By virtue of a rock-solid start and a T-shirt to match, University of Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. last month thrust himself firmly into the Heisman Trophy conversation, with odds as short as 40/1 at DraftKings to take home college football’s top individual prize.
But then he threw two interceptions in a close loss to UCLA last Friday — and his odds fattened to 100/1 at Caesars and 200/1 at WynnBET. Such is the fragility of Heisman candidacies outside the top three or four picks.
“Two interceptions and a loss in prime time hurts his chances,” said Joey Feazel, Caesars Sportsbook’s lead college football trader. “He’s not completely out of it if that’s their only loss and they win the Pac-12 championship.”
“Players like Michael Penix, who was awesome through the first four games, you try not to buy into the hype or get killed when you’re moving odds down,” added WynnBET trader Motoi Pearson. “You have to worry about the guys that you’re raising, too. You don’t want to try to give anybody away.”
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud is the clear favorite (+145 at WynnBET), with USC QB Caleb Williams (+500) and last year’s winner, Alabama QB Bryce Young (+850), also in the hunt. But after them is a list of live longshots — mostly quarterbacks — who, like Penix, have to pretty much run the table and play perfectly to be in Heisman contention come December.
“All these players who end up winning the Heisman are all in playoff contention,” said Feazel. “The only one I can think of who wasn’t was Lamar Jackson.”
Heisman’s run-pass shift
In the late 20th century, the Heisman was a running backs’ award. Between John Cappelletti in 1973 and Mike Rozier in 1983, tailbacks won the Heisman 11 years in a row.
But starting with Chris Weinke’s win in 2000, the award shifted to the pocket. Quarterbacks have won 19 of 22 Heismans in the 21st century. (Yeah, Chris Weinke won a Heisman. So did Eric Crouch, Jason White, and Troy Smith. Sweet Jesus.)
“It’s a passing league,” explained Feazel. “Things kind of start in college and transition to the NFL. It’s also who is the most valuable to a team. Who’s gonna move the line the most? Of course, the quarterback. The quarterback could move the line four to seven points.”
This year, there are two tailbacks, Michigan’s Blake Corum and Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs (each 20/1 at Caesars), in semi-serious contention. For them to win — especially Gibbs — their respective teams’ quarterbacks will either have to get hurt or avoid any sterling play of their own.
“You need the quarterbacks not to be as successful,” said Pearson. “[Michigan QB JJ] McCarthy had a few good games, but it seems like Corum’s ripping off a lot of touchdowns. [He’s] hoping that McCarthy doesn’t have a six-touchdown game to skew the odds at the end.”
“For Gibbs, he wasn’t putting up great numbers until Bryce Young goes down [with an injury], and he put up 200 yards and two TDs last game,” said Feazel. “If they’re gonna more rely on that running game to keep Alabama dominant, then [Gibbs] has a shot.”
Stetson and some other slingers
Perhaps the most intriguing longshot candidacy is that of Georgia QB Stetson Bennett (25/1 at WynnBET).
Physically unimpressive, the lanky striver was viewed as a mere custodian during the Bulldogs’ national championship run last season. But through five games, he’s an impressive 11th in the nation in passing yardage (Penix ranks first), though he’s only thrown for five touchdowns (Penix has 16, while Stroud has 18 and 30/1 shot Drake Maye of North Carolina is tied for the NCAA lead with 19).
“Poor Stetson,” lamented Feazel. “He’s a great quarterback and just does not get the respect he deserves. They’ve got to run the table for the rest of the year and should be double-digit favorites the rest of the way. It’s gonna come down to the SEC championship game. If he shows up and they come out on top, he’s in the mix.”
Pearson’s on the same page.
“He’s always gonna be up there if Georgia’s gonna continue to win,” the WynnBET trader said of Stetson. “The last couple weeks against Kent State and that scare against Missouri pushed him down the totem pole a little bit. A couple more games like how he looked against Oregon could put him right back in the mix.”
At Bennett’s level or below sit a slew of QBs from the Big 12 and ACC — Maye, Adrian Martinez of Kansas State, Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei, Sam Hartman of Wake Forest, and Jalon Daniels of Kansas — who could jump into serious contention if they don’t take a step backward.
“Adrian Martinez, we always joke around the office that he’s in his 40th year of playing college football, but he’s really come into his stride,” said Feazel. “You need to win the Big 12 in order to make a run at the Heisman closer to the end of the year.
“Another quarterback who doesn’t get much respect is DJ. Clemson’s defense looks great. If they run the table in the ACC and get into the playoffs, he’s in contention. Drake Maye, this may not be his year, but he can sling the ball. Next year, when we come out with the openers, he’s gonna be near the top of the list.”
Added Pearson, “We’re hoping that Hartman doesn’t win anything. We took a pile on Hartman at 100/1 before the season started. He missed a game and came back Week 2 and has been dominating ever since. Uiagalelei is much, much better than last year, so we have to protect there as well. Jalon Daniels is an interesting one. You build popularity just by being the underdog. I can’t imagine him beating out a CJ Stroud if he has a monster year, but … Daniels is an interesting one to be booking right now.”
Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY