Predicting the Heisman Top 10

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Anyone that tells you  they know anything about anything at this point prior to the college football season… well… they don’t. We can take estimated guesses and some of them will turn out to be correct, but to accurately play out the entire season is a fool’s errand.

People love to believe there is some sort of predictability to the game and the season, but it is the unpredictability that ends up being the story. The divide between pretending to see the future and what actually occurs is perfectly exemplified in attempting to pinpoint the Heisman Trophy winner during the preseason.

And it’s not just the winner that has proven difficult in recent years. Gathering a list of the eventual top players in the country is near impossible.

So let’s take an outside-the-box approach to picking a winner and constructing a top 10 list for Heisman voting. I’ve gathered data from each Heisman Trophy race since 2007, including preseason odds and final vote totals in an attempt to provide a best estimate.

Before I dive into the historical numbers, let’s take a look at the current top 10 in Heisman odds.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]2017-18 Top 10 (via Bovada)

  1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
  2. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
  3. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
  4. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
  5. JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State
  6. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
  7. Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama
  8. Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
  9. Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State
  10. Jake Browning, QB, Washington

Ask most college football fans and that’s a pretty fair compilation without seeing any actual game action. And right now, there are articles being written about who some “dark horse” candidates are. But really, who are some of the leading candidates we can rule out of the race?

Right from the start, let’s ruin all of those “Sam Darnold for Heisman” campaigns.

  • No favorite since 2007 has won the Heisman Trophy

That doesn’t bode well for Darnold, but I’m sure it won’t matter too much if a) USC wins and b) he’s the number one pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.

There is some saving grace for Darnold and the possibility of him having a great season.

  • Eight of the past ten favorites for the Heisman finished in the top 10 of voting

With two exceptions (Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama, 2010 & Matt Barkley, QB, USC, 2012), favorites for the Heisman traditionally have great seasons. There’s simply a fine line between Heisman-worthy and really good. As expected, Darnold is probably going to have a good year. But with Ronald Jones in the backfield and a 11-1 or 12-0 season probably needed to win it, I see Darnold in the race, but not holding the trophy at the end.    

How about the other favorites?

  • One player (Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, 2014, 2nd) who was in the preseason top 5 of Heisman odds, won the award.

That pushes Barkley, Mayfield, Jackson, and Barrett to the side as well.  

  • Three players (Mariota; Tim Tebow, QB, Florida, 2007, 7th; Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma, 2008, 10th) were in the preseason top 10 of Heisman odds and won the award.

30% isn’t strong enough odds to pick one of this year’s top 10 contenders. Happy trails to Guice, Scarborough, Hurts, Francois, and Browning!

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]Now to finding the winner. Here are the rules we need abide by based off of the last 10 seasons:

  • 8 of 10 winners have been a quarterback
  • 6 of 10 winners were a quarterback in the preseason top 25
  • 10 of 10 winners were underclassmen
  • No player from the preseason #1 team has won

These qualifiers narrow the list down to 13 underclassmen quarterbacks in the top 25 who are not ranked in the top 10 of preseason odds.

With that list of potential winners, we go to the question: Which players have a reasonable shot to put up the requisite numbers and have the requisite team success (the last 10 Heisman winners won at least 10 games during their season, 8 of those 10 had 10 before the bowl game)?

McSorley is the biggest name on this list. His candidacy is well-deserved, but I think he has a few things working against him. His own teammate, Saquon Barkley, is going to put up big numbers in his own right and could conceivably draw attention and votes away from McSorley. The other is the Penn State defense. The Nittany Lions were in the middle of the Big Ten pack last season in most defensive categories including yards allowed, yards per play allowed, and points allowed. In the Rose Bowl, USC’s offense caught up with them. Successful Big Ten teams typically have more success on the defensive end than Penn State did last season. The weapons are there, but I don’t think the team success will be.

