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Betting Heisman Futures

The Heisman Trophy race is often misunderstood. And mismatched expectations oftentimes conjure the image of dollar signs for seasoned gamblers. The general public still views Heisman candidates in the same way that political parties view their candidates — through the lens of electability, or in the case of the Heisman, viability. Conventional wisdom dictates that you have to be an established player from an established and powerful program to even entertain the notion that you could be enshrined as one of the game’s greats.

It’s that thinking that produced a top-heavy Heisman board last August. Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa entered last season as co-favorites to hoist the trophy in December at 3:1 odds. They had just played against each other in the national title game, piloting the top two programs in the sport. To casual fans, it was a no-brainer for them to share the spotlight as preseason Heisman favorites. But to savvy veterans of the sports gambling space, the only thing noteworthy about two players separating themselves from the pack over the summer was that it inflated odds for everyone else.

To put it bluntly, the prevailing wisdom surrounding the Heisman is wrong and that disconnect is born out in the final Heisman voting year after year. Only one preseason Heisman favorite has gone “wire-to-wire” since 2000. All it took from Marcus Mariota (9:2 preseason odds) was a near-flawless season (TD-INT Ratio 42:4) and a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. In contrast to Mariota’s favorite-to-recipient feat, is the fact that 8 of the past 10 Heisman winners weren’t considered Top 10 candidates in the preseason by oddsmakers. Joe Burrow (40:1), Kyler Murray (30:1), Lamar Jackson (100:1) and Derrick Henry (25:1) represent a new wave of Heisman profitability for sports gamblers. And after a run of one-year wonders who took home the hardware as preseason “FIELD” bets (Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston) in the early 2010s, sportsbooks finally started to post more comprehensive preseason lists. The average offering has essentially doubled from the 20-25 player range in 2010 to a 35-40 range in 2019.

Heisman longshots have proven to be incredibly profitable in the past 10 years, but their odds quickly come down to earth once the general public has seen them play. The past 5 winners saw their preseason odds fall by an average of 68% from the preseason through Week 3.

This illustrates that for a gambler to capture worthwhile value, they need to have skin in the game before the season starts. Neither Lawrence nor Tagovailoa were Heisman finalists last year, but that hasn’t stopped oddsmakers from setting up the 2020 big board in nearly identical fashion. Lawrence is joined this year by Justin Fields as a co-favorite falling in the 4:1 to 9:2 range. And just like last year, that strategy from sportsbooks has inflated odds on a handful of interesting players.

Here’s a breakdown of how I think about Heisman futures and who I’ll be placing a wager on this summer.

My Heisman Must-Haves

Team Requirements: Realistic Playoff Aspirations / Minimum 3 Ranked Opponents / Coaching Staff That Values Stat-Padding / No More Than 1 Cupcake Opponent

Player Requirements: Plays QB / Dual-Threat / Experience Carrying An Offense / Name ID

Interestingly, I believe that the team requirements section has equal if not greater importance than the player requirements portion. College football lends itself to gaudy statistics, but those numbers are usually viewed as meaningless in the eyes of Heisman voters if they don’t propel a team toward a championship. The 3 ranked opponents requirement might seem like a dig at Group of 5 candidates, but in fact, it’s pointed more toward Trevor Lawrence than anyone else. Clemson played just a single Top 25 opponent in the regular season last fall (No. 12 Texas A&M) and 2 teams outside of the Sagarin Top 100 (Charlotte, Wofford). Their schedule resulted in 11 blowouts (28+ wins), which cost Lawrence valuable snaps from a statistical perspective and high-stake opportunities to produce his “Heisman Moment.”

As for the player requirement side of things, the very first specification is a quick way to whittle a large list of players. I won’t go down a rabbit hole as to why it’s a poor investment to bet on non-QBs, because even casual gamblers understand the herculean task required to simply get invited to New York as a skill position or defensive player. The classic case came in 2015 when Christian McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yardage record only to finish 2nd in the Heisman voting. If the odds were in the 100:1+ range, I would begin to consider bets on non-QBs, but as it stands, players like Chuba Hubbard and Travis Etienne are checking in between 15 and 20:1. Those odds simply don’t align with the historic difficulty of winning as a non-QB.

