Will Anderson Jr., the dynamic defender for the Alabama Crimson Tide, was one of the best players in the country last season despite finishing fifth in Heisman voting. Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson became the second player in the previous 16 seasons to finish in the top two at the position, joining linebacker Manti Te’o. For as good as a season he had, Hutchinson still finished 606 first-place votes behind eventual winner Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.
In fact, in the last 16 years, a quarterback has won the award 13 times with three running backs and a single wide receiver. The last defensive player to win the Heisman was Charles Woodson in 1997, who beat out Peyton Manning in a questionable voting process.
Bottom line? Defensive players generally don’t win the Heisman. However, I think Will Anderson Jr. can be the exception to this.
Current Heisman Odds
CJ Stroud +250
Bryce Young +350
Caleb Williams +750
DJ Uiagalelei +2500
Dillon Gabriel +3000
Jaxson Dart +3000
Tyler Van Dyke +3500
Anthony Richardson +4000
Bijan Robinson +4000
Kedon Slovis +4000
Bo Nix +5000
JT Daniels +5000
Jaxson Smith-Njigba +5000
Sam Hartman +5000
Malik Cunningham +5000
Quinn Ewers +5000
As we stand at the end of March, there are 22 players with better odds than Will Anderson Jr.’s. Two of those are players who finished above him last year, but the rest would be new entries to the voting. Additionally, he is +6000 and tied with eight other players with those odds, including likely backups Jack Miller and Cade Klubnik. Realistically, about 30 players have the same or better odds than Will Anderson Jr., and that’s where the value lies.
During the same period (since 2005), the Heisman winner has been from the top two teams 10 of 17 times, a top-five team 14 of 17 times, and a top 20 team all but once (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in 2016). This means the average finish for a Heisman candidate’s team has been 4.4, but the median has been a second overall finish. Unless an otherworldly season happens like Lamar Jackson’s dominant 2016 run, the winner needs to be from a team likely in the College Football Playoff (since the playoff started, Jackson has been the only exception).
|Team Finish||Heisman Winner||Defensive Players|
When looking at the current odds for National Champion Winner, three teams stand out with odds greater than +1000. Last year’s runner-up Alabama (+200) and champion Georgia (+300) both lead the way, with perennial contender Ohio State (+500) following third. Looking at individual odds, it makes sense that CJ Stroud and 2021 Heisman Winner Bryce Young are also favored. With most of Georgia’s defense leaving, it leaves behind a quality unit without a surefire Heisman contender. Fourth in the top tier is Clemson (+1200), a two-time national championship game attendee who is well-represented with DJ Uiagelelei (+2500) and Cade Klubnik (+6000). After this group, there are nine other teams with +4000 odds or better, rounding out what we should consider possible contenders.
If we make the *somewhat* safe assumption that the Heisman candidate comes from one of these teams, we can eliminate 22 of the top 30 currently unless one of those players leads their team to a solid record and posts fantastic individual numbers something that is still incredibly rare.
With this groundwork, we can look at historical high-end Heisman finishes. Despite the fact that no defensive player has won, we can still make inferences. First, like the eventual winner, the top finishes among defensive players, and their team is generally top five, with 15 of the 19 defensive players who finished top 10 in voting, belonging to the top five teams. Again, although voting occurs before the College Football Playoff, it’s the top four teams you’re generally looking for. This is a key box Anderson checks, with Alabama being the odds-on favorite to win 2022’s National Championship.
What Defensive Players Appeal to Voters?
While it’s a near-requirement for the eventual Heisman winner to be on one of the nation’s best teams, there are other aspects voters generally look for in potential candidates. First, not only do these players need to be on good teams, but they need to be on blue blood programs. Every defensive player nominated in the last 16 years has been from a Power 5 program (ACC, BIG 12, BIG Ten, PAC-12, SEC). Additionally, it’s important that these players are from historical blue blood programs. Of the 19 defensive players with top 10 finishes since 2005, all but three have been from “Blue Blood” programs, with the exceptions being Scooby Wright – Arizona, Jadeveon Clowney – South Carolina, and Elvis Dumervil – Louisville.
A handful of assumptions go into this, but in general, most of these programs are on the east coast or in featured TV games. Voter awareness matters despite insistence each year that it doesn’t. In fact, of the 51 top-three finishes over this timeframe, only 23 different schools have been featured, with Alabama (9) and Ohio State (5) leading the way with top-3 players in voting.
Interestingly, only four of the defensive players finishing top 10 were underclassmen (Scooby Wright, Jadeveon Clowney, and Tyrann Mathieu). Of those, only Clowney had the opportunity to repeat, with Mathieu being suspended for drug use and Wright being injured three games into his 2015 season following his 2014 ninth-overall Heisman finish. This means the scenario Will Anderson Jr. finds himself in is unprecedented. Already a household name, Anderson Jr., if he stays healthy, will have the best chance to repeat as a top-five finish of any defensive player since 2005.
The Player and Situation
Now that we’ve laid the foundation for what type of players receive the most votes and the unique situation Anderson Jr. finds himself in, it’s important to talk about the player himself. In 2021, he had 101 total tackles, 17.5 sacks, and 81 pressures per PFF, the final two leading the nation. Arguably, Anderson was the country’s best defensive player statistically despite finishing behind Aiden Hutchinson in voting and outside the top three. Since 2005, his 17.5 sacks would have ranked second among all defensive players to finish top 10 in Heisman voting, behind Elvis Dumervil’s 20.0. Anderson is a quality player.
As mentioned above, Anderson Jr. being on Alabama keeps his stock so high. The other contenders for Heisman on the Crimson Tide are Bryce Young and running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who has the same odds as Anderson. With Gibbs, his sub-200 weight and the positional depth likely limit him from the monster workload a running back needs to win the Heisman. The best historical comp for Gibbs would be Reggie Bush in 2005, but in the SEC, it feels like a stretch Gibbs sees the workload necessary. The other contender is last year’s Heisman winner Bryce Young. Being the second favorite to win the award at +350, I think his odds are inflated. Only one player has won the Heisman twice, and even on dominant Alabama teams, we haven’t seen a repeat yet. Whether it’s voter fatigue or wanting to acknowledge other players play a role in team success, I think Young’s odds are lower than Vegas would imply.
As mentioned above, Alabama is the odds-on favorite for the title. If this holds true, Anderson has a very good shot at a top-3 Heisman finish with winning firmly in the range of outcomes. To do this, he likely needs to repeat or come close to nation-leading sack and pressure totals from 2021, be the best player on an Alabama team that finishes first or second overall prior to the College Football Playoff, and most importantly, see CJ Stroud struggle or have his vote split potentially with Ohio State’s WR1, Jaxon-Smith Njigba.
Despite Will Anderson Jr. having the same or worse odds than 30 other players, he is not only the best value at +6000; he is also in consideration to win the award. Being on the best team in the country, already having awareness among voters, and having little competition at the top, Anderson can make a name for himself this year as the first Heisman winner since Charles Woodson in 1997. Even if Anderson Jr. doesn’t win the award, his odds are currently too low.