I’m ruling out Hornibrook and Speight immediately due to the more run-focused, pro-style offenses they run. Both Chryst and Eason came in as big time recruits and while I like both as players, and pocket-based quarterbacks, I believe they would need to be in more wide-open offenses to put together the necessary Heisman numbers. I don’t see Jackson, Grier, Buechele, or Dormady having the team success needed which brings our final candidate count to four: Bryant, Rosier, Zaire, and Stidham.

Bryant is in a tough spot. He’s following a Clemson legend coming off a National Title win who didn’t win the Heisman himself. He’s out.

Rosier is extremely interesting. Miami is being picked by many to continue their resurgence this season, even after the loss of Brad Kaaya. He’s a dual threat, meaning the opportunity for stat accumulation is there, and weapons like Mark Walton and Ahmmon Richards are there to support him. Head coach Mark Richt knows how to handle quarterbacks, but will he get the wins? The schedule sets up nicely and he’s an interesting play, but there’s someone else I like. He’s tempting, but out.

Florida’s Malik Zaire broke free from South Bend and planted himself in a great situation, if he can wrestle the definitive starting position away from Felipe Franks and Luke Del Rio. There are talented receivers in place, he’s a gifted runner, and there is a defense in place ready to seize the SEC East. There were Heisman murmurs surrounding Zaire in 2015 after his Music City Bowl performance against LSU the previous season and his opening night demolishing of Texas. However, an injury against Virginia thrust DeShone Kizer into the spotlight and left the well-respected Zaire playing catch-up for the next two years. Zaire is a great speculative guess, but…

[dt_divider style=”thin” /]He’s not Jarrett Stidham. Stidham, the Baylor transfer showcased what he can do in 2015 after Seth Russell went down with an injury, throwing 12 touchdowns in three starts, going 2-1 in those contests which included an upset victory over Oklahoma State, before suffering his own injury and then transferring after the ouster of head coach Art Briles. Stidham has fallen into the perfect situation. He has an experienced offensive line, a pair of running backs with complementary skills who won’t steal the spotlight, and a stable of wide receivers begging for a strong arm to get them the ball downfield. Couple those things with a team that was better than its record indicated last season and a cavalcade of returning talent, and you have not only a national title contender, but the right environment for a Heisman winner to succeed in. My pick to win the Heisman is Jarrett Stidham.

But I’m not just here to pick the winner. I want to pick out who else could fill out the top 10.  

In order to fill out the Top 10, I need to use another set of qualifiers. On average since 2007:

  • 3.2 of those players in the top 10 of Heisman odds before each season finished in the top 10 afterward
  • 6.5 players per year were in the preseason top 25, 4 were in the preseason top 10, 2.9 were in the preseason top 5 and 0.6 were on the preseason #1
  • 5.5 per year were quarterbacks, 2.6 were running backs, 0.8 were wide receivers, and 1.1 were defensive players

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Preseason Top 10

  • Sam Darnold, QB, USC

As mentioned before, 80% of preseason Heisman favorites finish in the top 10. IN

  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

I know I said before that he and McSorley would wrestle votes away from each other, but I believe because he has competent quarterback play, the lanes will be open and he will finish in the top 10. IN

  • Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

This isn’t me saying Mayfield isn’t objectively great. He’s easily in the team photo of players I enjoy watching most, but I don’t see a top 10 finish this year. Sure, there’s a new head coach, but more importantly, all new weapons with Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, and Dede Westbrook in the NFL. His offensive line is the best in the country, but I don’t forsee the same Mayfield numbers we’ve seen. OUT

  • Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

As long as Louisville isn’t playing LSU 12 times this season (which they aren’t), he’s going to put up huge numbers while getting better line play. Hopefully. IN

  • JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State

The Buckeyes are going to be good, but I think there is a chance running back Mike Weber and that defense will be the bigger reasons for their success. Barrett will be the maestro, but won’t have the numbers. OUT

  • Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

New offensive coordinator Matt Canada is going to find new ways to get Guice the ball, but with questions remaining at quarterback and the spectre of SEC defenses, I see this as a 2016 Dalvin Cook-type season with big numbers, but not big enough. Remember, Cook had 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, but finished outside the top 10. OUT

  • Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama

Talk about your playoff bump! Not only did he fail to register 15 carries in 10 of his 13 games last season, but if you take away his production in two playoff games, he had 539 yards and seven touchdowns. Damien Harris was the leading rusher. He’s back. Joshua Jacobs had over 500 yards. He’s back. Plus, the Tide add the nation’s #1 freshman running back Najee Harris to that mix. Hard pass. OUT

  • Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama

Hurts was the hardest one to leave off the IN list for me. The reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year has the toys to put up the numbers, but there remain questions about his accuracy downfield that could plague him this season if defenses make him beat them through the air. He’s proven he can do it with his legs. He’s proven he can throw screens and other easy passes to allow his teammates to create in space. It will be new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s job to oversee his development. The next step may just come in 2018, not 2017. OUT

  • Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State

Francois didn’t see the success Hurts did last season as a freshman quarterback. And he struggled for most of the season’s biggest game in the Orange Bowl against Michigan. But with the game on the line, Francois found Nyqwan Murray in the corner of the endzone and I instantly felt better about Francois’s future. Sometimes in football, guys make plays that make you step back and say, “Woah, that was big time.” That was one. There’s no Dalvin Cook and there are questions on the offensive line. But I believe Francois’s ascent and development will mean more to Florida State’s success than Hurts to Alabama, thus I’m picking him here. IN  

  • Jake Browning, QB, Washington

Browning is going to put up numbers, no question. But for a team needing to perhaps slow the tempo early on in the season as they deal with the loss of three starting defensive backs to the NFL, I expect the dynamic duo of running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman to outpace their 2016 numbers by another 300 yards (2,225 combined last season). Don’t get caught up in the “John Ross is gone so no big passing plays” hype. It’s not true. Wide receivers Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher both averaged more yards per catch than Ross. I think the easing of the defensive burden early will be a strategic decision that pulls down Browning’s numbers. OUT

We have four from the Tt0 who are in plus Stidham. What five players round it out based on my previously mentioned qualifications for the group of ten candidates?

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Ten Others Considered (alphabetically)

  • Shane Buechele, QB, Texas

Hold this for 2018!

  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

Sony Michel is still there sharing carries and I wonder if he will be on a “pitch count” given his injury history.

  • Jesse Ertz, QB, Kansas State

I love Kansas State’s team this season and there is recent precedent here with Collin Klein in 2012 (senior dual-threat Kansas State quarterback). But Klein accounted for 40 total touchdowns the season before and 39 during the year of his third place Heisman finish. Ertz accounted for 21 last year. It’s not impossible, but that’s a big jump.

  • Luke Falk, QB, Washington State

Plenty of quarterbacks are going to put up numbers, but to be a West Coast-quarterback in a Mike Leach system, your team better be really, really good. I think the Cougars get to nine wins, but can’t see them with ten or more.

  • Nick Fitzgerald, QB, MississippI State

He put up huge numbers last year and will certainly have the spotlight in the SEC, but it took Dak Prescott getting his team to #1 late in the season just to finish eighth in voting.

  • Quentin Flowers, QB, South Florida

If Lamar Jackson didn’t put up the dual-threat numbers he did last season, more attention would be on Tampa. This year, Flowers loses his top tailback, his top receiver, and no returning player had more than 30 catches last season.

  • Derwin James, S, Florida State

Arguably the top defensive player in the country by reputation missed most of last season with an injury, but I’ve already got Francois in there from the Seminoles.

  • Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College

My token pass rusher considered was Landry. With 22 tackles for a loss and 16.5 sacks, he certainly is on the right path. But to get into the top 10 he needs to have one of two things happen. He needs to produce the same numbers and the Eagles miraculously get to 9 or 10 wins, or he needs to push both of those totals into another stratosphere. I’m thinking 30 tackles for a loss and 20 sacks.

