In some ways, the Heisman trophy is incredibly predictable. It hasn’t been won by anyone but a quarterback or running back since Charles Woodson in 1997. Even running backs are slowly being phased out. Only five have won since Woodson, with just Derrick Henry claiming the trophy in the last decade.
Program diversity is also virtually nonexistent. Over the last twenty years, all but three Heisman winners have come from the ACC, SEC, Big 12 or USC. On the surface, this makes predicting each year’s winner fairly simple. Just pick a stud quarterback from a program in one of these conferences, preferably one with College Football Playoff aspirations.
But it’s not always that easy. The quick turnover of college football programs means Heisman candidates are often breakout stars that no one sees coming. No player exemplifies this more than last year’s runaway winner Joe Burrow. Before his historic season Burrow was nowhere near lists of potential winners.
Keeping all this in mind, here are my picks for the players most likely to come out of nowhere and snag the Heisman in 2020.
Brock Purdy, quarterback, Iowa State
Purdy has a lot going for him as a Heisman candidate. He plays in the right conference, for a team that has been on the upswing in recent years. He has impressive volume stats: in 2019 he passed for the fifth most yards in the nation. Of the four above him, only Memphis gunslinger Brady White hasn’t left for the NFL, and Purdy actually outpaced White on a per-game basis.
On the other hand, Purdy’s sometimes questionable decision-making leads to high interception numbers. Also, last year his yards-per-attempt and touchdown production were well below Heisman standard. But he has flashed elite talent, and at just 20 years old is an excellent candidate to take a huge leap forward. If he can return to the more aggressive style of his stellar freshman campaign and swap some interceptions for touchdowns, Purdy will become an instant favorite.
Bryce Young, quarterback, Alabama
Young is an especially dark horse given he might not even start next season. Fellow Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, a regular near the top of Heisman predictions, is the current favorite to win the job. A true freshman, Young enrolled early but will face an uphill battle showing what he can do given the pandemic-altered offseason.
However, many are saying Young could have an impact right away, and it’s easy to see why. The second-highest ranked 2021 recruit overall and top quarterback, Young posted 68 total touchdowns in his senior season at Mater Dei. He’s the most talented option in Alabama’s quarterback room. If Nick Saban trusts him with the keys to the powerhouse program, Young has the potential to be the third freshman ever to take home the Heisman.
Travis Etienne, running back, Clemson
I’ll be honest — Etienne mostly makes this list because I don’t want it to be all quarterbacks. Oklahoma State star Chuba Hubbard is the consensus top non-QB pick, but he’s too popular to be a dark horse and his path to the trophy is less clear than Etienne’s. I say his path is less clear because I think Etienne actually has a legit shot in one, admittedly unlikely and saddening, situation: a Trevor Lawrence injury.
If the nation’s best quarterback goes down and Etienne shoulders enough of the load to keep Clemson’s offense rolling, he could break the run of quarterback dominance. The senior has already earned top-10 Heisman finishes in both of the last two years with incredible statistical output. The narrative bonus of him single-handedly carrying the Tiger offense for part or all of a season could be enough to make him number one.
Kyle Trask, quarterback, Florida
Trask’s career so far at Florida has been a tale of ups and downs. Multiple injuries and former Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks kept him from the starting role. But when Franks injured his ankle early in 2019, Trask took over and never looked back. He finished the year second in the SEC in quarterback rating to only Burrow himself.
Now Franks is gone, and Trask finally heads into a season healthy and guaranteed the starting role. He will head up an elite offense including four four-star wideouts. Especially if Florida finds itself pushing for an SEC championship, expect their signal-caller to rise in the ranks of Heisman hopefuls.
Myles Brennan, quarterback, LSU
Listen, Brennan isn’t Burrow. But he might not have to be. Assuming he claims the starting job, which seems especially likely given the altered offseason, Brennan will be leading an offense still absolutely stacked with NFL-caliber talent, including Biletnikoff winner Ja’Maar Chase.
Brennan himself is no slouch either. He was a top pro-style recruit coming out of high school and has had three years to learn LSU’s system. Most important for Brennan’s chances, LSU is likely to still be one of the top dogs in 2020, and the QB for a top team rarely fails to earn a serious mention in the Heisman conversation. Brennan has a shot to pull a Kyler Murray and fill a Heisman winner’s shoes by winning the Heisman himself.