This best player in college football will be decided this season on 5th January. The ballots go out to the voters in two weeks and the three finalists will be announced on 24h December.
Sports journalists make up the majority of the voters, 870, with each previous Heisman Trophy winner also eligible to vote and one vote allocated essentially to a fan poll.
Statistics and strength of schedule often feature heavily in the decisions of the voters. In this most unusual of seasons, with teams playing differing numbers of games and players missing games with COVID we really need to look at the best performers in their own right.
So, with the season starting to take shape, who are the runners and riders?
The bookmakers have Mac Jones, Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence as the current betting leaders but there are some emerging contenders who could yet have their say in the conversation to determine the best player in college football.
Mac Jones – QB, Alabama. 6 games, 2,196 passing yards, 16 TD passes/2 interceptions
Before the season started, some observers wondered whether Jones would be the best quarterback in Tuscaloosa, let alone the country. Bryce Young’s arrival at Alabama may have fuelled Mac Jones’ motivation even further. Already under pressure to fill the big shoes Tua Tagovailoa left behind, Alabama’s quarterback has risen to the challenge. He has put up over 2,00 passing yards this season in the toughest conference in college football and completed 79% of his passes. This has elevated him to a likely first-round Draft pick next year.
Jones has a wealth of attacking talent at his disposal – fellow Heisman contenders Najee Harris in the backfield and DeVonta Smith out wide. The loss of Jaylen Waddle hasn’t hurt him either. A yardstick for Heisman Trophy contention is often performance against top teams. Jones has excelled against two top 15 teams – Georgia and Texas A&M – throwing for a combined 900 yards and 8 touchdowns. The trophy is his to lose.
Justin Fields – QB, Ohio State. 3 games, 908 passing yards, 11 TD passes/0 interceptions
The Ohio State quarterback has blossomed since his transfer from Georgia. Fields was a Heisman finalist in his first season in Columbus, and is off to a great start this year. He has completed an astonishing 87% of his passes, passing for 900 yards and has thrown as many touchdowns as he has incompletions this season, including five touchdowns last week vs. Rutgers.
His body of work is lighter than his immediate competitors so far but he is apparently closing the gap on Jones as the leading contender. His talent isn’t in question and if he keeps this form up, he could move from finalist to winner. NFL scouts in New York, Jacksonville and Washington will be watching with interest.
Trevor Lawrence – QB, Clemson. 6 games, 1,833 passing yards, 17 TD passes/2 interceptions
It would almost be an insult to imagine Lawrence, a generational talent, not adding the Heisman Trophy to an impressive collection of awards. Beaten by Joe Burrow to the Heisman and the national championship last year, COVID could threaten his chances this time around. The Clemson quarterback, still a junior, has missed two games this year, including arguably Clemson’s biggest against Notre Dame. The emergence of DJ Uiagalelei also highlighted how good the weapons in Clemson’s offense are. Like Jones in Alabama, Trevor Lawrence has a very strong supporting cast – does that take a little shine off when you are considering his own individual performances? I don’t think it does. Lawrence is a huge favourite to be the No.1 pick in the NFL Draft. If there was a trophy for the best player over all of the last three years, he would win it by some distance. In a one-season contest though, he is a contender rather than favourite this year.
Kyle Trask – QB, Florida. 5 games, 1,815 passing yards, 22 TD passes/3 interceptions
Trask started the season with a bang at Ole Miss. 6 touchdowns and 416 yards put him in the minds of Heisman voters. 474 yards and four touchdowns against a stingy Georgia defense last week made them sit up and take notice. Trask has a great arm and cool head which means he gets the best out of an explosive Florida offense, with 22 touchdown passes so far this season. He has great receiving options in Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Kemore Gamble.
With a clear route to the SEC East title, Trask has a chance to showcase his talents in a likely showdown vs. Alabama. It may, unfortunately, come too late to impact the voting.
Zach Wilson – QB, Brigham Young. 8 games, 2,512 passing yards, 22 TD passes/2 interceptions
Under radar compared to some of his better known competitors, Wilson has led BYU to an 8-0 record and, at time of writing, a Top 10 ranking. Experts seem to be split on where he sits in Heisman contention. For me, he should be in the top 5. It would be interesting to see how he would have fared at an SEC school. He is, to some extent, handicapped by a weaker schedule, but has done everything he can to elevate himself into contention. He led BYU to a 51-17 thrashing of closest rival Boise State and leads all quarterbacks nationally in total touchdowns, passing for 21 and rushing for a further eight. Rumours are surfacing that New England are keeping an eye on him, he would be fun to watch in Foxborough.
DeVonta Smith – WR, Alabama. 6 games, 760 receiving yards, 8 TD catches
Having been less in the spotlight last year sharing catches with Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs (despite having more receiving yards), DeVonta Smith is centre stage now. Averaging 125 receiving yards this year, he should be the red-hot favourite for the Biletnikoff Award, given for the best receiver in college football. Under more scrutiny from opposing defences now Jaylen Waddle is out, he is also getting more targets. Smith had 167 receiving yards against a Georgia defense that was the best in the country and caught four touchdowns for 213 yards against Mississippi State. It’s rare for the Heisman to go to anyone outside the quarterback position, but Smith is as good a player as anyone.
Najee Harris – RB, Alabama. 6 games, 714 rushing yards (183 receiving), 14 touchdowns, 5.8 yards per carry
(Gary Cosby Jr./ AP)
The size of the task ahead for Harris to win the Heisman is evident not only by the fact that a non-quarterback rarely wins, but also that he is up against two of his team mates. Harris is having a huge year. Against Ole Miss he rushed for 206 yards and five touchdowns, and 152 with a score against their biggest SEC rivals Georgia. He is quietly closing in on Derrick Henry’s Alabama rushing record, needing another 501 yards. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris was clocked at 21.7mph in a play vs. Texas A&M. Although running backs rarely win the Heisman, he could be encouraged that Henry, whose record he is chasing, was a previous winner in 2015.
Travis Etienne – RB, Clemson. 8 games, 634 rushing yards (491 receiving), 12 touchdowns, 5.2 yards per carry
He could have been the first back choosing had he decided to declare for the Draft this year, but Travis Etienne decided to return to Clemson and has remained a key part of the offense that kept them at No.1 until last week. His ability as a pass catching back separates him from many of his peers – he has close to 500 receiving yards already this season. A slightly disappointing game vs. Notre Dame could have been his stage. He fumbled the ball for the Fighting Irish to scoop and score as Clemson lost the initiative in the ACC. Three games left against comparatively lowly opposition won’t give him the chance to recover lost ground.
D’Eriq King – QB, Miami – a legitimate dual threat who has been rebuilding an offense in Miami.
Ian Book – QB, Notre Dame – stats don’t show his real qualities. A dual threat leader who performs under pressure and has led Notre Dame to No.2 in the rankings.
Kellen Mond – QB, Texas A&M – the new Aggies record passer has led the team to No.5 in the rankings.
Sam Ehlinger – QB, Texas – a gritty leader who has often had to carry the team on his back.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – LB, Notre Dame – a dynamic, speedy linebacker who was immense vs. Clemson.
He leads the best team in the country and has stepped up into his role, improving his game dramatically in the process. Mac Jones should win the Heisman, and I think will be lifting the national championship at the end of the season.