Fresno State Football: Is Jake Haener Just A Fringe Heisman Candidate Or Something More?
The Bulldogs quarterback had a great September. Is it enough to propel a campaign to be the best college football player in the land?
Putting the hot start in context.
Five games into his 2021 season, Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener has put himself on the national radar as the Bulldogs have claimed a spot in the top 25 rankings and started down the path to a potential conference title with a comeback win against UNLV.
Unsurprisingly, Haener’s rising stock has caught the attention of Las Vegas and others and, as a result, he’s now one of two Group of 5 players in the conversation as a Heisman candidate after not even being on the board back in August:
Here's a fun tidbit: Per @BetMGM, Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener is now +3500 to win the Heisman Trophy. Only seven other players — Matt Corral, Desmond Ridder, Spencer Rattler, Bryce Young, Sam Howell, CJ Stroud and Treveyon Henderson — have better odds right now.
— Mountain West Wire (@MWCwire) September 27, 2021
For those keeping score at home, that list includes a quarterback who’s played just two games against average-at-best FBS opponents so far (Corral), another who looked shaky against Indiana but will have another chance at the spotlight this weekend against a top-ten team (Ridder), a third whose fans were screaming for the backup this past weekend (Rattler), an Alabama sophomore who’s looked unflappable no matter the level of competition (Young), a quarterback who’s already lost two ACC games to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech (Howell), a quarterback who may have already lost his job after just three games (Stroud).
Not mentioned above is Liberty’s Malik Willis, who currently has the same odds as Haener and whose Flames just lost to… Syracuse. That’s some crazy company to keep after just a handful of weeks, but perhaps it’s a microcosm of the chaotic nature of the early season that’s already seen Clemson, Ohio State and others take hits to their overall standing. If we’ve come all the way back around to 2007 this fall, as a lot of analysts have suggested, then it’s worth remembering that Hawaii, UCF, Missouri, Arkansas, Boston College and West Virginia all had players who finished in the top ten of Heisman voting that year. Anything is possible, but does that include Haener’s potential to make a case as the best player in the land?
To start, here are the raw numbers to date for each of the quarterbacks listed above against FBS competition:
Haener: 119-of-164 (72.6% completion rate), 1,462 passing yards (8.9 YPA), 11 touchdowns, two interceptions
Corral (current odds +200): 45-of-63 (71.4%), 725 passing yards (11.5 YPA), four TDs, zero INTs
Young (+200): 69-of-95 (72.6%), 898 passing yards (9.5 YPA), 12 TDs, one INT
Ridder (+1600): 40-of-61 (65.6%), 505 passing yards (8.3 YPA), five TDs, two INTs
Rattler (+2000): 80-of-109 (73.4%), 774 passing yards (7.1 YPA), three TDs, three INTs
Stroud (+2500): 63-of-101 (62.4%), 963 passing yards (9.5 YPA), eight TDs, three INTs
Howell (+3000): 77-of-121 (63.6%), 1,173 passing yards (9.7 YPA), 11 TDs, four INTs
Among that group, the candidacies for Stroud, Howell, and Rattler are probably finished already because no recent Heisman winner has started anything other than extremely hot. Ridder’s is on life support and anything less than a stellar performance against Notre Dame will kill it for good. Young is the clear front-runner while Corral, with a tiny sample size from which to draw, is the great unknown. Since Ole Miss and Alabama clash in Tuscaloosa on Saturday afternoon, we’re about to learn a whole lot more about both.
If Haener’s actual standing in that group is, at worst, the middle of the pack, that’s a big deal in itself. No less than former Heisman winner Robert Griffin III seems to think the same thing:
1. Bryce Young QB Alabama
2. Matt Corral QB Ole Miss
3. Jake Haenar QB Fresno State
4. Taulia Tagovailoa QB Maryland
5. Sean Tucker RB Syracuse
— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) September 26, 2021
Next, here are the same numbers from the first five games in a season for a few recent Mountain West quarterbacks who had Heisman campaigns started on their behalves:
2021 Jake Haener: 136-of-186 (73.1% completion rate), 1,842 passing yards (9.9 YPA), 15 touchdowns, two interceptions
2019 Jordan Love: 120-of-192 (62.5%), 1,337 passing yards (7.0 YPA), six touchdowns, five interceptions
2013 Derek Carr: 183-of-259 (70.7%), 1,864 passing yards (7.2 YPA), 19 touchdowns, four interceptions
2011 Kellen Moore: 125-of-169 (74%), 1,391 passing yards (8.2 YPA), 17 touchdowns, four interceptions
Love, of course, ended up having an inconsistent season following his 2018 breakout and a bad game against then-#1 LSU at the end of this five-game sample finished his chances of competing for the Heisman. Carr, meanwhile, had a pair of modest “Heisman moments” by carrying the Bulldogs to one-point victories over Rutgers and Boise State.
Moore is probably the most interesting case study because, in 2010, he finished fourth in the Heisman voting and, by nearly every measure, had an even better start in 2011. The above sample includes cleaning up in a convincing victory over eventual SEC East champions Georgia and against a trio of bowl teams in Toledo, Tulsa and Nevada (though the last of those ended up being his “worst” game of the year statistically), but Moore ended up finishing 8th overall in the final voting that year.
The only other quarterback in recent history who provides a comparable case is the late Colt Brennan, who put up literal video game numbers for Hawaii back in 2006 while finishing sixth in Heisman voting. The following year, he led the Warriors to a Sugar Bowl appearance and finished third in the voting. Here’s what he did in the first five games of that season:
2007 Colt Brennan: 152-of-207 (73.4%), 1,850 passing yards (8.9 YPA), 16 touchdowns, six interceptions
Unlike Moore, however, Brennan’s 2007 statistics didn’t end up being quite as good as his record-setting 2006 and while that was offset by simply running the table in the regular season, he also did it against a very soft slate of opponents: SP+ put the Warriors’ overall strength of schedule at 104th, while Pro Football Reference ranked it 109th. For now, that is probably the biggest hindrance to Haener’s campaign, too: ESPN’s FPI metric, for instance, suggests that while the Bulldogs have played a top 25 schedule to this point, it will barely escape the triple digits from here on out.
Losing to Oregon, then, feels like a huge missed opportunity three weeks after the fact, and even if UCLA keeps winning enough to finish the year as a top-25 team themselves, there may not be many opportunities to craft another true “moment” against high-quality opponents, like the ones he had late against the Bruins.
It’s not Haener’s fault, of course, that preseason Mountain West favorites Nevada and Boise State have looked more mortal than expected, that undefeated Wyoming still has plenty of skeptics after narrow escapes against the likes of Montana State, Northern Illinois, and UConn, or that San Diego State looks as stingy as ever on defense but has questions on offense yet again. It could be, however, that putting every single one of those teams in their place by maintaining his current pace of production is the path toward continuing toward the front of the pack. That’s what Joe Burrow did in 2019, as did Kyler Murray in 2018 and Baker Mayfield in 2017.
DROP IT IN A BUCKET JAKE HAENER pic.twitter.com/RhOhrunya9
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) September 25, 2021
Raise your game, remove all doubts. After this week’s trip to Hawaii, Fresno State will begin a four-game stretch against each of the teams mentioned above, hosting the Wolf Pack and Broncos while traveling to Carson and Laramie. You have to figure that, given the path that Moore and Brennan blazed en route to their respective top-five finishes, the benchmark is to beat each opponent by at least two touchdowns and to create a second “moment” somewhere. It won’t be easy, but then being the absolute best of the best never is. The way things are going so far, don’t count Haener out too soon.