With updated odds for the 2020 Heisman Trophy released this week, we offer up our favorite early plays/stay-aways in this space. We'll continue to check back in with the award odds as the offseason progresses. For now, count these as our tentative early thoughts.
Buy: Alabama RB Najee Harris (40/1) -- Because of the quarterback-centric nature of the Heisman, rolling with a running back comes with a baked-in set of risks. In three of the last four ceremonies, no back has even made the finalist cut. We saw Jonathan Taylor, for instance, blanked on appearances for his Wisconsin career -- this despite the fact that Taylor topped 2,000 yards rushing in both 2018 and 2019.
So why are we bullish on Najee, here? A few reasons. Playing at Alabama gives Harris an advantage in terms of media spotlight that a player like Taylor simply never had. And we have recent history to fall back on. Just four seasons ago, Derrick Henry galloped to the award, winning out over CMC and Deshaun Watson.
But Alabama doesn’t play like that anymore! We can hear you yelling it through your computer screens. And of course, you’re right. Alabama’s offense went through a revolution with Tua Tagovailoa at the helm. Tua’s gone, though. It’ll be Mac Jones or true frosh Bryce Young in 2020. Even with wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith back, we have a hunch that the passing game takes a downshift. Especially if it’s Young at the helm. For as talented as the dual-threat Alabama frosh might be, we think Saban simplifies the offense by degrees, allowing Najee more of a Henry-esque workload.
Harris went over 100 yards rushing in half of Alabama’s games in 2019, with 20 total touchdowns (13 rushing, seven receiving). He’ll need to bump the yardage marks up for a true Heisman run. We think he pushes for it.
Sell: Texas QB Sam Ehlinger (14/1) -- Ehlinger received a fair bit of Heisman pub last offseason after accounting for 41 touchdowns in 2018. He accounted for a still-cool 39 touchdowns this past fall, but that mark came with 10 picks (up from five the previous season) on an 8-5 team. Ehlinger’s not sniffing New York if Texas turns in another campaign like that. And if we’re being honest, we don’t really see a 10-win season in 2020. If we’re being honest, we think the hot seat talk for HC Tom Herman is going to start to ramp up. That’s where we see the Longhorns at this juncture. If Ehlinger was sitting at 21/1 or worse, we might be enticed into taking a flier. 14/1? Hard pass.
Buy: Georgia QB Jamie Newman (14/1) -- Rather than go in on Ehlinger at 14/1, consider Newman at the same odds. If you’re breaking into cold sweats imagining a Jake Fromm redux, put a compress on your forehead and take a breath. Newman plays a slick dual-threat game that simply wasn’t in Fromm’s toolbox, throwing for 26 touchdowns while rushing for 574 yards and six touchdowns with Wake Forest in 2019. And now he hits Athens, where he will benefit from a major, major talent bump. Georgia is in the process of amassing one of the top receiving corps in the entire country. Dominick Blaylock and George Pickens lead the way, here, but UGA also signed multiple four-star receivers in December. It’s a young, deep receiving corp which Newman will be working with upcoming. As with Harris on Alabama, we also give Newman a little uptick in our mental framework simply due to the team which he plays for -- a perennial Playoff contender. Our only real concern, here, comes in whether Georgia’s coaching staff will actually try to open up the offense, in a way they never did with Fromm at the helm. If it’s the same ol’ conservative, run-heavy, old LSU approach, Newman’s chances for a Heisman step up take a real shot. We just find it difficult to believe a scheme shift won’t be coming, here, not only given the passing talent on hand, but also given that Georgia needs to do SOMETHING different to keep up with Alabama and LSU.
Sell: LSU QB Myles Brennan (25/1) -- The odds aren’t horrible, here. But Brennan is receiving an extra wind in his sails thanks to Joe Burrow’s brilliance, and we’re not hitting the open seas with that. This is an LSU team that will be out offensive mastermind Joe Brady, as well as RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, WR Justin Jefferson and TE Thaddeus Moss -- three of a whopping NINE underclassman Tigers to declare for the draft. Brennan hit on 24-of-40 passes for 353 yards, a touchdown and an interception in backup duty behind Burrow in the fall. We won’t extrapolate from those numbers -- mop-up duty means little -- but in the same breath, we aren’t comfortable projecting a monster season. Burrow’s year was magical, essentially perfect. But assuming a replication (even a poor copy of a replication) is something we can’t do at this juncture. We think it’s more likely that the Tigers’ offense drops off to a good-but-not-great unit than that they remain elite with Brennan calling the shots. Especially given what LSU has lost.
