Does being the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite actually hurt USC quarterback Sam Darnold’s Heisman hopes in 2017?
Considering his outstanding performance in the 2017 Rose Bowl, Sam Darnold was bound to have a load of hype dropped on his head this offseason.
In fact, the Darnold hype train was already accelerating out of the station during the 2016 regular season as the quarterback helped USC break out of a 1-3 slump to start the season. With his dynamic playmaking ability sparking the Trojan offense, USC ripped off a winning streak that would extend to nine games.
Nearly three months into the offseason, the San Clemente product isn’t just a Heisman favorite — he’s The Heisman Favorite, as crowned by Bovada earlier this week.
Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? After all, Heisman favorites don’t have the best track record at actually winning the award.
Looking back over the past ten years, that holds true.
Last year, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey were among the favorites to win. Instead, the bronze trophy went to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
In 2015, the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Fournette, Trevone Boykin, and Cody Kessler all had better odds than eventual winner Derrick Henry.
The trend has remained that way for the last decade, with favorites falling to preseason underdogs time and time again.
You have to go back to 2006 to find Heisman favorites who won the award consistently, ending with Ohio State’s Troy Smith. Before that, both Reggie Bush in 2005 and Matt Leinart in 2004 were on the shortlist as Heisman favorites before ultimately winning it.
The one exception? Marcus Mariota was one of the top preseason Heisman picks in 2014 behind only Jameis Winston, who had won the award for Florida State the year before. He delivered on that hype by winning the Heisman in a landslide, taking 90 percent of possible points.
The simple takeaway is that it’s tough to be the Heisman favorite. More eyes are on that player every week. Their every step is scrutinized. Not only are they given no benefit of the doubt, they’re expected to thrill at every turn.
Just look at McCaffrey, who scored more touchdowns and averaged more yards per rush as a junior than he did during his sophomore Heisman-finalist campaign. Yet Stanford’s weak first half of the season, an injury spell and other shinier toys on display sunk McCaffrey’s Heisman hopes.
Of course, Mariota set the road map — but it’s not an easy one to follow and requires plenty of outside help.
First, the Heisman favorite must be on a nationally competitive team. Mariota’s Ducks lost a game in early October, but rallied to secure a place in the College Football Playoff.
USC will enter the season with a Top 5 ranking, but the Trojans must be in the running for the Pac-12 title and a playoff berth if Darnold wants to remain a Heisman candidate. That won’t be a cakewalk with several key starters to replace.
Second, the Heisman favorite must improve his numbers. Mariota threw more touchdowns, amassed more yards and tossed fewer interceptions. With the national spotlight on him, his production never faltered.
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Darnold is in great position to do just that, finishing his redshirt freshman season with 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns without the benefit of starting the first three games of the season.
And finally, the Heisman favorite has to shine with flash plays.
On the one hand, Darnold may have already set his ceiling with his stellar showing in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl. If voters tune in and expect to see those kinds of wonders every week, it’ll be tough sledding to live up to expectations.
On the other hand, Darnold’s brand of improvisation and execution is the perfect tool to create so-called Heisman moments.
If he maintains the “wow” factor of 2016, there’s no question Darnold will have a shot at the prize, even with the target now on his back.