My Heisman Longshots

Sam Howell (UNC, QB 25:1) | Spencer Sanders (Oklahoma State, QB 33:1) | Brock Purdy (Iowa State, QB 50:1) — Odds courtesy

First and foremost, you have the time in the offseason to shop around. Howell has been locked in at 25:1 at nearly every sportsbook around the country, but that may change between now and August. Sanders and Purdy, however, are all over the map. In my home state of Pennsylvania, Sanders’ odds range from 40 to 60:1 depending on the sportsbook, whereas Purdy’s odds ballooned to 150:1 at DraftKings. Even if you’re comfortable taking any of these players at the odds listed above, it’s an absolute necessity to seek out alternative numbers.

The rationale behind these 3 dark-horse picks is rather simple. I believe that all 3 play for contenders, albeit in the second tier, for their respective conference crowns. Iowa State seems especially primed for a breakthrough in Matt Campbell’s fourth season. The rising star in the coaching ranks is 23-16 in 3 seasons with the Cyclones, but half of those losses have come by 4 points or less. Speaking of being on the verge of a breakthrough, North Carolina went 7-6 in Mack Brown’s first season back in Chapel Hill and could easily have won 9 or 10 games had lady luck favored them in a few of their 6 single-digit losses. Finally, Oklahoma State has the 9th-most returning production of any team in the country. That roster continuity and an incredibly manageable first half of their schedule could easily translate into a surprising 6-0 start.

As for the players themselves, all 3 toted the rock 90+ times and were capable of highlight reel plays. Howell was magnificent in his debut, breaking the FBS record for touchdown passes by a true freshman with 38. With the departure of David Montgomery to the NFL, Brock Purdy was asked to account for a larger percentage of the Cyclones’ offense and responded by pumping in 35 total touchdowns and 4,000+ total yards. Spencer Sanders did not live up to his preseason hype, but it is worth noting that the former Mr. Texas Football was still named Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year.

I’d also like to point to Mike Gundy’s success with quarterbacks in their second year in Stillwater. He transformed Mason Rudolph from a game manager who accounted for 22 touchdowns in his first full year as the Pokes’ starter into a dangerous downfield passer who tallied 34 total TDs the following season. If I can get odds north of 50:1 on Sanders, I’ll be comfortable banking on a similar quantum leap for him in his redshirt sophomore campaign.

What Is Hedging And Why Should I Do It?

In the simplest of terms, hedging is when a gambler places a bet on the opposite side of their original wager in order to reduce losses or to guarantee a profit. Despite the simplicity of the tactic, casual gamblers often fail to hedge appropriately. For small stakes gamblers, in-game hedging might not be worth their time, but that isn’t true of futures betting. Even small wagers can net huge returns and are worthy of thoughtful hedge strategies.

Season-long futures for individual players and teams present a host of hedge opportunities, some clear and others more convoluted. As I detailed above, pundits and the public are awful at predicting who will end up as a Heisman finalist. In fact, 4 of the past 5 Heisman presentations have included at least 1 finalist who entered the season as a 100:1 longshot or higher. Simply having a finalist with long odds can guarantee you money by properly hedging is a game-changer for most casual bettors.

If you were fortunate enough to place a bet on Joe Burrow before Week 3 last season, you had a ticket paying out between 40:1 and 200:1 on the Bayou Bengal. Even if you had waited until the end of the regular season to hedge, the 3 other eventual finalists all presented decent value and insurance with Fields (6:1), Jalen Hurts (17:1), Chase Young (100:1) all offering handsome payouts.

