- With the past two Heisman winners off to the NFL, this year's race has plenty of new faces chasing the familiar name at the top.
On Tuesday, two weeks after Alabama’s national title game win over Georgia, Bovada released its early odds for the 2018 Heisman race. Both the 2017 winner, Baker Mayfield, and 2016’s, Lamar Jackson, are off to the NFL this spring, and this year’s crop of hopefuls is on the whole younger and less experienced than the players who topped last year’s list. In fact, of the 11 players with at least 12/1 early odds this time last year, only four return in 2018: Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and Washington quarterback Jake Browning. (Francois missed this year’s list after sitting out last season injured, and Hurts is absent from the list and is almost certainly out of a job in Tuscaloosa. McSorley has 18/1 odds this year, Browning 22/1.)
Now that we know which way Vegas is leaning, let’s take a look at the early cases for top eight players on this year’s list, plus some other players of note on (and off) Bovada’s rankings.
1. Stanford RB Bryce Love (7/1)
This helps validate Love’s decision to return for his senior season after putting up pretty stunning numbers in his runner-up 2017 campaign: 2,118 yards on 8.1 yards per carry and enough individual highlights to make every game he played in worth watching. There was the typical backlash to his decision to put off the NFL for a year—running backs’ injury risks and the brevity of many careers at the position make every pro paycheck even more valuable—but if Love comes back and does what he did last fall again, the Heisman should be his.
2. Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor (8/1)
With 1,977 rushing yards as a freshman, Taylor finished behind only Love and San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, who’s off to the NFL. Taylor’s 6.6 yards per carry were impressive, but it’s interesting to see he holds a slight edge over Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, another rising sophomore who averaged more yards per carry and also finished among the nation’s top 20 rushers. Wisconsin’s quarterback situation should look a lot like it did in 2017 with Alex Hornibrook back under center, and that means Taylor is going to get his fair share of work in an offense that leans on the ground game for consistent production.
3. Arizona QB Khalil Tate (9/1)
Tate should be the best dual-threat quarterback in the nation next fall. To see him this high is notable in light of the upheaval at Arizona this winter; clearly Vegas thinks the decision to replace Rich Rodriguez with Kevin Sumlin keeps Tate in an offense designed to maximize his playmaking skills. He burst onto the scene last October, coming off the bench to rush for 327 yards and throw for 154 in a loss to Colorado, and he went on hit triple digits in both passing and rushing yards in five different games. Still, he was inconsistent at times, with Arizona’s late-night Pac-12 Networks kickoffs shielding the general public from his growing pains.
4. Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa (10/1)
An Alabama quarterback has never won the Heisman, but based on an incredibly small sample size on college football’s biggest stage, Tagovailoa certainly looks like he represents the Tide’s best chance in a while. The rising sophomore has thrown exactly 77 passes in his college career, and 24 of them came against Georgia in the Tide’s comeback championship win earlier this year. He was the main reason Alabama was able to turn that game around, and he looks like the type of talent we’ll be talking about constantly for the next couple of years. These odds are both deserved and a little bit insane.
T-5. Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins (12/1)
Dobbins was my favorite freshman running back to watch in 2017, shining in an offense where he got less than half of the total carries with the mobile J.T. Barrett at quarterback and sophomore rusher Mike Weber splitting the load. I’d have put him a bit higher on this list, but on a team that’ll have a new quarterback next season—likely Dwayne Haskins, who has a big arm—Dobbins’s exact role is less certain than those of Taylor and Love.
T-5. Georgia QB Jake Fromm (12/1)
Fromm took over in the season opener after Jacob Eason suffered a minor injury and never gave Georgia’s coaches a reason to look back. As a freshman, Fromm threw for 2,615 yards, averaging 9.0 yards per attempt, and was the leader of a balanced offense that helped the Bulldogs reach the national title game. Eason, who played sparingly in two games the rest of the way, announced his intention to transfer this month. There’s a fair amount of turnover among Georgia’s top offensive producers this offseason—top receiver Javon Wims and leading rushers Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are off to the NFL—which means Fromm won’t have as much experience to lean on in 2018. If last year’s numbers are indicative of future growth and the Bulldogs contend for another playoff trip, Fromm should be in the Heisman conversation all season.
T-5. Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham (12/1)
Stidham could have left for the NFL after one season at Auburn, but he decided to return after posting the second-best season by a Tigers quarterback in school history. In doing so, he now has the second-highest odds of any quarterback playing in Alabama to win the Heisman, and picking him over Tagovailoa would be a fun bet to take.
T-5. West Virginia QB Will Grier (12/1)
Grier, another transfer, started his career at Florida, and he has blossomed in Dana Holgorsen’s high-flying offense. Next season, he’ll get back one of the country’s best receivers in David Sills V, and with Mayfield and Mason Rudolph gone to the NFL, he should enter the fall as the Big 12’s best quarterback. Grier threw for 3,490 yards in 2017, but the Mountaineers never found enough consistency on defense to win big games. For Grier to be a real Heisman contender, he’s going to have to keep up those numbers, and his team will need to do better than 7–6.
Odds are too low: Penn State QB Trace McSorley (18/1)
McSorley doesn’t get the credit he’s due, but don’t let that take away from what he did last year while Saquon Barkley garnered the brunt of the Heisman attention in State College. His dominant Fiesta Bowl performance against Washington, in which he completed 78% of his passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns, should serve as a preview of the Nittany Lions could look like at their best next fall.
Odds are too high: Washington QB Jake Browning (22/1)
Browning was on every watch list going into 2017 and earned 10/1 odds on last year’s early list, but his numbers ticked down from the year before and the Huskies turned in a puzzling offensive no-show against Arizona State that cratered their shot at national recognition. It’s hard to see him replicating what he did as a sophomore in 2016, when he finished sixth in the Heisman voting.
Defensive long shots: Ohio State DE Nick Bosa vs. Houston DT Ed Oliver
Bosa got 75/1 odds. Oliver came in at 55/1. Since 1970, only one defensive player, Charles Woodson, has taken home the award, so the odds of either doing so in 2018 are low. Still, the comparison here is interesting. These are without a doubt the two best returning defensive players in the game, but if I were a betting woman, I’d have given the nod here to Bosa. Vegas’s preference of Oliver, who plays for a team with a lower ceiling than Bosa’s Buckeyes, is interesting. Perhaps that’s because Bosa can blend in on a stacked Ohio State defense—although I’m not buying that argument—while Oliver is Houston’s centerpiece on that side of the ball. Both play with a finesse that will make them future first-round picks and the kind of explosion that makes line play stand out to even casual viewers.
Most notable snub: Drew Lock
Missouri didn’t exactly make waves with its flat performance in the Texas Bowl, but Lock was thrilling to watch during the Tigers’ late-season turnaround last year. He threw for 3,964 yards, averaging 9.5 per attempt, and had 44 passing touchdowns in 2017. On an offense that returns a good amount of talent, Lock should be able to put up similar numbers in 2018, although the Tigers did lose offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who took UCF’s open head coach gig. Heupel’s replacement was one of the most fascinating hires of the offseason: Derek Dooley.