Ranking the Heisman Favorites Heading into Week 1
Week 0 allowed fans to dip a toe into the college football season, but it's about to get a whole lot busier. Most marquee players are preparing for their 2021 debut on Labor Day weekend.
And the race for the Heisman Trophy starts now.
Every Tuesday during the 2021 season, we'll rank the players as if Heisman voting ended that day. So, while we may believe Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler or Ohio State's C.J. Stroud or someone else will eventually win the award, the ranking itself is a snapshot of the specific moment.
Today, however, is our subjective ranking of the players we consider most likely to win the Heisman in 2021.
We'll share our perception of that player, his situation and some storylines to monitor on a hopeful path to the most prestigious individual award in college football.
8. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
After throwing for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns as a freshman, Kedon Slovis had a forgettable 2020 season. While the Trojans finished 5-1, his yards per attempt dropped from 8.9 to 7.3 in an offense that seemed to lose its aggressiveness.
Perhaps there is a simple answer. Earlier in the offseason, Slovis acknowledged he lost confidence in his arm and accuracy.
As sideline psychologists, we cannot say whether that will reappear in 2021. What we know, though, is Slovis plays in a quarterback-friendly Air Raid offense that returns top receiver Drake London, adds Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon and is hoping for a breakout year from former 4-star recruits Gary Bryant Jr. and Kyle Ford.
Given the ineffectiveness of the Trojans' running game, a successful year for USC probably means Slovis is thriving. And there will be no shortage of attention on him if USC is a Top 10 team.
7. D'Eriq King, QB, Miami
This one is all about team success.
Last year, D'Eriq King totaled 3,240 yards and 27 touchdowns with only five interceptions. On numbers alone, he wasn't terribly far behind Trevor Lawrence, who collected 3,364 yards and 32 touchdowns while tossing five interceptions. King didn't garner serious Heisman consideration; Lawrence finished second.
Yet no reasonable person is arguing it should've been different. Lawrence and Clemson won the ACC, while Miami lost to Clemson and North Carolina by a combined score of 104-43.
While the Heisman is an individual award, team performance is a factor. That's the biggest obstacle for King in 2021.
Nevertheless, now recovered from an ACL injury, King has a decent outlook. Miami returns nine other starters on offense, brings back top lineman Navaughn Donaldson after an injury-affected year and has Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo at receiver, too.
King should put up impressive numbers, but that production must also come against Miami's strongest competition.
6. JT Daniels, QB, Georgia
JT Daniels' chances for a Heisman Trophy run took a considerable hit when receiver George Pickens suffered a torn right ACL. Wideout Arik Gilbert's absence (personal issues) and a few minor injuries to skill-position players may affect Georgia's receiving corps, too.
To be perfectly honest, context is not favoring Daniels right now. However, the expectation that Georgia will contend for a national title keeps him squarely in the preseason picture.
The former USC quarterback threw for 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns in only four appearances last season. That torrid finish is the driving force of Daniels' hype, which will be tested immediately with a neutral-site clash against third-ranked Clemson.
Daniels may ride a delicate line of enjoying immense team success and not having elite production. Ultimately, Georgia would be OK with that result. But he needs the second part to contend for the Heisman.
5. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
Georgia has a stronger perception than North Carolina in 2021, but Sam Howell has an impressive two-year span of production.
As a freshman, he posted 282.8 offensive yards per game and accounted for 40 touchdowns. Last season, Howell averaged 311.0 total yards and was responsible for 36 scores. He enters 2021 as one of the nation's most established quarterbacks.
Personnel is the biggest obstacle for Howell this season. Receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome combined for 3,835 yards and 37 touchdowns over the last two years but departed for the NFL. So did running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, who each caught 25 passes last season. Expected top receiver Beau Corrales won't play in the opener, either.
The bright side is UNC runs an Air Raid, which is generally less complex for inexperienced players. And with a quarterback like Howell running the offense, there will be plenty of chances for big plays.
