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2017 Heisman Watch: 10 Dark-Horse Contenders Who Could Beat the Favorites

The preseason Vegas darlings almost never win the stiff-arm, which bodes well for players like Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough and Penn State’s Trace McSorley

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

USC quarterback Sam Darnold won’t win the Heisman this year. Neither will Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, after setting the NCAA passer efficiency record a season ago. And Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, last year’s winner, certainly won’t earn a repeat trophy. These declarations aren’t meant to defame those quarterbacks, who all should produce splendid seasons before trying out for the Jets at next year’s NFL combine. Rather, they’re meant to outline the reality that recent Heisman winners have almost uniformly emerged from obscurity to claim the trophy.

To update numbers I first collected last year, since 2009, 80 players have entered a season with 20-1 or better odds to win the award, per the archives at Sports Odds History. Just 28.8 percent of them went on to finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting in their respective years, and just 15 percent reached the top five. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is the only one from the sample who actually won the award.

Last year, Jackson was a 100-1 bet in the preseason; the year before, Alabama’s Derrick Henry entered at 25-1; and in 2012 and 2013, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Florida State’s Jameis Winston, respectively, were just members of the nameless “Field” in the Augusts before their Heisman-winning campaigns. This seeming democratization of the Heisman race still has its positional and school-specific limits—more on those below—but it generally applies, with Jackson as just the most recent example of a champion making a name for himself in September and beyond, rather than the season and summer beforehand.

And while 20-1 odds is a somewhat arbitrary delineation, it has accounted for an average of 10 people each year since 2009 and therefore works as a broad encapsulation of a given season’s favorites. This year is no different, as Las Vegas’s Westgate SuperBook currently lists 11 players with 20-1 or better odds (Darnold, 9-2; Jackson and Mayfield, 10-1; Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, 12-1; Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, Washington’s Jake Browning, Florida State’s Deondre Francois, and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, 15-1; and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, 20-1). With these parameters in mind, let’s run through the top 10 low-odds candidates to compete for the trophy this season. Of course, it will be easy to poke holes in each player’s prospects—there’s a reason they’re not favorites—but each has enough upside that he’d be a better bet than the players everyone else is picking at this time of year.

10. Kamryn Pettway, Auburn RB (30-1)

9. Nick Chubb, Georgia RB (30-1)

8. Derrius Guice, LSU RB (25-1)

Last season was supposed to be the year of the star running back, as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, and LSU’s Leonard Fournette all entered the season with 12-1 Heisman odds or better. But McCaffrey stumbled from a second-place result in 2015 to finish ninth as a junior, Cook finished tied for 10th, and Fournette ended outside the running entirely.

So even though these three SEC backs are dynamic, and even though each has the potential to turn nationally televised star performances on Saturday afternoons throughout the fall, it’s hard to move them any further up this list. The only non-Alabama running back to win the Heisman this century was Reggie Bush (who has since vacated his award for NCAA violations), so this trio—plus USC’s Ronald Jones II, Ohio State’s Mike Weber, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, and any other of the country’s top rushers—should set its aim lower than the Heisman stage.

7. Malik Zaire, Florida QB (100-1)

The argument for the grad transfer from Notre Dame stems from what Zaire did in his first two career starts: the 2014 Music City Bowl against LSU and the 2015 season opener against Texas. In those two games—both wins—the lefty QB completed 31 of 37 passes, in the process averaging 11.1 yards per attempt and tossing four touchdowns with no interceptions. He also added 112 yards and a touchdown rushing.

Wagering on Zaire this year requires hoping that he didn’t peak years ago. The week after the Texas game, he fractured his ankle on a run against Virginia and was supplanted by DeShone Kizer on Notre Dame’s depth chart. Now, he’s in a competition for Florida’s starting job, and coach Jim McElwain is considering using three different quarterbacks in the Gators’ opener against Michigan. If Zaire wins the job, though, and if he plays like the Zaire who first dazzled in the 2014 bowl season, he would be a 100-1 underdog bolstered by a talented receiving corps and experienced offensive line, playing in front of a national audience every week.

