Which Big Ten players could be Heisman Trophy contenders in 2021?
The Big Ten is starved for a Heisman Trophy winner. The last one was Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006, and with no B1G player among the top 4 announced on Christmas Eve, that drought will last at least 1 more year.
Since the B1G last won a Heisman, there have been 6 recipients from the SEC, 4 from the Big 12, 2 from the ACC and 1 from the Pac 12.
Ohio State’s Justin Fields was the conference’s best chance in a long time after finishing third last year, but he was done in by only playing 6 games.
So which B1G players could contend next season? Here are a few:
The most likely contender: QB Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana)
Let’s face it, this is a QB award, and Penix will be the best returning QB with Fields presumably gone to the NFL. He will have the chance to put up huge numbers once again, the Hoosiers should be among the Big Ten’s best teams and he’ll have the narrative down, too, as he would be an extremely compelling story after suffering a season-ending injury 3 years in a row (2 of which were from torn ACLs).
If everything goes right: QB Graham Mertz (Wisconsin)
Mertz looked like a potential candidate after his 5-TD performance in the season opener, but the redshirt freshman never again reached that high bar he set. It wasn’t all his fault, though, as Wisconsin sorely missed wideouts Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor the last 4 games. With Jack Coan transferring, the path is clear for Mertz to be entrenched as the starter. With some continuity in a non-pandemic season, the former 4-star recruit should have a much, much easier time.
With some improvement: QB Sean Clifford (Penn State)
Clifford needs to improve his accuracy. He was ninth in the B1G in completion percentage in 2019, and this season he led the conference in interceptions with 9. But the guy can put up numbers. He has the second-most TD passes in the Big Ten over the last 2 seasons. If Jahan Dotson is back next year, he and Parker Washington will form one of the best WR duos in the Big Ten, and that means Clifford will put up huge numbers. Heisman contenders can’t turn the ball over the way Clifford has, though.
Better chance than you think: QBs CJ Stroud/Jack Miller (Ohio State)
Stroud and Miller aren’t household names right now, especially to non-Ohio State fans, but one of them will replace Fields as the starting QB in 2021. Stroud and Miller are both true freshmen who were 4-star recruits. There’s been no indication that either has the upper hand for next year, as Ryan Day won’t want either of them to transfer before the season.
Whoever is the Ohio State QB has an excellent chance of being in the Heisman race because he will put up huge numbers. Fields probably would’ve been a finalist if the Big Ten didn’t play an abbreviated schedule, as it broke a 2-year streak of Ohio State QBs in the top 3 (Dwayne Haskins, Fields).
Darkhorse: QB Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland)
Let’s admit it, he’s got the name recognition thanks to his older brother, Tua. Taulia had an up-and-down sophomore season, but he has a ton of potential. Similar to Mertz, it was a lot to ask of him in his first year as a starting QB to manage this wacky season, but he did well. And Maryland is a program on the rise, meaning Tagovailoa and the Terps will get a lot of attention if they can keep the momentum going in 2021.
The non-QB: RB Tyler Goodson (Iowa)
Does a B1G running back really have a chance if a player as good as Jonathan Taylor couldn’t even be a finalist? Unfortunately, probably not. Mohamed Ibrahim didn’t generate any Heisman buzz this season despite averaging 153.7 rushing yards per game (third nationally) and 15 rushing TDs (fifth nationally).
Assuming Ibrahim goes pro, the B1G running back with the best chance to enter the Heisman conversation is Goodson, who will likely be the leading returning B1G rusher. With how good Iowa’s offensive line is and how talented Goodson is, the rising junior could put up huge numbers.
The non-QB pt. II: WR David Bell (Purdue)
Bell is obviously a longshot since a wideout hasn’t won since Desmond Howard in 1991 and only 1 receiver (Amari Cooper) has finished in the top 3 since 2003, but if there’s a B1G wideout who could do it, it’s probably Bell.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, the variables don’t matter to Bell. He is a stud regardless of whether Aidan O’Connell or Jack Plummer is at QB, whether Rondale Moore is in or out of the lineup and whether the Boilermakers win or lose.
The non-QB pt. III: LBs Leo Chenal/Jack Sanborn (Wisconsin)
If Chase Young couldn’t even finish in the top 3 last year, it’s unrealistic to think there’s a defensive player out there who can. The last defensive player to finish in the top 3 was Manti Te’o in 2012.
A wild guess? Either of these Wisconsin linebackers, both of whom rank in the top 7 of linebackers in terms of PFF grade.