College News & Analysis

PFF 2021 College Preseason Heisman Trophy Watch List: Best player in college football

Oct 10, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) is tackled from behind by Texas Longhorns linebacker Joseph Ossai (46) during the first quarter of the Red River Showdown at Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

College football award watch season has finally arrived, which means it’s time for PFF to reveal our preseason picks for the most prestigious honors in the game.

Kicking things off is not just the most important trophy in college football but one of the biggest honors in sports: the Heisman.

With the help of PFF’s College Football Preview Magazine, PFF grades, advanced stats and, of course, the tape, here is a look at PFF’s favorites to win the trophy and a few sleepers.

Editor's Note: This is a PFF preseason watch list that is in no way affiliated with the Heisman Trophy.

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THE FAVORITES

1. QB Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma

Spencer Rattler took over the Oklahoma starting job as a redshirt freshman last season, hoping to continue the team's run of dominance at the quarterback position under head coach Lincoln Riley. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound signal-caller lived up to expectations, earning a 92.5 mark that not only ranked fourth in the FBS but was also the best grade PFF has ever given to a true or redshirt freshman quarterback.

Rattler has a little bit of Texas Tech Patrick Mahomes in him, both stylistically and situationally. He has an ultra-quick, effortless release to pair with jaw-dropping arm talent and elite playmaking ability outside of structure. The Oklahoma quarterback produced a 91.3 passing grade and a 69.7% accurate-pass rate when creating off structure in 2020, both of which led all FBS passers. That passing grade beat out Joe Burrow for the best grade ever earned by a Power Five quarterback.

Rattler is the best player returning to college football and should be the favorite for the Heisman Trophy when the 2021 college football season kicks off Aug. 28.

PFF's 2021 College Football Preview Magazine offers a one-of-a-kind deep dive into every team and every conference in the FBS. You'll get PFF grades, position breakdowns, betting predictions, accuracy data and more, making it the only resource you'll need to prepare for the 2021 college football season.

2. QB Sam Howell, North Carolina

Sam Howell is coming off a true sophomore campaign in which he was the sixth-highest-graded quarterback in college football (92.3). Over the past two seasons, he ranks first in the Power Five in 20-plus-yard completions (66), passing yards (2,654), touchdowns (32) and big-time throws (59 — 15 more than the next QB).

The big question mark with Howell this fall is how he fares without the slew of weapons he previously had in his time leading the offense. His top two targets, wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, as well as one of the best running back duos of the PFF College era, Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, have all departed for the NFL ranks. 

Now, Howell will be tasked with propping up the younger talent within the receiving unit. The Tar Heels ranked seventh in the Power Five in expected points added (EPA) per pass last season, but Howell will have to do a lot of heavy lifting to sustain that mark this fall. If he can lead an even better offense with a much lesser supporting cast in 2021, that might just be enough to take home the Heisman.

3. QB D'Eriq King, Miami (FL)

The U was hoping for an elite dual-threat quarterback in 2020 — and, boy, did King deliver. He made tons of plays both through the air and on the ground in his first season with the Hurricanes, resulting in a 90.6 PFF grade for the season that ranked 10th in the FBS. And now they get him for another year.

On 111 runs — 85 designed and 26 scrambles — King totaled 26 rushes of 10 or more yards. He produced more than 10 yards after contact on 13 of those rushes, the most at the position. The 5-foot-11, 202-pound quarterback also rarely put the ball in harm’s way. He consistently made the right decision and came in at No. 3 in the FBS in turnover-worthy play rate (1.7%).

Assuming King fully recovers from the torn ACL he suffered in the Cheez-It Bowl — and all indications are that’s the case — the Hurricanes will have one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the country. If he shows more consistency as passer from week to week, he’ll make the Heisman conversation very intriguing.

THE UNKNOWNS

These four quarterbacks are favorites to take home the actual 2021 Heisman Trophy, as they are set to take on a full year of starting at quarterback for contending teams. But three of the four — D.J. Uiagalelei, Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud — have one thing in common: inexperience. The fourth — JT Daniels — has plenty of reps under his belt but not a lot of high-end play.

Let’s dive into the pack of unknowns…

QB D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson

Uiagalelei was the lucky outlier of the highly ranked freshman quarterbacks from the 2020 class to see valuable game action in their freshman campaigns.

