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The Perils of Being a Preseason Heisman Trophy Favorite

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There seems to be a Heisman candidate for everyone this year.

For old-fashioned ground-and-pounders — the Mike Mularkeys of the college game — LSU’s Leonard Fournette is still around to break out the truck stick every week. For new-age spread offense devotees, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett will pass and run past defenses. For fans of an all-around game, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey again brings the rushing-receiving-returning trifecta.

For those who enjoy spiting the NCAA, there’s Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, and for those in search of a comeback story, there’s Georgia’s Nick Chubb. For Nike shareholders, Oregon’s Royce Freeman; for Talmudic scholars, UCLA’s Josh “Chosen” Rosen.

Too bad none of them will win.

That’s what recent history tells us, anyway, as preseason Heisman favorites have found themselves spectators come December’s annual trophy presentation. Common knowledge holds that it’s hard to win as a preseason favorite; examining the recent results, though, shows that it’s even tougher than most people realize.

So before you place your wagers on Fournette or start planning your Watson watch party, consider the following lessons from recent Heisman history:

1. Heisman favorites often fail to contend for the trophy, let alone win it.

We’ll start with the basics. According to data from Sports Odds History, since 2009, 71 players have entered a season with 20–1 or better odds to win the award. Just 26.7 percent of them went on to finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting in their respective years, and just 14.1 percent reached the top five. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is the only one from the sample who actually won.

One in 71 isn’t a good hit rate. That’s a lower probability than that of Aaron Rodgers throwing an interception on any given pass — which isn’t never, but also isn’t something you’d bet on.

A preseason challenger is far more likely to go the route of TCU’s Trevone Boykin (who dropped from fourth in 2014 Heisman voting to 10th in 2015 after entering the latter year as the odds-on favorite), or even of USC’s Matt Barkley (the 2012 favorite who led a preseason no. 1 team to a 7–6 record and fell out of the Heisman race entirely) than he is to actually contend for the award.

2. To win the Heisman, a player must surprise voters with his statistical output.

Alabama’s Derrick Henry more than doubled his yardage and touchdown totals from the year before to his Heisman campaign. Mariota added nearly 1,000 combined passing and rushing yards to his pre-Heisman total and jumped from 40 total touchdowns to 58. Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford increased both his yardage and touchdown tallies by more than 50 percent. And the list goes on.

Combine those players who saw a numbers boost to the unknowns who made a national splash in their first years as starters — see: Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton — and you have to go back a decade to find the last Heisman winner who sufficiently impressed voters by performing as expected.

This lesson is especially important because …

3. Preseason Heisman contenders usually don’t improve on their previous season’s statistics.

On some level, this finding makes intuitive sense. Preseason Heisman favorites typically have made a leap already, which is why the Vegas odds shine brightly on them. It doesn’t leave them much room to improve, though. This year’s hopefuls aren’t necessarily destined to put up worse numbers in 2016, but they’re most likely to do, well, about the same as last year.

For the 71-player sample, the average player lost 0.6 percent of his total yardage from the previous season to the one he entered as a preseason favorite, and he gained only 3 percent more touchdowns. (Those statistics were similarly consistent on a per-game basis.) In other words, their numbers from year to year were almost identical.

The average preseason favorite over this period performed similar to how Boise State’s Kellen Moore did in 2011. In 2010, Moore finished fourth in the Heisman vote after accounting for 3,820 total yards and 37 touchdowns on a team that spent all season ranked in the top 10; he posted a similar stat line in 2011, going for 3,734 yards and 43 touchdowns on a team that spent all season in the top 10. Those numbers are close to each other!

But they were expected at that point, so Moore didn’t wow any voters, and finished a distant eighth in polling. Applying this lesson to 2016, it’s hard to imagine Watson improving on his 47-touchdown campaign from a year ago or McCaffrey bettering his record-setting season. The best they can do is hope to match those lofty numbers, and even that might not be enough.

4. Non-Alabama running backs need not apply.

According to official NCAA records, the last Heisman-winning running back who didn’t call Bryant-Denny Stadium home is Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne, who won all the way back when the BCS was new and exciting. Of course, that designation leaves out the since-asterisked Reggie Bush, but even the USC wunderback received his trophy more than a decade ago. Since then, it’s been a parade of passers and Bama backs.

The underrepresentation of preseason favorites in the final Heisman vote has struck running backs with particular severity. In the 71-player sample, 24 were running backs, but only two finished in the top five of the vote — and one of those standouts was Alabama’s Trent Richardson.

The group of rushers atop this year’s Heisman list is deep and talented, as current Bovada odds list five different non-Alabama backs (Fournette, McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Chubb, and Freeman) with 20–1 odds or better. If anyone can buck this narrow-minded trend, the runners in this year’s class would be the ones to do it. The evolution of voting patterns, though, suggest those odds are optimistically skewed.

5. Players outside of the quarterback–running back ball-hogging alliance really need not apply.

Sorry, Calvin Ridley fans. The Alabama wideout looks poised for a starring role as a sophomore, but besides the span ranging from 1987–1997, during which time Tim Brown, Desmond Howard, and part-time receiver Charles Woodson all struck a Heisman pose, no receiver has ever won the award. If you don’t count Woodson, who had just 30 offensive touches in his college career, Ridley was still three years from being born the last time a true wideout won.

In 2003, Pitt’s Larry Fitzgerald had 168 more receiving yards and six more receiving touchdowns than any other player in college football, and he only finished second; no receiver has placed in the top two since. Ridley is great. He’s still not winning the Heisman this year.