Every head coach wants to set their quarterback up for success. When Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe transferred in from FCS Houston Baptist University, he had plenty to make him feel comfortable. That included his HBU offensive coordinator Zack Kittley, and three receivers. The result has been one of the most impressive statistical seasons by a quarterback in the history of the sport.
With the season winding down, Heisman voters will soon need to make their selections for the award finalists who will be invited to the award’s ceremony in New York City.
It’s not unheard of for a player outside of the Power Five to be seriously considered for the award, but it’s exceedingly rare. That being said, Zappe’s body of work is among those that deserves serious consideration this year.
Zappe’s Crazy Stats
The math doesn’t lie. Bailey Zappe is one of the most effective passers in the nation. Through 11 games, Zappe has completed 381 passes on 532 attempts for 4640 yards, with 48 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. That comes out to a 71.62% completion percentage, with a 171.72 QBR and an average of 421.8 yards per game.
With 48 touchdowns, Zappe is one shy of WKU’s single season record, which also happens to be the Conference USA record, of 49 set by Brandon Doughty in 2014. Zappe’s current head coach, Tyson Helton, was Doughty’s offensive coordinator in 2014. Zappe is also 415 yards shy of breaking the school’s single season passing yardage record of 5,055, also set by Doughty.
Zappe leads all of FBS in the following categories: passing yardage, passing touchdowns, points responsible for, passing yards per game, and points responsible for per game. Zappe is also top ten in FBS in passing efficiency, completion percentage, completions per game, and total offense.
By Zappe’s averages, he could cement his place in college football history by the end of the year. If Zappe gets to play three more games, he could very well break Joe Burrow’s single season passing touchdown record of 60. Zappe is averaging 4.36 passing touchdowns per game. Keeping with his average of 421.8 yards per game, playing three more games would theoretically put him at 5,905 yards for the year, which would be the most in a season in FBS history.
While the Tops, as a team, haven’t played perfect this year, the losses in their record are more on their defense than anything else. Zappe’s lowest yardage and touchdown totals this season have been 281 and three, respectively. The Tops’ four losses came against Indiana and UTSA at home, and then on the road against Army and Michigan State.
Scoring 23.4 more points per game than they did in 2020, Zappe has helped the Tops become the most improved offense in the nation nation by a significant margin. The second biggest improvement was made by Tennessee, who is scoring 16.8 more points per game than last season.
What Does History Tell Us?
First, let’s look at the example of LSU’s Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman trophy in 2019. Burrow finished the season with the NCAA record 60 passing touchdowns and 5671 yards, which ranks third all-time in FBS history. The two quarterbacks with higher single season yardage totals than Burrow are both from Texas Tech: Graham Harrell (2007) and B.J. Symons (2003) with 5705 yards and 5833 yards, respectively. Neither Harrell or Symons were among the Heisman finalists those years. Symons was tenth in Heisman voting in 2003 and Harrell wasn’t even in the top ten in 2007.
That last sentence should tell you what to realistically expect here, unfortunately. Heisman voters historically don’t love Air Raid quarterbacks, regardless of stats, even in the Power Five.
When it comes to G5 players getting the invite to New York, while more G5 players have received serious consideration in the last decade, the numbers aren’t on Zappe’s side.
The last player from outside the Power Five (or Notre Dame) to finish in the top ten was Zach Wilson from BYU in 2020. In most cases, only the top three vote getters are considered finalists and receive the invite to New York, though that number has varied in some years.
UCF’s McKenzie Milton finished sixth in 2018 with Memphis’ Darrell Henderson finishing tenth. Milton was also in the top ten in 2017 with Rashaad Penny of San Diego State finishing fifth. Another Aztec running back was tied for tenth in 2016 with Donnel Pumphrey and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds was fifth in 2015.
That brings us to 2013, when Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch was a finalist, receiving the invite to New York and finishing third in voting. The only other two G5 players to finish in the top three this century were Hawaii’s Colt Brennan in 2007 and Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh in 2003 (Pitt was in the Big East, at the time).
The Big 12 was formed in 1994, giving us what we now know as the Power Five. Also in 1994, a young Steve McNair out of Alcorn State finished third in Heisman voting.
What Are People Saying?
Among Zappe’s biggest proponents has been his own OC and quarterbacks coach. You barely need to scroll on Kittley’s social media pages to find support for his quarterback’s Heisman campaign with his stats as proof. As Kittley pointed out, Zappe also received some love on this past weekend’s edition of College Gameday.
@baileyzappe04 NEEDS to be talked about for The Heisman Trophy. Stats don’t lie.— Zach Kittley (@ZKittley) November 20, 2021
4640 yards, 48 TDs on 72% completion. All of this in 11 games!! Dude is the real deal! #GOTOPS pic.twitter.com/2Z0YYO9cCA
Head coach Tyson Helton has also heaped praise on his signal caller throughout the year. Following the UTSA game, Helton, in comments published by the Bowling Green Daily News, called Zappe “a generational quarterback” and “the best I’ve been around.”
Zappe’s performance this year have also made him a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award. Finalists for that award will be announced this Tuesday. In addition, Zappe is a semifinalist for the 2021 Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award presented to the best offensive player in CFB with a Texas connection.
Zappe has also accepted an invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama on February 5.
On a recent episode of The Solid Verbal largely centered around Zappe’s potential Heisman candidacy, Zappe spoke to his own performance this year stating “I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet. That’s kinda scary. We’ve been able to put some crazy numbers up and we’ve had a lot of mistakes in those games and I think if we’re able to clean that stuff up, there’s nobody in our next few games that can really stop us on the offensive side.”
A quick Twitter search will also show what several members of the CFB media space think of Zappe’s candidacy.
Bailey Zappe for Heisman.— Mike Farrell (@rivalsmike) November 22, 2021
Zappe has at least one, possibly two more chances to argue his case. The Tops travel to Huntington, West Virginia this Saturday to face the Marshall Thundering Herd in a game that will determine the winner of Conference USA’s East division. If WKU win that game, they will face UTSA in the C-USA Championship on December 3. The Tops will also play in a bowl game, but that won’t be played until after Heisman finalists have been determined.
This week’s contest won’t be a cakewalk. Marshall have been stellar against the pass this season, allowing a league-low average of only 187.5 yards per game with ten interceptions to 13 touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks have a 54.3 completion percentage against the Herd defense. Charles Huff’s team has also accumulated an impressive 37 sacks to date, which leads the league and is just five short of current FBS leaders Oklahoma State.
If the Tops get through that, they’ll be in for a rematch against a UTSA Roadrunner team that beat them 52-46 on October 9. Zappe completed 38 of 60 passes for 523 yards in that game with five touchdowns and one interception and finished with a QBR of 75.1.
Heisman ballots are distributed on Monday, November 29. Finalists will be announced on December 6.
While history and the team losses don’t bode well for Zappe, there’s always some chance that the Victoria, Texas product could be invited to New York. Whatever happens, Zappe has produced a season and a collegiate career that fans in Victoria, Houston, and Bowling Green will remember for a long time.