A complete handicap of the Heisman futures board

July 28, 2022 10:14 PM
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Handicapping the Heisman odds board, especially before any games are played, is one of the biggest challenges college football bettors face.

Not only does the Heisman winner need to achieve tremendous personal success on the field, his team’s performance is a large factor, and the media must play a role in a player’s Heisman campaign. 

Not enough headlines, feature pieces and game day coverage? Then no Heisman. 

All of that basically creates a parlay bettors must account for. 

No doubt there will be a good-sized group, let's say somewhere north of 20 players, who will shine on a weekly basis and look like the best in the country. However, the media members covering the sport and voting on the award are only going to brand a select few as having a “magical season.” 

That makes the media analysis angle an integral part of handicapping this award. Perhaps more so than trying to project how many yards or touchdowns a player will have. 

How many passing yards and touchdowns did Bryce Young have last year at Alabama to win the award?

Not too many people will easily recall the 4,322 yards and 43 touchdowns, but they will remember he had a historic offensive season. That media narrative was repeated throughout last fall. 

Storylines can surpass specific stats in Heisman handicapping. 

So working under the assumption that all of the top candidates will excel in the stats category, let’s examine Heisman futures from a macro perspective, with an emphasis on media narratives, by breaking down some of the candidates under the context of “what will it take for him to win?” 

Odds from the start 

Using the information available since 2009 on SportsOddsHistory.com, the Heisman winner’s average preseason odds are 83-1. To put this into perspective, that includes Lamar Jackson’s 100-1 odds from 2016. At the same time, the 83-1 should actually be higher since four of the winners weren’t even posted with preseason odds. 

Since 2009, only one player with the shortest preseason odds won the award and that was Young last year. 

The favorites 

Same song as last year, just in a different tune. The Heisman board is top-heavy with dynamic QBs from power conferences. Young and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud are back where they started last year. This time they are joined by USC’s Caleb Williams, who ironically took over Oklahoma’s starting QB spot last year from Spencer Rattler, one of the top three preseason favorites in 2021. 

Once again for the top three favorites, all of the factors are working in their favor. Hence, their extremely low odds immediately turn off most bettors. 

None in this group will lack national media visibility. The handicapping for this group from a media narrative angle is if it will be the right coverage. 

CJ Stroud (DraftKings + 200, BetMGM + 200, Circa + 300) 

What will it take for him to win? He needs to play like CJ Stroud and Ohio State needs to play like Ohio State. As in looking like he did last year and the Buckeyes winning the Big Ten championship en route to the College Football Playoff. 

Since the path to a Heisman and an OSU playoff berth look clear, some bookmakers are only offering a 2-1 return on a bet made now. 

Making an awards futures bet in the preseason is always risky since something as benign as a twisted ankle could derail a player’s chances. When tying up money for the entire season, the payoff needs to be worth it. There is just no value for a Stroud play. 

Some bettors could even be disappointed if they hit on a futures ticket with Stroud at these low odds. 

A 2-1 payoff isn’t likely going to help offset any losses accrued during regular-season wagering, unless someone lays down a high proportion of their bankroll on Stroud, which isn’t advisable. And if a bettor is doing well with weekly wagers and having a productive season, there might be second-guessing about tying up funds on a Heisman future when that money could have been used for regular-season bullets. 

Run the option: Rather than bet on one player to do all the work throughout the season to win a 2-1 bet, look at other similar wagers instead. Alabama is + 200 to win the national championship and with this bet you get an entire team, not just one player, to help achieve the winning goals.

OSU opens the season with a prime-time home game against Notre Dame (+ 14.5) on Sept. 3. Stroud supporters could wait for the ND public to get on board and that line might drop to -14 or even -13.5. If that happens, the -110 bet for just one game is a better value than 2-1 for a season's worth of work. 

If Stroud plays at a Heisman level, then his Buckeyes should win the Big Ten and make the CFP. That makes Ohio State at + 350 to win the national title a better option than Stroud. Once again, it is the advantage of getting a team instead of one player. 

