2021 College Football Preview: Best Heisman value bets

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When handicapping the college football preseason, the first destination for my eyes is the Heisman Trophy futures board. It is home to the longest odds and where the most options are truly in play.

That’s not the case for the national championship, where Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State hover in the 4-1 range, and even longer shots like Oklahoma and Georgia don’t exceed 7-1 on DraftKings. 

The odds for the national championship are just reminders that the deck is stacked in favor of the Power 5 schools. This gives bookmakers the upper hand for most college football futures. However, preseason Heisman futures somewhat minimize that power.

Undoubtedly, the next Heisman winner will come from a Power 5 school, just as everyone before him since Andre Ware in 1989 and Ty Detmer in 1990. Still, this expansive board allows bettors a legitimate opportunity to scan up and down to identify a number of potential plays. 

 

This won’t be based on making statistical projections for 12 regular-season games but instead will be about breaking down all the factors needed to gain valuable media attention, which fuels this popularity contest. 

Candidates playing in today’s crowded media marketplace need superior individual accomplishments, team success and the press to latch on to a sustainable narrative for as long as possible. That translates into a number of dominoes falling into place. At this point of the year, handicapping the Heisman field means determining who has the fewest dominoes to deal with.

A new domino is in play this season: the ability for players to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness. Previously, Heisman campaigns were spurred by sports information directors who creatively developed marketing strategies to gain attention and secure votes.

Then came the cable sports television explosion, with every game or highlight basically a nationally televised commercial for the top candidates. Now this year we need to see what happens with the rise of sponsored social media posts driving publicity. 

If a Heisman candidate signs a marketing agreement with a commercial sponsor, that business will have incentive to help promote its influencer. How that plays out with voting members is still to be determined. Hype might be converted to votes, or it could antagonize media members who think social media is an end-around to the traditional methods. Either way, expect a lot of NIL stories this season that will likely bring some coattail publicity for the top players. 

Here is an early look at some Heisman candidates and a rundown of what needs to happen for them to win the award. 

Spencer Rattler (+ 550 DraftKings, BetMGM, BetRivers)

From a qualitative standpoint, Rattler has every reason to be the top candidate. The name alone draws attention, as will the comparisons to Patrick Mahomes. 

The Oklahoma quarterback comes into 2021 on a top-5 squad that should contend for the national championship. 

Somewhere in that + 550 is a built-in Lincoln Riley tax because the preseason stories about the returning QB will likely include references to his coach’s Heisman success with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. 

Riley is 0-3 in the College Football Playoff, but that plays no role in Heisman voting. 

Rattler has relatively few obstacles in his way to a Heisman right now, but + 550 just isn’t worth tying up a portion of a college football bankroll before any games are played. Last year’s leading candidates, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, were about + 400 before the season began, but COVID-19 altered their odds.

Lawrence and Fields got as high as 12-1 and 25-1, respectively, by Week 15, about the time DeVonta Smith was 50-1, according to SportsOddsHistory.com.

Pandemic issues may be diminished, but what happened last year demonstrates there should be little rush to bet the top candidate too early when other variables inevitably arise.

The best time to address a Rattler bet is in early October after road games with Kansas State and Texas. One average game will likely bump up his odds to a better price before the Baylor and Iowa State games in mid-November, which could put him back on track. 

D.J. Uiagalelei (+ 600 DraftKings, BetMGM, BetRivers)

Much of the narrative about Rattler applies to the new Clemson QB, even down to his name, which those in the media will likely enjoy saying repeatedly. 

With no injuries, the Uiagalelei campaign will encounter limited impediments this season … but that doesn’t mean you should jump on any preseason bets. 

One number is concerning when it comes to his Heisman chances, and that is -835, the odds DraftKings posted for the Tigers to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. So it again appears that Clemson will roll through the conference, run up scores, then sub out the QB during blowouts. 

This is one reason Lawrence’s Heisman chances were tempered even though the media narrative supported him being the best player in college football. 

A current bet on Uiagalelei is also showing support for Miami and North Carolina (+ 700 DraftKings) to contend for the ACC title. 

Looking at Clemson’s schedule, the opening game against Georgia should create some juice to his campaign. Then comes a mediocre ACC schedule. 

Last season Alabama also had a smooth regular-season run, but the internal competition among Smith, Mac Jones and Najee Harris created optimal media interest and betting variance.

Ironically, if you want to back Uiagalelei, the preference is to have more obstacles in his way. 

Bryce Young (+ 1000 BetMGM, + 800 DraftKings and BetRivers)

Young takes over at QB for the Crimson Tide and is already a top candidate after playing a limited role last year. 

I’m concerned with Alabama fatigue for voters after last year, and Young’s current odds won’t assuage these feelings. Other Alabama players are creating a Heisman hopeful crowd in Tuscaloosa: Jase McClellan (+ 6600 DraftKings and BetRivers, + 5000 BetMGM), John Metchie III (+ 8000 DraftKings and BetRivers, + 5000 BetMGM) and Brian Robinson Jr. (+ 5000 BetMGM).

