2019 Heisman Watch

Handicapping The Heisman Trophy

by Matt Midlikowski (@midlikowski)

We are still a week away from the first College Football action of the 2019 season, but it seems like so much is already set in stone. Not many are predicting anything other than another Clemson vs Alabama clash for the National Title, and while that may be the case, the race to fill the remaining two spots in the CFP Bowl Games should fill the storyline void. Part of the reason that the Tigers and Crimson Tide seem destined for greatness is due to their superior offenses led by standout quarterbacks, Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence. The two are frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy, and rightfully so, considering the award is very often given to the best quarterback on the best team in the nation.

I took a look at the futures betting for the 2019 Heisman, and the first thing I want to tell you is that Vegas is probably not the place you want to place a bet if you like one of the longer odds players to win. If you are looking at a board in Vegas, you will find Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts in the +600 range (6 to 1), but Hurts is more like +1000 when you bet him online. Tagovailoa and Lawrence are the only two that both Vegas and the online books have at the same value, so feel free to bet those horses in person, but everyone else is bringing better value in the online betting world. If you are going to tie your money up for the whole season then you might as well get the most out of it.

I am going to break down a bunch of contenders in this piece, but it is hard to get away from Tua and Trevor. I could not find those two paired against the field in any Heisman prop bet, but I would guess that pairing would be -120 or more. You can approximate that bet simply by putting a unit on each to win the Heisman, and rather confidently sitting back to watch it all play out. Now, I get that laying down $200 to turn a $60 profit is not all that exciting, but it is the appropriate hedge bet if you want to get some money on some long shot guys as well.

Here are the quick hits on a short list of 2019 Heisman Trophy contenders:

Tua Tagovailoa, QB | Alabama (+260)

He was the runner-up to Kyler Murray last season, and returns to the helm of a ‘Bama offense that generated 522 yards per game. The Crimson Tide returns so many relevant offensive starters that there are virtually no worries about chemistry, or breaking in new guys on that side of the ball. Biletnikoff winning WR Jerry Jeudy is the main target, but the Henry Ruggs/Devonta Smith duo combined for 1,434 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns, to give Tua an embarrassment of wideout riches. Tua is not the runner that Baker Mayfield or Murray were, but his legs won’t hurt his Heisman chances; especially if he can approach his NCAA record 199.4 passer rating set last season. The schedule helps Tagovailoa, as November dates with LSU and Auburn will have Bama playing primetime contests in that late portion of the season.

Trevor Lawrence, QB | Clemson (+275)

As a five-star recruit, there were high expectations, but Lawrence checked every box imaginable while throwing for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns in a National Freshman of the Year campaign. He did all that in just eleven starts, but now has full control of the #3 total offense from last year. The sophomore QB has his two top wide receivers in Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins back. That pair combined for 21 touchdowns, with Ross averaging 21.7 yards per catch, giving Lawrence a good big play threat to impress the voters. Both of those receivers are scheduled to hit 1,000 receiving yards this season, and there are plenty of other offensive options for the Tigers to help Trevor put up the video game numbers. His sophomore status may hurt him, as voters may be tabbing him for next year’s Heisman, and both of Clemson’s games against preseason Top 25 teams come in September. Clemson will be double digit favorites in every game. Could a bunch of blowout wins take Lawrence off the field too often to maximize his stats?

Justin Fields, QB | Ohio State (+900)

Fields is the hopeful with the most question marks. The Georgia transfer arrives in Columbus having completed 70% of his passes with eight combined touchdowns in limited duty, and will immediately get the keys to an offense that averaged 535 total yards per game. That is the same offense that Dwayne Haskins threw for 4,800 yards and 50 touchdowns in, but can Fields see that same success? Can he come close to a Heisman stat line without Paris Cambell, Terry McLaurin, or even Urban Meyer for that matter? Ryan Day moves up from the O-Coordinator role to Head Coach, and Day has previously coached QBs at the NFL level – so Fields is in good hands, as is the offense in general. Legitimate playmakers are a little light in Columbus at the moment, with J.K. Dobbins and K.J. Hill the only known commodities. But, OSU is never really short on recruits ready to step in. Fields was the top rated dual threat QB in 2018, so he has the raw materials, and he has late season contests with Penn State and Michigan to wow voters when it matters most.

