We are obsessed with the Heisman. It could be because of the small sample size (at most 13 games), the vague criteria for selecting the winner ("the most outstanding player in college football in the United States whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity"), or the political lobbying and debate that it inspires.
But there's enough interest that before the season even starts the potential candidates are broken down in every potential way, from favorites to underdogs to best value bets in Vegas. And every major college football website will track which players chances have improved or worsened every week.
So instead of ranking the favorites (actually, we'll still do that, but later), let's use the winners since 2000 to narrow the field down to 11 potential winners.
Elimination #1: Major Conference Quarterbacks
It's not fun or cool, and maybe it should be different, but quarterbacks from power five conferences have accounted for 13 of the last 15 Heisman winners. Reggie Bush was a generational talent that capitalized on insane highlights and a team hyped as maybe the best all time (and the fact that his quarterback had already won a Heisman), and Mark Ingram had the closest win in Heisman history (although it was over another back, Toby Gerhart, but it was a weird down year for quarterbacks with Ndamukong Suh stealing first place votes from Colt McCoy). They are the exception to the rule, and the safe money is to look at the quarterbacks.
Case Study A: Melvin Gordon ran for 2,587 yards last season (7.5 yards per carry) and scored 32 touchdowns. Sure, maybe voters were a little numb to Wisconsin running backs putting up big numbers, but he averaged over two scores and 180 yards rushing a game. That earned him all of 33 first place votes, compared to 788 for Marcus Mariota.
The same fate that applies to non-QBs also applies to quarterbacks from mid-majors. They can put up insane statistics and highlights, but won't be taken seriously by many voters unless they're playing power-five competition. Players like Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty (the 2015 winner in my NCAA simulation!), Utah State's Chuckie Keeton, Taysom Hill, or Keenan Reynolds all have the talent and situations to have monster statistical season and potentially earn a trip to New York as a finalist, but they aren't taking home the trophy.
Eliminated: All non-QBs, all QBs not in the power five conferences
Elimination #2: Potential to win big
So this is obvious on its surface, but the quarterbacks that have won the Heisman have averaged 11 regular season wins. The only winners with less than 10 wins were Tim Tebow in 2007 and RGIII in 2011, and both tallied nine. Lifting a traditional underdog to bowl eligibility or eight wins could earn a player an invitation to New York, but not the trophy.
So using Football Outsiders College Football Almanac win total probabilities (available here, just $6!), I'm eliminating teams with Jeremy Johnson (Auburn).
Remaining Players (23): Deshaun Watson (Clemson), Everett Golson (FSU), Justin Thomas (Georgia Tech), Michael Brewer (Virginia Tech), Seth Russell (Baylor), Baker Mayfield (named Oklahoma starter today), Trevone Boykin (TCU), Kansas State QB (four in contention!), Connor Cook (Michigan State), JT Barrett / Cardale Jones (Ohio State), Tommy Armgstrong Jr. (Nebraska), Joel Stave (Wisconsin), Malik Zaire (Notre Dame), Vernon Adams (Oregon), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Mike Bercovici (Arizona State), Josh Rosen / Jerry Neuheisel (UCLA), Cody Kessler (USC), UGA QB (three battling), Maty Mauk (Missouri), Alabama QB (four in the running, Saban keeping everything secret), Anthony Jennings / Brandon Harris (LSU), Ole Miss QB (Chad Kelly?)
Elimination #3: Ascending Veterans and Breakout Starters
Taking a closer look at these previous Heisman winners, most fit into one of two categories - ascending veterans or breakout underclassmen. "Ascending veterans" were primarily upperclassmen that began showing flashes of brilliance the year before - most were All-Conference selections and borderline All-Americans, then took the next step forward in winning the Heisman the next year.
The "breakout starters" have emerged more often over the past few seasons - players that stepped into favorable situations in their first year as a starter and went from a relative unknown to putting up monster numbers. Notably absent are true freshman, who have never won the Heisman.
