No longer Heisman leader, can Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence get back into race?

Trevor Lawrence of the Clemson Tigers. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Trevor Lawrence of the Clemson Tigers. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

Going from favorite to third in most recent odds, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has to overcome top challengers and recent voting history.

The Heisman Trophy was just eight years old — before Norte Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma, the schools that have won it the most, had yet to even claim one — when its voters last faced a situation similar to the one unfolding with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.

World War II was raging when Fighting Irish quarterback Angelo Bertelli was activated by the Marines six games into the 1943 season. Norte Dame played four more games, but pollsters had seen enough. Bertelli won by 471 points over Penn running back Bob Odell and the Irish star was informed he’d won while at boot camp.

While John David Crow (1957), Charles White (1979), Vinny Testaverde (1986) and Charlie Ward (1993) all sat out and won the Heisman, none was unavailable more than a game. Bertelli remains the only recipient to miss multiple weeks and still take the trophy, and now that COVID-19 has rocked this Heisman race – just as it did the start and duration of this season – Lawrence is going to test that piece of history.

The No. 1 Tigers quarterback was out last weekend against Boston College after a positive test and will sit again Saturday against fourth-ranked Notre Dame. He’s now given way to Alabama’s Mac Jones and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and Lawrence has effectively gone from longstanding leader to facing an uphill battle to reclaim his favorite status.

Trevor Lawrence could lose the Heisman after testing positive for COVID-19

If Lawrence is able to return for the Tigers’ next game against Florida State – which comes after a bye week, giving him plenty of time for the phased return and re-acclimation period that ACC protocols mandate – he could play in a maximum of 10 games with the benefit of a conference championship game. That would still be one more game than Fields could potentially play before votes are due and one fewer than Jones would play.

From that end, missed time shouldn’t be an issue given the unequal number of games conferences were already playing in this unprecedented season, except that Lawrence’s absence is now going to include the defining game of Clemson’s regular season.

The Tigers don’t currently have another regular-season game against a ranked opponent. There’s the potential that they meet the Irish again for an ACC championship or get a rematch with Miami, which is just outside the top 10, Lawrence returning without any further setbacks is guaranteed a pair of four-loss opponents in Florida State and Pitt and two-loss Virginia Tech. The biggest moment has been removed from a slate that’s 65th in strength of schedule (via ESPN’s model), while Ohio State is 10th in SOS with surprising and now No. 13 Indiana and No. 23 Michigan remaining and 10th-ranked Wisconsin looming in the Big Ten West, while the Crimson Tide – 17th in SOS – still have No. 24 Auburn and are on track to face a top-10 opponent out of the SEC East in either  No. 5 Georgia or No. 8 Florida.

Without a Tigers loss to Notre Dame dropping them from the No. 1 spot and the ranks of the unbeaten, it’s unlikely the ACC title game gives Clemson the top-five matchup this weekend against the Irish presents. Fields and Jones simply have more chances against more Top-25 opponents to distance themselves.

As previously discussed, there is a precedence and multiple versions of it where the lack of a full season wasn’t a death knell. Bertelli’s circumstances allowed voters to overlook his small sample size and the last four winners who missed time still claimed their trophies in decisive fashion.

Crow suffered a knee injury in Texas A&M’s opener in 1957, sat the next week and took part in just three plays the following week, missing the equivalent of 2.5 games and still won by 490 points. In 1979, a shoulder injury cost White the second half of USC’s first game and the next week and it didn’t stop him from winning by a margin of 922 points. Testaverde won in a landslide of 1,541 despite sitting out Miami’s regular-season finale as a precaution after a scooter crash and Ward had the biggest victory of those who missed a game — 1,622 points — as the Florida State passer sat with a rib injury.

But while they may have overcome those incomplete resumes, recent history has shown it to be a non-starter.

Mark Ingram went into 2010 the defending winner and among the Vegas favorites, and after missing the first two games of the year with a knee injury, was a non-factor as he became the first returning trophy-holder since Roger Staubach in 1964 to fail to crack the top-10.

After spearheading a 12-1 season, TCU’s Trevone Boykin entered 2015 as the clear frontrunner, sitting at +625 odds with Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott second at +925. But he sprained his ankle Nov. 7 of that season at Oklahoma State, missed the following week against Kansas, and while he came back in a 10-win regular season and still finished second in FBS in total offense and, his candidacy was dead. Boykin was 10th in voting, earning a single first-place nod as Derrick Henry claimed the award.

Most recently, Stanford’s Bryce Love – the runner-up the season before and the nation’s leading returning rusher after a 2,000-yard season – carried that favorite status into 2018, but he’d miss the third game of the season with an undisclosed injury, then was out again three weeks later with an ankle issue. He’d return, but his candidacy didn’t.

If Clemson can weather South Bend and keep its undefeated record intact, and Lawrence comes back to lead the Tigers back to the College Football Playoff, it’s likely he fares far better in the final voting than any of those recent contenders who missed games. In a season that has been so odd on so many levels and the cause of Lawrence’s absence, the overall body of work and his star power will continue to register.

But winning Clemson’s first Heisman is no longer the finish it seemed ordained to be. The odds and the attention in this race have shifted elsewhere.

Every major sportsbook’s leader before his coronavirus announcement, Lawrence has been supplanted as Jones is the leader by BovadaDraftKings and and Fields tops Sports Betting Dime’s board. The Tigers quarterback has become a distant third.

This weekend was set up with the potential for the season’s first Heisman Moment, and it still may be just that. Lawrence isn’t out of the hunt but being a spectator for Clemson vs. Notre Dame is going to be a moment that’s hard to overcome.

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