Is Leonard Fournette a Lock to Win the Heisman?
Leonard Fournette’s four-yard touchdown was hardly remarkable. Sure, it was the first of his college career, but LSU was already well on their way to an easy September 2014 win over lowly Sam Houston State.
But then he…oh no, did he just…? Fournette channeled his inner Desmond Howard and struck the Heisman pose.
Eyes rolled everywhere. It was an audacious move by a true freshman with no real collegiate resumé, only the lofty preseason comparisons to some of the greats, including Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson.
Fast forward 13 months, and Leonard Fournette’s pose-striking would be condoned, if not encouraged. In just four games this season, Fournette has racked up 864 yards and 11 touchdowns. His three straight 200-yard games, 8.7 yards per carry average, and penchant for running through defenders have created nationwide buzz.
SEC foes aren’t the only ones noticing. Judging by the current Heisman odds, sportsbooks have pushed their chips in on Fournette. The sophomore is now the runaway favorite (-200) to win the Heisman (all odds courtesy of Bovada).
But bettors should have pause. Not only is there little value to be had on Fournette now thanks to such short odds, a look at LSU’s upcoming schedule and numberFire’s defensive efficiency rankings suggest that there may be tougher days ahead. In the coming weeks, LSU will face a host of teams highly ranked in adjusted rush yards allowed per attempt, including Florida (7th), Alabama (10th), Arkansas (34th), and Ole Miss (44th).
LSU coach Les Miles also has typically utilized three- or four-running back rotations to keep his backs fresh and healthy. Since taking over at LSU in 2005, a single running back has never accounted for more than 55 percent of the team’s total rushing yards in a given season, and only twice has a ball carrier been responsible for more than half of LSU’s total rushing yardage. Fournette is clearly a transcendent talent, but his share of the team’s rushing yards in 2015 – 64 percent – still suggests a fairly conservative workload.
All of this indicates that with the Fournette hype train having left the station, there are betting market inefficiencies and values to be uncovered. Here are a few players with longer odds who are worth a look:
Cody Kessler (+2500)
Much has been made of USC quarterback Cody Kessler’s pedestrian 2014 numbers against top-tier foes. Kessler shredded inferior opponents, but managed just four touchdown passes with three interceptions against teams that finished the year ranked in the top 25.
But this year, Kessler has already dramatically improved on those numbers. In his first two Pac-12 games – against Stanford and Arizona State – the USC quarterback threw three and five touchdowns, respectively. And he accomplished that while only yielding one interception. Overall, Kessler owns a 15-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has USC atop numberFire’s offensive passing efficiency ratings after Week 5.
Looking ahead, the stage is set for Kessler to make a serious run at the Heisman. nERD – numberFire’s overall team efficiency rankings – currently has USC favored in all of its remaining regular season games. If there is any reason for concern it is that USC will battle three teams ranked in the top 30 in defensive pass efficiency in Washington, Cal, and UCLA. The worst-case scenario is that Kessler looks like his 2014 self. However, the upside is that he replicates his early-season performances and runs up video game-like numbers.
Not to be overlooked is that USC is a national program with two recent Heisman winners (three if you count Reggie Bush) to its credit. Forget East Coast bias. If Kessler and USC perform as projected, those +2500 odds are going to get much shorter very quickly.
Baker Mayfield (+2500)
Texas Tech transfer junior Baker Mayfield has been a revelation for Oklahoma’s new spread attack brought to Norman by first-year coordinator, Lincoln Riley. Mayfield lit up a very talented West Virginia secondary last Saturday, needing just 14 completions to tally 320 yards and 3 touchdowns. In his four games, Mayfield has thrown for 1,382 yards and 11 touchdowns, while adding 4 more scores on the ground.
But the case for Mayfield goes far beyond his statistical dominance. Mayfield engineered perhaps the season’s most memorable comeback, rallying the Sooners back from down 17-3 midway through the fourth quarter to top Tennessee on the road. In final nine minutes and overtime, Mayfield connected on three touchdown passes and ran for another.
Importantly, unlike Kessler, Mayfield meets only one top 30 pass defense during the rest of the season. In fact, leading up to the presumed shootout with Baylor on November 14, Oklahoma faces subpar to woeful pass defenders in Texas (94th), Kansas State (58th), Texas Tech (45th), Kansas (96th), and Iowa State (83rd). Even an average statistical pace would give Mayfield and Oklahoma some serious momentum going into mid-November when Heisman Trophies are won and lost.
And just as Fournette may be up against his fiercest rivals as the leaves are changing colors, Mayfield will be on a national stage in games at third-ranked Baylor and hosting second-ranked TCU. Perhaps most importantly, both of those squads lack elite pass defenses, ranking 40th and 53rd, respectively.
numberFire also likes Mayfield to have the benefit of an equally significant metric for Heisman hopefuls: wins. According to nERD, Oklahoma is the second best team in the country. That makes the Sooners a sizable favorite in nearly every game left on its schedule, including against TCU. If the metrics prove correct, Baylor would be the only thing standing between Bob Stoops and another Big 12 title. That would make the Sooners is a sneaky good pick to contend for a national championship, a near-must for any Heisman frontrunner in today’s era. Including Reggie Bush, seven of the last 10 Heisman winners ultimately played in the national championship game the year they collected the hardware.
Best of the Rest
Georgia running back Nick Chubb (+1500), Cal quarterback Jared Goff (+2000), and Clemson QB Deshaun Watson (+2500).