While it appeared that Burrow was a “lock” by Week 13 last season, this same hedge strategy would have saved Tagovailoa bettors the year prior. The Crimson Tide signal-caller was listed as a -900 favorite during Week 13, but would be overtaken by Kyler Murray just 2 weeks later. If you had spread out your risk by betting the likely finalists in Week 13 (Murray+600, Dwayne Haskins+6000, Will Grier+1100) you would have turned a gambling heartbreak into a decent payday.

Reorienting your preseason Heisman betting strategy to target longshots with the potential to become finalists instead of winners is one way that you can turn an all-or-nothing proposition into a less volatile and more profitable long-term strategy. This brings into play running backs, wide receivers and defensive players that you might not have considered at all in previous seasons.

An Update On Sports Gambling Legalization

Legal (22 states + Washington D.C.): Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, Washington, D.C., West Virginia

Legislation That Has Passed & Awaiting Governor’s Signature (1 State): Virginia

Active Bills (16 states): Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont

Failed Legislation In 2020 (5 states): Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Wyoming

No Legislation In 2020 (7 states): Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin

Progress on the sports gambling front has been slow but steady with the average proposal-to-legalization process taking well over 2 years. That might change in the coming months due to an unlikely accelerator: COVID-19. The novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on state budgets, forcing legislators to consider any and all revenue streams that could help bridge the gap. California, for instance, projects a budget shortfall of $54.3 billion because of the coronavirus.

Penn National Gaming CEO Jay Snowden told CNBC in early May that he believes legalization efforts “stand to accelerate,” in the coming months. Similarly, DraftKings CEO Jason Robins told CNBC in April that there “could be more openness” to legalizing sports betting down the road. Each state has unique hurdles which impact their legalization timeline. For instance, Connecticut and Minnesota have Native American tribal conflicts, while states like Wisconsin and California would require state constitutional amendments to be made. Maryland has added sports legalization to its November ballot, asking voters, “Do you favor the expansion of commercial gaming in the State of Maryland to authorize sports and event betting for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education?” If the measure passes, Maryland residents could be placing wagers as early as August 2021.

Two Truths & A Lie: Gambling Edition

  • Joe Burrow’s father placed a 200-to-1 bet on his son to win the Heisman trophy in July of 2019.
  • Gerry McIlroy placed a bet that his 15-year-old son Rory would win the British Open before the age of 26 at 500-to-1 odds.
  • According to the Golden Nugget Casino, Mike Tyson’s ex-wife Robin Givens won $127,000 by betting on Buster Douglas to defeat Tyson at 42:1 odds. The casino claims it was the largest payout they made for the heavyweight bout.

Joe Burrow’s father never bet on his son to take home the Heisman Memorial Trophy. But a lucky fan by the name of Matt Porter did. The Illinois native took home $10,000 on a $50 bet he placed during the summer of 2019. He was offered a buyout multiple times throughout the season, with offers topping out at about $3,800. He decided to ride it out and was rewarded with the full 10 grand thanks to Burrow’s historic season.

Casinos seemingly couldn’t make Tyson’s opponents’ odds high enough to entice gamblers to wager against Iron Mike in the late 80s and early 90s. That problem came to an end on Feb. 11, 1990 in Tokyo. While it would have been a great story for Givens to have cashed in big on her ex-husband’s biggest professional embarrassment, alas that was just an urban legend.

European sportsbooks have long offered exotic odds to entice gamblers to tie their money up for months or in some cases years, but the wager extended to Gerry McIllroy remains unique. Ladbrokes accepted a bet from Gerry in 2004, giving his son Rory approximately 10 years to win the British Open Championship at staggering 500:1 odds. At the time the bet was placed, Rory was an up-and-coming golf prodigy, but it is worth noting that the British Open had produced the oldest winners of any PGA Major by a large margin. For added perspective, the average age of the British Open winner in the past 25 years is almost 34 years old. Luckily for Gerry, Rory developed quickly as a golf pro and captured the Claret Jug in his final year of eligibility (for the bet). Gerry walked away with $171,000.