Buy: North Carolina QB Sam Howell (60/1) -- First the good. Howell threw for 37 touchdown passes and 3,641 yards as a true freshman, playing in Year 1 of a new coaching staff. His was low-key one of the most impressive freshman quarterback seasons we have seen in recent memory. We are fascinated to see what the ceiling might look like, here, as Howell develops into himself. So what’s the bad? Well the bad is North Carolina. That’s not really fair -- UNC was frisky last year, just ask Clemson -- but in the same breath, they finished out at 7-6. In order for Howell to crack the Heisman race in earnest, the Tar Heels, as a team, need to take a major step forward. Barring a Burrow-esque transcendence in 2020 which elevates the entire outfit, Howell could easily finish with a brilliant year without actually finding national relevance. So why the buy, here? Long odds, baby. We’re willing to take a shot on the cheap while crossing our fingers that UNC is further along than we actually think they are.
Sell: Auburn QB Bo Nix (25/1) -- You want to go with a 25/1 underdog, try Miami QB D’Eriq King or USC QB Kedon Slovis (we’ll hit deeper on Slovis in a moment). We just don’t see it with Nix, who we view more as an interesting project than a ready-for-the-Heisman-type player. Nix failed to throw for 200 yards in 9-of-13 games last season and finished 2019 having completed just 57.6% of his passes. You slam some Monopoly bucks down on Nix, you’re projecting massive improvements. We think you’re better off just keeping those bucks in the bank. Or better yet, investing them in somebody who has shown real numerical flash. There is no reason that Nix should be at 25/1 and Howell at 60/1. Even accounting for the fact that Auburn is a definitively better team, Howell’s numbers are so, so much more alluring than those of Nix. Bo finished the year with a 16/6 TD/INT ratio and was far more of a “moments” quarterback than a numbers one.
Buy: USC QB Kedon Slovis (25/1) -- Slovis, meanwhile, might be the ultimate “numbers” quarterback. His emergence essentially saved Clay Helton’s job by the end of the 2019 campaign. And boy howdy, what an emergence. Slovis topped 400 yards passing in four of his final five regular season games and probably would have been in the neighborhood of 350 yards against Iowa in bowl action had he not been knocked out of that game injured. Across his final five regular season games, Slovis threw for 19 touchdown passes. He ended the year completing 71.6% of his passes. Just chew on those numbers for a minute. Now chew on the fact that he was a true freshman. Now chew on the fact that the Trojans managed to retain OC Graham Harrell this winter even despite heavy interest from other programs. Done chewing? It’s a tasty steak, isn’t it? If Slovis can actually lead USC to a Pac-12 title (or come close to it), if he plays with the fire he played for in November, this one has a real chance to hit. Our biggest concern with Slovis actually comes in his health, as he was forced to leave multiple contests with injury in 2019.
Sell: Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez (30/1) -- Sorry, we’re not going through this with Nebraska again. Martinez was trumpeted as a Heisman contender coming into the fall of 2019 and promptly fell on his face, finishing the year under 60% passing with a 10/9 TD/INT ratio. He put up a second consecutive year rushing over 600 yards, which, cool, but his steady rushing upside is not nearly enough to instill confidence that as an overall player, Martinez is ready for a Heisman-worthy season. If he proves us wrong, we’ll doff our cap. The gap between the reality of Martinez’s 2019 and what he would need to do for Heisman contention is wider than the Snake Canyon. Put it another way: We would rather roll with Bo Nix at 25/1 -- after drubbing him above -- than we would with Martinez. To paraphrase THE SIMPSONS, prove us wrong, Huskers, prove us wrong.
Buy: Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler (14/1) -- Rattler has the third-best Heisman odds of any player in the country, trailing only Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. If you’re rolling with Rattler, it’s not on past production (he attempted just 11 passes in 2019). Rather, you’re rolling on raw talent and (far more than that) on Lincoln Riley. And we will happily take the Riley roll. As if we need to pump up Riley’s bonafides, the offensive wizard has fielded Heisman finalists each of the past three seasons, with outright winners in 2017 and 2018. Now, we have yet to see Riley furnish a Heisman quarterback of his own recruitment -- Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts were all transfers -- but we aren’t overly concerned, there. Sometimes hype recruits do flame out, or start slow, and that’s our biggest trepidation with this one. Rattler might simply need a little time. We're banking on him hitting the ground running.
Sell: Oklahoma State RB Chuba Hubbard (20/1) -- We love Chuba, we do. We can’t wait to see him rip up the Big 12 once more come the fall, after shredding for 2,094 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns in 2019. But those numbers also trouble us. Because there’s essentially no upside toward a stronger season in 2020. Hubbard might be just as sharp this year, but he’s not going to be demonstrably better. And he didn’t sniff New York in 2019. Unless Oklahoma State breaks through for a Big 12-winning campaign -- and we don’t see that -- Hubbard is basically a more southernly-located Jonathan Taylor, in that it doesn’t matter what he does for Heisman purposes. That might seem cynical (OK, it is cynical), but we also think that’s just the reality. There’s a reason that Najee Harris is the only other running back we’re highlighting in this column -- it’s because, essentially, Alabama is Alabama.