The Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious award in college sports, presented annually to the most outstanding player in college football. However given the vast number of voters (870 media votes, 57 eligible previous winners, and a fans vote) a consensus often forms around the quarterback on a Playoff contending team. Last season the four finalists invited to New York City were three QBs from Playoff bound teams and the eventual winner, USC QB Caleb Williams. The Quarterback certainly will often have an outsized impact on the success of his team and typically put up dazzling stat lines that are impossible to ignore. It often takes a truly remarkable all-around season from a non-QB to even enter the conversation for the award, much less to end up standing on the New York City stage holding the trophy. Oddsmakers know it too: on DraftKings Sportsbook, QBs hold the top eleven odds to win the award.
Alabama WR DeVonta Smith was the last non-QB to bring home the award in 2020 with over 1,800 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. Since 2000, only three other non-QBs have won the Heisman: Reggie Bush in 2005, Mark Ingram in 2009 and Derrick Henry in 2015 - star running backs on teams that won or played in the National Championship. In addition to having a generational statistical season for a Title contender, you would likely need a poor showing from the QBs of the nation’s best teams. In 2020, Smith beat out Trevor Lawrence who had his worst collegiate season statistically; in 2009, Ingram’s top QB competition was Colt McCoy who led an undefeated season for Texas, but with pretty average stats. However in 2015, Henry bested Deshaun Watson who had a tremendous season on the way to the CFP Championship game and of course Bush was handed the award over Texas’ Vince Young and teammate Matt Leinart.
One of the best paths for a non-QB to win the award would be if the top contending programs did not also show an elite QB season. With uncertainty behind center at Ohio State & Alabama, that’s two top Playoff contenders with a big question mark at the game’s biggest position. Georgia’s Carson Beck, Clemson’s Cade Klubnik, and Penn State’s Drew Allar are unproven entities with high pedigrees getting a first shot at starting roles, perhaps the stats don’t show up right away, even if the wins do. Week Zero showed Sam Hartman to be a potential contender, albeit vs. a hapless Navy defense, while Caleb Williams will again slice up lowly opponents but would need an otherworldly season to be granted the trophy again as voters will be reluctant to double up. The other aspect for a QB is, aside from the rare cases like RGIII and Lamar Jackson, the team has to be contending for the Playoff at least - this likely eliminates fringe candidates like UNC’s Drake Maye, Texas A&M’s Conner Weigman, Kentucky’s Devin Leary, and South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler. LSU’s Jayden Daniels & Florida State’s Jordan Travis will do battle in Week One, likely eliminating one from Heisman contention. The remaining options are: Texas’ Quinn Ewers (if you trust Texas to truly be a BACK), Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy (if you think the Fiesta Bowl was a fluke), Tennessee’s Joe Milton (I guess), and the Pac 12’s other top QBs Oregon’s Bo Nix, Utah’s Cam Rising, and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. who play all play each other and may cancel each other out. Sure some QB will come out of nowhere and have an amazing season - like Max Duggan in 2022 - but will it be enough to jump all the way to the top for all of those voters?
So which non-QBs can actually build his way up to challenge the top of the QB pyramid? Top choice would be Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr: he’s very famous, he plays on a team very likely to be in contention throughout the whole season, and given the continued QB battle in Columbus he’ll very likely outshine whichever QB wins the job, though RB TreVeyon Henderson may be in contention as well. The next best candidate would be Michigan running back Blake Corum, who may have been invited to NYC last year if not for a late season injury, he’ll be battling running mate Donovan Edwards for backfield production, but with a Charmin-soft schedule, he should put up absurd stats. The deepest darkhorse with a realistic path would be Wisconsin RB Braelon Allen - a new offensive system that is expected to generate more points at a faster rate and put the running game in better position than simply pounding into the line of scrimmage.
Was really interested to see how Braelon Allen would fit into new scheme. Did some creative stuff - but a lot of straightforward run game as well.— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) August 19, 2023
Last year, he faced 20 more 8-man boxes than any back in America and still had a huge year. Should flourish in this attack pic.twitter.com/fxdNSOX2Hs
The top defensive candidate is Harold Perkins who is known to take over games on his own, but if Ndamukong Suh couldn’t even crack the top three in a down year (2009, won by Mark Ingram) in which he thoroughly dominated competition, it’s hard to see a path to Perkins taking home the trophy. The known options dry up quickly; maybe LSU WR Malik Nabers or UGA TE Brock Bowers, but perhaps someone can jump up and take advantage of what could be a QB class able to be overcome. Maybe just keep your eyes open for Emani Bailey to be in the mix by midseason