The best player in college football in 2021 is going to be somebody you never thought would be in the discussion for such a lofty distinction.
That’s not a prediction about some relatively unknown player who I believe is ready for a breakout season. It’s simply a reading of the facts surrounding college football.
The last three Heisman Trophy winners were all huge underdogs to claim the award at the beginning of the season.
Oddsmakers had Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray at 30-1 to win the Heisman heading into the 2018 season. LSU’s Joe Burrow was 40-1 before his historic 2019 campaign. And Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith wasn’t even listed among the players with a chance to win the Heisman before emerging as the best player in college football last season.
Murray and Burrow were transfers from Texas Tech and Ohio State, respectively. Smith, as great as he was, would have never won the award if not for the injury suffered by his teammate Jaylen Waddle.
Even before Murray, Burrow and Smith won the award, other underdogs have emerged. In 2017, Baker Mayfield beat out preseason favorite Sam Darnold. In 2016, Lamar Jackson best favorite Deshaun Watson. And in 2015, Derrick Henry overcame preseason favorite Trevone Boykin of TCU.
This year’s Heisman Trophy favorites are a collection of quarterbacks who are largely unproven. According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler is the favorite to win the award. The rest of the top four includes Alabama’s Bryce Young, Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei and Georgia’s J.T. Daniels.
Rattler has been inconsistent as the Oklahoma starter. Young, Uiagalelei and Daniels have never been full-time starters. In other words, this doesn’t appear to be the year when the streak of an underdog winning the Heisman will be broken.
So, for entertainment purposes only, here are eight other players who could emerge as the best player in college football this year.
- Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral. The best quarterback in the country plays for Lane Kiffin in Oxford. Corral has three factors working in his favor in the Heisman race: He opens the season on Labor Day against Louisville in a game that all college football fans will be watching; he plays in the South but also has West Coast interest because he’s from Ventura, Calif.; and he has marquee SEC games against the likes of Alabama and Texas A&M.
- Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. As a 5-star recruit, Thibodeaux went against the grain and stayed on the West Coast to play college football. It’s hard for a defensive player to win the Heisman, but he has a huge early game against Ohio State to get his campaign kickstarted.
- Alabama defensive end Will Anderson. There’s almost no way Anderson will win the Heisman. But he will prove to be the best player in the best conference in the country, which has got to be worth something.
- Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder. Here’s how good Ridder is. His Senior Bowl jersey is already hanging in the Senior Bowl office even though he’s got another year of college football to play. Ridder would have been in the game a year ago, but he decided to return to the Bearcats for another year.
- LSU defensive back Derek Stingley Jr. Now that Smith has left Alabama, Stingley should dominate every week. The fact that he may get some snaps on offense this season could elevate Stingley into a legitimate Heisman contender.
- Iowa State running back Breece Hall. Last season, the sophomore rushed for more than 100 yards in eight straight games on his way to leading the country in rushing with 1,572 yards. It’s hard to get much buzz playing in Ames, Iowa, but Hall is the favorite to be the best running back in the country. By comparison, Auburn budding superstar Tank Bigsby rushed for half as many yards and a quarter as many touchdowns as Hall last season.
- North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell. The former Alabama commit is actually the best bet on the board to win the Heisman. He’s 16-1 to win the award. The Tar Heels don’t play Clemson in the regular season. By the time they face off in the ACC Championship Game, Howell will be among the statistical leaders in passing. A big game in the finale could put him over the top for the award.
- South Alabama wide receiver Jalen Tolbert. OK, the Heisman Trophy winner isn’t going to come from the Sun Belt Conference. But the former McGill-Toolen star may prove to be the best receiver in college football.
If recent history repeats, none of these players will win the Heisman Trophy. But that unpredictability is part of what makes the sport special.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 19 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on Sports Talk 99.5 and the free iHeart app.
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