Bryce Young (DraftKings + 350, BetMGM + 350, Circa + 300) 

What will it take for him to win? The winner of last year’s award and the BMOC in Tuscaloosa is one of the hardest of the top candidates to back. It sounds counterintuitive, but all of last season’s accomplishments may work against his candidacy in 2022. 

There are no concerns about whether he can duplicate his play; the issue is the media part of the winning equation. Any game that is slightly off from last year’s pace will lead to speculation that his game has “slipped,” he is “content” from last year’s trophy or is now more “concerned” with the NFL. Those are easy jabs media members looking for a new story can throw at him.

It happened to both Mark Ingram and Jameis Winston in their post-Heisman seasons. 

The story of Young winning the Heisman has already been written. This year, media members will prefer the narrative of the emerging star who can beat out Young.

Roll over Tide: Alabama once again looks to be dominant. So much so that DraftKings has its 10.5 win total juiced at -240. 

For Young to win the award, he must play at least slightly better than last year and Alabama has to basically run the table. The second part of that sounds more realistic than the first. Rather than bet on Young, a rollover moneyline parlay on Alabama each week is a better wager. Without having all of the moneyline odds this far in advance, we can estimate the parlay should get to the 3-1 payout around Nov. 5 against LSU. 

Doing the rollover ML parlay takes more work and is not a common move in betting college football. However, it’s an indication that it’s wiser to spread units around in different ways to bet on Alabama rather than betting just one Young-for-Heisman ticket. 

Caleb Williams (DraftKings + 900, BetMGM + 800, Circa + 800)

What will it take for him to win? To play like he did in the second half of last season at OU and continue to work under the guidance of Lincoln Riley. Basically to make USC nationally relevant again. 

Working in Williams' favor will be all of the media attention focused on him, Riley and the upstart Trojans. Williams should get some early season juice just based on these narrative elements. 

Expect him to be one the popular names mentioned by national media members with their Heisman predictions. Public bettors will also start eyeing Williams soon since, compared to the other two favorites, his odds are better and the Los Angeles-Riley combination is appealing. 

His odds will very likely shorten over the first three weeks of the season as USC plays Rice, Stanford and Fresno State. So for those bettors that believe Riley can develop another Heisman winner, the bet should come early. 

His candidacy will be tested Sept. 24 when USC travels to Oregon State. This won’t be a marquee Pac-12 game, but the Ducks traditionally play well in Corvallis and have the defense to limit Williams. 

This is the type of game Heisman futures bettors must identify since it corresponds with the start of the “Heisman Watch” stories that set the agenda regarding the favorites. 

USC’s apparently weak defense is also concerning for Williams since he must lead his team to a Pac-12 title to win the award. 

The Trojan Horse move: There are other ways to get around backing his offensive potential than going all-in on Williams. 

Those with confidence in Williams and the defense to improve under Riley should look at USC’s + 200 to win the conference. This bet provides room for Williams to have a subpar game or two and still cash a ticket. The same holds true for the Over 9.5 (-125) DraftKings has for USC wins. 

Ultimately, I am avoiding a Williams-for-Heisman bet now, not because of him or Riley but due to the presence of Kyle Whittingham. His Utah team is + 260 (DraftKings) to win the conference and his strong defense hosts the Trojans on Oct. 15. 

Here’s an academic grading analogy when handicapping these three favorites and ultimately it’s one of the reasons value lies elsewhere on the Heisman board: In order for any of these three to win, they and their teams must play at an A+ level throughout the season. A B+ game will lead to criticism in the media and hinder their chances. And realize with these expectations and low odds, a B+ game for Stroud, Young or Williams is like an A game for others in the race. 

Fading the favorites tier

Since many futures bettors often look further down the odds board, those in the 20-1 to 45-1 range are going to get a lot of attention. This group looks good from the media side since they are marquee players in power conferences. That is mandatory at these odds. 

