The favorites, dark horses, and long shots to win the 2021 Heisman Trophy

·8 min read

With the official start of the 2021 college football season just days away, it's time to handicap the race for the Heisman. 

DeVonta Smith became the first wide receiver since Desmond Howard to win the Heisman in 2020 and was the first non-QB to win the award since Derrick Henry in 2015. Outside of Henry and Smith, a quarterback has won the award every year since 2009.

That’s why so many of the Heisman favorites are quarterbacks and why it’s likely that the 2021 Heisman winner will be a QB. Here’s a list of the players you need to know ahead of the season with a few dark horse and long-shot contenders thrown in as well. Odds are from BetMGM, and you can view the complete list of Heisman betting odds here.

FIL - In this Nov. 7, 2020, file photo, Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) carries for a touchdown in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
Spencer Rattler is the obvious Heisman favorite. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

The favorites

Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler (+650)

Rattler is both the favorite and the most-bet player at BetMGM. Rattler was 214-of-317 passing for 3,031 yards and 28 TDs to just seven interceptions in 11 games in his first season as a starter for Oklahoma. Couple that success with the Heisman track record of previous Oklahoma starters — the last three OU starters finished no worse than second in the Heisman voting — and you have an easy case why Rattler is going to win the 2021 Heisman.

Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei (+1100)

Uiagalelei impressed in his spot duty replacing Trevor Lawrence in 2020 while Lawrence was out with COVID-19. He completed two-thirds of his passes for 914 yards and threw five TDs and no interceptions while adding four rushing TDs. Uiagalelei is going to be the focal point of the Clemson offense in 2021; the Tigers need to replace Travis Etienne at running back and Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell at receiver.

Alabama QB Bryce Young (+1100)

Young has thrown just 22 college passes but is the No. 3 favorite because he’s the Alabama QB. Oh, he’s also a former five-star recruit. While Alabama is changing offensive systems under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, there’s no reason to expect Young to not thrive in 2021. Alabama’s got a stellar offensive line and great running backs and receivers, and is on the consensus No. 1 team in the country ahead of the season.

Georgia QB JT Daniels (+1200)

The USC transfer played just four games in 2020 after he spent the beginning of the season still recovering from a knee injury suffered in the first game of the 2019 season. And he immediately improved Georgia’s offense as soon as he got on the field. Daniels threw for over 300 yards per game and tossed 10 TDs to just two interceptions. If he’s going to be a top Heisman candidate in 2021, Georgia needs some receivers to step up. George Pickens is going to miss the start of the season at the very least and LSU transfer Arik Gilbert is not currently with the team.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - JANUARY 02: Sam Howell #7 of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks to pass against the Texas A&M Aggies during the first half of the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on January 02, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Sam Howell could be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

North Carolina QB Sam Howell (+1600)

The 2021 season is shaping up to be a contest between Howell and Rattler to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Howell averaged over 10 yards an attempt in 2020 as he completed 68% of his passes and threw 30 TDs to seven interceptions. He’s thrown 68 TDs and 14 picks in two seasons with the Tar Heels and may need to be even better in 2021 for UNC to have a shot in the ACC. The Tar Heels need to replace a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.

Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud (+1600)

The first pass Stroud throws against Minnesota on Thursday will be the first college pass of his career. Stroud takes over for Justin Fields as the Buckeyes’ starter and has a fantastic receiving duo in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Like Young, don’t discount Stroud’s Heisman chances because of his lack of experience. Ohio State is a favorite to make the playoff and six of the seven Heisman winners in the playoff era have been on teams in the top four.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Desmond Ridder #9 of the Cincinnati Bearcats with the ball during a game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 1, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)
If Cincinnati has another undefeated season, could Desmond Ridder win the Heisman? (Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)

The dark horses

Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder (+5000)

Ridder enters his fourth season as a starter on a team that brings back 14 starters after a 9-1 season. Ridder has steadily improved in each season at Cincinnati and had a combined 31 TDs in 10 games a season ago while he averaged six yards a carry and completed 66% of his passes. He threw at least one TD in every game in 2020 and rushed for a TD in each of the final six games of the regular season.

