. The last defensive player to win the award was Charles Woodson in 1997, and his special teams' contributions aided his efforts greatly.

Thibodeaux might be the best player in the sport, regardless of the lack of odds. He recorded only three sacks last year, although the Ducks played only seven games. He also added 9.5 tackles for loss. 

For him to win, here's the formula: Oregon must make the College Football Playoff, for starters. That part is doable. Thibodeaux must be a big piece of that and put up monster numbers, which seems likely. 

If those things happen, he has a shot. But first, he needs to crack the odds board. 

A big few weeks to start, including a quality performance against Ohio State on Sept. 11, would help immensely.


A Good Ol' Fashion Homer Suggestion

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

User: @huskerben

Player Suggested: Adrian Martinez!

Heisman Odds: +10000

With a name like "huskerben" and an exclamation mark, there certainly doesn't appear to be any bias included.

Nope. None whatsoever.

Fine, maybe a little. Let's dive in anyway.

When he was a true freshman in 2018, Martinez seemed destined to be one of the favorites for this award at some point during his Nebraska tenure. There have been flashes. There have also been a fair amount of interceptions, inconsistent play and a whole bunch of losses.

And yet, I can't quite give up on his candidacy. This isn't an endorsement for him to win the Heisman at 100-1. I can't do that. Nebraska is still likely to lose too many games. 

But the talent is there somewhere.

In only seven games last year, Martinez ran for 521 yards. He also threw only three interceptions. But his team still drastically underperformed. 

We probably expected too much too soon, and some of that is on us. Maybe, like many QBs who came before him, Martinez will flourish late in his college career. A Heisman is still a massive leap that this non-homer is unwilling to take.

Frankly, most Cornhuskers fans would like be happy with a solid year.


Indiana's Electric QB Conquers CFB...Again 

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

User: @jmilhous

Player Suggested: Michael Penix if he can stay healthy for a full season.

Heisman Odds: +4000 

Let's cozy up to another Big Ten quarterback, this one slightly less long shot-y. 

For most of 2020, Michael Penix Jr. looked like a star for Indiana. He accounted for 16 touchdowns in six games for the Hoosiers, flashing tremendous potential. Beyond the season totals, Penix was superb against Ohio State—throwing for 491 yards. 

He also dominated Michigan. (Your joke goes here.)

A torn right ACL near the end of the year put a damper on an otherwise fabulous season, although Penix told reporters he will be ready for the opener Sept. 4 against Iowa. If that is the case, and if he can stay healthy, he should once again produce. 

The issue is whether Indiana can also win enough games. The Hoosiers were 6-2 in 2020 and had the sport buzzing. With a schedule that includes games against four teams inside the Top 20 of the preseason AP Poll, Penix will have both ample opportunities to impress and his work cut out for him. 

I love the talent, but I might need more than 40-1 to budge. What a story it would be, though.


Another Chip Kelly Quarterback Goes Heisman-Hunting

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

User: @YaBoySykk

Player Suggested: Dorian Thompson-Robinson [With a bear emoji and blue and gold hearts]

Heisman Odds: +6000

This is, without question, one of my favorite suggestions.

All of the major criteria to win the Heisman are there. Thompson-Robinson plays quarterback. He plays in a Power Five conference. He has a schedule that is both manageable and still beefy enough to warrant consideration. 

The question is whether he and his team can take that next, next step.

The ingredients are at least in place to make you consider it. Thompson-Robinson, a senior at UCLA, accounted for 15 touchdowns in five games and threw only four interceptions. While the progress had been steady year-over-year, he looked like a different player during the fall.

He can run. He can throw. He can create. He plays in the Pac-12. Again, there is a ton to like. 

I am on board.

And we don't have to wait long to find out. If UCLA beats Hawaii and then LSU at home to begin the year—and this outcome is extremely possible—these odds will be long gone.


Back-to-Back Wideouts Take Home the Trophy

Paul Vernon/Associated Press

User: @seanross

Player Suggested: Chris Olave 22 rec. TDs

Heisman Odds: +8000

This one is intriguing on a variety of fronts. 

For starters, I fully support giving the Heisman to a wide receiver in back-to-back years. Olave's decision to return to the Buckeyes was one of the biggest offseason surprises. 

And the offense should be thrilled to have him back.

The problem? Garrett Wilson, OSU's other exceptional wideout, is also +8000. Olave finished last season with 729 yards and seven touchdowns. Wilson closed with 723 yards and six touchdowns. They are very different players, although both are brilliant.

We could have said the same about DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle last year for Alabama, but it took a Waddle injury for Smith to truly shine. 

Assuming both Olave and Wilson stay healthy, they'll share production. Maybe Olave gets more chances with new quarterback C.J. Stroud. 

If that is the case, perhaps those 22 touchdowns are in his future.

For reference, here is what Smith's season totals looked like: 117 catches, 1,856 receiving yards and 25 total touchdowns. Just a monster year. 

Olave is capable, but it will have to look something like that. 


Odds accurate as of Wednesday. 

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