Since UNC plays six conference games in the first seven weeks, Howell needs to perform well immediately. If either he or the Tar Heels stumble, though, his Heisman candidacy could vanish quickly.
4. Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
Bryce Young has attempted 22 garbage-time passes in his college career, so this ranking is entirely a projection. But when considering the recent success of Alabama quarterbacks, the position has earned a strong benefit of the doubt.
Tua Tagovailoa was the Heisman runner-up in 2018 and would've been higher than 10th in 2019 had a hip injury not ended his season. Mac Jones finished third in 2020.
Young's surroundings are mostly a projection, too. Other than John Metchie III (916 yards last season), no returning player has topped 300 yards in a season. But, again, there is optimism because this is freaking Alabama and talent is everywhere. The 2021 recruiting class alone featured four receivers who were top-75 overall prospects.
Since the Crimson Tide play Miami (Sep. 4) and travel to Florida (Sep. 18) within the first three weekends, we'll be watching Young in key games very soon.
3. D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson
D.J. Uiagalelei basically only has two games of experience, but those appearances in 2020 inspired a season's worth of confidence.
In two starts as a true freshman, he totaled 808 yards and six touchdowns. Uiagalelei helped Clemson defeat Boston College and nearly take down a College Football Playoff-bound Notre Dame on the road.
Although top pass-catchers Amari Rodgers, Cornell Powell and Travis Etienne are all gone, Justyn Ross is back. If he's anywhere close to pre-surgery form, Ross will be a stellar No. 1 receiver. He tallied 112 catches for 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2018 and 2019.
Clemson has a bit of experienced depth with receivers E.J. Williams and Frank Ladson Jr. and tight ends Braden Galloway and Davis Allen. Joseph Ngata is a former top recruit, too. But the Tigers need two or three to emerge as reliable targets for Uiagalelei, or else he'll probably be trailing in the Heisman conversation.
But among any player, Uiagalelei has the strongest chance for team success. Clemson is the heavy, heavy ACC favorite, which can only help Uiagalelei's candidacy.
2. C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Young, Uiagalelei and C.J. Stroud fit a similar mold. Previously well-regarded recruits, they're all becoming a full-time starter for a powerhouse program in 2021. Based on surrounding talent, however, Stroud has an undeniable edge.
Ohio State returns Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who both surpassed 700 receiving yards in 2020's eight-game season. Plus, tight end Jeremy Ruckert has nine touchdown catches over the last two years.
As if that's not impressive enough, the Buckeyes have a spectacular group of inexperienced talent. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming, Emeka Egbuka were all 5-stars in 2020 or 2021, and Marvin Harrison Jr.—yes, the son of the NFL legend—is on deck. Smith-Njigba in particular seems headed for a breakout season.
Between Dwayne Haskins and Justin Fields, OSU's quarterbacks have three consecutive top-seven Heisman finishes. Stroud has a fantastic opportunity to make it four straight.
1. Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma
No quarterback has the perfect combination of team success, prior experience and established surrounding talent in 2021, but Spencer Rattler comes awfully close.
Last year, he shouldered the responsibility of continuing a legacy that included Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, Heisman winner Kyler Murray and Heisman runner-up Jalen Hurts. Rattler responded with 3,191 total yards and 34 touchdowns while guiding Oklahoma to a sixth straight Big 12 championship.
Hard to argue with that performance in Year 1.
Granted, the Sooners lacked a No. 1 option like they've had in years past. Marvin Mims (610 yards) and Theo Wease (530) played well, but they weren't overwhelming. Jadon Haselwood was a top prospect, but he missed most of 2020 while recovering from an ACL injury. Austin Stogner and Jeremiah Hall were productive, but they're low-upside H-backs.
But the good news? Those five players each return, and Arkansas transfer Mike Woods bolsters the receiving corps. Rattler is positioned extremely well for an immensely productive, Heisman-worthy year.