The Heisman Trophy should be one of the most difficult awards to predict in sports. The voting guidelines don’t simply call for the best or most valuable player, but the “outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” With 128 teams and such intangible criteria, the list of potential winners should be impossibly long every year.
Instead, we’re almost always able to figure out who will get the bronzed old-timey football man before the unnecessarily long reveal show. The voting is rarely competitive. For the last time there was a true race, we have to go back to 2009, when Mark Ingram, Toby Gerhart, and Colt McCoy were all within striking range of the trophy. Last year was the first race in which first and second were separated by fewer than 100 first-place votes since 2009, but even then Derrick Henry had 88 more first-place votes than Christian McCaffrey.
This year, Lamar Jackson will almost certainly win the Heisman Trophy. He entered Thursday’s game against Houston with preposterous 1–50 odds to win it. For those not well versed in betting numbers, that means if you showed up at the casino with a deed for your house, you could bet it on Jackson and potentially win a coupon for a buy-one-get-one deal at Chipotle.
Jackson followed that up by looking human for the first time all year. He threw only one touchdown as Houston humbled Louisville, 36–10. Normally slippery enough to overcome whatever mistakes his offensive line makes, Jackson couldn’t escape the Cougars’ powerful defensive line and was sacked 11 times. Even in the Cardinals’ previous loss to Clemson, Jackson looked brilliant against last year’s College Football Playoff runner-up. There were no silver linings here, though, as the loss knocked Louisville out of the national title conversation and gave Jackson the first demerit on his stellar résumé.
But even a mediocre performance in a nationally televised, win-or-fall-out-of-the-committee’s-favor game won’t be enough to derail Jackson’s candidacy. He’ll still win the trophy. No betting sites have released odds since Thursday night’s game, but everybody who analyzes the race still thinks Jackson will win.
Jackson truly deserves the trophy. He passes the eye test: His arm is strong and accurate, and he runs like Mario after eating a mushroom, faster and smarter than opponents so helpless that they look like they were programmed to be worse. His statistics are incredible: He’s in the top 10 in passing touchdowns and third in rushing touchdowns, and with a mediocre game against Kentucky he’ll hit 50 combined touchdowns. And his team is great because of him: With two losses, Louisville won’t be in the playoff, but Jackson’s cascades of points powered the Cardinals past nine opponents, and they’ll probably win a 10th too.
But also, the voters’ self-determined restrictions on Who Should Win The Heisman won’t allow them to pick anybody else. Alabama’s Jonathan Allen? No, the best player in football can’t be a defender. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts? No way a true freshman is responsible for the best offense in football. (Never mind that Bama is more dynamic offensively this year after losing last year’s winner.) Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook? It might be even harder for a wide receiver to win than a defender, since they’re QB dependent. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers? With all those positions he plays, he’s a gimmick, and Heisman people don’t like gimmicks. Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey? That’d require staying up to watch Pac-12 games. San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey? You wouldn’t even be able to convince many voters that’s a real school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson? He looked worse than Jackson when Clemson played Louisville, which could be disqualifying, and I’m not sure Heisman voters know quarterbacks don’t actually play against each other in head-to-head matchups. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, or Washington’s Jake Browning? No, Heisman voters would never pick a player with the initials “J.B.” after Jay Berwanger won the initial trophy in 1935. (This last one isn’t real, but would you be surprised if it were?)
And so the trophy is essentially Jackson’s. If he were to get injured on the first snap of the team’s final regular-season game against Kentucky, he’d still win the trophy. Statistically, his season is already better than anybody else’s will be even after the conference championship games.
Maybe Jackson could get involved in some sort of horrible scandal, but Heisman voters tend to ignore these. (See: Winston, Jameis.) I think a player would have to be indicted on a felony charge to lose the trophy at this point in the year.
