Choosing the Heisman Trophy winner wasn’t easy. Some of the top contenders — Michigan running back Blake Corum, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker — saw their seasons end early due to injuries. Three high-profile quarterbacks lost all of their recent games. All of this led to what may be the closest match since Auburn’s Bo Jackson narrowly defeated Iowa’s Chuck Long in 1985.
Last weekend’s frontrunner USC QB Caleb Williams was last seen limping 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. However, Georgia QB Stetson Bennett IV did; He continued to cement his place as a Bulldogs legend and a possible subject of a movie one day.
This year’s competition was so tough that Hooker failed to make the top three after a transformative season with the Volunteers. Neither does Bennett, unfortunately. Nineteen months ago, the Georgia quarterback didn’t take a snap during spring training. Last season he looked over his shoulder. A year ago this month, Georgia fans were still screaming 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 carrying a national-leading 15-game winning streak into the college football playoffs.
Before we continue, we need to refer to a burgeoning story. USC coach Lincoln Riley borders on a Hall of Fame career just because of his quarterbacks. Williams would be will third Heisman winners for the last six years. During that time, Riley has seen six players finish in the top four in the Heisman poll.
You won’t see any other Heisman ballots this early in the week. Voters are prohibited from revealing them until the end of the ceremony. In the interests of transparency, I gave up my vote a few years ago. So, here’s who would be on my ballot if I had to cast another one.
1. Caleb Williams, QB, USC
Knee-jerk reaction from Friday night: USC lost the Pac-12, CFP spot and Heisman while Williams hobbled off the field. A night later I changed my mind. Even with a butt on the hamstring, Williams was able to bravely stand in the bag — basically immobile — and throw for 363 yards and three touchdowns. There is no player who has been more important to his team this season than Williams. He will need 69 yards to become USC’s single-season passing leader and he has already broken program records for touchdowns and yaradge.
Williams grew as a person, as a passerby and as a leader. He ran a locker room as an outsider from Oklahoma. He integrated a talented space throw for more than 4,000 yards. “He played half a college football season [at Oklahoma]. He reset a team; He reset a location at USC,” Riley said.[He] was first seen as one of the leaders in the dressing room. There was a lot to take on. He accepted. I think it pushed him out of his comfort zone and made him better.”
Williams’ overall work is compelling as he took the national lead with 37 touchdown passes (47 total). This week he became a 2022 CBS Sports / 247Sports All-America first team selection as well as the 2022 CBS Athlete of the Year. Williams was also best when USC needed him most — against 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 this season, Williams scored five touchdowns.)
2. Max Duggan, QB, TCU
As quarterback for the only FBS roster to beat every team in its conference, Duggan gets easy No. 2 credit over others. That feat is impossible anywhere other than in the Big 12, the only FBS league to play a round-robin schedule. Oddly enough, Duggan had his Heisman moments 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. If it wasn’t for a questionable game call, he could have won that game (and maybe the Heisman). Why didn’t Duggan handle the ball at the goal line in extra time?
His story could be the best in college football this side of Bennett. Duggan and the Frogs might not be here if it weren’t for a COVID-19 scan that revealed a heart problem. He recovered after heart surgery in 2020 and played 32 career games before this season. He had already postponed a foot operation in 2021 after Gary Patterson was fired to end a 5-7 campaign. He then lost the quarterback fight to Chandler Morris. TCU coach Sonny Dykes needed the veteran badly when Morris went down in the opener. The result was a season to last forever. The product of Council Bluff, Iowa, he became the Frogs’ undaunted leader, leading the Big 12 in touchdown passes, passing efficiency and a lead over a quarterback. The image of Duggan dragging his body off the field late in the game will endure. So will his successes this season.
3. CJ Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Stroud was the front runner for most of the season but lost juice after the Michigan loss. Then seeing Williams, Duggan and Bennett perform last Saturday brought Stroud back to mind. Still, it’s hard to forget what he accomplished. The newest NFL-worthy Buckeyes quarterback will be #2 on the school’s career passing list despite only playing two seasons. He’s completed 70% of his passing this season against ranked teams. After throwing for 44 touchdowns in his freshman year as a starter in 2021, his performance declined. Now, if you count his 37 touchdown passes in 2022 as a dip; that is currently tied for the national leadership.
Stroud’s “decline” is easy to explain. He was without his best wide receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, for most of the season. Injuries have taken a toll on the running back room. For large parts of the season, the offensive – actually the team – was on Stroud’s back. Rutgers and Northwestern kept him under 200 yards. Michigan took away two of his passports. Otherwise, Stroud hardly wavered. The playoff mulligan gives Ohio State and Stroud another chance. After finishing fourth in the 2021 Heisman vote, Stroud’s best days may be yet to come if he can lead the Buckeyes to a championship.