Picking the winner of the Heisman Trophy wasn’t easy. Some of the top contenders — Michigan’s Blake Corum, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker — saw their seasons end early due to injury. Three top-level quarterbacks all lost their final games. All this made for perhaps the best vote since Auburn’s Bo Jackson narrowly defeated Iowa’s Chuck Long in 1985..
Last weekend’s front runner USC QB Caleb Williams was last seen stumbling off the field after an upset loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Ohio State QB CJ Stroud didn’t even play last week. Georgia QB Stetson Bennett IV does; he continued to cement his place as a Bulldogs legend and someday possible subject of a movie.
This year’s competition was so tough that Hooker failed to make the top three after a transformative season with the Volunteers. Unfortunately, Bennett does not either. Nineteen months ago, the Georgia quarterback never rested during spring training. Last season he looked over his shoulder. One year ago this month, Georgia fans were still clamoring for JT Daniels (remember him?). All Bennett did was become the No. 2 passer in the SEC in 2022. Georgia went undefeated, winning the SEC for the first time in five years and going on a national leading 15-game winning streak to the College Football Playoff.
Before we go any further, we must refer to a nascent history. USC coach Lincoln Riley is already verging on a career in the hall of fame based only on his quarterbacks. Williams would become his third Heisman winner in the past six years. During that time, Riley has seen six players all finish in the top four in the Heisman voting.
You won’t see any other Heisman ballots this early in the week. Voters are prohibited from revealing them until the ceremony is over. For the sake of transparency, I renounced my ballot a few years ago. As such, here’s who would be on my ballot if I had one more to submit.
1. Caleb Williams, QB, USC
Friday night’s hasty reaction: USC lost the Pac-12, the CFP spot and the Heisman as Williams stumbled off the field. One night later I changed my mind. Even with a butt hamstring, Williams was able to stand bravely in the pocket—actually motionless—and throw for 363 yards and three touchdowns. There is no player more important to his team this season than Williams. He needs 69 yards to become USC’s single-season passing leader, and he’s already broken program records for total touchdowns and yaradge.
Williams grew as a person, passer-by and leader. He ran a locker room as an outsider from Oklahoma. He integrated a talented reception room that threw more than 4,000 yards. “He played half a college football season [at Oklahoma]. He resets a team; he’s resetting a location at USC,” Riley said.”[He] would initially be seen as one of the leaders in the locker room. There was a lot to tackle. He has embraced it. I think it took him out of his comfort zone and made him better.”
Williams’ entire career is compelling, as he took the national lead with 37 touchdown passes (47 total). This week he was named oneselection of the first team and the . Williams was also at his best when USC needed him most – vs. ranked opponents – with 11 touchdowns in the Trojans’ last three games against UCLA, Notre Dame and Utah. (In his first meeting with the Utes earlier in the season, Williams posted five touchdowns.)
2. Max Duggan, QB, TCU
As the quarterback of the only FBS squad to beat every team in its conference, Duggan gets the slight nod for No. 2 over others. That feat is impossible anywhere else but the Big 12, the only FBS league to play a round-robin schedule. Oddly enough, Duggan had his Heisman moment(s) in a loss. He played to exhaustion and led the Horned Frogs back from an 11-point deficit against Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game. Without some questionable playcalling, he could have won that game (and maybe the Heisman). Why didn’t Duggan have the ball in his hands near the goal line in overtime?
His story is perhaps the best in college football this side of Bennett. Without a COVID-19 exam revealing a heart problem, Duggan and the Frogs might not be here. After heart surgery in 2020, he recovered to play 32 career games ahead of this season. He had already postponed foot surgery in 2021 after Gary Patterson was fired to complete a 5-7 campaign. Then he lost the quarterback battle to Chandler Morris. TCU coach Sonny Dykes desperately needed the veteran when Morris went down in the opener. The result was a season for all ages. The product of Council Bluff, Iowa, became the unashamed leader of the Frogs, topping the Big 12 in touchdown passes, passing efficiency, and rushing by a quarterback. The image of Duggan dragging his body off the field late in the game will remain. The same goes for his performance this season.
3. CJ Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Stroud was the front runner for much of the season, but lost juice after the Michigan loss. Watching Williams, Duggan and Bennett perform last Saturday, Stroud was blown out of his mind. Still, it’s hard to forget what he accomplished. The newest NFL-worthy Buckeyes quarterback will finish No. 2 on the school’s career-success list despite only playing two seasons. He completed 70% of his passes against ranked teams this season. After throwing 44 touchdowns in his first year as a starter in 2021, his production dropped. Well, if you consider his 37 touchdown passes in 2022 a drop; which is currently tied for the national lead.
Stroud’s “decline” is easily explained. He was without his top wide receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, for most of the season. Injuries had a major impact on the running back room. For large parts of the season, the offense – the team, in fact – was on Stroud’s back. Rutgers and Northwestern held him under 200 yards. Michigan caught two of his passes. Otherwise, Stroud hardly faltered. The Mulligan playoff gives Ohio State and Stroud another chance. After finishing fourth in the 2021 Heisman ballot, Stroud’s best days may be ahead if he can lead the Buckeyes to a championship.