Call it the Island of Misfit Toys Bowl on the first Thursday night of the college football season when West Virginia travels to Heinz Field to play Pittsburgh. Both these programs decided to turn to the transfer window in the offseason to help address the graduation of multi-year starting quarterbacks. And both of these quarterbacks were not only highly touted recruits coming out of high school, but both were once teammates together at USC. Both quarterbacks eventually decided to transfer amidst the chaos that has been the Trojans program under head coach Clay Helton the last few seasons. And both of these quarterbacks offer Long Shot odds at 200-1 to win the Heisman Trophy this year with their new team.
Fourth-year head coach Neal Brown announced earlier this week that J.T. Daniels has won the job to be the Mountaineers' starting quarterback. It has been a bumpy journey for the former five-star recruit who began his college career in Los Angeles before a pit stop in Athens, Georgia before settling down now in Morgantown, West Virginia. Daniels graduated early from his high school in South Anaheim and was recruited to play at USC as the High School National Player of the Year. He threw for over 12,000 yards in high school with 152 touchdown passes — and he was groomed to be the Trojans’ immediate starter as a freshman as they began their post-Sam Darnold era in 2018. He had 11 starts in that first year while showing flashes of brilliance including completing 26 of 31 passes in the first half of the Notre Dame game. But injuries held him back and he entered his sophomore season in a competition with Jack Sears, a redshirt sophomore who played well in his absence and thrived during spring practice.
Daniels attended just 24 passes in 2019 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Trojans’ opening game against Fresno State. The injury created the opportunity for freshman Kedon Slovis to take over running the offense after winning the backup job. Slovis went on to complete 282 of 392 passes for 3502 yards with 30 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. With the highest completion percentage by a freshman of 71.9% in the history of NCAA football, Slovis cemented his place as the team’s starting moving forward. Both Daniels and Sears saw the writing on the wall and entered the transfer portal in the offseason.
While Sears moved on to Boise State the next season, Daniels aimed higher by enrolling at the University of Georgia for the 2020 season as a redshirt sophomore. Coming off knee surgery, the onset of the COVID pandemic with its impact on practice time did Daniels no favors when competing against the steady hand of senior Stetson Bennett IV. But when the Bulldogs fell to 4-2 on the season after a 44-29 loss to Florida, head coach Kirby Smart turned to Daniels as his starting quarterback for the final four games. Not only did Georgia win all four games, but Daniels demonstrated his vast potential by completing 80 of 119 passes for 1231 yards with ten touchdown passes and just two interceptions. The Bulldogs' offense averaged 37.3 Points-Per-Game in those final four games with Daniels’ strong arm unlocking a big-play element to the offense that did not exist with Bennett.
Many expected Daniels to be the incumbent starter for Georgia to open the 2021 season — and Smart tapped him as his first-string quarterback in their opening game showdown with Clemson. The Bulldogs pulled off a 10-3 upset win in that game — but Daniels did not lead the team to a touchdown drive (Georgia’s defense set the tone that would define their National Championship season by scoring on a pick-six). Daniels completed 22 of 30 passes but in what was a low-risk game plan from offensive coordinator Todd Monken as he passes for just 135 yards. He also had an interception. An oblique injury kept him out of the following game against UAB which gave Bennett another chance under center — and the former walk-on and fifth-year senior took full advantage by completing 10 of 12 passes for 288 yards and five touchdown passes. Daniels was ready to play the next week against South Carolina — and he completed 23 of 31 passes for 303 yards with three touchdown passes in the start to lead the Bulldogs to a 40-13 victory. But then a lat injury held him back the next week in a game where he split time with Bennett who continued to play at a very high level while protecting the football. Daniels would only throw 94 passes all season with 68 completions, 722 yards, and seven touchdown passes. He was perched to reclaim the starting quarterback job from Bennett if the Bulldogs ever stumbled — but Georgia had a spot in the playoffs locked before the SEC Championship Game where they lost to Alabama but having it only cost them in the final four seeding. Bennett would lead Georgia to the National Championship and was coming back as a super sixth-year senior. Daniels decided to transfer to a program where he could win the starting job while showing off his talents for the next level.
Back at USC, Slovis followed up his freshman season by completing 177 of his 264 passes for 1921 yards with 17 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. But the Trojans disappointed their fans with an 8-4 record. He returned for his junior season in 2021 with the hopes of building off the promise of his freshman season — but he completed 193 of 297 passes for 2153 yards with 11 touchdown passes but eight interceptions in a lost season where they lost four of their first seven games en route to a 4-8 finish with Helton fired midseason. Slovis was eventually benched for yet another highly touted freshman in Jaxson Dart as the program looked to the future. When USC lured head coach Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma and he brought his star sophomore quarterback with him, Caleb Williams, the writing was on the wall.
Slovis transferred to Pittsburgh to fill the shoes of a five-year starter, Kenny Pickett. With wide receiver Jordan Addison transferring to USC, he may not have the weapons needed to put up Heisman numbers. The Panthers also have a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti, Jr. who has serious run-first tendencies from his time in the NFL as the offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams under head coach Jeff Fisher. But Slovis remains a senior with a career completion percentage of 68.3% with 58 touchdown passes in his three seasons. Pittsburgh was a team that scored 41.4 PPG and generated 486.6 total YPG last season — ranking 3rd and 5th in the nation. Slovis certainly had a better pedigree to challenge for a Heisman Trophy before Picket’s surprising campaign last year.
Daniels may offer an even more intriguing case playing for West Virginia. He gets reunited with Graham Harrell as his offensive coordinator. Although Harrell’s first season as offensive coordinator at USC was the same year that Daniels got injured in the first game, there is already familiarity. Harrell is considered one of the brightest young offensive minds in college football — and head coach Neal Brown needs to make a splash with him firmly on the hot seat with a 17-18 record with the Mountaineers. Daniels has three returning starters at wide receiver to work with along with the benefit of an offensive line that returns all five starters.
As of Monday when I visited the Westgate, both Daniels and Slovis were at 200-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy — the same odds as Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford and Georgia tight end Brock Bowers. With Alabama quarterback Bryce Young the favorite at 4-1 odds to repeat as the Heisman winner, this field seems wide open to me. Many bettors will prefer Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud or Williams at USC with Riley — but at 9-4 and 7-1 odds as of Monday at the Westgate, those are underlay values. On the other hand, I threw fliers on both Daniels and Slovis at 200-1 odds. In new environments and diminished expectations, both veteran quarterbacks could put up huge numbers while getting the benefit of the east coast media machine. They both have two mighty big chips on their shoulder after being cast away by USC. And they both get to make a strong initial impression on ESPN on Thursday night in front of a national audience.
Best of luck — Frank.