PFF's 2021 College Football Preview Magazine offers a one-of-a-kind deep dive into every team and every conference in the FBS. You'll get PFF grades, position breakdowns, betting predictions, accuracy data and more, making it the only resource you'll need to prepare for the 2021 college football season.

With Trevor Lawrence out due to COVID-19, the 2020 No. 10 overall recruit was thrust into the starting job against Boston College and Notre Dame. While neither ended in an “elite” outing, he showed he has the capability of getting there with the help of the bazooka attached to his shoulder.

He earned an 83.6 passing grade with five big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays. Those two games ended up among the Tigers' three most efficient passing offenses of the season. Now, he needs to do that consistently as a full-time starter. Out of the four unknowns, he’s undoubtedly the one who should be in the preseason Heisman conversation given what he's shown on his limited reps.

QB Bryce Young, Alabama

Young didn’t get the chance to start last year for Crimson Tide, but he did get plenty of reps in garbage time. The only thing is, the 2020 No. 1 overall recruit didn’t exactly light it up. His decision-making was shaky at times, and he took seven sacks while also producing three turnover-worthy plays on 31 dropbacks. That is, however, expected from a quarterback with no experience. At the same time, Young got through his progressions and flashed a strong arm while showing an impressive ability to extend plays and make throws when knocked off rhythm.

It’d be an anomaly of a situation if Alabama’s offensive output didn’t regress in 2021. The only question is: to what extent? For Young to be a legitimate Heisman candidate in 2021 and maintain this Crimson Tide offense as one of the best in college football, he can’t be making the same mistakes of last season. As talented as this Alabama team is, Young will ultimately decide its fate.

QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

Stroud — the 42nd-ranked recruit overall and No. 3 quarterback of the 2020 class — didn’t see a start nor did he take a dropback his first year on campus. He showcased his running ability on a lone carry that ended up being a 48-yard touchdown, but that’s about it. Stroud is a promising talent with an incredibly high ceiling, but it’s going to be a tall task replacing Justin Fields‘ production over the past couple of seasons. He was college football’s most valuable player in both 2019 and 2020, according to PFF Wins Above Average (WAA), and led Ohio State to the second-most efficient passing offense in the Power Five.

His big arm is already a given, and he can threaten defenses on the ground. The potential is there for Stroud to be elite, but can he reach that high ceiling in Year 1 as a starter?

QB JT Daniels, Georgia

The JT Daniels Heisman hype may need to be tempered just a bit. Yes, he is a former five-star recruit and put together one of the best performances of the 2020 season in his debut as a Georgia Bulldog, but his outputs in the other three outings in addition to his past play are cause for concern.

As a true freshman at USC in 2018, Daniels ranked 118th at the position in PFF grade, 127th in turnover-worthy play rate and 129th in PFF Wins Above Average generated. He looked like the same player in the 2019 opener before tearing his ACL. Daniels then transferred to Georgia and didn't see the field until Week 12 of 2020 due to both the rehab process and other players being ahead of him on the depth chart, but he looked remarkably better.

Against Mississippi State that night, he earned a 95.0 PFF grade and made six big-time throws. Yet, Daniels earned just a 68.5 passing grade in his other three outings, including four turnover-worthy plays against Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl.

Daniels did look like a better quarterback in 2020 compared to his USC days, but any Heisman or top-five quarterback talk is still premature. While he appeared more comfortable, his pocket presence was still less than ideal, he put the ball in harm’s way and his accuracy waned despite a high completion percentage.

If Daniels were to break out to elite and Heisman status over the course of a full season, he’d be a true outlier. Among all the quarterbacks to produce a sub-60.0 passing grade in their first season in a starting job — just as Daniels did in 2018 — in the PFF College era, none ended up producing an 85.0-plus grade at any point in their college career.

 

Until Daniels shows he can come close to replicating his outing against Mississippi State, he’s not in the top-tier quarterback conversation and remains unproven.

