When hunting for a Heisman winner, we’ll make the same move we did when looking for a longshot MVP bet—we’re cutting everyone but a quarterback. The last wide receiver to win the Heisman was Desmond Howard in 1991, who had returner reps to help him out. The last defender to win was Charles Woodson in 1997, who also had returning production to help him. Only three running backs have won the award in the last 20 years. It just isn’t a smart bet to go anywhere but quarterback.
This quarterback also has to be on a winning squad. Of the last 20 Heisman winners, 18 were in the preseason Top 25, and 18 were on 10-win teams. Predictably, we should be looking for the best passers on the best teams for our longshot options.
Now, if we’re hunting longshots, we have to define the odds. The longest win on the Heisman in the last 10 years was Lamar Jackson, who had preseason odds of +10000. The next closest was Joe Burrow last year, who closed the season with odds of +4000. So we’re going to look somewhere longer than +4000. That eliminates not only the top of the quarterback crop, but also the majority of the trendy long bets like UNC’s Sam Howell (+2500), USC’s Kedon Slovis (+2500), and Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders (+3300).
Our remaining list of quarterbacks with odds at or longer than +4000 are:
- Louisville QB Micale Cunningham (+4000)
- Penn State QB Sean Clifford (+4000)
- Iowa State QB Brock Purdy (+5000)
- Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan (+5000)
- UCF QB Dillon Gabriel (+6600)
- Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr. (+6600)
And their teams’ accompanying win totals are:
- Louisville: 7 ½ wins
- Penn State: 9 ½ wins
- Iowa State: 7 ½ wins
- Minnesota: 8 ½ wins
- UCF: 10 ½ wins
- Indiana: 7 ½ wins
Unfortunately for the always underappreciated and underhyped UCF, Group of 5 programs don’t garner Heisman attention, so Dillon Gabriel’s off our list. Those who remain are our candidates for a worthy stab at a Heisman dark horse.
According to the books, Louisville, Iowa State, and Indiana have the longest shot at 10 wins. All were sneaky fun teams last year, and all could be again. Head coach Scott Satterfield has a great shot at turning the Louisville program around after an 8-5 season to open his tenure, and Cunningham is an exciting dual-threat passer with some budding offensive weapons. Iowa State entered the year ranked for the first time in more than 40 years in 2019, but ended a disappointing 7-6 in the ever chaotic Big 12. Purdy, who shined as a freshman, didn’t take the step forward many were hoping for, as the Cyclones thirsted for wide receiver talent after losing Hakeem Butler to the NFL. Indiana went 8-5 in their first year under new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who opened up the passing offense and got the Hoosiers ranked before a hard-fought loss to Penn State in November. Penix had a bit of a breakout season when healthy, but was not producing at a Heisman rate on a per-game basis, and has dealt with enough injuries at Indiana to put his season-long availability in concern.
Of the three, the best bet is likely Cunningham, as the Cardinals have the clearest path to 10 wins in the weird ACC, and Cunningham is perhaps the most talented of the lot. With that said, the two quarterbacks left are far better bets at their current figures.
Sean Clifford and Tanner Morgan are your best bets for longshot Heisman winners in 2020. Big Ten quarterbacks famously struggle to win the award, but passing is different in the Big Ten than it was 10 years ago, with Penn State and Minnesota representing two of the most modern passing attacks in the conference.
Morgan was the more impressive passer last year. Under offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and with the help of head coach P.J. Fleck’s wide receiver whispering, Morgan threw for 3,253 yards on 318 attempts—his 10.2 yards per attempt was fourth in the country—and had 30 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. He loses Tyler Johnson, an NFL-caliber WR, but perhaps more importantly, he loses Ciarrocca, who took a new offensive coordinator job … at Penn State.
Which brings us to Clifford, a better runner than Morgan, and an exciting but inconsistent passer. Clifford also loses a go-to slot target to the NFL in wide receiver KJ Hamler, but gaining Ciarrocca and continuing to grow in an RPO-heavy, intermediate-deep passing attack could have him putting up numbers in 2020 like Morgan’s in 2019.
Morgan has the better starting cast, both in the receiving corps and on the offensive line. Penn State has a better defense and a stronger team as a whole. Minnesota has the easier schedule altogether, missing Ohio State and Penn State, while Penn State avoids Minnesota and Wisconsin.
There isn’t a clear divider between the two, so I lean toward Morgan and the extra +1000 on his odds. If all else fails, Morgan’s freedom to chuck it up for wide receiver Rashod Bateman is more encouraging than Clifford throwing it up to tight end Pat Freiermuth—and I’ve seen Morgan produce at near-Heisman levels more than I’ve seen it from Clifford, even with his solid running ability.
Neither is a bad bet and I wouldn’t blame you for throwing a flier on both. But if you only have one slip to place on a longshot Heisman, Morgan and the Golden Gophers is your move.