Heisman Watch 2022: Separation at top, but frontrunners beware

Ohio State buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud. (Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports)
Ohio State buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud. (Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports) /

Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud leads defined front-runners, but Heisman Trophy history shows leading the race before October has been precarious at best

Drama doesn’t live here. At least not yet, anyway.

Since 2009, seven of the eventual Heisman Trophy winners were sixth or lower in the odds three weeks into the season. That includes two of the last four in Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, who was seventh, and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith, who was completely off the board in late September. Backing one of them to hoist the trophy would have required a cognition test.

At this point the long shots are resigned to hoping for chaos.

There’s separation — with the winner looking like it’s going to be one of five players: Georgia’s Stetson Bennett IV; Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel; Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud; USC’s Caleb Williams, or the defending winner, Alabama’s Bryce Young — and there’s separation within that separation, with Stroud at +250 (per BetMGM), followed by Williams (+300) and Young (+450). Bennett and Gabriel are both at +1600.

But here’s that seed for that aforementioned chaos: in the past 12 seasons, 12 players have had odds at this point in the schedule at or better than the +450 Young is currently slotted at. Only two of them have won the trophy: Lamar Jackson (+180 in 2016) and Young (+125 last season). The five that have been at or better than Stroud’s +250 — Tim Tebow at +200 in 2009; Matt Barkley at +100 in 2012; Jackson in 2016; Trevor Lawrence at +175, and, again, Young last year — resulted in two wins.

The average winner since 2009 has been in the +1100 range going into Week 4, minus Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Smith in 2020, who weren’t generating odds at this stage. But we’ve also not seen a race with this level of delineation this early. Stroud, Williams and Young’s odds mark the first time that three players have been at +450 or lower through three games, meaning it’s going to take some serious upheaval to change the course of things.

It’s that trio that headlines this voter’s latest virtual ballot, with Stroud again on top as he heads into the Big Ten opener vs. Wisconsin.

1. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
2. Caleb Williams, USC
3. Bryce Young, Alabama

Heisman stock watch: Which candidates are heating up, which are falling off?

BUY: Michael Penix Jr., Washington

There was the ACL tear in 2018, a right sternoclavicular joint injury in 2019, and another ACL tear and in 2020. Then last season, he suffered a separated AC joint in his left throwing shoulder.

Michael Penix Jr.’s time at Indiana was injury-riddled, to say the least, though it did come with some flashes of greatness. Now at Washington, the Huskies are very much enjoying some continued flashes of what he provided the Hoosiers, throwing for 1,079 yards and 10 touchdowns to one interception. That included a four-touchdown, 397-yard day in knocking off then-No. 11 Michigan State last weekend.

A potential clash with Williams, the Pac-12’s top contender, won’t come in the regular season, with No. 15 Oregon on Nov. 12 the only remaining ranked opponent on the Huskies’ schedule.

If Penix can stay healthy, he has a real chance to muscle his way into the top tier.

SELL: Bryce Young, Alabama

Don’t get this twisted. As explained above, Young remains very much a fixture atop this race, but a two-interception game against Louisiana Monroe is still a blemish on his resumé.

He didn’t throw two picks last season until the national championship game when the Heisman was already in hand, and Young’s rating in the first month of this season (162.1) is down from last year (188.45) and he’s throwing for 67 fewer yards per game and his completion percentage is down four points.

A returning winner becomes their own measuring stick, a reality Young is now dealing with.

BUY: Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota

Despite being off last week, Illinois’ Chase Brown remains the nation’s rushing leader with 496 yards, but a mere 32 behind him is Mohamed Ibrahim, who is tied atop the FBS leaderboard with seven touchdowns and is riding an impressive streak of 100-yard games that’s been three seasons in the making.

He ran for 140 yards in the Outback Bowl against Auburn on New Ye ar’s Day 2020, went over the century mark in all seven games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and amid a 163-yard day vs. Ohio State in last year’s opener, ruptured his Achilles tendon.

Back for a sixth season, Ibrahim is at it again, going for 132 yards vs. New Mexico State, 130 against Illinois, and last weekend, 202 vs. Colorado, giving him 12 straight games of at least 100 yards.

He could deliver another Saturday vs. Michigan State, which gave up 141 yards to Western Michigan in Week 1, and 106 to Washington last weekend.

SELL: Anthony Richardson, Florida

In the pecking order of the SEC East contenders, Kentucky’s Will Levis knocked Richardson down a peg back on Sept. 10, and now Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker is poised to do the same.

Richardson has yet to throw a touchdown pass through three games and hasn’t found the end zone on the ground since the season-opening win over Utah. It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be able to match the production of Hooker and the Volunteers, who are fourth in FBS, scoring 52 points per game.

Wins matter in this race and a second in three weeks against a Top 25 opponent will be another blow to Richardson’s chances.

BUY: Drake Maye, North Carolina

The numbers are most certainly there. Drake Maye is tied with Stroud for the Power 5 lead in touchdown passes with 11, is sixth in the nation in completion percentage (74.2) and eighth in efficiency rating (190.13).

He put up 352 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Appalachian State that’s looking better by the week and can pick up that first signature win over a blue-blood program this week with a trip to reeling Notre Dame.

In two losses, the Irish have allowed a completion percentage of 72.7 compared to 43.2 in its win over Cal, and the efficiency of Maye and a deep receiving corps that has six players with at least 100 yards figures to cause further headaches for that defense.

SELL: K.J. Jefferson, Arkansas

K.J. Jefferson has gotten off to an impressive start, hitting on 70.5 percent of his passes and has 939 yards of total offense and nine scores. The next two weeks have the potential to legitimize Jefferson’s campaign, with No. 23 Texas A&M and No. 2 Alabama ahead for Arkansas. Here’s projecting those trophy dreams don’t make it past this Saturday.

The Aggies woke up in a big way, keeping then-No. 13 Miami out of the end zone, and denying them on four trips inside the red zone. The Razorbacks needed to manufacture an escape after trailing FCS opponent Missouri State 21-17, and that won’t likely be in the cards vs. a defense that’s tied for ninth in the nation, allowing just 8.7 points per game and is 11th in pass efficiency (89.33).

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