6. Justin Herbert, Oregon QB (100-1)

Among qualified freshman quarterbacks last year, only Darnold posted a better efficiency rating and completion percentage than Herbert, and if you squint at their numbers, the two Pac-12 underclassmen don’t look that dissimilar. Herbert didn’t take over as Oregon’s starter until the Ducks’ sixth game of the season, but he played with impressive poise for a freshman on a losing team. He threw 19 touchdowns to just four interceptions and didn’t suffer one disaster game, even facing the likes of USC’s, Washington’s, and Stanford’s stifling defenses.

The biggest issue for Herbert’s Heisman potential is that while he’s good, Oregon isn’t. The Ducks’ defense allowed 41.4 points per game last year, third-worst in FBS, and is unlikely to produce a sufficiently dramatic turnaround that would propel Oregon into contention and Herbert into the corresponding limelight he’d need to win the trophy.

5. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama RB (30-1)

Until last year’s regular-season finale, then-sophomore Scarbrough had never exceeded 11 carries or one touchdown in a game, and he had broken 70 yards just once in his Alabama career. Then, in consecutive contests against Auburn, Florida, Washington, and Clemson, the powerful back averaged 16 carries while exceeding 90 yards each game and amassing three multi-TD efforts. Had he not broken a bone in his leg in the third quarter against Clemson, Alabama would have won another national championship.

That late-season explosion in production looks a lot like the stretch Derrick Henry enjoyed to end his 2014 campaign, before winning the Heisman the next year, so Scarbrough has a recent precedent to follow. His biggest hurdle could be the volume of talent beside him in Alabama’s backfield. Despite giving way to Scarbrough down the stretch, rising junior Damien Harris led Alabama in rushing last year and is a former no. 1 RB recruit, while rising freshman Najee Harris was last year’s no. 1 RB recruit, and quarterback Jalen Hurts is no slouch on the run, either. Scarbrough is the most talented running back in the country, but he might not produce the counting stats necessary to strike a Heisman pose.

4. Quinton Flowers, South Florida QB (80-1)

As the only player from a Group of Five school on this list, Flowers might be the strangest name to encounter in a discussion about the Heisman, whose last winner from a non-power conference was BYU’s Ty Detmer in 1990—seven years before South Florida even launched a football program. And it’s not as if Flowers will enjoy the primetime exposure or upset possibilities that would boost a fledgling Heisman candidacy: By preseason S&P+ projections, only one of USF’s opponents this year (Houston, at 42nd nationally) rates among the top 60 FBS teams.

But Flowers has too much potential to amass absurd numbers to slide any further down the list; in that respect, he is Lamar Jackson lite. And in other respects, too: Among quarterbacks last season, only Jackson had more rushing yards than Flowers’s 1,530, and only Jackson and Navy triple-option leader Will Worth had more rushing touchdowns than Flowers’s 18. Like Jackson, Flowers also accumulates stats through the air, as he was the country’s 16th-highest-rated passer, throwing for 2,812 yards and 24 touchdowns against just seven picks.

To use a different set of comparisons, when running, Flowers tallied 34 more yards than Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and as many touchdowns as the Nittany Lion star on 74 fewer attempts, and when passing, he tallied 32 more yards and one more touchdown than Jalen Hurts, on 51 fewer attempts.

South Florida was the only FBS team to score at least 30 points in all of its games last year, and Flowers should continue to put up stats and points in 2017. So far, so good: Starting its season a week earlier than most teams, USF defeated San Jose State 42-22 on Saturday, as Flowers amassed 282 total yards and three touchdowns. It’s just a matter of outpacing the rest of the field by a sufficient margin to compensate for playing in the AAC.

3. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State QB (100-1)

The guy after Flowers on both of those QB rushing lists, close behind Jackson? Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald, who accumulated 1,375 yards and 16 TDs on 195 rush attempts, or essentially Guice’s numbers on the ground.

A bet on Fitzgerald is a bet on both the raw quarterback improving his efficiency in his junior season and on Mississippi State improving on its 6-7 record from last season. There’s reason for optimism on both fronts. For the former, three of Fitzgerald’s four best conference games by total yardage came in November, indicating that he played better as he gained more experience, and for the latter, four of the Bulldogs’ losses last year came by one score. They won’t compete with Alabama, but the rest of the SEC West is in such flux that the Bulldogs could sneak a few upsets and put their offensive leader squarely on the Heisman map.

