How will Big Ten’s late start impact Justin Fields’ Heisman Trophy hopes?

The late start and shortened season create challenges, but the star power of Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields is a benefit few contenders can match.

Trevor Lawrence keeps making his Heisman Trophy case, Spencer Rattler now has to figure out how to rebound and the SEC’s cast of contenders are set to test their staying power.

Meanwhile, Justin Fields waits and waits – and we all wait for this race to truly get started.

That there’s a Big Ten season at all this fall was reason to celebrate from New Brunswick, N.J., to Lincoln, Nebraska and it creates a compelling situation for Ohio State’s quarterback. Fields shared co-favorite status with Lawrence in every Heisman discussion surrounding 2020, but what do a late start and a truncated schedule best categorized as “light,” do to the Buckeyes star’s hopes?

First, let’s look at that timing.

When Fields suits up for the first time Oct. 24 against Nebraska, Lawrence and his ACC brethren and will be in the midpoint of their 11-game regular season, it marks the fifth week of play for Rattler and the Big 12, as well as the SEC’s contenders (Mississippi State upstart K.J. Costello, Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask among them).

In terms of setting the narrative, Fields will literally be playing from behind as the rest of the country’s challengers build their resumes and try to distance themselves. That would be a problem for a player looking to jump into the race, but we’re not talking about a dark horse, with Fields a finalist from a season ago in finishing third behind Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts.

Instead, the Big Ten’s late start sets itself up as a distinct advantage. The contenders will long be separated from the pretenders five and six weeks into the other Power 5 schools’ seasons and Fields, based on the Buckeyes’ ranking and his being a known commodity, remains on everyone’s shortlist of candidates before he’s taken a snap.

It amounts to an extra month of the kind of hype a campaign couldn’t even buy for the face of a College Football Playoff contender.

Then there’s the opportunity to stay at the top of mind with the conference joining the SEC with Dec. 19 championship games, while the ACC and Big 12 are currently scheduled to be done a week before.

It is worth pointing out that the Heisman Trust still has yet to announce how voting will be conducted. With the National College Football Award Association detailing last week that the other major awards – the Biletnikoff, Davey O’Brien and Maxwell Awards among them – will be determined sometime between Dec. 8-20, the best guess is that the Heisman is presented the weekend after Christmas, with votes, as they traditionally are, due Monday after the final championship games.

If we stick to that voting schedule that final glimpse, as we’ve seen, does matter. Just ask Andrew Luck, who finished second to Robert Griffin III in 2011.

That season Luck was in control of the voting in the first 14 days of balloting, with 30 percent of the first-place votes in the first week and 35 percent the second week. But fast-forward to the final days before the ballots were cast, and with Luck and Stanford failing to qualify for the Pac-12 title game, Griffin took advantage of a national stage in Baylor’s final game and sealed his win. He would go on to be first on 35 percent of the ballots in the last weekend of voting to Luck’s 25 in winning by 280 points. Scheduling wasn’t the determining factor in that vote, but it certainly helped that Griffin dominated while his top contender sat at home.

If this comes down, as we’ve long forecasted, to a Lawrence vs. Fields debate, that’s a benefit the Buckeyes star will have that his Clemson counterpart won’t.

But not everything about the Big Ten’s situation is working in Fields’ favor.

No one is debating Ohio State’s status as a playoff contender, but there’s a perception that the Big Ten is extremely top-heavy. It has just four ranked teams in all, and Ohio State’s schedule includes two of them — No. 10 Penn State on Oct. 31 in Happy Valley and hosts No. 23 Michigan on Dec. 12 – and it avoids No. 19 Wisconsin unless they meet in the Big Ten Championship Game.

By comparison, No. 3 Florida’s Trask, the SEC’s candidate with the best odds per The Action Network, faces four Top 25 teams in the regular season and Alabama’s Jones takes on six.

Fields is far from the only candidate trying to stand out amid a schedule that is light on perceived challenges — Rattler and the Sooners, who already have a loss that may have derailed their CFP hopes, have only two ranked opponents – but along with those navigating the SEC gauntlet, the ACC is providing Lawrence with a more intriguing slate with Miami up to No. 8, Notre Dame at No. 5 and Pitt at No. 23 after beginning the season outside the Top 25.

The Buckeyes are going to be heavy favorites in every game on the schedule but get past the Nittany Lions on Halloween and it turns into a veritable cakewalk. Fields will be tasked with making statement after statement in a slate that includes just three opponents that had more than seven wins in 2019 and four defenses that ranked 64th or worse.

It’s a platform built for him to put up big numbers, but how are we even going to weigh those with a maximum of nine games if the Buckeyes, as expected, reach the conference title game? Based on his 2019 averages ahead of the Heisman vote, Fields would be in line for 2,043 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and zero interceptions, to go with 324 rushing yards and seven scores.

Costello, who threw for an SEC-record 623 yards in Mississippi State’s opener or Trask and his 416 yards for the Gators, maintaining those paces for 11 games would be stunning and completely dwarf that projected stat line for Fields. But if we look at Lawrence, who is trending toward 3,114 yards and 24 touchdowns after two games, the Clemson junior would still have nearly 1,100 yards more than the Buckeyes passer.

Are numbers that are almost guaranteed to be lower accumulated in an easier and shorter schedule going to be used against Fields? The reality is history doesn’t give us much to use as a guide. Missed time has long been a detriment to any candidate, but this isn’t a matter of injury limiting how many games a candidate accumulates or a school’s scheduling weak non-conference opponents leading to the perception of its slate; it’s the unprecedented outside influence of a pandemic and a conference’s decisions that put Fields in this situation.

The closest thing may be another eventual winner who had his season cut short when Angelo Bertelli was called into active duty in World War II. He played in only the first six of Notre Dame’s schedule and still went on to win the 1943 vote in a landslide over Penn’s Bob Odell.

Even that, though, that doesn’t paint a clear picture of Fields jumping in when others are more than a month into their seasons and playing in conferences playing more games and with more opportunities to rack up tent-pole wins.

But the second the Big Ten announced its return, Fields was a factor again. It tells you everything that his candidacy is hanging over the other challengers and putting the pressure on everyone not named Trevor Lawrence to increase their profiles.

It’s only fitting that in a year like any other, in a season like any other, we’re going to have a pursuit of the Heisman unlike any other. It’s simple for Fields: If the Buckeyes remain the class of the conference and on a collision course with the playoffs, Fields will stay a clear favorite to reach New York, if not give Ohio State its first trophy since Troy Smith in 2006.

The stats won’t matter as much as living up to the hype, and while the other contenders have a head start, Fields is coming. Until he and Ohio State take the field for the first time, it won’t feel like this Heisman race has truly started.

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