The 2020 Heisman: predicting the winner

Last year, quarterback Joe Burrow of LSU had such overwhelming stats that it was easy for Heisman  Committee voters to name him the winner of the Heisman Trophy.

But usually, there are no canaries in the coal mine and Heisman members must sort through dozens of statistics and factors to separate one candidate from another.  As much as their review centers around what candidates did, I think it also comes down to what candidates did not do.

For example: If you have a quarterback who passed for nearly 3000 yards, ran for over 500, completed more than 60% of his passes, played in all 12 games, and won eight, you might consider him worthy of consideration. But, would you feel the same once you knew his interception rate (2.8) is among the bottom-third of returning, measurable quarterbacks?  If not, then you wouldn’t want Jamie Newman of Georgia (formerly Wake Forest) and you wouldn’t want him as the representative of  your prestigious award.

It is that element of elimination that I want to look into because I think it is an essential part of the logic that Committee voters use to make their assessments.  Today, we’re only going to look at quarterbacks and see if we can identify some thresholds that Committee voters feel are essential for their winner.  If so, then we might be a step ahead in predicting how they will vote a few months from now.  And if today’s exercise looks promising, we’ll come back to it again in October, plug in updated statistics, and see if we can predict the Heisman Committee’s top quarterbacks a month before that Committee even votes.

To get things started, I’ve chosen six thresholds to review.  To keep things simple, I’ve chosen to award one point for each threshold that a quarterback surpasses.  I don’t expect you to agree with all that I’ve chosen because, quite frankly, I’m not sure I agree with all of it either. But, it should give us a start and if we like our results, we can refine our steps at a later time.

The six elements of data and their thresholds are:

  1.  Recent data:     Candidate established sufficient data in 2019
  2.  Contribution:   Candidate played in at least nine games
  3.  Completion accuracy:    Had 60% or more completion ratio
  4.  Passing yardage:     Totaled 3000 or more passing yards
  5.  Interception percentage:   Interceptions were less than .022 of attempts
  6.  Rushing yards:   Rushed for 500 or more yards

I’m not sure that giving a full point for those quarterbacks who ran for more than 500 yards is fair to others who are not dual-threat in nature.  Those who run can earn six thresholds while those who can’t run can only earn five.  I’ll solve this problem over the Summer but for now, we’ll leave it at a full point with the agreement to consider non-dual threat quarterbacks with five thresholds as somewhat equal to the six thresholders.

Perhaps we should make rushing yardage a half-point and add another half-point for teams that won eight or more games.

If we look at the following chart, we’ll see a few statistics [columns F through K] as well as the number of thresholds (column B)  that the top 25 quarterbacks exceeded.

Since we have 130 teams and we only have six levels to slot them into, we can expect a great deal of bunching. To separate them, I’ve plugged in a “quarterback efficiency” algorithm used by our prediction system (Savvygameline) so that we can sort results with finer detail.

    Savvy 2020        
A B  D  E F G H K
rank thresh-olds   2020 projected starter completion % passing yards Interception % rushing yards
1 6 Clemson Trevor Lawrence 65.8% 3665 2.0% 563
2 6 Notre Dame Ian Book 60.2% 3034 1.5% 546
3 5 Kent St. Dustin Crum 69.2% 2622 0.6% 707
4 5 Ohio St. Justin Fields 67.2% 3273 0.8% 484
5 5 LA Lafayette Levi Lewis 64.3% 3050 1.1% 195
6 5 Iowa St. Brock Purdy 65.7% 3982 1.9% 249
7 5 Baylor Charlie Brewer 64.5% 3161 1.8% 344
8 5 N Carolina Sam Howell 61.4% 3641 1.7% 35
9 5 SMU Shane Buechele 62.7% 3929 2.0% 105
10 5 Pittsburgh Kenny Pickett 61.6% 3098 1.9% 110
11 5 Texas A&M Kellen Mond 61.6% 2897 2.1% 500
12 4 Wisconsin Jack Coan 69.6% 2727 1.5% 22
13 4 Arizona St. Jayden Daniels 60.7% 2947 0.6% 355
14 4 USC Kedon Slovis 71.9% 3502 2.3% -57
15 4 Florida Kyle Trask 66.9% 2941 2.0% 8
16 4 Syracuse Tommy DeVito 63.2% 2360 1.5% 122
17 4 Va Tech Hendon Hooker 61.1% 1555 1.2% 356
18 4 Alabama Mac Jones 66.7% 1503 2.1% 36
19 4 Miami Fl D’Riq King 63.5% 2982 1.7% 674
20 4 Ball St. Drew Plitt 64.3% 2918 1.9% 171
21 4 Minnesota Tanner Morgan 66.0% 3253 2.2% -57
22 4 App State Zac Thomas 62.7% 2718 1.7% 436
23 4 California Chase Garbers 60.9% 1772 1.4% 223
24 4 Nevada Carson Strong 63.4% 2335 1.9% -6
25 4 Texas Sam Ehringer 65.2% 3663 2.2% 663

Now that we have our top 25, it will be easy to trim things down.

We can get down to 11 if we eliminate all candidates who didn’t earn at least five thresholds.

We can trim that list down to eight right away by eliminating Dustin Crum of Kent State, Levi Lewis of Louisiana Lafayette, and Shane Buechele of SMU because they are not Power Five quarterbacks and it’s been more than four decades since any non-Power Five quarterback won the Heisman Trophy.

It might seem that since we only have two six-threshold candidates, then our decision has already been narrowed and should be quite easy.  However, some of the five-threshold candidates should be retained because their only shortcoming is that they are not runners and therefore did not rush for more than 500 yards.

It’s a mixed bag because those who run the ball well have an advantage over those who don’t yet eliminating those who don’t doesn’t seem right either.  And, there’s the matter of Justin Fields who fell 16 rushing yards short of six thresholds.  How would we not consider him as a six?  And, if we consider him as a six, then his efficiency factor is enough to make him our top candidate for the 2020 Heisman.

There are still plenty of rough edges and differences of interpretation to work out, but if we go with what we have so far, our projection for the Heisman Committee’s five finalists looks like this:

  1.  Trevor Lawrence of Clemson    6.68
  2.  Ian Book of Notre Dame    6.62
  3.  Justin Fields of Ohio State   5.70
  4.  Brock Purdy of Iowa State   5.64
  5.  Charlie Brewer of Baylor   5.63

It will be interesting to revisit this after the 2020 winner has been chosen.  I don’t expect all five of the finalists will be quarterbacks, but there should be enough for us to see how well we did in predicting the logic of the Committee using this threshold and elimination scheme.

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