Picking the Heisman Trophy winner was not easy. Some of the best candidates -- Michigan running back Blake Corum, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker -- saw their seasons end early due to injury. Three top-flight quarterbacks all lost their final games. All of it made for what might be the closest voting since Auburn's Bo Jackson narrowly beat Iowa's Chuck Long in 1985.
The frontrunner going into last weekend, USC QB Caleb Williams, was last seen hobbling off the field following an upset loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud didn't even play last week. Georgia QB Stetson Bennett IV did, though; he continued to cement his place as a Bulldogs legend and possible subject of a movie someday.
This year's competition was so tough that Hooker doesn't make the top three after a transformational season with the Volunteers. Sadly, neither does Bennett. Nineteen months ago Georgia's quarterback didn't take a snap in spring practice. Last season, he was looking over his shoulder. A year ago this month, Georgia fans were still clamoring for J.T. Daniels (remember him?). All Bennett did was become the No. 2 passer in the SEC in 2022. Georgia went undefeated, won the SEC for the first time in five years and carries a nation-leading 15-game winning streak into the College Football Playoff.
Before moving on, we must refer to some budding history. USC coach Lincoln Riley is already bordering on a hall of fame career based on his quarterbacks alone. Williams would become his third Heisman winner in the last six years. During that time, Riley has seen six players all finish among the top four in Heisman voting.
You won't be seeing any other Heisman ballots this early in the week. Voters are prohibited from revealing them until the ceremony concludes. In the interest of transparency, I relinquished my ballot a few years ago. As such, here's who would be on my ballot if I still had one to submit.
1. Caleb Williams, QB, USC
Knee-jerk reaction from Friday night: USC lost the Pac-12, CFP spot and the Heisman with Williams limping off the field. One night later, I changed my mind. Even with a bum hamstring, Williams was able to bravely stand in the pocket -- basically immobile -- and throw for 363 yards and three touchdowns. There's no player who was more important to his team this season than Williams. He'll need 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, a passer and a leader. He led a locker room as an outsider from Oklahoma. He integrated a talented receiving room throwing 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 initially going to be seen as one of the leaders in the locker room. There was a lot to take on. He's embraced it. I think it's pushed him out of his comfort zone and made him better."
Williams' entire body of work is compelling as he tied for the national lead with 37 touchdown passes (47 total). This week, he was named afirst team selection as well as the . Williams was also at his best when USC needed him most -- vs. ranked opponents -- with 11 touchdowns in the Trojans' final three games against UCLA, Notre Dame and Utah. (In his first meeting with the Utes earlier this season, Williams posted five touchdowns.)
2. Max Duggan, QB, TCU
As quarterback of the only FBS squad to beat every team in its conference, Duggan gets the slight nod for No. 2 over others. That accomplishment is impossible everywhere else but the Big 12, the only FBS league to play a round-robin schedule. Weirdly, Duggan had his Heisman moment(s) in a loss. Playing to exhaustion, he led the Horned Frogs back from an 11-point deficit against Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game. If not for some questionable play calling, he could have won that game (and perhaps the Heisman). Why didn't Duggan have the ball in his hands at the goal line in overtime?
His story might be the best in college football this side of Bennett. If not for a COVID-19 exam that revealed a heart issue, Duggan and the Frogs might not be here. After heart surgery in 2020, he rebounded to play 32 career games prior to this season. He had already put off foot surgery in 2021 after Gary Patterson had been fired to finish out 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. What resulted was a season for the ages.The Council Bluff, Iowa, product became the Frogs' unabashed leader, topping the Big 12 in touchdown passes, pass efficiency and rushing by a quarterback. The image of Duggan dragging his body off the field late in the game will endure. So will his accomplishments this season.
3. C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Stroud was the front-runner for much of the season but lost juice after the Michigan loss. Then watching Williams, Duggan and Bennett perform last Saturday pushed Stroud back of mind. Still, it's hard to forget what he has accomplished. The latest NFL-worthy Buckeyes quarterback will finish No. 2 on the school's career passing list despite playing only two seasons. He completed 70% of his passes this season against ranked teams. After throwing for 44 touchdowns in his first year as a starter in 2021, his production declined. Well, if you consider his 37 touchdown passes in 2022 a decline; that is currently tied for the national lead.
Stroud's "decline" is easily explained. For most of the season, he was without his best wide receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Injuries severely impacted the running back room. For large portions of the season, the offense -- actually, the team -- was on Stroud's back. Rutgers and Northwestern held him under 200 yards. Michigan picked off two of his passes. Otherwise, Stroud barely wavered. The playoff mulligan gives Ohio State and Stroud another chance. After finishing fourth in the 2021 Heisman voting, Stroud's best days may be ahead if he can lead the Buckeyes to a championship.