Heisman insider: Can Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder make a legit run at the Heisman?

Cincinnati Bearcats, Desmond Ridder. Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports/The Enquirer
Cincinnati Bearcats, Desmond Ridder. Mandatory Credit: USA Today Sports/The Enquirer /

If the Bearcats remain in contention, Desmond Ridder could be hard to deny as a top threat. Plus, Texas’ Bijan Robinson is among those rising, while Ole Miss’ Matt Corral is falling after Week 5.

One thing has become very clear in this Heisman Trophy race: everyone’s chasing Bryce Young. The Alabama quarterback won his duel with Ole Miss’ Matt Corral — the latter needing a defining performance in his biggest game of the year to move into the driver’s seat — and is about a close a lock to get to New York as it gets a handful of days into October.

While Young was seizing control, another contender was teeing up a familiar conversation that could include a wrinkle that we’ve never seen before.

Cincinnati is a very real threat to reach the College Football Playoff after taking down No. 9 Notre Dame in South Bend and rising up two spots in The Associated Press Top 25 to fifth. Only a trip through the AAC — where SMU is the only other undefeated team remaining — separates the Bearcats from a perfect season and setting the stage for an unprecedented decision for the selection committee.

Can Desmond Ridder get a playoff berth and a Heisman Trophy?

If the Bearcats do stay on track to crash the proverbial party and become the first Group of Five team to make the playoff, what does that do to the perceived glass ceiling of quarterback Desmond Ridder’s candidacy?

It’s been 31 years since BYU’s Ty Detmer won the last Heisman at a program outside the sport’s power structure. More recently, Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch has the best finish in the last 30 seasons at third in the 2013 voting. These past two seasons, it’s been a parade of players out of big-name programs making up the entirety of the balloting, without a single Group of Five representative in the top 10 either year. That hasn’t happened in the voting in consecutive years since 1978 and ’79.

Add in that in the era of the CFP, where Louisville’s Lamar Jackson (2016) is the only winner from a non-playoff team and things couldn’t feel more out of reach when it comes to schools outside of the Power 5. But if everything revolves around the CFP, and a Group of Five team is headed toward a breakthrough behind a defining player, it could completely change the conversation and the kind of roadblocks that have hurt so many others before Ridder.

Consider this the biggest unknown as this trophy chase continues to unfold, though we could look at how the players were judged during the history of the Bowl Championship Series — a system where the “mid-major” programs muscled their way in on a repeated basis — as a guide.

During the system’s first three years, the best finish from the non-Automatic Qualifying conferences was TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson at fourth in 2000. Utah, the first BCS buster in 2004, broke through with quarterback Alex Smith equaling Tomlinson. If that felt like progress, it took another nine years before Lynch could step in and build on that, riding the coattails of an Orange Bowl berth the previous year to a top-three spot in the voting.

The difference with Ridder, Smith and Lynch and Kellen Moore before him, is that if Cincinnati stays on this track, it won’t be just getting the cursory nod of an invite to a major bowl. It will be playing for a national championship.

To this point, Ridder’s overall numbers are solid, though not spectacular. He’s 20th in FBS in pass efficiency (162.1), 27th in FBS in total offense at 285.8 yards per game and 27th in passing yards per (261.3) and tied for 32nd in passing scores with nine. But he racked up 323 yards (297 of those through the air, with 26 more on the ground) and three scores in knocking off the Fighting Irish, as much of a Heisman moment as we’ve seen from a contender as we head toward the midpoint of most team’s regular-season schedule.

That performance figures to only build in significance should Cincinnati continues this march and build up Ridder’s value in this race.

He’s looking a legitimate contender, though that may not make him a rival to take down Young — especially if the Crimson Tide passer doesn’t have a misstep or two along the way — but as the Bearcats become a bigger part of the playoff discussion, expect Ridder to follow suit when it comes to the Heisman.

Heisman stock watch: Who is heating up, who is cooling off?

Buy: Sean Clifford, Penn State

Now, things get interesting. Clifford was strong in the Nittany Lions’ 24-0 rout of Indiana, throwing three touchdown passes, the last of which — a 30-yard strike to Jahan Dotson — was of historical note as the 18th time the two had connected on a score. That’s the most of any Penn State quarterback/wide receiver combination ever, breaking the previous mark of 17 held by Todd Blackledge and Kenny Jackson. Clifford has thrown an interception in each of the last three games, which could become an issue as Penn State hits the road to face No. 3 Iowa. The Hawkeyes lead the nation with 12 picks — which is three more than any other Power 5 program — and rank sixth in FBS in pass efficiency defense (96.95). Clifford has been effective in getting the Nittany Lions to this point, but next week figures to be the point he establishes himself in this race or bows out.

Sell: Matt Corral, Ole Miss

Corral missed a chance to become the unquestioned leader if he could have taken down Young and the Crimson Tide in their house. He wasn’t bad, throwing for 213 yards and a touchdown and running for another score in the 42-21 loss, and still has some key games remaining that can keep him on the shortlist of top contenders with Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. That being said, Corral is going to be playing catchup for the rest of the season now, with hopes that he can put up big enough numbers the rest of the way to make up for a lost opportunity. The Crimson Tide held Corral 123 yards below his season average with 213, but his day didn’t come without its positives. He still has yet to throw an interception and is one of only three FBS players (along with Liberty’s Malik Willis and Stanford’s Tanner McKee) who has thrown double-digit touchdowns without a pick.

Buy: Bijan Robinson, Texas

The Longhorns jumped back into the AP poll, thanks in large part to a monster day from one of the nation’s hottest running backs. Robinson piled up a career-high 216 yards on 35 carries with two touchdowns in Texas’ 32-27 win over TCU, the second-most rushing yards of any player against a Power 5 program this season. It was a monster game, though it should be noted it came against a Horned Frogs defense that went into that contest ranked 101st against the rush. But it’s further momentum, with Robinson — who has rushed for at least 127 yards in each of the past three games to within 28 yards of Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III for the national rushing lead — heading toward a showdown with No. 6 Oklahoma and Spencer Rattler. Star there and Robinson could supplant the Sooners quarterback as the conference’s top threat in the race.

Sell: Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland

It was fun while it lasted. The buzz Tagovailoa built over the first four games, which included three three-touchdown days and three games with at least 332 passing yards — was squelched by Iowa in a 51-14 defeat. Tagovailoa was picked off five times (four more than the first four games combined) while throwing for two scores and 157 yards. That hounding Hawkeyes defense allowed a mere 55.2 percent completion rating (16 of 29) and held Tagovailoa to a mere 88.9 efficiency rating (he was no lower than 150.5 coming in). If that wasn’t enough of a shock to the system, now Maryland has to head to Columbus to face No. 7 Ohio State, which has picked off a combined seven passes in the last three games, including three this past weekend in overwhelming Rutgers.

Buy: C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

Back in the mix behind a five-touchdown, 330-yard eruption vs. Rutgers, Stroud finally looked the part after three oftentimes shaky starts. Sitting out the Sept. 25 game against Akron hurts, as no player has missed a game and won the award since 1993, but Stroud’s numbers certainly meet the criteria. He’s tied for the national lead with 12 touchdowns against Power 5 teams and the third-most yards (1,108) in those matchups while ranking sixth overall in efficiency rating (181.8) and seventh in yards per game (323.2). The potential of three massive games ahead of him — No. 4 Penn State on Oct. 30, No. 11 Michigan State on Nov. 20 and the regular-season finale vs. Michigan a week later — also weigh heavily in his favor. Consider Stroud officially back in the mix with the meat of the Big Ten slate still to come.

Sell: Anthony Brown and CJ Verdell, Oregon

The Ducks’ playoff hopes are all but over, and so too are any dreams of a Heisman. Stanford saw to that in knocking off the then-No. 3 Ducks 31-24, limiting Brown to 186 yards and an interception through the air (though he did have two rushing touchdowns) and kept Verdell to 63 yards and no rush longer than 11 yards (though, he too, hit the end zone). The road win over Ohio State put the Oregon duo on the radar, but their numbers alone aren’t strong enough to continue making them factors. Brown had his moments after the win over the Buckeyes — he threw three touchdown passes on Sept. 25 vs. Arizona — but is 72nd in passing yards per game (190) and Verdell hasn’t gone over 100 yards rushing since taking down Ohio State. The Pac-12 might have a budding candidate in Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels, but it’s no longer Brown or Verdell in that role.

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