Bijan Robinson (DraftKings + 2000, BetMGM + 1600, Circa + 2500) 

Texas’ star running back is going to be prominently mentioned in preseason talk because his odds are substantially higher than the favorites. Once again, there is also the belief by some that this could be the year the Longhorns get back to being a conference champ. 

What will it take for him to win? As I wrote a couple weeks ago in Point Spread Weekly about early Heisman handicapping, in order for Robinson to win, he must have a 200+ total yards game against Alabama on Sept. 10 in Austin. It’s hard to envision Robinson winning the award unless he leads his team to a tremendous upset of the Tide. 

Since so much of Robinson’s campaign hinges on this game, those who want to back him should play the Longhorns as a dog at + 500 instead of getting a Heisman ticket. 

As good as Robinson is and will be this year if he stays healthy, the Heisman has become a QB-dominant award and there are a couple of dominant QBs in front of him who should get plenty of attention. So for Robinson to take home the trophy, he needs to play at a 2015 Derrick Henry level, have his team beat Nick Saban, win the Big 12 and have at least two of the aforementioned QBs struggle in some way. 

It feels like that is more than a 20-1 occurrence. 

Once again, backing Robinson seems more viable by just playing a piece of what it will take for him to win by betting his team at + 290 (DraftKings) to win the Big 12. 

Will Anderson Jr. (DraftKings + 2500, BetMGM + 3000, Circa + 2500) 

This is my top choice for making a preseason Heisman wager. Clearly others feel the same, as when I wrote about doing so last month his odds were north of 40-1. 

For those who feel the tide is shifting and a defensive player can win the award, make the bet soon before the books get even more liability on the fantastic edge rusher. A defensive player winning the award is a bountiful topic for media members to kickstart their preseason coverage. Soon the idea will go from unique to a dominant ideology. 

What will it take for him to win? Keep pace with what he did last year and have the Alabama sports information department start pushing the storyline of him being a Heisman hopeful from Day 1. Last year it came a little too late in the season and he didn’t get an invite for the Heisman ceremony. 

Bookmakers would lay -100000 that Alabama gets the necessary media coverage this season to benefit its Heisman hopefuls. And that lack of an invite is already developing into a storyline this year, in turn providing an early boost for Anderson’s chances. 

If he plays like he did last season, Anderson would follow a similar path as Charles Woodson in 1996 before winning the award in 1997. Woodson won the Defensive Player of the Year award in ’96 and that led to chatter that he could buck the trend and win the Heisman. That prologue turned into the main story in ’97 when he won it as a defensive player. 

With SEC opponents often attempting more than 30 passes a game, Anderson will once again be in a good position to lead the nation in sacks.

More than any stats, the most important commodity for Anderson’s campaign will be the highlight-reel material he seems to provide on a weekly basis.  

Dillon Gabriel (DraftKings + 2500, BetMGM + 3000, Circa + 5000) 

What will it take for him to win? Play not only as well as he did last year at Central Florida, but also make such a big impact that there is no reason for media members to question whether new coach Brent Venables and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby are as good at play calling as Lincoln Riley. The less Riley’s name is brought up in Norman, the better the chances are for Gabriel. 

He should be in contention the entire season, as the Sooners have an extremely favorable schedule. From a media-positioning aspect, Gabriel is in a good spot. Being a power-conference QB outside of the top three preseason choices, he can get a boost around Week 2 or 3 if one of the favorites plays poorly and media members start looking for others “moving up” in the Heisman race. 

Jaxon Smith-Njigba (DraftKings + 2800, BetMGM+ 3000, Circa + 5000) and TreVeyon Henderson (DraftKings + 4000, BetMGM + 2000, Circa + 4100) 

What will it take for either one to win? Surprisingly a lot for two mega talents playing on a national contender. These two could possibly be the best RB-WR duo in the country. The issue they face is they are playing alongside possibly the best QB in the country with the lowest odds to win the Heisman and the one getting the headlines. For JSN to get the receiving yards, Stroud must be the one passing it to him — which would propel Stroud. For Henderson to get enough carries, Stroud must be doing well in the air to score points — which would yet again propel Stroud.

