Nebraska's Heisman Odds for the Next Four Years
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s Heisman Odds for the Next Four Years

July 17, 2018

On June 8, the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook released some early 2018 Heisman odds. Stanford’s Bryce Love was unsurprisingly the early favorite. There was a name that popped up lower, though, that caught attention: sitting with 80/1 odds, the same as defensive stars Ed Oliver (Houston) and Nick Bosa (Ohio State), was wideout JD Spielman.

Spielman burst onto the scene last year with a touchdown on his first collegiate touch, setting the table for a breakout freshman campaign. Fifty-five catches, 830 yards and two touchdowns later, Spielman has buzz for the most prestigious award college football has to offer.

John Tiedje asked Hail Varsity on Twitter, “Will the Huskers have a Heisman Trophy Winner in the next 4 years?” And now here we are. So lets look at the Heisman Trophy history for clues as to whether that might happen and who it would go to if it did.

The four-year timeline makes this tricky. The agreed-upon best player currently on Nebraska’s roster is senior wideout Stanley Morgan Jr. who, oddly enough, didn’t show up on Westgate’s list. If Morgan were to win the award, it would be in head coach Scott Frost’s first season at the helm. 

That hasn’t historically happened.

The Heisman Trophy has been awarded in each of the last 83 seasons. Only 12 times has a player with a first- or second-year head coach won it. The list includes eight quarterbacks, two running backs and two wideouts. 

  • The modern-era quarterbacks (five of the eight) have averaged 3,924 yards a season, both passing and running, with an average 67.2 percent completion rate. They’ve tossed 34.8 touchdowns against 7.2 interceptions. The five — Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Auburn’s Cam Newton and USC’s Carson Palmer — have added a combined 51 rushing touchdowns.
  • The eight total quarterbacks have a combined 85-10-1 record in Heisman-winning seasons. The two most recent quarterbacks played in the College Football Playoff, two others won national championships, two others won major bowl games.
  • Both running backs were seniors and Texas Longhorns. Ricky Williams won it during his final season in 1998; Earl Campbell won it in 1977. Williams totaled 2,124 yards rushing (5.9 YPC) with 27 touchdowns. Campbell ran for 1,744 yards (6.5 YPC) with 18 touchdowns. Williams’ Texas team went 9-3 with a Cotton Bowl win. Campbell’s went 11-1 with the only loss coming in the Cotton Bowl.
  • Both receivers — Michigan’s Desmond Howard and Notre Dame’s Tim Brown — belonged to teams that didn’t play for a national title and didn’t win their bowl game. Michigan went 10-2 with a Rose Bowl loss while Notre Dame went 8-4 with a Cotton Bowl loss. Howard totaled 985 receiving yards at 15.9 yards a catch, 180 rushing yards and 21 total touchdowns. Brown had 846 yards on 39 catches (21.7 YPC!!), 144 rushing yards, four offensive touchdowns and three punt return scores.

Half of the battle for the Heisman is winning the narrative. Even last year, the case for Love was strong, but Mayfield had more nationally-seen “Heisman Moments,” those one or two things each year that swing the voters. Mayfield thumped Ohio State in Columbus and planted the flag. Manziel pinched his fingers together and toppled Bama. Howard struck the most famous in-game Heisman pose ever. 

If Morgan were to have a shot at winning the award, he would have to control the narrative. There have only been four wide receivers to win the thing, period, and two of them also played other positions. Let’s say Morgan breaks his own receiving record from last year and becomes Nebraska’s first-ever 1,000-yard receiver. Pretty good starting point. 

No winner with a first- or second-year head coach has come from a team that won fewer than two-thirds of its games. Brown’s 8-4 Notre Dame team had the worst winning percentage. That’s a high bar for Nebraska to clear in Year 1, but if it did so due in large part to the offense and Morgan was that offense’s driving force, he’d have a pretty strong national narrative working in his favor. It’s not likely, but also not outside the realm of possibility. 

(Spielman could work here as well, although it would be pretty out-of-left-field for him to overtake Morgan as the team’s top receiver in Morgan’s final season, barring injury.)

Perhaps someone like running back Greg Bell could make noise this year or next. He has two years of remaining eligibility after transferring from Arizona Western. Though, it would require Nebraska winning a lot of games and Bell putting up insane numbers. No running back to win the award in the last 20 years has rushed for fewer than 1,500 yards. 