  • Ed Oliver, DL, Houston

Oliver burst onto the scene last year with 22 tackles for a loss, but all four of the defensive lineman to make the top 10 in the last 10 years were from major conferences. A Group of Five defensive lineman making the top 10 would take a truly amazing performance.

  • Malik Zaire, QB, Florida

The chance for a huge year is there, but the team needs to show it can score points consistently before deeming their quarterback Heisman-worthy.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Other Five (alphabetically)

  • Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

Defensive players finish in the top 10 more often than receivers do, and most of the time there is someone from the preseason #1. With so much defensive talent leaving Tuscaloosa for the NFL, all eyes will be on the new leader of the Nick Saban’s defense who had six interceptions, 60 tackles, and 5.5 tackles for a loss last season. It’s not hard to foresee him having a Tyrann Mathieu-type impact this season.

  • Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

Despite the supposed bias against West Coast football, there has been a West Coast running back in the top 10 in seven of the last eight years. Three of those players were from Oregon. Freeman looked to have a similar career trajectory with at least 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons, and he is the leading returning career rushing yards leader in the FBS. His 1,836 yards on 6.5 yards per carry in 2015 fueled his Heisman candidacy last year, but was ultimately derailed by injury. He has a chance to break every Oregon rushing record and help his team rebound under new head coach Willie Taggart. They’re going to put up points. It’s the Pac-12. They have to. Most of all, it doesn’t hurt when your coach is asked how many carries Freeman will have, he says, “As many as he wants.”

  • Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

Right behind Freeman on the rushing yards list is Jackson. The four-year starter has the opportunity to put a similar mark on Northwestern football as Freeman does at Oregon. He’s in striking distance of every Wildcat career rushing record, but has largely gone unnoticed by the nation. This year’s Northwestern team has the chance to be the best yet under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The schedule sets up nicely for a potential 10-win regular season which would put Jackson firmly in the conversation if the performs. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is continually improving which ultimately should keep those running lanes open for Jackson. Two running backs from the Big Ten have made the top 10 in the same year twice since 2007 (2008 – Shonn Greene and Javon Ringer; 2014 – Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman) and I expect the same to happen this year.

  • Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

I mentioned above that Stidham was the pick for the Heisman based on the criteria set forth, but outside of Stidham, taking away only the fact that there hasn’t been a senior quarterback to win the Heisman since Troy Smith in 2006, Rudolph would be my pick. He has the best group of receivers in the country, the numbers are going to be there because the Big XII is going to Big XII, and they have the possibility to take the conference mantle from Oklahoma this season. I’m not saying they are going to do it, but a lot of things are setting up in their favor. First, Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington passed up the draft to return for their senior season. Then, head coach Mike Gundy unleashes the greatest mullet in human history. Their schedule gives them Oklahoma at home. And to top it off, the Big XII title game returns, allowing Rudolph the chance to firmly entrench himself in the mind of Heisman voters. They may not beat Oklahoma twice, but we’re talking about the Heisman, not the National Championship.

  • Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame

This is absolutely the pick I feel most uneasy about, but I’m going to explain it in a way that makes me feel better about it. Kelly has longed for a player with Wimbush’s skill set. He’s had mobile quarterbacks before (see Everett Golson, Zaire, DeShone Kizer), but the combination of throwing and running ability that Wimbush brings may just provide the right balance to run Kelly’s offense the way he wants it. His leadership and work ethic have been lauded by everyone, including Kelly, and everyone will be watching to see what happens after the Kizer/Zaire ordeal last year. My theory is that Kelly allows Wimbush to be Wimbush and beautiful things happen as Notre Dame rebounds to get at least nine wins. Players that accounted for 77.6% of Notre Dame’s yards from scrimmage return this season (as opposed to 25.8% last year) and the offensive line is one of the best in the country.  

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jfey5 and find his other work here, including a comparison of modern Super Bowl teamsthe best playoff QBs in recent memory, and what went into the Texans’ decision with their 2006 draft.

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