Looking at winners from 2000 on:
Ascending Veterans: Chris Weinke (2000), Eric Crouch (2001), Matt Leinart (2004), Troy Smith (2006), Sam Bradford (2008), Robert Griffin III (2011), Marcus Mariota (2014)
Breakout Starters: Tim Tebow (2007), Cam Newton (2010), Johnny Manziel (2012), Jameis Winston (2013)
The only winners that don't fit in one or the other are Carson Palmer and Jason White. Palmer I assumed would fit the "ascending veteran" category, but he was really not impressive before his senior year. Nothing about his junior season screams "future Heisman winner" - he threw for less than 3,000 yards, completed only 58.6% of his passes, and had a TD/INT ratio of 13:12. Jason White doesn't fit cleanly because of a strange injury-filled college career - he was a senior when he won the 2003 Heisman, but it was his first full season as a starter after consecutive seasons cut short by ACL tears.
So what does this do to the list? It eliminates veterans that haven't shown the prerequisite level of success or whose best case scenario for 2015 still isn't likely to be Heisman-worthy. Kevin Hogan fits in here - at this point he's shown flashes of high level play but is mostly a known quantity. It also takes out quarterbacks in run-heavy schemes like UGA, Wisconsin, or LSU where there's no clear answer at QB and an incumbent star at running back.
Eliminated: Everett Golson, Michael Brewer, Kansas State QB, Joel Stave, Tommy Armstrong Jr., Kevin Hogan, Josh Rosen / Jerry Neuheisel, UGA QB, Maty Mauk, Anthony Jennings / Brandon Harris, Ole Miss QB, Alabama QB
These were tough eliminations - in particular I could see regretting Golson, Armstrong, and whoever wins the Alabama QB job (Lane Kiffin magic!). But Golson's turnovers and dismal end to the 2014 season don't fit the archetype of the ascending veteran, as much as I believe in his potential. I can also see newly cleared Dalvin Cook becoming the focal point of the offense, and Jimbo having a quick hook if Golson's start of this year resembles the end of last season.
The Elite 11:
I feel good that the Heisman winner will come from this group, ranked from least to most likely to take home the trophy.
11. Mike Bercovici, Arizona State: When Taylor Kelly went down last season Bercovici led the Sun Devils to wins over USC and Stanford. He has a strong arm, Todd Graham's offenses put up points, and he's ready for the opportunity. Why last on the list? He's almost too much of a veteran to be a breakout starter, and hasn't accomplished enough to be an ascending veteran, and I don't trust ASU to get to ten wins with how brutal the Pac-12 South is this year.
10. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: The Sooners have the talent to ruin Baylor and TCU's playoff plans, and while Semaje Perine is a stud, he should open things up for Mayfield and an offense that won't be too run-heavy. New offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley is an Air Raid disciple, and Mayfield has experience in the system from Texas Tech. Oklahoma returns it's top four receivers from last year, and Mayfield fits the mold of a "breakout starter" despite his experience his freshman year in Lubbock.
9. Malik Zaire, Notre Dame: Brian Kelly won't like this, but Zaire definitely fits the profile of a breakout starter with only one start under his belt. He has a plethora of receiving weapons and one of the nation's top offensive lines. Best case scenario, Malik's consistency issues in practice don't translate to games, where he shines and leads the Irish to a playoff berth. Worst case scenario, defenses scheme to take away his running ability (like LSU in the 2nd half of the Music City Bowl) and he struggles to make them pay through the air and with turnovers (like many young QBs). If I'm honest, I'm not sure which is more likely.
8. Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech: The main reason I'd rate Thomas this low is that I have a hard time seeing traditional Heisman voters buying into a quarterback running the triple option. He's the most complete quarterback that Paul Johnson's had in Atlanta and made a huge leap from his freshman to sophomore season (ascending veteran? check.) He ran for over 6.4 yards per carry last season, threw 18 touchdowns to just six interceptions, and returns the bulk of his offensive line. I'm not looking forward to seeing him in South Bend.