It would take a historic and highly improbable series of events for Lamar to lose the trophy. Here are some examples of such events:
Lamar Eats Too Much Pizza
You might think that KFC runs the state of Kentucky, but when somebody needs replacement-level food in the city of Louisville, it’s gonna be Papa’s. Do you know how easy it is for Louisville students to get Papa John’s? It’s practically part of the meal plan. (To research for this article, I spoke extensively to The Ringer’s University of Louisville student life correspondent, Haley O’Shaughnessy, who explained in detail the many ways that Louisville meal plans can be used to purchase Papa John’s pizza.) And I imagine it’s easier for Louisville’s athletes, whose scholarships come with unlimited meals and snacks, per NCAA regulations.
And Papa loves Louisville athletics. His name is on the team’s stadium, and he seems to enjoy free rein around the team — they even let him do burnouts in his famous Camaro around the stadium before an October game against Duke before passing out pizzas to fans. (Somehow, no video of this exists, but here is a picture, and there were plenty of eyewitness reports.) I’m guessing the meal table is constantly blessed with so much Papa John’s, the players don’t even know what to do with it.
Imagine that one of Lamar Jackson’s teammates has bet him that he can’t eat three whole pizzas before every game this year. Because Jackson cares about his team, he had plainly refused every time, but maybe he lost hope after the Houston game. The playoff is no longer an option, and the season finale is a nonconference game against Kentucky. There’s not a lot to play for besides pride, and nothing has hurt Lamar’s pride more than having to decline the pizza bet. So he accepts.
But his game is shot. With three pizzas in his belly, his uniform no longer covers his gut. His trademark speed is gone. The Wildcats don’t have to account for Jackson’s scrambles, and drop seven men into coverage. Receivers are covered, and an immobile Jackson is a sitting duck in the pocket. With each sack, he vomits up semidigested pizza.
I think Jackson could still win the Heisman with another bad performance and a loss to Kentucky, but this would be different. It wouldn’t just be a bad outing, it would be a mark on Jackson’s character to voters. Being accused of a crime would be bad, but to Heisman voters, Jackson’s inability to remain in game shape would cause serious questions about his dedication to football.
Lamar Signs an Endorsement Deal
You’re watching Louisville play Kentucky on Saturday. The commercials come, and you once again point your shotgun at your TV in case that damn Larry Culpepper ad comes on again and you have to blow the thing to smithereens. But instead, Lamar Jackson’s smiling face pops up.
“Hi, I’m Lamar Jackson, starting quarterback for the Louisville Cardinals,” he says. “You probably know I’m trying to get my hands on the Heisman Trophy. But what I really want to get my hands on are Papa John’s new thick and crispy pan pizzas.”
Papa John walks onscreen, beaming. “Lamar loves my pizza so much, he was willing to permanently forfeit his amateur athletic status to appear in this commercial.”
The smile disappears from Lamar’s face. “Wait … but … you told me …”
“I lied to you. None of this is OK with your coaches or the NCAA. And we filmed you signing the contract. So, your college career is done,” Papa says. “But I’m not lying about how great of a deal my delicious deep dish is. Just $10 for up to three toppings.”
Peyton Manning enters.
“It’s a steal! Like when Charles Woodson stole the 1997 Heisman from me,” Peyton says. “Don’t worry, Lamar, not playing football isn’t so bad. I retired, and now I have all day to eat Papa’s latest creations, like the Cinnamon Pull-Aparts. Plus, I have all sorts of time to concoct evil schemes to ensure nobody experiences the Heisman moment I never had. Revenge is a dish best served cold, but these Cinnamon Pull-Aparts are best ooey and gooey right out of the oven.”
The Heisman Trust would never dare give its trophy to an ineligible player. Remember, O.J. Simpson got to keep his trophy even as he was the defendant in a murder trial (he eventually sold it in 1999) but Reggie Bush gave his back because the NCAA discovered that some gifts he took while making football magic at USC turned out to be illegal under NCAA rules. (The Heisman Trust never officially asked for the trophy back, but reportedly would have considered it if he had not voluntarily given up the trophy.)