Considering Young is grouped with other Crimson Tide candidates, a more prudent approach at this time is to eliminate the subjectivity and put some of your college football bankroll on the entire team at + 225 to win the national championship. This ticket will serve as a safety net all season and help buy some time to see who in this group is worth a play individually.

So analyzing the big three: Rattler, Uiagalelei and Young should have no problem piling up media attention and wins. The concern playing them is the odds just aren’t substantial enough for a preseason Heisman wager. 

That means look down the board for value and identify other plays that are best made before the season kicks off. 

Breece Hall (+ 6600 BetMGM, + 4000 DraftKings and BetRivers)

Hall deserves summer action, especially at 66-1. Expect numerous media outlets to take on the angle of Iowa State being “the next big thing” during the early stages of the season. A cyclone of coverage is probably coming ISU’s way, so get some of Hall before it happens. 

Even though Iowa State isn’t a conventional home to a Heisman candidate (do you remember the name Troy Davis?), Hall had the most 2020 votes of any returning player. That equity makes a nice companion to these odds. 

Iowa State starts the season as a borderline top-10 program, and the Big 12 title is a reasonable goal.

The season opener against Northern Iowa should immediately place Hall in the trending-up category. Then comes a home game against Iowa, so plenty of nationally recognized college football experts and insiders should be heading to Ames.

Any Hall bet needs to be placed before the production crews reach town and eat their first breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches.

A tremendous outing by Hall against the Hawkeyes on Sept. 11 will substantially reduce the current odds. If Iowa’s excellent defensive coordinator, Phil Parker, prevents this from happening, it won’t derail Hall’s candidacy. High-profile Big 12 games in late October through mid-November could reignite Hall’s chances. 

If you are going to place one Heisman bet at this juncture, consider Hall based on his output last year, the rising interest in Iowa State and the possible payday down the line. 

Brock Purdy (+ 6600 BetMGM, + 5000 DraftKings and BetRivers)

Hall’s teammate is also in the Heisman conversation. The Iowa State QB comes in at a similar price and, like Hall, made a name for himself during last season’s run to the conference championship game. The All-Big 12 first-teamer should once again post attractive totals against the consistently weak secondaries in his conference. 

Nonetheless, from a media narrative perspective, Hall is the better bet. Purdy is one of many QBs vying for the Heisman, while a feature back can separate himself.

The number of QB candidates, and the difficulty of having so many worthy arms to choose from, will be one of the main themes of this year.

It used to be that the bottleneck of Heisman candidates was at running back, but no RB has won the award since Derrick Henry in 2015. 

Texas’ Bijan Robinson (+ 3000 BetMGM, + 2000 DraftKings and BetRivers) is another viable RB attempting to break the recent trend. 

Voters last saw Robinson end 2020 with 183 yards on just 10 carries in the Alamo Bowl victory over Colorado. 

That game, plus the addition of former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as his head coach, should make him one of the first RBs mentioned when Heisman talk picks up. 

The stories about Sarkisian moving to Austin are going to bolster the Robinson campaign. 

Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud (+ 1200 BetMGM, + 1000 DraftKings and BetRivers), North Carolina’s Sam Howell (+ 1700 DraftKings and BetRivers, + 1400 BetMGM), Georgia’s JT Daniels ( + 1200 DraftKings and BetRivers,+ 1000 BetMGM) and Mississippi’s Matt Corral (+ 2200 BetMGM, + 2000 DraftKings and BetRivers) are the next QB tier following Rattler, Uiagalelei and Young. 

All in this group fit the profile of legitimate Heisman candidates as QBs in offense-friendly environments. Handicapping this from a media narrative says the odds in this range aren’t commensurate with the amount of early-season headlines they will need to acquire at the expense of other candidates. 

Just winning games won’t be enough to break through the logjam of all these QB candidates. As a result, the current odds for this group will have plenty of shelf life. 

Stroud inherits the Buckeyes’ offense from Fields, and even though he is a five-star recruit, nothing is exciting about the odds for a freshman on an offense that likes to spread the wealth. 

Putting up great numbers has been no problem at all for Howell over the last two seasons with the Tar Heels. That should cool any desire to pull the trigger now on a Howell play. Are you willing to wager that a UNC quarterback will get enough attention to bypass the one at Clemson to win over the hearts and minds of voters? 

On those highlight-driven shows, Howell’s work will be in the B block, while Uiagalelei and gang will live in the A block for the season.

Also, last year’s playmaking group of Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Javonte Williams and Michael Carter departed UNC, so this traditional drop-back passer must post Joe Burrow-like numbers with a new cast.

These are more obstacles than the 14-1 odds indicate.

The Alabama winning machine is what stands in the way of Daniels at Georgia and Corral at Mississippi. 

A number of stories over the last decade have contended that (fill in the blank) could overtake the Crimson Tide in the SEC West. This year that distinction goes to the Rebels. So a Corral bet is also a side wager against Nick Saban. 

With that in mind, wait for some tangible evidence once the season starts at the expense of higher odds. 