Jalen Hurts, QB | Oklahoma (+1000)

Can the Sooners really make it three Heisman winning QBs in a row? A lot of the numbers say they can, given OU has averaged 575 yards per game over the last two seasons, and set an NCAA record in averaging nearly nine yards per play under Kyler Murray. Hurts might not have that elite gear that Mayfield and Murray showed, but he does have a winning pedigree above all others, including SEC and National Championship game experience. The Big-12 defenses are much softer than what Hurts was used to in the SEC, so look for a significant uptick in both his passing and running stats. In relief duty last season, Hurts completed 75% of his passes for eight touchdowns, and ‘Bama actually played him enough to stay sharp. He has 21 rushing touchdowns as a starter over his career, and Lincoln Riley knows how to run his QBs to produce those Heisman level stats. Marquise Brown is gone, but CeeDee Lamb returns to build on his 1,158 yard, 11 touchdown receiving effort to give Hurts a big play target.

Adrian Martinez, QB | Nebraska (+1200)

The buzz around Martinez for 2019 is making Vegas a little nervous, as the Husker QB is getting 6 to 1 odds to win the Heisman, while his online value is sometimes double that. If you are on the Martinez train now, go ahead and bet him, as any early season success is going to hurt his potential return on investment. Martinez was only able to lead Nebraska to a 4-8 record last season, but he did set a school record for rushing yards (629) by a freshman QB, and led the Huskers to 36 points per game over the last six contests. Nebraska’s offensive line was a mess last season, and led to Martinez running for his life on many occasions, but three starters return to that line which showed improvement late. A cleaner pocket should allow Martinez to improve on his 2,617 passing yards and 17 scores from 2018, and consistent line play should keep him healthy as well. Nebraska was dominated in the two games Martinez missed with a knee injury last year. The Big Ten is projected to be tough, with seven teams in the preseason Top 25, but a Week 5 tilt against Ohio State will serve a Martinez’ big test. An upset there with a big stat line should propel both him, and the Huskers, to big things.

D’Andre Swift, RB | Georgia (+2500)

Well, we finally get away from the quarterbacks, but I do have to mention that signal callers have won eight of the last ten Heisman Trophies. The other two did go to running backs, Alabama running backs to be specific, so can D’Andre Swift pick up the torch from Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry? Those backs averaged over 2,100 yards from scrimmage in their Heisman campaigns, and Swift has a chance to reach that 2K plateau now that he is not splitting time with Elijah Holyfield. Swift was also dealing with a bad groin in 2018, but all that is behind now as he leads a running game that averaged 240 yards per game last year. Georgia QB Jake Fromm is not a running threat, so Swift doesn’t need to worry about losing carries to literally anyone. If Swift takes just half of the carries left by Holyfield, and maintains the same 6.4 yards per carry average, he should cruise past 1,500 rushing yards. Swift was active as a receiver with 32 catches for 297 yards last season, and any increase there will have that 2,000 total yard goal within reach. Georgia is scheduled to win the SEC East, and that will help prop up Swift as potentially the best offensive player on a team headed to the Playoff.

Jonathan Taylor, RB | Wisconsin (+3000)

Taylor makes this list as the only player to gain at least one first place Heisman vote in 2017 and 2018. The Badger back finished 9th in the Heisman voting last year, 6th in 2017, and owns the NCAA record for most rushing yards in a freshman and sophomore season. His two-year average has him on pace for 2,064 rushing yards in 2019, which would move him to #6 on the all-time NCAA list – ahead of guys like DeAngelo Williams, LaDainian Tomlinson, and fellow Badger Melvin Gordon. Will that level of career success be enough to sway Heisman voters? Another 2,000 yard season by itself is not likely enough to get Taylor a trip to New York, but anything north of 2,000 yards and wins against Michigan, Ohio State, and Nebraska could make Taylor’s case a lot more compelling. He could see the most action of his career, as Wisconsin is unsure about either Jack Coan or true freshman Graham Mertz at quarterback, and there are no threats in the backfield to siphon off consistent carries. Paul Chryst is looking to improve Taylor’s draft stock by involving him in the passing game more, and that would be a big Heisman boost as well.

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