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Runner, Runner: What the Latest Heisman Trophy Odds Reveal About the State of College Football in 2015

According to Vegas, the top two Heisman Trophy candidates for the 2015 season are both running backs. Weirder still, they’re not established superstars. It’s hard to recall another offseason in which the title of Next Big Thing doubled as the highest distinction on offer.

If you’re the kind of person who clicks on college football headlines in the darkest nadir of the sport’s calendar — and here you are! — you know that the middle of May marks the center of the desert that is the college football offseason, a barren, gridiron-deficient wasteland sprawling four months in either direction. At this point, even the already scarce oases have faded into the distance: signing day and the NFL draft have come and gone, spring practice has concluded, and the most consequential transfers have chosen their new schools. The next milestone on the horizon is the arrival of the preseason magazines, at which point even some of the more outlandish projections will start to gain traction out of a combination of delirium and sheer boredom.

In that context, and probably only in that context, the release of updated Heisman odds earlier this week qualified as headline news, as well as a useful barometer for what certain people (gamblers) are thinking about the upcoming season. Beyond the inherent interest of seeing the names themselves, this year’s odds are interesting for a couple of reasons. For starters, both of the favorites, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott (6-1) and LSU’s Leonard Fournette (15-2), are running backs in an era when the Heisman has become synonymous with prolific passers: 13 of the past 15 winners have been quarterbacks, with the only exceptions coming in 2005 (Reggie Bush)1 and 2009 (Mark Ingram). Last year, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon was consigned to the silver-medal stand despite delivering arguably the best individual season by a college running back since Barry Sanders; in the end, Gordon’s spectacular output earned him a grand total of 37 first-place votes compared to 788 for Marcus Mariota. In the spread era, non-quarterback candidates face a ludicrously high bar.


1.

Bush’s victory was later vacated following an NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits received while he played for USC.

Elliott and Fournette are unlikely front-runners for reasons beyond their position and broader voting trends. Consider this: How weird is it that neither of the guys being marketed to gamblers as the two brightest stars of 2015 were even voted to their respective all-conference teams in 2014? In Elliott’s case, his soaring stock hinges almost entirely on the residual imprint left by his postseason romps over Wisconsin (220 yards, 2 touchdowns), Alabama (230 yards, 2 TDs), and Oregon (246 yards, 4 TDs), during which he emerged overnight as the MVP of Ohio State’s run to the national championship. During the regular season, Elliott was just another reasonably productive cog: Through 12 games, six other Big Ten players had accounted for more rushing yards, and eight had rushed for more touchdowns, including OSU’s starting quarterback up to that point, J.T. Barrett.2 Elliott’s regular-season output was roughly half of Gordon’s against essentially the same competition. Meanwhile, Fournette ended his freshman campaign as the seventh-leading rusher in the SEC, behind four other backs (Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Missouri’s Russell Hansbrough, and Arkansas’s one-two punch of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins) who are scheduled to return this fall.


2.

Barrett, not Elliott, was regarded as the Buckeyes’ breakout star until he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the regular-season finale.

The bet, of course, is that Fournette will show up in September looking like the blue-chip hammer who began to assert himself late in the year, and that Elliott will be able to sustain his playoff production over the course of a full season. Fournette is every bit the kinetic absurdity his over-the-top recruiting hype promised he would be, while Elliott will play behind four-fifths of the offensive line that paved the way for his belated breakthrough. Still, it’s telling that the most touted players in the sport entering the 2015 season are essentially projects — up-and-comers who seem likely to establish themselves as household names rather than veteran commodities who have already been hyped to the ends of the earth.

This happens every so often. The transitory reality of college sports ensures that star power is fleeting, and even more so now that it’s increasingly rare for elite players to stay for their senior season. Still, the absence of an obvious, above-the-fold headliner with proven national cred is kind of weird. More often than not, as college football has embraced its full commercial potential in the past decade, it’s been able to boast at least one transcendent star who clearly holds the distinction of Face of the Sport. Five of the last seven Heisman winners (Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Ingram, Johnny Manziel, and Jameis Winston) returned to school after winning, with the hype machine set on full blast. See also Andrew Luck (in 2011), Denard Robinson (2011), Matt Barkley (2012), Marqise Lee (2013), Jadeveon Clowney (2013), Marcus Mariota (2014), and Braxton Miller (2013 and ’14), all of whom enjoyed similarly lofty status after generating substantial Heisman hype as underclassmen.3 Most years, the guys who dominate the preseason blitz in the summer months are largely the same guys who demanded a lion’s share of attention the previous fall. This is not one of those years.


3.

Aside from Miller in 2014, everyone on that list finished in the top six in Heisman voting in the preceding season except Mariota, who inexplicably failed to crack the top 10 despite worthy campaigns in both 2012 and 2013; those snubs notwithstanding, his co-front-runner status alongside Winston going into last season was well deserved.

Which is not to say there are no proven, bankable college stars returning. Accolade for accolade, the most decorated player in the nation in 2014 was exceptionally named Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III, who will return this fall after leading the FBS in total tackles (163), tackles for loss (29), and forced fumbles (6), and then cleaning up on the December awards circuit. Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa was a unanimous All-American as a sophomore and has recently emerged as a favorite to be the no. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft. A pair of returning quarterbacks, TCU’s Trevone Boykin and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, finished in the top 10 in last year’s Heisman voting and are close on the front-runners’ heels, with early 8-1 odds. Baylor offensive lineman Spencer Drango was a consensus All-American on the nation’s highest-scoring offense. Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Florida State safety Jalen Ramsey both picked up some All-America notice last year as sophomores and have the look of five-star talents in full bloom as juniors. If you get the chance to watch jumbo-size Pittsburgh running back James Conner, I can’t recommend it enough, even though it means having to watch the rest of the Panthers, too.

But the debate over the sport’s best player, full stop, never has much bearing over who emerges as the sport’s biggest star in a given season, and the debate going into this particular season offers even less overlap than usual. Defensive players have never stood a chance at rivaling offensive stars in terms of national Q score;4 even prolific skill players face an uphill battle for recognition when they play for regional upstarts like TCU and Mississippi State. So knowing what we know about how the Heisman tends to work, the conventional wisdom makes sense: If Elliott and Fournette are who the oddsmakers think they are, they probably are in the best position to run away from the field. Just as likely, though, the 2015 spotlight will be commandeered by a dark horse lurking on the fringes of the preseason hype, like Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, or by a Manzielian revelation who blazes into the national consciousness fully formed. Either way, it’s hard to recall another offseason in which the title of Next Big Thing doubled as the highest distinction on offer.


4.

The only defender listed on Bovada’s early Heisman odds is Wright, who brings up the rear at 66-1.