Heisman Watch 2022: Who will join runaway favorite Caleb Williams in New York?

The USC quarterback has become the clear Heisman Trophy leader, and the only drama lies in who else earns a ticket to the ceremony.

It’s over, finished, punctuated with a veritable mic drop of the pose being struck.

For all intents and purposes, the Heisman Trophy belongs to USC’s Caleb Williams. While the Pac-12 Championship Game awaits Friday vs. No. 11 Utah, the possibility of catching the Trojans quarterback feels a lot like his defining moment: opponents left literally grasping at air.

You’ll see the 80-yards worth of darting, weaving and spinning his way through five Notre Dame defenders on a 19-yard gain in last weekend’s win for years to come. The same with his mimicking the trophy itself in the end zone after a rushing touchdown, or teammate Eric Gentry interrupting Williams’ postgame interview with ESPN and yelling “He’s the Heisman.”

It was a ready-made ceremony hype package, and Williams enters championship weekend the runaway betting favorite at -2500, per BetMGM.

Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud is a distant second at +2000, one of only four players still getting odds, along with TCU’s Max Duggan (+2500) and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett IV (+10000).

Stroud’s chess piece is basically off the board, with the rout at the hands of Michigan keeping him at the Buckeyes at home, while the Wolverines play Purdue in the Big Ten Championship Game. Michigan’s Blake Corum was a factor until he wasn’t, lasting two plays vs. Ohio State due to his ailing knee.

Duggan is still in play, with No. 3 TCU facing No. 10 Kansas State for the Big 12 crown, and so is Bennett, as top-ranked Georgia meets No. 14 SEC in the SEC’s finale, giving them at least a shot at strengthening their bids. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s Drake Maye gets No. 9 Clemson in the ACC Championship, but his star has fallen dramatically the past two weeks to the point he’ off the board in terms of the odds.

In reality, anyone overtaking Williams at this point would be basically unprecedented.

Over the last 13 seasons, four winners trailed in the odds going into the last weekend before votes were due: Alabama’s Mark Ingram (2009), Baylor’s Robert Griffin III (2011), Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray (2018) and the Crimson Tide’s DeVonta Smith (2020).

Ingram made up the biggest ground, sitting at +1000 to Texas’ Colt McCoy (-350), but no one has been as far back as Williams’ top competitor is (Stroud, again, at +2000), en route to winning. Plus, in those four previous votes where the lead slipped away, none of the favorites entered the title games as heavily favored as Williams is. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is the closest, watching a -1000 lead slip away ahead of the SEC title game before he lost to Murray (+700).

There’s zero drama in who wins, along with the number of players who will be making trip to New York.

While it used to be based on the natural break in points totals in the ballot system (three points are awarded for first place on a ballot, two for second and one for third), which produced as few as three finalists and as many as six, the Heisman Trust announced last year that it would begin officially inviting four finalists from now on.

Therein lies one of the last remaining questions — along with Williams’ margin of victory — in this race: who will join the Trojans passer? The final weekend is going to be a jockeying for position for one of those other three spots.

Who punches their ticket?

Let’s dive into the cases of the top contenders, limiting it to those still getting odds and those playing this weekend. Neither group includes Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, whose season is over with a knee injury. He may still finish in the top 10, but a top-four and an invite to the ceremony isn’t happening.

Before we do that, though, here’s how this voter’s virtual ballot stands entering championship weekend.

1. Caleb Williams, USC
2. Max Duggan, TCU
3. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

Heisman stock watch: Which candidates will make the cut as finalists?

IN: Max Duggan, TCU

Along with Williams, TCU’s Max Duggan was one of the biggest beneficiaries of Stroud falling off and Corum being limited. The Horned Frogs keep winning, sitting at 12-0, in position to make the College Football Playoff, and figure to have an argument even if they fall to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game.

With 3,364 total yards and 34 touchdowns, Duggan doesn’t lineup with what’s been the baseline for Heisman-winning quarterbacks in this era, who have produced north of 4,000 yards and 40 scores. But he has five wins over ranked opponents and has averaged 306 yards of offense in those victories.

Duggan already has more victories over Top 25 wins than any other contender, but should he and the Horned Frogs beat the 10th-ranked Wildcats, among players still getting Heisman odds he’d have two more of those wins than Williams, three more than Bennett and Alabama’s Bryce Young and four more than Stroud.

Barring a catastrophic performance vs. Kansas State, Duggan feels like he’s on his way to an invite.

IN: C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

The curse of the summer darling continues.

C.J. Stroud opened the season with the best odds of any player, and instead of ending up with the trophy, he ends up empty handed like past preseason favorites Spencer Rattler, Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, Sam Darnold and on and on.

Stroud should become just the fifth finalist in the nine years of the playoff era do so after not playing the final week before votes are due. The others are Stroud himself a year ago, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in 2017 and 2016 and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers in 2016.

Stroud is tied with Houston’s Clayton Tune for the FBS lead with 37 touchdown passes, and the Buckeye junior tops the nation with a 176.25 efficiency rating. But the one thing he couldn’t afford was a down performance in on the biggest of stage, and what Stroud left voters with was a season-high two interceptions and his lowest efficiency rating (131.1) of the year.