Alabama RB Brian Robinson (+5000)

The senior rushed for 483 yards and six touchdowns as the backup to Najee Harris in 2020. He takes over as Alabama’s No. 1 back but could end up splitting time with freshmen Trey Sanders, Jace McClellan and Roydell Williams. If Robinson is RB1 all season, he’s good value and could rush for over 20 TDs.

UCF QB Dillon Gabriel (+6600)

Gabriel is entering his third season as UCF’s starter and has a new coach in former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. Gabriel has been great through his first two seasons; he threw 32 TDs and just four interceptions in 2020 while throwing for 3,570 yards in just 10 games. It’s no guarantee that Gabriel will throw the ball in Malzahn’s offense as much as he did for former UCF coach Josh Heupel. But UCF wins over Boise State, Louisville and Cincinnati to start the season would put him in the Heisman conversation.

Liberty QB Malik Willis (+6600)

Willis is one of the most intriguing QBs in the country after his breakout 2020 season. Willis completed 64% of his passes in Hugh Freeze’s offense while throwing for over 2,200 yards and rushing for nearly 1,000. He also had a combined 34 TDs. We’ll be blunt; Willis isn’t going to win the Heisman. Liberty is an independent and has a ridiculously easy schedule on tap. But he’s worth listing here because of his relatively low odds.

STATE COLLEGE, PA - DECEMBER 19: Sean Clifford #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions looks on during the second half of the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Beaver Stadium on December 19, 2020 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Sean Clifford is a decent long-shot bet if you think Penn State can win the Big Ten East. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

The long shots

Penn State QB Sean Clifford (+10000)

Clifford’s case for Heisman is more conceivable than Willis or Gabriel’s. Clifford took a step back in 2020 but so did Penn State. The Nittany Lions improved as the season went on and Clifford’s final two games were his best of the season. If that improvement is real and Penn State wins the Big Ten East, then Clifford could be a contender.

Notre Dame QB Jack Coan (+10000)

Coan comes to Notre Dame from Wisconsin and takes over for Ian Book as the Irish’s starter after a foot injury derailed his 2020 season. Coan was efficient in his only season as Wisconsin’s starter; he completed 70% of his passes and threw 18 TDs to five interceptions. A leap from efficient to spectacular is improbable, especially as Notre Dame has to replace seven other starters on offense. The Notre Dame offense could look a lot like the offense Coan helmed at Wisconsin in 2019.

Texas A&M RB Isaiah Spiller (+12500)

The Heisman has become a QB-dominated award but you can do a lot worse than Spiller if you’re betting long shots. Texas A&M is a top-10 team that could be in control of the SEC West with a home win over Alabama in October, and Spiller is the focal point of the Aggies’ offense. He rushed for 1,036 yards and scored nine TDs in 10 games in 2020. Spiller could threaten 1,500 yards in 2021.

Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux (+2000)

A defensive player isn’t going to win the Heisman. But if you’re going to bet on one to win, it might as will be Thibodeaux. The Oregon star will face a lot of double teams in 2021 and that could limit his sack and tackle-for-loss opportunities. But he could be one of the most dominant defensive players in the country. And if he has a monster game in an Oregon upset of Ohio State on Sep. 11, watch out. He could get the same level of discussion that Chase Young got in 2019.

Predicted Heisman winner

We'll be stunned if any of the players listed in the latter two categories wins the Heisman. The winner is likely going to be a QB and he's likely going to be a QB for a national title contender. That's why it's hard not to pick Rattler. Oklahoma looks to be the best team in the Big 12, especially with an improved defense. Oklahoma QBs under Lincoln Riley have become perennial Heisman finalists and it's easy to see how Rattler will be the third OU QB of the last five years to win the award. 

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