The Heisman Trophy has increasingly become a quarterback award in the modern era, with nine of the last 11 winners playing the position. Last year’s winner, DeVonta Smith, bucked a trend: He became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman since Desmond Howard in 1991. With so many talented young QBs in the sport right now, expect things to swing back to them in 2021.
Here’s a look at the top preseason candidates to earn college football’s highest honor this season.
1. Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
Quarterbacks in Lincoln Riley’s offense are held to an unbelievably high standard because of the track record of success they’ve had. That’s why it was easy to knock Rattler early in the 2020 season when his turnovers were a big reason the Sooners started 1–2. But last year was Rattler’s first as a starter, and he was doing so in the midst of a pandemic that limited practice and film room time with coaches. As the season went on, Rattler started to look as dynamic as the Heisman winners that had come before him in Norman and helped lead Oklahoma to a Cotton Bowl victory.
Late in the season, Rattler did a much better job of taking care of the ball, and the OU offense looked as strong as ever once he did. With another full year of development to get in lockstep with Riley, the sky's the limit for Rattler and the Sooners’ offense in 2021.
2. D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
Uiagalelei got his chance to shine last season when Trevor Lawrence sat out for two weeks with COVID-19, and the Clemson offense didn’t miss a beat. Uiagalelei was absolutely terrific in the team’s road game at Notre Dame, a near-impossible setting for a true freshman quarterback to walk into and thrive. Yet he did, torching the strong ND defense for well more than 400 yards passing to take the Tigers to overtime on the road.
Uiagalelei has all the makings of a Heisman contender: He’s the star quarterback on a team that will contend for a playoff berth, he’s well known entering the season because of his recruiting pedigree and his performance against Notre Dame, and he’ll play in multiple national showcase games throughout the season (including Week 1 vs. Georgia).
3. Sam Howell, North Carolina
One word comes to mind every time I watch Howell: gamer. The junior QB chose North Carolina and Mack Brown over more proven programs, and has yet to back down from a challenge since stepping on campus in Chapel Hill. He’s also been the biggest reason for the program’s rapid turnaround under Brown, leading the Tar Heels to a New Year’s Six bowl game just two years after Larry Fedora was fired following consecutive nine-loss seasons.
Howell also benefits from a relatively light schedule that should position the Heels well for a trip to Championship Week. UNC gets top division foe Miami at home and avoids Clemson in the regular season. Plus, Howell gets a chance at a Heisman moment Halloween weekend in South Bend against Notre Dame.
4. Bryce Young, Alabama
He may have only garbage-time snaps under his belt in his college career, but the legend of Bryce Young continues to grow before his first college start. The former No. 2 recruit from the 2020 class pushed Mac Jones for the starting job in Tuscaloosa last year as a true freshman before Jones put up record-setting numbers for the national champions.
Young certainly has the talent to win the Heisman, but he also has the opportunity. He’ll be the star quarterback on the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, a group with a vaunted defense and tons of talent at the skill positions. With how important the QB position is in the modern game, Young will be a Heisman finalist if the Tide live up to expectations … even if he makes some rookie mistakes early.
5. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
When Corral was good last year, there may not have been a better quarterback in the country. He torched the Alabama secondary all game in Oxford, and completed 89% of his passes while throwing for more than 900 yards with 10 TDs and no interceptions in a two-game stretch against Vanderbilt and South Carolina. But there was also the inconsistency—the six interceptions against Arkansas and five against LSU that may have cost the Rebels games.
After a full offseason to learn with coach Lane Kiffin, I expect a more mature Corral will take the field in 2021, and big numbers will follow. Add in what should be an improved defense to give Ole Miss a chance to win games without scoring 50 points and one of the most dangerous skill position groups in the U.S., and Corral and Ole Miss will be must-watch television this season.
6. D’Eriq King, Miami
King shined in his first year in Coral Gables in Rhett Lashlee’s offense, and his decision to return for his “COVID-19 year” gives Miami hope to compete nationally in 2021. King tore his ACL and meniscus late in the ’20 season, and seeing how a player who relies heavily on mobility bounces back from that will be key to his Heisman hopes. The other thing worth watching in his candidacy is King’s struggles last season in his biggest games: He had by far his worst game of the season against Clemson (12-for-28 passing, two INTs) and was merely pedestrian against North Carolina. That said, King will have a chance for an early “Heisman moment” during the season’s opening weekend against Alabama.
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7. Bijan Robinson, Texas
The best word to describe Robinson is explosive. The former five-star recruit made highlight-worthy plays every time he touched the ball as a true freshman, including averaging more than 18 yards per touch in his final two games. The only problem: He didn’t touch the ball enough! That’s sure to change under new coach and elite offensive mind Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian did an amazing job getting Najee Harris the ball in creative ways at Alabama last season, including in the passing game. If the Longhorns have a strong Year 1 under Sark, it’s almost a guarantee that Robinson will be a huge reason why. And helping bring Texas back to prominence is a heck of a way to make an impression with Heisman voters.
8. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
This is as much a bet on Ryan Day as it is on Stroud. Day is a quarterback whisper, and the starting quarterback at OSU has finished in the top seven of Heisman voting in all four years Day has been in Columbus (both as a head coach and coordinator). His QBs have been in the top five all but last year, when OSU’s COVID-19-impacted short schedule made it more difficult for Justin Fields to earn Heisman looks.
Stroud won the OSU job decisively this fall and has all the potential in the world. He has great arm strength, impressive mobility and two elite receivers to throw to in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Expect monster numbers from any Day QB until proven otherwise.
9. Breece Hall, Iowa State
Hall is the only returner in college football who finished in the top 10 of last year’s Heisman voting. That pedigree, combined with Iowa State’s significant preseason hype, makes him a significant factor in the Heisman picture. Two factors could cloud things: QB Brock Purdy could also be a candidate, and it’s never good to split votes with a teammate. The other concern is whether Hall’s ridiculous 21 touchdowns were somewhat fluky—as anyone who has played fantasy football before knows, running back TDs can be somewhat luck-driven, and while Hall is an elite back it will likely take 20+ more TDs just to have a real shot at an award generally owned by QBs.
10. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
No, a defensive player won’t win the Heisman. But if there’s one defender who could make it to New York it’s Thibodeaux, who is perhaps the most talented player in college football. The freakishly athletic pass rusher is already earning hype as the potential No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft, and he’ll be the highest-profile player on an Oregon team with as good a chance as anyone to win a wide-open Pac-12. If he puts up the numbers he’s capable of and the Ducks win big, Thibodeaux may earn some Heisman attention.
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