Due to the Heisman Trophy’s incredibly vague criteria (it’s awarded annually to the nation’s “most outstanding player,” whatever that means), it has undergone several changes. In the 1980s and 90s it was more of a career achievement award given to juniors and seniors who had sustained excellence. In the early 2000s, the main qualification was being the quarterback on a national championship team.
Now the award favors exciting players who captivate the most media attention in the shortest amount of time. To win the award, a player has to turn in a shocking statistical performance the clearly surpasses expectations and become an overnight sensation. Inherently this has hurt the candidacy of preseason favorites who enter the season as established stars as it is difficult to surpass already high expectations.
So where does that leave current odds-on favorite Sam Darnold? To be clear, none of this suggests that Sam Darnold won’t have an incredible season in 2017, he most certainly will. Just having an incredible season, however, does not mean Darnold will actually win the Heisman Trophy.
The past decade indicates that Darnold’s Heisman chances may actually be slim. According to Sports Odds History, only one preseason favorite since 2009 (Marcus Mariota in 2014) has managed to claim the award. The other seven winners in that time span were varying degrees of under-the-radar before their breakout Heisman campaigns. Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston were redshirts. Cam Newton was in junior college. Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry were backups. Robert Griffin III and Lamar Jackson were starters but remained pretty anonymous on mediocre teams. None were given better than a 25 to 1 chance at winning the Heisman in the Summer.
Currently, Sam Darnold’s odds sit around 11/4, according to Bovada.
Despite this, Darnold has a few attributes that could repel the Heisman Favorite ‘Curse’. One, Darnold is a mobile quarterback whose feet are just as important to his game as his arm. Heisman voters like dual threat quarterbacks almost as much as Jameis Winston loves crab legs. Since Tebow won in ’07, six of the last ten winners have been QBs who can run the ball.
In addition, Heisman voters love to see dramatic statistical leaps, such as when Derrick Henry more than doubled his sophomore year rushing total in 2015. Since Darnold only started nine games last year, it’s pretty reasonable to assume that he will surpass his 2016 stats (3,086 yards, 31 TDs) when starting in all 12 games. That’s not even accounting for improvements he may have made in the off season. If Darnold experiences a drastic increase in passing and rushing yards, he will remain an attractive choice for Heisman voters.
Lastly, Darnold will stay in the Heisman conversation for as long as USC is in the national title conversation. In the past, several preseason favorites dropped out of the race because of their team’s failures. In 2009, Jimmy Clauson was gaining serious steam as a Heisman candidate until Notre Dame lost to Navy in week nine and his hopes were dashed (love that example). In 2012, USC’s own Matt Barkley entered the year as the odds-on favorite, but the Trojans’ 7-6 record eliminated him from contention (hate that example).
In short, Heisman voters like successful players. Team success has become slightly less of a criteria for Heisman winners over the last ten years, but it remains important (since 2006, seven Heisman winners played for a national title). The more Darnold and USC wins, the harder it will be for voters to ignore him.
While entering the season as the favorite is not exactly encouraging when it comes to the Heisman race (just ask perennial “September Heismans” like Denard Robinson, Andrew Luck, and Brady Quinn). Darnold has an advantage that several others in his position lacked; it does not look like he’s peaked yet. And this decade, the main secret to winning the Heisman has been to peak at the exact right time.