Heisman Watch 2022: At halfway point, it’s C.J. Stroud’s trophy to lose

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

All the Ohio State quarterback has done is extended his Heisman lead, but a few challengers are uniquely positioned to spoil his plans

Within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center is a Heisman lounge, with couches surrounded by the school’s seven trophies, and the way things are going, Ohio State is probably consulting with a feng shui master on how to properly arrange those awards for a new addition.

Who could blame the Buckeyes? C.J. Stroud opened the season as the favorite and at the halfway mark of all the quarterback has done is extend that lead to the point it’s bordering on insurmountable — but is it?

Stroud’s standing has been aided by the other two players in that top tier, Alabama’s Bryce Young — the defending winner — and USC’s Caleb Williams failing to match his production. Young sat out a game with injury — a death knell in these proceedings — and Williams had a couple of ho-hum days with fewer than 190 yards passing. Meanwhile, Stroud leads the nation in touchdown passes (24), efficiency rating (207.57) and yards per attempt (10.9), while throwing for 1,737 yards.

C.J. Stroud is still the heavy Heisman favorite

Going into Week 7, Stroud has -155 odds per Bet MGM, with the next closest player (Williams) at +1000 after opening at +600, while Young has slipped from +350 this summer to +1400. That gives Stroud the third-best odds at the season’s midpoint since 2009, trailing only LSU’s Leonard Fournette (-250) in 2014 and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson (-275) in 2016, and he’s the fourth player at -140 or lower at this stage of the season in the past 13 years, with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa at -140 in 2018 and -150 in 2019.

Among those seemingly sure bets after six weeks, Jackson is the only one to end up with the trophy. So, if not Stroud, then who?

That puts the focus on two crucial games Saturday, as No. 3 Michigan hosts No. 10 Penn State and No. 3 Alabama visits No. 6 Tennessee.

Wolverines running back Blake Corum has positioned himself as the best bet outside the quarterbacks, surging to +2000 after sitting at +8000 this summer. He’s rattled off three straight games with at least 124 yards to push his total to 735 with 11 touchdowns and has a spotlight matchup vs. a top-five rushing defense — the Nittany Lions are allowing a mere 79.8 per game — and he’s the only contender who can literally steal Stroud’s thunder when they meet Nov. 26 in Columbus.

Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker may be the most intriguing challenger, as he’s surged to equal odds with Young after opening as a chic long shot pick (+6600). Hooker has slayed Florida and LSU in back-to-back games, and if he can do the same to the Crimson Tide — and outduel last year’s winner in the process — he’s going to be Stroud’s biggest threat with No. 22 Kentucky (Oct. 29) and No. 1 Georgia (Nov. 5) still ahead.

But on the flip side of that Alabama-Tennessee matchup, Young may be trying to outrace history, as only five players have won the trophy after missing a game, but he’ll give voters something to think about if he plays and stars. Then there’s the Crimson Tide’s other candidates — running back Jahmyr Gibbs and linebacker Will Anderson Jr. — who can help their cases whether Young is on the field or not.

Of course, lurking is Williams. He threw for 188 yards vs. Washington State and 180 against Oregon State in two of the last three games and had his two lowest completion percentages — 51.7 vs. the Cougars and 44.4 against the Beavers — but the Trojans are still undefeated, and he could get a lift from Los Angeles’ other power program.

UCLA passer Dorian Thompson-Robinson has gone from off the board in August to +1600 — the fifth best odds — in powering the Bruins to a 6-0 start and No. 11 ranking. Those two quarterbacks will meet Nov. 19 at the Rose Bowl, a matchup that has the potential to boost a resume if they stay on this trajectory.

That’s a lot of ifs, cans and coulds, because Stroud is just that far out front, and it’s more his Heisman to lose more than anyone’s ability to take it from him. A year after finishing fourth and having to watch Young join the past winners on the stage, Stroud might want to go ahead and start jotting down some bullet points for his speech.

Before we look at who is primed to rise and fall going into Week 7, here’s this voter’s updated virtual ballot.

1. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
2. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
3. Caleb Williams, USC

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

BUY: Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State

The Big 12’s list of contenders are seemingly coming and going with the tide. Kansas’ Jalon Daniels was in and out, as was Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel, and Kansas State’s Adrian Martinez was out, back in, and is about to enter his true proving grounds with a three-week run of TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas.

But seemingly lost in the Big 12’s Contender of the Moment is Cowboys quarterback Spencer Sanders, who just keeps putting up monster numbers. He’s 10th in FBS and fifth among Power 5 players with 327 yards of offense per game and is eighth with 110 points responsible for.