I know what you’re thinking: “Why would Papa John do this?” He’s Louisville’s most famous living son. It used to be Muhammad Ali, but with his death, the mantle has passed from the historically great boxing champion famous across the world for his dominance, activism, wit, and grace to the pizza man who is famous across America for going on TV to talk about pizza. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence will occasionally throw up the L, but Papa put his name on the stadium.
This is a man who knows his existence doesn’t make sense, that there’s no reason a man without an ounce of Italian heritage in his blood should be able to brand himself “Papa” and make megamillions as the face of a mediocre pizza company. Papa John’s is fine, and I will eat it, but, like, I imagine Papa knows his pizza isn’t as good as any random non-chain pizza place.
In that light, Papa John’s famed generosity toward Louisville is not an act of benevolence. He has grown tired of a world he knows doesn’t make sense, and he has the money to rule over one of his own making. He will run it as it entertains him, and if he wants to destroy it, he will.
Lamar Gets Benched
Bobby Petrino’s phone rings at 3 a.m. the morning before the Kentucky game. It’s Papa.
“Coach, you’re going to start me at quarterback tomorrow.”
A groggy Bobby answers his phone. “John, what are you talking ab — ”
Papa cuts him off. “Excuse me. Did you just call me John?”
“Were you about to tell me I can’t start at quarterback tomorrow?”
“John, of course you can’t start at quarterback.”
“What does the name on the stadium say? Does it say John?”
“What does it say?”
“It says Papa John.”
“It says that my name is Papa, so please stop calling me John. And it also says that I’m starting at quarterback if I want to.”
“But Jo — sorry, Papa. Papa, if you start at quarterback, we’ll lose. And we need to win to make the playoff. I’ll get fired for benching Lamar!”
“I’m the only man who can fire you. And I promise I will not. And you might lose tomorrow, but you need my money to have the facilities you need to win next year. And oh, yeah: My money pays your salary. If I don’t start at QB tomorrow, the school will never see another cent.”
“Please, Papa. You wouldn’t do that to us, right? You love Louisville!”
“Love? You think I like living in the same place, driving in the same car I drove in 1983? Please. I give you money because I want power. And if you don’t let me use that power, I will leave. Email me the playbook. I’ll see you in the locker room. And don’t forget, Bobby: I’ve got dirt on you.”
Papa hangs up. He doesn’t actually have dirt on Petrino, but if you tell Bobby Petrino that you have dirt on him, he’ll probably listen to you.
In full uniform, Papa leads the Cardinals onto the field. He’s wearing a red ski mask over his face, concealing his identity. In case the referees ask, he has forged paperwork confirming that he’s not Papa John, but walk-on sophomore QB Ethan Papajohn.
Papa takes the field with the offense, and Jackson is livid. After all his work, he’s been benched for somebody he’s never seen before. TV cameras capture Jackson screaming at anyone who will listen, begging to be put into the game. He has to be restrained and brought back to the locker room.
Papa plays terribly. He’s a 5-foot-10 54-year-old (he turns 55 on Wednesday, so don’t forget to wish Papa a happy birthday) with no quarterbacking experience, so of course he plays terribly. He throws interception after interception to Kentucky defenders, and Louisville loses in a rout.
The media asks Petrino about the masked man at quarterback, and why he started over Louisville’s star. He tells them it was a personnel decision, and elaborates no further. Heisman voters are baffled. How can the greatest trophy in football go to somebody benched so publicly, for such a bad replacement? Louisville’s spectacular season is dead, and Jackson’s Heisman hopes are too.
In the locker room, Papa John is bruised and beaten. But a smile appears across his bloodied face. Despite all the pain, this is the most alive he has ever felt.
Lamar Plays a Bad Game
I guess Lamar could throw, like, four interceptions against Kentucky. But let’s be honest, that’s probably not gonna happen.