He’ll be back in New York, but even if Williams and/or Duggan falters, the ceiling for Stroud feels like runner-up.

IN: Stetson Bennett IV, Georgia

Like Duggan, the numbers just don’t scream Heisman.

Stetson Bennett IV has thrown for 3,151 yards and run for another 190 in compiling 23 touchdowns, numbers that pale in comparison with every trophy-winning quarterback since 2010. But Bennett’s place in this whole conversation isn’t about the numbers, is it?

He is 28-3 as a starter, including 12-0 this season in helping the reigning national champions stand on the cusp of a chance to defend that title. That may not win him the Heisman, but he’ll be a factor in the voting.

To be clear, this voter has never considered the Heisman a career achievement award — and frankly that hasn’t been a reality since Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne traded the all-time rushing record in 1998 and 1999, respectively — but there’s a growing sentiment for Bennett as the poster boy of the year’s most dominant team. If nearly everyone contender has a blemish, nitpicking Bennett’s numbers for not meeting past Heisman thresholds may not do his impact justice.

He’s up to +10000, fourth overall, and Bennett continues his big-game performances — he’s averaged 300 yard in the last five games vs. ranked opponents — he’ll grab a ticket to New York.

OUT: Bryce Young, Alabama

The odds say there’s a chance Bryce Young won’t end up with the distinction of the worst finish for a defending winner — ones that made it through their follow-up avoiding a major injury, anyway — since 1964.

He’s up to sixth at +20000, which puts him on pace to equal the lowest finish set by Florida State’s Jameis Winston in 2014, who is also the only reigning winner to not earn a trip back to the ceremony.

Young did end his season with momentum after torching Auburn to the tune of 391 total yards and four touchdowns, and while he has 1,670 fewer yards (3,202) and 19 fewer scores (19) than in his Heisman-winning season, the junior still became the first player in Crimson Tide history with two 3,000-yard passing seasons.

If there’s further chaos, Young stands to benefit — and so could the Crimson Tide at No. 6 in the playoff rankings — but it’s a near certainty the limit on the number of players in New York is weighing against him.

OUT: Blake Corum, Michigan

During an appearance Wednesday on the Big Ten Network’s awards show, on which he was honored as the conference’s best running back, Blake Corum said he was taking it “day by day” in dealing with the knee injury that limited him to two carries against Ohio State.

Whether or not he plays against Purdue in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game may not matter much in a game in which the Wolverines are 17-point favorites, but it could loom large in the heights of Corum’s Heisman finish.

There’s a strong possibility that even if he sits out, Corum is still headed toward a top-five finish for being Michigan’s offensive backbone in their playoff bid. But again, that cap on finalists comes up again, and Corum’s not playing could keep him from that cutoff if his contributions in the last two weeks amount to six yards on two carries.

OUT: Michael Penix Jr., Washington

He’s still getting odds from at least one sports book, but the proverbial book is closed on Michael Penix Jr.’s season, and it was a statistical monster. He stands as the nation’s leading passer with 4,534 yards, and it wasn’t that he just topped FBS, he did so with 107 more yards than anyone, and had 507 more yards than the next closest Power 5 player, North Carolina’s Drake Maye.

Penix also had the highest single-game total of any passer from the major conferences with 516 yards against Arizona, and also threw for 484 vs. Washington State, which is third-most in Power 5.

Since 2016, he’s one of only six quarterbacks from those conferences to have multiple game with at least 484 yards, a list that includes Stroud (2021) and LSU’s 2019 Heisman winner, Joe Burrow.

The last three players to lead FBS in passing from a major conference school all earned a trip to the ceremony in Alabama’s Mac Jones in 2020, Burrow, and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins in 2018. That’s not likely happening and the Penix watch instead revolves around whether he can challenge Jake Browning, who was sixth for the Huskies in 2016.

OUT: Drake Maye, North Carolina

The slide was incredibly ill-timed, as Drake Maye went from the third-best odds (+500) to off the board at every major book in the span of two weeks. But he still has a chance to make his case, making his candidacy worth dissecting.

North Carolina isn’t playing Saturday night in the ACC Championship Game against No. 9 Clemson without Maye’s exploits, which include 3,847 yards and 35 touchdowns (both fourth in FBS), 298 completions (seventh) and 629 rushing yards, which is third among Power 5 quarterbacks.

The argument can be made that that value should be enough to get Maye at least onto the third spot on a lot of ballots. He gave the Tar Heels a chance to beat Georgia Tech on Nov. 19 and put them in position to force a third overtime against NC State on Nov. 25, but both ended in losses.

Those defeats — along with Clemson becoming South Carolina’s latest victim — took the shine off the ACC title game. While it seems a given that Maye beats out Julius Peppers (10th in 2001) for the program’s only top-10 finish since Charlie Justice was runner-up in 1949, the possibilities for the redshirt freshman have taken a bigger hit than any contender who goes into championship weekend healthy.

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