Despite all of that, Sanders’ odds (+5000) put him level with Anderson and Oregon’s Bo Nix. There may not be a challenger with a better opportunity over the next five weeks than what lies ahead for Sanders, who faces four straight ranked opponents (TCU, Texas, Kansas State and Kansas) and it the Spencer Sanders Respect Tour begins Saturday vs. the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth.

SELL: Bryce Young, Alabama

The defending winner’s fate was all but sealed when an injury to Bryce Young’s throwing shoulder kept him off the field last weekend in Alabama’s narrow win over Texas A&M.

As we’ve discussed before, only five winners have ever missed a game, with the last coming in Florida State’s Charlie Ward in 1993. An eventual trophy recipient has missed multiple games, with Notre Dame’s Angelo Bertelli missing four in 1943, but that’s because he was called into duty for the Marine Corps in World War II.

Nick Saban is hopeful that Young will be available for Saturday’s trip to Knoxville, which is key for a Crimson Tide offense that sorely missed him last, and for how he finishes in the race. It would be stunning to see Young join Mark Ingram (2009) — Alabama’s first winner — and Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford (2008), whose injuries kept him out of the top 10 in their follow-up campaigns.

BUY: Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama

If Young is falling out of favor, Alabama’s most logical candidate steps up. Linebacker Will Anderson Jr. will factor, but we’ve discussed the hard realities for strictly defensive players many times. Like it or not, Jahmyr Gibbs now stands as the Crimson Tide’s best chance.

After totaling 172 yards on 25 carries through four games, the running back has become the focal point of Alabama offense, piling up 360 rushing yards and two touchdowns over the last two games, including 206 and two scores in the Oct. 1 win over then-No. 20 Arkansas.

Tennessee’s defense has been very good against the rush, ranking 11th in FBS in allowing 89.2 yards per games, but that’s also a byproduct of the pressure the Hooker-led attack puts on opposing offenses. The Volunteers opponents have run 160 times, 12th fewest in FBS, but they’ve not faced a rushing attack like Alabama, which is third in the country (257.5 yards per game).

If Alabama emerges from Neyland Stadium unbeaten, Gibbs figures to be a big reason why.

SELL: Jalon Daniels, Kansas

In a three-week span, Jalon Daniels has gone from on the cusp to completely out of the running.

He struggled in Kansas’ escape vs. Iowa State on Oct. 1, then a week later had a setback physically — when he missed the second half last Saturday vs. TCU with a shoulder injury — and in the potential of the Jayhawks’ season, as they lost to the Horned Frogs.

Unfortunately for player and team, the Jayhawks’ schedule was just heating up, as they still have Oklahoma, Baylor, No. 8 Oklahoma State, No. 22 Texas and No. 17 Kansas State ahead of them.

BUY: Chase Brown, Illinois

In the race to 1,000 rushing yards, Illinois’ Chase Brown is out front. He’s sitting just 70 away heading into Saturday’s matchup with Minnesota, but in order to make any kind of move in the Heisman pecking order, Brown is going to have to win what will be a showcase for the running back position and rush defenses.

Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim is expected back after missing the Oct. 1 loss to Purdue with an ankle injury. He’s riding a 13-game streak of 100 straight games — going for 103 vs. Michigan State on Sept. 24, when he injured his ankle — which dates back to the 2019 Outback Bowl vs. Auburn.

Brown will have to contend with a Golden Gophers defense that’s sixth in FBS vs. the rush (81.4 yards per game), while the Illini will counter Ibrahim with a unit that’s third at 67.1 yards per game.

Which back wins out? It would be no surprise to see Ibrahim have the bigger day, but here’s thinking Brown wins out and keeps Illinois atop the Big Ten West.

SELL: Stetson Bennett IV, Georgia

When Stetson Bennett IV takes the field Saturday against Vanderbilt, it will have been nearly a full month since he last threw a touchdown path, when he tossed two in Georgia’s win over South Carolina.

Since then, the Bulldogs have scored 107 points in wins over Kent State, Missouri and Auburn without a Bennett score through the air. He’s run for a pair of touchdowns in that span, has helped Georgia stay unbeaten and now move back atop the AP Top 25, and ranks 11th in yards (1,744), but the fifth-year senior isn’t even in the top 100 in FBS with five passing touchdowns.

He’s on pace for 12 regular-season touchdowns, which would be the fewest for a winner since Nebraska’s Eric Crouch had seven in 2001, but Crouch has the benefit of 18 rushing scores that season. Georgia remains a threat for another national title, but it’s quarterback is falling way out of favor in this race.