The media has made Stroud the face of the Ohio State program. Ryan Day has done likewise since college football is so dependent on the passing game. If Stroud puts up the numbers to win the Heisman, that helps Day land the next star QB looking for a school. 

Basically, a bet on either of these players is one that would require Stroud to miss time. If by some chance if that happens, then quickly run to the window. 

Tyler Van Dyke (DraftKings + 3500, BetMGM + 2500, Circa + 4500)

What will it take for him to win? Continue the upward ascension from last year that gave him the starting position over D’Eriq King and made him a Heisman candidate coming into this year. Good early season play will also help generate tweets, talking points and headlines that sound something like: “Is this the return of the U?” At 6-foot-4, he certainly looks the part of a strong-armed Miami QB and his NFL profile will give him even more publicity.

Also working for Van Dyke is playing for coach Mario Cristobal, who will be featured prominently in media coverage in his return to South Florida.

Being in the ACC, outside of all the congestion of Heisman candidates in the SEC, should benefit Van Dyke. But the looming presence of the SEC will play a role for anyone in the Heisman race, especially Van Dyke, whose team plays at Texas A&M in Week 3. 

A Miami win in this early season non-conference matchup could move the Hurricanes into the national rankings and Van Dyke into the featured area of any Heisman talk. 

DraftKings has Miami at + 7.5 in College Station. 

DJ Uiagalelei (DraftKings + 3500, BetMGM+ 2000, Circa + 6500) 

What will it take for him to win? Not only rebound from last year's mediocre performance but do it so well that the media narrative turns from what he didn’t do in 2021 to how much better he is in 2022. That’s a major impediment since there is a “been there, done that” element to his candidacy. 

Kedon Slovis (DraftKings + 4000, BetMGM+ 2500, Circa + 12500) and Spencer Rattler (DraftKings + 4000, BetMGM + 3000, Circa + 12500) 

What will it take for either one to win? See above.

Breaking down the early Heisman race from a media perspective, there is little appeal to Uiagalelei, Slovis or Rattler. Better value exists with candidates at longer odds. 

Jaxson Dart (DraftKings + 4500, BetMGM + 2500, Circa + 4000), Anthony Richardson (DraftKings + 4000, BetMGM+ 2000, Circa + 5000) and Hendon Hooker (DraftKings + 4500, BetMGM + 5000, Circa + 5000) 

What will it take for any one of them to win? From the start, anyone slinging in the epicenter of college football, the SEC, is a Heisman candidate.

In the case of Dart, playing for Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss, he will initially be viewed as Young’s biggest competitor. As a freshman who saw action in six games last year for an injured Slovis at USC, Dart looks the part. He very well may be one of the hottest names for the award until mid-October. Then reality, make that the difficult part of the SEC schedule, will set in — Auburn, at LSU, at Texas A&M, Alabama.

Handicapping the Heisman for an SEC player starts with ability but most of the scrutiny then goes to whether his team can beat Alabama and the other giants in the conference. 

All of those issues apply for the Florida and Tennessee QBs as well. 

Since 2000, DeVonta Smith, Joe Burrow, Derrick Henry, Cam Newton, Mark Ingram and Tim Tebow have won the Heisman out of the SEC. Each was playing for a national championship contender. So when analyzing Rattler (South Carolina), Dart, Richardson, Hooker and KJ Jefferson (Arkansas, + 12500 DraftKings), the chances of any of them winning this year are low because none are expected to win the conference, let alone make the College Football Playoff. 

If there is a Hail Mary-worthy wager in this group, it may be Hooker based on his athleticism and the comparisons to Michael Vick that could generate some publicity. 

Quinn Ewers (DraftKings + 3500, BetMGM + 2000, Circa + 3500) 

What will it take for him to win? His chances are a combination of the handicap of the Ohio State RB-WR duo and Robinson. The Texas QB needs to outshine a teammate with greater media equity and must lead an upset of Saban. 