Winners From the Last 20 Years and Their Numbers

  Avg. Yards Efficiency (Comp. %, rating, YPC) TDs INT Team W/L

QBs (15)

3,657.9 pass,

553.4 rush

65.1 percent completion rate, 

167.2 rating

42.3 7.9 11.6-1.9

RBs (5)

1,955 rush,

234.8 receiving

6.5 yards per carry 22.8 N/A 11.8-1.4

Winning the thing in 2020 or 2021 — the third or fourth year in our timeline — seems the more likely scenario of the two. And since Ndamukong Suh couldn’t win and therefore the only logical conclusion is defensive players are no longer allowed to win it, we’re focusing on the quarterback.

Whoever starts the majority of 2018 for Nebraska would more than likely become a four-year starter. Both Adrian Martinez and Tristan Gebbia would be juniors and seniors in ’20 and ’21 (depending on how Frost uses the new redshirt rule).

Quarterbacks have won the trophy 35 times since its inception. They’ve won 15 of those since 2000. Runners controlled it early (20 of the first 27), passers have dominated it of late. Four of the last six quarterback winners have topped 4,000 yards passing. That’s more than doable in Frost’s offense; one of those guys was Mariota, you know, doing it in Frost’s offense. 

Frost’s last quarterback, Central Florida’s McKenzie Milton, finished eighth in voting in 2017 and lands as an early favorite in 2018. (Westgate has him at 50/1… which seems low.) Milton, as a sophomore, threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns last season (67.1 percent) against nine interceptions.

If whoever the starter is at Nebraska can replicate that production and Frost is as successful at his alma mater as people hope he is, things actually set up nicely. 

  • Numbers: We’re assuming best-case scenario here, but we’re also talking about the biggest trophy so just bear with me. Development at the quarterback spot consistent with Frost’s track record means it’s not too hard to see one of his Nebraska quarterbacks putting up the numbers needed. If Gebbia is the guy, he could look at Milton’s 2017 and say, “That’s attainable.” If Martinez is the guy, his Heisman campaign might not have to look exactly like Mariota’s 2014 season as long as it still looks something like Manziel’s 2012 year. The passing yardage was in the upper 3,000s and the rushing yardage spread over the 14 or 15 games Nebraska would need to play in works out to around 100 a game. Martinez had 74 yards and three scores in the Red-White game…
  • Narrative: In 2020, games on the road against Ohio State and Wisconsin come in the final five weeks of the season. Betting on either to fall off by then would be like betting on Texas’ Sam Ehlinger to win the Heisman next season (100/1). Either game could set up nicely for a “Heisman Moment.” The rebirth of one of the sports’ best rivalries happens in 2021 when Nebraska travels back to Norman, Oklahoma. It’s hard to project teams out this far but this one is an exception; it’ll be a high-profile clash. Plus, there’s the added element of program renaissance. If Nebraska still hasn’t won a conference title by 2020 or 2021, breaking that drought and putting the team in CFP territory would be monumental.
  • Wins: Only one team in the history of the trophy has had a player win the Heisman after losing more than four games. (Somehow Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung won it in 1956 after leading a 2-8 team with 917 passing yards, three touchdowns and 13 picks on a 53.2 percent completion rate.) Unless Scott Frost knows someone on the Heisman Trophy Trust, Nebraska can’t lose more than four times. And with all due respect to Alabama, recent history suggests the quarterback gets the credit for elite teams.

The Huskers have three Heisman Trophies sitting in Memorial Stadium — Eric Crouch from 2001, Mike Rozier in 1983 and The Jet in 1972. Winning a fourth would (as it stands now) make Nebraska one of only five programs with at least four different winners.

On the heels of a 4-8 season that required a coaching change, Nebraska isn’t anywhere near a point right now where we can realistically be talking about a fourth bronze trophy joining the fold. The Huskers are focused on just getting back on track. Still, if we’re talking about odds of winning one in the next four years, Spielman’s 80/1 odds seem kind of nice here. 

Fun Fact: Yale won two of the first three Heisman Trophies. Yale’s coach was named Ducky Pond. You’re welcome.

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