2. Shane Buechele, Texas QB (60–1)

Buechele was the toast of Texas after his first game last season, the thrilling 50-47 win against Notre Dame in which the freshman threw for 280 yards on just 26 throws and tallied three total touchdowns. But the Longhorns soon started losing, the Charlie Strong drama amplified, and all the luster Buechele had gained against Notre Dame dissipated by season’s end.

Overall, his freshman-year totals aren’t too impressive, but they’re spoiled by the slump he suffered late in the season, as the program’s turmoil and his own various injuries piled up. Buechele’s season splits into two opposing buckets: his first eight games, in September and October, versus his last four, in November.

First eight games: 63.9 percent completion, 8.5 yards per attempt, 17:6 TD:INT, 153.4 passer rating (20th in the country over that span)

Last four games: 54.9 percent completion, 6.2 yards per attempt, 4:5 TD:INT, 108.9 passer rating (101st in the country over that span)

Assuming first-eight-games Buechele will return for a full season is wishful thinking, but there are several factors in his favor. New head coach Tom Herman is something of an offensive guru, having transformed Greg Ward Jr. from a wideout to a prolific quarterback as the head coach at Houston, and Buechele should benefit from a less anguished atmosphere than he experienced last season. Off the field, the coaching drama is gone (for now), and on it, the offensive line can’t be worse than it was last year, when nine different linemen started at least one game, and 38 starts went to freshmen and sophomores.

The schedule isn’t easy, with road games at USC, Baylor, TCU, and West Virginia. But that slate also gives Buechele the opportunity to impress, and an early-season breakout against USC could serve as the Texas QB’s version of Lamar Jackson’s Florida State game last September.

At the very least, Buechele is a better Heisman bet than many players with better preseason odds, such as Florida State safety Derwin James; no defensive player has won the award in 20 years, so Buechele deserves higher billing than FSU’s star defender. And at most, by preseason S&P+, Texas rates as the second-best team in the Big-12. If the Longhorns return to national prominence, the Buechele–Herman duo will receive all the credit.

1. Trace McSorley, Penn State QB (30-1)

While Barkley receives the bulk of the Heisman hype for Penn State’s preseason no. 6 squad, McSorley might have a better chance in the long run to win the award. Remember first the non-Alabama running backs heuristic, and also consider that for all Barkley’s exploits, Penn State finished just 69th in the country in rushing S&P+ last year, compared to second in passing S&P+.

McSorley’s play picked up in the second half of the season, as the Nittany Lions rose from middling Big-10 squad to national contender. Over the last seven games, he completed 60.4 percent of his passes and posted a sizzling 10.8 yards per attempt and 20:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, which combined to give him a 181.3 efficiency rating over that span. Here’s the list of qualifying, power-conference quarterbacks who exceeded a 180 QB rating over a full season this century:

  • Sam Bradford (2008), Heisman winner
  • Cam Newton (2010), Heisman winner
  • Robert Griffin III (2011), Heisman winner
  • Russell Wilson (2011), Heisman ninth-place finisher
  • Jameis Winston (2013), Heisman winner
  • Marcus Mariota (2014), Heisman winner
  • Baker Mayfield (2016), Heisman third-place finisher

While McSorley can’t expect just to translate those seven-game numbers across a full season, he has exhibited the ability to play at that level for an extended stretch. And while he also benefited in the second half last season from not having to face either Michigan or Ohio State, USC, Wisconsin, and Iowa each boasted a top-16 pass defense by S&P+, and McSorley torched them all in in November and beyond.

Like Buechele, McSorley should play behind a more consistent and experienced line this season, and while top receiver Chris Godwin is now running routes on Hard Knocks instead of in State College, every other player who caught multiple passes last year is back. McSorley also has the big-play potential to feature on weekly highlight reels: He completed FBS’s fifth-most passes of at least 20 yards and tied for the second-most completions of at least 30 and 40 yards last season, with nearly two 40-plus-yard plays per game.

And most importantly, he’s not a preseason Heisman favorite, ranking behind both a teammate and another Big Ten quarterback (Ohio State’s Barrett) in the early running, in addition to the lauded Darnold/Mayfield/Jackson trio. So in practical terms, he has the best odds of all.