One QB who does have a good chance to separate himself from the crowded field is USC’s Kedon Slovis (+ 2500 DraftKings, BetMGM, BetRivers). You can see the path Slovis needs to take, and at these odds, it is worth it to go along.

He is cast as the Pac-12’s best offensive player in a season the conference is billing as its comeback on the national stage. The last member of the conference to take home the trophy was Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014.

Without much regional competition, Slovis should gain traction with voters in the Mountain and Pacific time zones. When Mariota won, only one other player from a school west of Texas, Scooby Wright of Arizona, even made the top 10 in total votes.

Conference officials are also looking into some flexible scheduling to make their product more available to East Coast eyeballs.   

A bet now for Slovis makes sense and comes with value. 

If you prefer to wait, make sure to get action on Slovis in advance of the Trojans’ game Oct. 23 at Notre Dame. This is the type of singular event that breeds media exposure and public interest that could shift the odds board. 

All this talk about whether Reggie Bush deserves his vacated 2005 trophy since the NCAA is entering the NIL age will provide some ancillary assistance to Slovis in the promotion department.

Michael Penix Jr. (+ 5000 DraftKings, BetMGM, BetRivers) is another QB who has summertime value attached to his name. 

Penix Jr.’s Indiana squad will join Iowa State in any preseason story that mentions the following terms: under the radar, sleeper, Cinderella, party crasher or underdog.

He also enters the season with some momentum after his spectacular (albeit debatable) game-winning touchdown in overtime against Penn State in October. 

This is a reasonable long-shot play. 

No reason to act on it now, but still keep an eye on UCF’s Dillon Gabriel (+ 6600 BetMGM, + 5000 DraftKings and BetRivers) to see what Gus Malzahn can offer early on as the lefty QB’s coach. Profiles of what the former Auburn coach is doing in Orlando will help burnish the third-year starter’s reputation. 

A possible lottery ticket to add to a Hesiman portfolio is Ohio State WR Chris Olave (+ 10000 DraftKings and BetRivers, not on BetMGM’s board). He has long odds for a reason, but he faces no insurmountable obstacles. The preseason All-American deep threat has a chance to rack up yards, long TDs and highlight-reel footage. Sounds a little like last year’s winner. 

The rest of the under 50-1 crowd 

Emory Jones (+ 5000 BetMGM, + 3300 DraftKings and BetRivers)

The Florida QB will try to duplicate what Kyle Trask did last year in Gainesville. The Sept. 18 home game against Alabama is decision day. If he can do well against the Tide, the Gators’ ensuring favorable schedule will help. 

Hold off until the Alabama game to determine whether a ticket on Jones is warranted. It will be less than the current number, but from a futures standpoint, the Alabama game comes at an opportune time since nine more regular-season games will be left.

Desmond Ridder (+ 4000 BetMGM, + 3300 DraftKings and BetRivers)

Ridder is the hard-nosed QB you want on your team. Unfortunately, there is a glass ceiling for the Heisman in Cincinnati. 

The same was said about Lamar Jackson in Louisville, but his transcendent qualities were able to shatter that obstacle. In short, Ridder isn’t Jackson.

Jayden Daniels (+ 4000 DraftKings and BetRivers, + 3000 BetMGM)

The Arizona State QB is already getting attention for what he could bring to an NFL team with comparisons made to Robert Griffin III. 

With so many other QBs on the board and Slovis in his conference, Daniels is an example of a player with too many hurdles to jump to win a Heisman. He needs his team to contend nationally (which seems unlikely), he must outplay a number of other high-profile QBs and then have the media get behind his Heisman status at a school not otherwise associated with the award. 

Casey Thompson (+ 5000 BetMGM, + 4000 DraftKings and BetRivers) 

The Texas QB already has taken care of the positive publicity qualifications needed to win the Heisman. Using his newfound ability to gain NIL compensation, Thompson is offering fans the opportunity to purchase personalized video messages for $50 apiece. Instead of pocketing the cash, he is pledging to donate the proceeds to No Kid Hungry, a national campaign to combat childhood hunger.

It’s a fantastic charitable effort that certainly deserves national attention. His significant impediments are playing with Robinson and a crowded list of Big 12 candidates. 

Malik Willis (+ 4000 DraftKings and BetRivers)

Don’t fall for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick.

No matter how many stories that advocate for Group of 5 players and teams, the hegemonic structure perpetuated by the power conferences and their media partners won’t have room for a Liberty QB to win the award.

The same holds true for Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall (150-1 BetMGM)

Contrarian play

If not for some eligibility issues, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young very well could have won the 2019 Heisman Trophy. Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux (200-1 BetMGM, 150-1 DraftKings and BetRivers) plays like Young, will have the same exciting highlights sprinting past OTs and chasing down QBs like Young, and is expected to go near the top of the next draft. Thibodeaux’s problem is he will operate in the Pac-12, while Young did his work under the favored-nation status of the Big Ten.

The Ducks head to Columbus on Sept.11. That is the time to address whether you want to add a defensive player to your Heisman portfolio.

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