Ewers, like a number of players on this list, can look like a Heisman candidate with his play but still be overlooked by voters based on the way he fits into the weekly storyline. 

His 35-1 odds may look tantalizing because they are in “realistic to win the award” territory. However, the odds should be higher based on all it will take for Ewers to actually win it. 

Upside 

Here are a couple of players who might be worth a long-shot play in the preseason based on their ability to stand out from others in this price range. Notice the variance in pricing here and how important it is to shop for lines. 

Sam Hartman (DraftKings + 5000, BetMGM + 3000, Circa + 10000 ) 

Call this a value-based contrarian play worthy of a small wager. Look at what Kenny Pickett did last year at Pittsburgh. He threw for a lot of yards, the media called him a surprise candidate and he stayed in the race until the end of the season. Those who saw Pickett emerging midway through the year and got a ticket on him in the range of 40-1 had some growing equity as the season progressed. That long-shot ticket becomes valuable near the end of November when it becomes clearer who the winner will be. It helps to offset the cost of a new ticket on the lower-odds favorite. 

A play on Hartman is like Kenny Pickett 2.0. Based on what Hartman did last year for the wide-open Wake Forest offense, and the projections that the Demon Deacons can challenge in the ACC, he has the potential to get a boost by being characterized as a “sleeper Heisman pick.” A ticket on him now has value before those words start flying around in the national media. 

Will Shipley (DraftKings + 10000, BetMGM + 6600, Circa + 11000) 

A July/August college football futures portfolio should include a bomb Heisman play. It’s far more likely to cash than a team outside of the usual suspects of national championship contenders winning it all.

Shipley, the Clemson RB, has the odds of a bomber but the makings of a legitmate candidate. The media will focus on if the Tigers can get back to where they belong at the top of the rankings, and as a RB he has the chance to distinguish himself as a different candidate than the QBs. 

Clemson should have three wins and momentum before traveling to play Hartman and Wake Forest on Sept. 24. 

Perhaps if fellow candidate Uiagalelei fails to make the Clemson offense move enough, Shipley can become the focal point.

The Alabama factor

Next to UT’s Robinson and OSU’s Henderson, Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs might be one of the most talented RBs in the country. Playing in Tuscaloosa means he automatically goes on the Heisman watch list. 

While he won’t lack for big games and attention, he may fall short of carries playing in a pass-first conference. Brian Robinson Jr. led Alabama with 271 rushes for an impressive 1,392 yards last season. That didn’t even get him in the Top 10 of the Heisman voting. 

Fellow RB Jase McClellan (+ 8000 DraftKings) is also expected back sometime this season after recovering from a knee injury a year ago. 

The variance in Gibbs’ odds shows bookmakers are not sure what to make of him: + 6000 DraftKings, Circa and Caesars; + 5000 FanDuel andWynnBet; + 3000 BetMGM; + 1000 BetRivers.

The Notre Dame factor 

Because of the brand name and media connection, bettors are always going to insert a Notre Dame player into the conversation even though the last one to win the award was Tim Brown in 1987. 

The Irish will feature TE Michael Mayer as their primary weapon this year. At + 10000 at most books, it might be worth the cost of a can of Guinness that he can be the first to play that position and win the award since 1949 (Leon Hart). He will get media mentions and, like Anderson, be the subject of stories such as "can a (fill in the blank) really win the Heisman."

Final thoughts 

Based on the combination of odds, probable individual accomplishments and team accomplishments, along with the ability to sustain a media narrative throughout the season, Alabama’s Anderson appears to be one of the top candidates and worthy of a preseason bet. 

But don’t go overboard with preseason Heisman plays; that strategy won’t be profitable. Limit yourself to no more than 2-3 players now. Keep some units free once the season starts for another play or two at lower odds. 

Also, consider using these Heisman hopefuls and the optimism they provide you as a bettor as key pieces of other wagers (conference titles, season win totals and possibly underdogs on the moneyline) that aren’t entirely dependent on just one person.

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