Predicting 2017 Heisman by Search Volume: Does Barkley Have Bite?

Photo: Antonella Crescimbeni (CC License)

Earlier this year, we figured out that search volume and Heisman success correlate pretty well. We’ve checked in at a few points throughout the season, mostly to (a) compare how the search-volume metric compares with the current betting odds and (b) find value for bettors based on that comparison. Now that the race has been sufficiently shaken up, it’s a good time to check back in. The current odds are as follows:

Heisman Trophy odds as of Oct. 27, 2017

  • -275 Saquon Barkley (RB Penn State)
  • +300 Bryce Love (RB Stanford)
  • +1200 Baker Mayfield (QB Oklahoma)
  • +1400 J.T. Barrett (QB Ohio State)
  • +2000 Jalen Hurts (QB Alabama)
  • +3300 Mason Rudolph (QB Oklahoma State)
  • +3300 Lamar Jackson (QB Louisville)

Bryce Love, Heisman contender?

This is obviously hugely different from what we were looking at before. Baker Mayfield went from the favorite to a 12/1 third choice. Lamar Jackson went from +600 to +3300. The big winner, and the big conversation, comes from a player who, before the season, was the subject of only hand-wringing: Bryce Love. He couldn’t possibly replace Christian McCaffrey, but maybe — just maybe — he could keep the Stanford rushing attack a going concern.

The Cardinal running back only showed up on the boards on September 20th, when he was listed at +6600. The next week he was +3300, tied with Luke Falk, then +1400 (tied with Sam Darnold), and then +140, tied for first with Saquon Barkley, and now he’s the second favorite at +300. He’s run up this board like he’s run through the entire PAC-12.

Stanford, famously, has had real trouble getting their best players recognized by the Heisman Trust. This is partly because of their PAC-12 schedule, playing games far too late at night, and the Heisman voters’ general disdain for the west coast. There’s a lot of polemic about Christian McCaffrey and Andrew Luck, and I’d like to avoid all that.

The search volume:

That bias is somewhat reflected in search volume. Despite Love’s prodigious achievements, he’s failed to make much of a dent search-wise. Saquon Barkley, on the other hand, keeps getting these big bumps and trading blows with Baker Mayfield. The week of the Michigan game was a boon for Barkley, the week of the Texas game for Mayfield. The week of the Iowa State and Northwestern games were about equal, although for different reasons. Saquon Barkley did very well and won the game, Baker Mayfield … didn’t.

A funny thing happens when you change the search term from “[Player Name]” to “[Player Name] Heisman.” Doing so weeds out a lot of chaff (“Baker Mayfield arrested,” etc.) and gives you a somewhat clearer picture. Obviously, you can’t subtract some of the positive stuff (“Baker Mayfield flag” etc.) but it’s very clear that more people are interested in Saquon Barkley and Lamar Jackson as Heisman candidates than just about anyone else. In an interesting exception, on the day after the Arizona State game in which Bryce Love broke the school rushing record, he was tied with Barkley for first, well before anyone had him as a serious threat to Barkley’s Heisman campaign.

So what does this mean for bettors?

Just looking at the search volume, Saquon Barkley is still a long way from having this sewn up as an odds-0n-favorite, as his -275 odds would suggest. He hasn’t had the biggest week of the year, he’s had about as many big weeks as Baker Mayfield, and there’s still the all-important games of November coming up. What does a (thoroughly understandable) loss to Ohio State do to Barkley’s chances? A huge performance for Love against Notre Dame? Wins for Baker Mayfield against TCU and Oklahoma State?

The current line of +300 seems a bit rich for Bryce Love, and I’d take a good look at Baker Mayfield at +1200, who won the September Heisman by a mile and still has the biggest single-week search-volume score of the year. It depends if you think planting the flag at Ohio Stadium was a negative or a positive for Mayfield — I’m somewhat torn on the matter myself — but either way it was a huge week for him in terms of search, and if my theory is going to bear itself out, that’s a big deal. Oklahoma is likely to end the season as a one or two-loss team, and with an impressive win against TCU, Mayfield could launch himself right back into the running. Again.