SLEEPERS (Odds from FanDuel Sportsbook)

CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU (+10000)

If Stingley ends up playing both sides of the ball as rumored, his +10000 odds to take home the Heisman will likely shift in a heartbeat. He’s a truly rare athlete — arguably the best to take the field this fall, regardless of position. Coming out of high school in 2019, the five-star cornerback clocked a 4.3-second 40 time and a 42-inch vertical. He then proceeded to have the best true freshman season since PFF College's inception in 2014, recording a 91.7 PFF grade and 0.97 wins above average (WAA), the latter being the best mark among non-quarterbacks all year.

Last year, he saw two fewer targets per game on average, as it quickly became apparent that opposing quarterbacks weren’t looking to test him. Stingley saw 30 targets overall across his seven outings, allowing just seven first downs while forcing five incompletions, three of which came against Missouri despite playing most of the game with an ankle injury.

Even if he doesn’t end up running some routes for head coach Ed Orgeron, Stingley should still be in the Heisman conversation.

QB Emory Jones, Florida (+4000)

Despite Jones having yet to start a game in his three years at Florida, his traits are impressive.

An elite athlete for a quarterback, Jones boasts real-deal arm talent, producing an 80.6 passing grade across 87 career attempts. He dealt with fumbling issues as a runner in his first season in 2018 but cleaned those up and has since posted an 81.7 rushing grade on 76 carries over the past two years. For perspective, former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was the only FBS signal-caller who posted a rushing grade north of 80.0 in 2020.

Jones may have a more notable recruiting profile and background, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him become the Joe Burrow or Zach Wilson of the 2021 college football season. What’s most alluring about his situation is that he is partnering with one of the top offensive minds in the country in Dan Mullen, who will have his first dual-threat quarterback as Florida's head coach. He’ll have to deal with a receiving unit that is entirely unproven, though.

QB Kedon Slovis, USC (+2500)

Slovis isn’t elite yet, but he's capable of making the jump in 2021.

He shattered expectations as a true freshman in 2019, earning an 80.8 passing grade and displaying precise accuracy. Still, Slovis often looked like a first-year player and made one or two head-scratching forced throws per game. Instead of taking that next step forward, he was pretty much the same exact player in 2020. He earned an 80.1 passing grade across six starts, which featured 13 turnover-worthy plays but top-notch accuracy. 

If he can grow as a decision-maker, Slovis can be a Heisman contender this fall.

QB Casey Thompson, Texas (+4000)

A new era of Texas football will kick off this fall as the team welcomes in former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as its head coach and Casey Thompson as the likely starting quarterback.

PFF's 2021 College Football Preview Magazine offers a one-of-a-kind deep dive into every team and every conference in the FBS. You'll get PFF grades, position breakdowns, betting predictions, accuracy data and more, making it the only resource you'll need to prepare for the 2021 college football season.

Sarkisian has proven to be one of the top offensive play callers in college football. Alabama fielded the most efficient passing offense in college football and generated positive expected points added (EPA) per pass play in every single game over the past two seasons. Yes, he might have had the most talent of any play caller, but not touching inefficient territory even once is incredibly impressive. Sarkisian will certainly help out Thompson, who has taken only 34 dropbacks in his Texas career.

Still, Thompson earned a 90.0 grade on his 17 attempts 2020, anchored by three big-time throws. He showed fantastic ball placement and timing while also staying calm and delivering a couple of big-time throws under pressure. If those flashes can sustain in 2021 with the help of Sarkisian's offensive mind, Thompson is destined for monster numbers. Keep an eye on Texas in 2021.

QB Malik Willis, Liberty (+5000)

Willis has sky-high expectations for being a non-Power Five quarterback after what he showed in Year 1 with Liberty in 2020. He is electric on the ground and pairs that with a cannon of an arm. Fumbles were an issue, but he did pick up 10 or more yards on 32.8% of his runs and broke 0.34 tackles per attempt, which ranks second and fifth, respectively, among FBS quarterbacks in a single season in the PFF College era.

He has special rushing ability, and that’s not a debate. His passing is what keeps him off PFF's favorites list for the Heisman Trophy. He does indeed have a strong arm, which led him to a 7.1% big-time throw rate that tied for 16th in the FBS, but he needs to show week-to-week consistency as a passer and ultimately raise the 75.5 passing grade he put forth in 2020. The tools are there for him to do so, which makes him a legitimate dark horse despite not playing for a Power Five program.


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