Kyle Trask was a "shoe"-in for Heisman

Now the shoe is on the other foot (Mac Jones's)

The name Kyle had gotten a bad rap in the last year. People think that all we do is drink Monsters and pop wheelies on our ATVs with our cousins at the campground. Kyle Trask was supposed to show the world that us Kyles are so much more. That we could be Heisman-winners and SEC champions too. Not so fast my friend.

I cannot understate enough how consequential a single shoe has become to not only Kyle Trask’s Heisman campaign, but also Florida’s shot at a College Football Playoff spot.

For those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about (doubtful, but possible), it’s probably easiest if you just watch this video.

Let’s start with the latter: Florida were unlikely to beat Alabama as it were, with Elo giving them around a 20% chance to win the game (with the LSU loss). Had they done that, they’d easily be in the College Football Playoff. Now, it’s unclear if a two-loss Florida could get in regardless of the result of this game, unless they had a performance so dominant against the best team in the nation that it couldn’t possibly be a fluke. That is even less likely than them winning by any margin.

Now the Heisman. We’ve been working on a model to predict Heisman winners for the past two weeks using a few data sources from collegefootballdata.com. As of last week, Kyle Trask had the best odds to be the Heisman winner. Now, Jones has closed the gap.

The two major stats that were negatively affected by that LSU loss were team record (8-2) and interceptions thrown (+3). Only one of those two is significant to determining the Heisman winner: team record.

We built our model using data from 2004 through 2019, pairing up the most common passing, rushing, and receiving stats for each player with the eventual Heisman winner. This is inherently tricky because a Heisman winner is inherently rare. Out of about 42,000 player-season combos, there can only be 16 Heisman winners in that span. Despite that, we did a decent job of getting some fairly accurate Heisman odds historically.

The most important and significant factors that determined whether a player might win the Heisman ended up being:

  • The team’s winning percentage in the regular season

  • A player’s rushing yards relative to others at their position in that season

  • Total Touchdowns per Game (it should be noted that total touchdowns for the season were pretty much equally significant, but since this season is shortened for some teams, we opted for the per-game stat)

Interestingly, our model still did better at identifying true Heisman candidates when we included more variables, even if they were statistically insignificant. Some of the variables we left in despite their perceived unimportance were:

  • interceptions per game

  • player position

  • total yards per game

  • Power Five conference indicator

The inclusion of these extra variables sniffed out a few clear outliers that weren’t even in consideration, namely the Cincinnati QB and RB, who have put up large numbers, but are not in a Power 5 conference, a defining characteristic of previous Heisman winners (despite that, P5 conference was still considered insignificant on its own, likely because so many Power 5 players do not win the Heisman each year, while many players who score 50+ touchdowns do (six out of 15, to be specific).

Cincy QB Desmond Ridder also threw .75 interceptions per game this year, a seemingly insignificant amount, but not when Fields, Trask, and Jones average .6, .5, and .3, respectively. It’s a tough world out there these days.

The results were fairly promising. Like I said, there are only 16 winners, and thousands of losers each season, so most players are going to have an essentially 0% chance of winning the Heisman. But when we look at the top 5 players in terms of Heisman probability each season, we see that the actual winner did in fact have much higher odds then the next four runner-ups, showing that our model is on the right track.

So the actual Heisman winner usually had the highest win probability to win the award on average, while the runner-ups came in around 12% probability.

Here is a look at how total TDs correspond to the probabilities to win the Heisman that our model gives.

This stat is clearly most important with QBs, as many of the Heisman-winning QBs had total TDs in the upper 40s or lower 50s. Matt Leinart and Troy Smith were two exceptions, with Leinart having the lowest predicted win probability of the players we looked at, undoubtedly helped by being the QB on an undefeated USC team that year.

So who are the Heisman favorites in our model this year?

The top five this year are:

  1. Justin Fields (25.8% chance)

  2. Kyle Trask (19.9%)

  3. Mac Jones (17.3%)

  4. Najee Harris (14.4%)

  5. Kedon Slovis (6.7%)

Now remember, we are using per game numbers here, but we can almost certainly rule out Slovis and Fields who will only have played six games by the time the ballots are cast: enough games to warrant a playoff spot, maybe, but not a “Most Outstanding Player in College Football” trophy.

What you can take away from Fields sitting on top of our rankings is that he was on-track for a Heisman-caliber season.

Despite losing to unranked LSU in a three-pick game, Trask still leads in our odds thanks to his considerable lead in total TDs and TDs/game (4.2 for Trask to 2.8 for Jones). However, you have to feel like this conference championship game will decide things one way or another, with the top 2 QBs facing off head-to-head. They are, after all, separated by only 2.6 percentage points in our probabilities, and TDs aren’t everything, as we saw in the above plot.

For those wondering about DeVonta Smith, Alabama wide receiver, he comes in at #6, followed by Trevor Lawrence at #7. While Smith is certainly having a great year, he may be hurt by the fact that our 16 years of model-training hadn’t seen a WR win the Heisman once. That, and the fact that he has two teammates performing at equally, if not more historic levels.

Najee Harris is performing at Top-10 levels at his position in terms of total TDs, compared to other RBs in 2020. In terms of TDs per game, he is also in the top ten, though many others above him did better, none of which won the Heisman. However, only one of them was also on an undefeated team: Jaret Patterson of Buffalo (this year), who are in the MAC. So Najee has a chance, but it seems unlikely despite his outperformance of his peers. The less-prestigious Doak Walker Award (for the top back in College Football)? For sure.

Again, we have to discount Fields despite his stellar performance so far in the air and on the ground. You can see neither of the top QBs in contention have much of a run game, so it will come down to TDs and win percentage. I think Florida need to win on Saturday to get Trask his Heisman. Otherwise, it’s going to ‘Bama (but I won’t say who at ‘Bama).

Good Reads

If you haven’t heard, our resident PSU writer Brian Stickler returned this week for a statistical review of the Penn State regular season. We’re happy to have him back, and he’s returning in peak form. Check out his latest article here.

Something Different

My brother, and the other half of the Staturdays Podcast, Drew Bennison, wrote a paper on predicting pitcher injuries in the MLB using Statcast datapoints like release arm-angle, spin rate, vertical and horizontal movement, and more. It’s pretty cool work, and they were able to accurately identify 12% of injuries within 2 weeks of them actually occurring, a pretty impressive feat in the realm of pitching-injury prediction. You can read it here.

That’s all for this week. Can’t wait for this weekend of conference championship games, and to see who edges out the others in an SEC Championship game with 4 of the top 7 Heisman contenders competing.

— Kyle

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