7. Cody Kessler, USC: I'm down on Kessler's Heisman chances compared to most for a few reasons. First, USC's schedule is filled with landmines - on the road at Stanford, ND, and Oregon, and home against UCLA, Arizona State, Utah, and Arizona. He's not winning the Heisman without the Trojans winning the Pac-12 South, and I'd bet against it even though I think they're a top 10 - 20 team.
Next, everyone likes to see improvement, and fairly or unfairly, it's going to be hard for Kessler to improve on his 2014 numbers - 3,826 yards, 39 TDs, 5 INTs, while completing 69.7% of his passes. Maybe I'm biased - Kessler will have plenty of big stages for potential "Heisman moments" - but I like the chances of the next six guys better.
6. Deshaun Watson, Clemson: When healthy in 2014, he was as good as any quarterback in college football as a true freshman. Explosive weapons abound at receiver. The questions are health, if the defense can help the Tigers win enough games, and if the running game can keep defenses off balance. Injuries are a threat for every player (and part of why betting on the Heisman is a bad idea), but especially for a quarterback with an inexperienced offensive line and was really bad at running the ball last year.
5. Vernon Adams, Oregon: This is really high for a guy who hasn't locked down the starting job yet, but all signs point to this being Adams' team. The Ducks have the offensive system to put up huge numbers, are the favorite in the Pac-12, and it shouldn't be too much of an adjustment for the Eastern Washington's system (although he'll throw less). I can see voters being skeptical of voting for Adams after Mariota won last year's trophy, but I don't see Oregon's offense slowing down much, and Adams will be a big story early in the year if he can go into East Lansing and take out Michigan State.
4. Seth Russell, Baylor: The biggest unknown this high up the list, Russell has enormous upside - he brings more of a running threat to an already lethal Baylor offense. The receiving group is probably the most explosive in the NCAA, and I like the Bears chances to get to the playoff (even more than TCU's). He'll have plenty of time to build a resume and gain experience with Baylor's cupcake non-conference schedule, and it wouldn't surprise me if Russell doesn't face his first ranked opponent until Oklahoma on November 14.
3. Connor Cook, Michigan State: Remember when the only time the Spartans lost in 2013 was to Tommy Rees? That was fun, and also the point where Cook took over the Michigan State offense, and they've been on a tear ever since. Lost in the Ohio State love last year was the fact that Cook led the Sparty offense to 43 points per game (and that shhhh their defense wasn't all that great).
Cook has made steady strides in each season as a starter, and may get more opportunities to put up big numbers without a proven running back. Get revenge against the Ducks in Week 2 and he's near the top of the Heisman Watch, and I don't see the Spartans tripping up between there and a rematch with Ohio State the week before Thanksgiving. Johnny Manziel won the Heisman by beating Alabama, and if Cook can somehow will MSU by the Buckeyes that's the biggest statement anyone on this list can make.
2. Trevone Boykin, TCU: Just do what you did last year, Trevone. The offense that scored over 46 points per game last year returns pretty much everyone, and the defense doesn't - which potentially means more close games and more passing. He improved dramatically from 2013 to 2014, so even a reasonable improvement in 2015 would lead to some obscene passing totals. But for Boykin to win, TCU has to win the Big Twelve, and probably run the table. The expectations have been set sky-high, and that may be unfair, but that's what success brings.
1. JT Barrett / Cardale Jones, Ohio State QB: I'm glad I can share this expert insight with you - the Heisman favorite is the starting quarterback on the best team. You're welcome! The schedule isn't very challenging, the weapons will be there, and that winning prerequisite? Eleven wins seems like a certainty.
The biggest obstacle here might be the QB competition - knowing that both are extremely capable could cause Urban Meyer to protect the starter if he gets a little banged up - which makes sense. Say Barrett is clearly the starter, but is battling some minor injuries and Cardale gets the start against Rutgers - seems like a good plan! But missing games in the short season can be a Heisman killer, especially if your backup has just as much success. Injury risk is the common thread though, and if whoever wins stays healthy, they're the best bet to take home the trophy.