The 2020 Heisman Trophy was awarded 10 days ago, but odds for the 2021 race are already out.
The top tier of candidates is stocked with quarterbacks from the Pac-12 footprint but playing for powerhouse programs elsewhere:
Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, who is from Phoenix, is the favorite, followed by Alabama’s Bryce Young (Mater Dei), Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei (St. John Bosco) and Georgia’s JT Daniels (Mater Dei), the former Trinity League stars all leading teams that are expected to be in the national title hunt.
The Pac-12 wasn’t completely ignored by the bookies. USC quarterback Kedon Slovis and Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels are on the crowded second tier.
Granted, it’s early, ridiculously early. Odds will change; frontrunners will fade; contenders will emerge; and 11 months from now, the votes will be cast.
Except for the Pac-12, it’s not early. It’s late.
If history is our guide – the past 50 years of Heisman history – then the Pac-12 is already behind in the 2021 race.
One of the most famous individual awards in sports isn’t won on the field, at least not entirely.
The preseason hype, media ecosystem and makeup of the Heisman electorate are crucial to the process.
All three components are stacked against the Pac-12.
In the half-century since Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett won the award – he beat out Notre Dame’s Joe Theismann and Mississippi’s Archie Manning – the conference has produced six winners.
Five played for USC, whose national brand lends immunity to the forces working against other candidates from the west coast.
The sixth winner was Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose 2014 success carries lessons for past, present and future Pac-12 contenders.
Mariota began his winning campaign as one of the frontrunners:
In August of that year, he was the No. 2 betting favorite, with 6-to-1 odds – behind only Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and ahead of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
That preseason position gave Mariota vital name recognition with voters across the country.
And the Heisman voters – a combination of 850 (approximately) media members, plus former winners – are almost entirely across the country.
The electorate is split equally into six regions, but five of the six are in the Eastern and Central time zones.
It doesn’t make much sense geographically. The Dakotas are in the Far West region, while Nebraska and Colorado are in the Southwest.
In other words – and like the distribution of major college teams – the Heisman electorate tilts away from the west coast.
USC candidates have a natural propulsion system, thanks to the program’s seven national championships, seven former winners, 80 All-Americans and 800-something wins.
Slovis need not worry about his current position: If he plays well, the uniform will take care of the rest.
But history suggests the path to Heisman glory is unattainable for Pac-12 players attempting to come from off the pace.
We know this because of past dark-horse candidates – from Oregon’s LaMichael James and Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey to Stanford’s Bryce Love and Washington State’s Gardner Minshew – whose vote totals didn’t match their qualifications.
The best example is Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey, who came from obscurity in 2015 to produce one of the sport’s greatest seasons – he broke Barry Sanders’ hallowed record for all-purpose yards (in 13 games compared to Sanders’ 11) – and still finished second.
The historical precedent is clear.
For the second- or third-tier candidates, whether it’s ASU’s Daniels or Colorado tailback Jarek Broussard or any other breakout star in 2021, a serious charge from off the pace faces severe headwinds.
The Pac-12 has two paths to Heisman glory:
A first-class season by a USC quarterback or tailback, or a preseason frontrunner from one of the other teams.
If McCaffrey couldn’t run it down from behind, nobody can.
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