2022 Heisman Trophy watch list: Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud headline top 10 candidates for award
Eighteen of the past 22 Heisman Trophy winners have been quarterbacks, dating back to the 2000 season. That’s a big reason why — little surprise — my ranking of the top 10 candidates to win the 2022 Heisman is a quarterback-heavy group.
Alabama’s Bryce Young earned 83 percent of the total Heisman voting points a year ago. But his candidacy really didn’t take full hold until after Young led the Crimson Tide to a comeback win over Auburn in late November, followed by a victory over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
Although Young has to be listed among the favorites this year, the race feels open. Only two other top-10 vote getters in 2021 — Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud (fourth place) and Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. (fifth) — return for the 2022 college season.
We’ll certainly be welcoming some newer names to the mix this year. The transfer portal and a wilder coaching carousel in recent years all point toward less predictable Heisman results this season. Plus, history: We haven’t had a back-to-back winner since the mid-1970s.
And with WR DeVonta Smith taking home the award in 2020, and two defensive players (Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson in 2021 and Ohio State’s Chase Young in 2019) finishing in the top five in recent years, voters have shown more willingness to consider non-QB options.
So rather than just naming the 10 best quarterbacks, the list below offers more breadth and variety in this year’s pool of candidates. Here are the 10 players that I believe have the best chance to take home the hardware — plus, a couple dark-horse candidates thrown in for good measure.
- Scouting Bryce Young: Alabama quarterback similar to a young Drew Brees
- Scouting C.J. Stroud: Ohio State prospect could be on trajectory similar to Mac Jones
- Scouting Will Anderson Jr.: Alabama prospect reminiscent of Von Miller
Why he could win: The top running back in the 2021 recruiting class had some absurd highlights in his first season, racking up 1,560 scrimmage yards and 19 TDs (15 rushing, four receiving) on a mere 210 touches. Just imagine what he could do with a J.K. Dobbins-like workload this season.
Biggest potential roadblock: Right now, Henderson has two teammates — C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba — ahead of him in the pecking order for various reasons, and Henderson must be more consistent. He amassed 21.6 percent of his rushing yards versus Tulsa in the third game of the season and had only two more 100-yard rushing games thereafter. Playing in a pass-heavy attack (and sharing the load with Miyan Williams) are limiting factors.
Plus, there seems to be something of an anti-RB bias these days. Najee Harris (1,466 rushing yards, 26 rushing TDs for Alabama in 2020) and Jonathan Taylor (2,003 yards, 21 TDs for Wisconsin in 2019) could fare no better than fifth in the Heisman voting. Dobbins, who had nearly identical production to Taylor in 2019, finished sixth that year.
Why he could win: Uiagalelei seemed to be almost completely written off after his early-season struggles in 2021, and it was understandable. But it’s not as if the former five-star recruit suddenly became untalented. The challenge of replacing Trevor Lawrence (and doing so without many of his best weapons) was too daunting a year ago.
However, this Clemson team — and Uiagalelei, for that matter — is just too gifted for a repeat of 2021 to happen. The QB who produced 781 pass yards, six total TDs and no interceptions in replacing Lawrence against Boston College and Notre Dame in 2020 has shown us he can thrive, and he’s coming off a bounce-back spring performance. The Clemson receiving corps and offensive line should be better, and if the downfield passing game opens back up, the offense could be back to producing regular fireworks.
Biggest potential roadblock: Last year was straight-up ugly in a lot of ways, both for Uiagalelei and the Tigers. He finished with a 9:10 TD-INT ratio, and Clemson’s 10-3 record and No. 14 final ranking somehow felt far worse. Why the wheels fell off offensively is anyone’s guess, and now Uiagalelei technically must keep his job, with star recruit Cade Klubnik breathing down his neck.
Why he could win: After a few tough outings to start his 2021 season, Van Dyke finished on a tear. He led Miami to big wins over N.C. State and Pitt, totaling 2,194 pass yards and a 20:3 TD-to-INT ratio in the final six games. Now new head coach Mario Cristobal takes over and his expertise should help firm up the offensive line.
Will Mallory has been a solid target at tight end, and Clemson transfer Frank Ladson Jr. could lead the receiving group. Without an established run game, the Hurricanes might be resorting to slinging the ball again — and that’s great news for Van Dyke’s Heisman chances.
Biggest potential roadblock: How many games must Miami win for Van Dyke to have a legitimate shot? Nine? Ten? More? Going into College Station and beating Texas A&M on Sept. 17 would help. Part of the narrative for Van Dyke is the question of whether he can lead Miami back to (or at least to the precipice of) its former glory.
We love nostalgia, and there would be plenty of Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta callbacks for good measure, but this isn’t likely to be an easy chore. Miami has talent, but until further notice, it’s fair to be a bit skeptical in terms of how high the program can climb in 2022.
Why he could win: An undersized, Hawaii-born lefty slinger is being pumped up as a Heisman candidate? Where have we heard that one before? Tua Tagovailoa might not have won the award (finishing second in 2018), but Dillon has a chance to accomplish what Tua couldn’t.
After two-plus seasons of tearing up the American Athletic Conference at UCF, Gabriel has moved to Norman, where he’ll be driving a pretty robust offense led by receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease. Gabriel has tossed two or more TDs in 22 of his 26 college games and once threw for 601 yards and five TDs in a loss at Memphis. He’ll be reunited with offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who called plays for Gabriel in his standout true-freshman season.
Biggest potential roadblock: Gabriel is coming to Oklahoma amid a sea of change, with a new coaching staff and significant roster churn. This just isn’t the same crop of talent as we’re used to seeing there. On one hand, a softer schedule of defenses is a benefit toward Gabriel thriving, but if the Sooners drop an unexpected game or two along the way, it could hurt his chances.
Heisman voters were thoughtful when dishing out the award to talented quarterbacks in three- and four-loss seasons, such as Lamar Jackson and Robert Griffin III, in recent years, but Gabriel isn’t quite the “did you just see that?” dual-threat playmaker that they were in those years.
Why he could win: Games such as Smith-Njigba’s performance in the Rose Bowl (15 catches, 324 yards, three TDs) against a very good Utah defense can resonate. There is a scenario where a receiver can win the award over his own quarterback, as we saw in 2020 with DeVonta Smith taking it over Mac Jones. Smith-Njigba was one of college football’s best players in the second half of last season, and OSU must replace nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 25 TD catches with Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave off to the NFL.
A statement performance against Notre Dame in the season opener could help grow some buzz for Smith-Njigba, and the regular-season finale versus Michigan in the Horseshoe is the kind of stage that can help seal the Heisman deal with a monster showing in that one.
Biggest potential roadblock: Smith-Njigba is still playing in one of the most talented receiver groups in the country, even with notable losses. His talent is above reproach, but that strong supporting cast could hurt his chances in some ways. Plus, Smith-Njigba is still a wide receiver, and last we checked DeVonta Smith remains the only true wideout since 1991 to win the award.
Something would likely need to go horribly wrong for Buckeyes QB C.J. Stroud to not be in the Heisman picture this year. If Stroud has a great season and Smith-Njigba doesn’t produce at a bonkers rate this season, the Heisman nod feels more often than not to go to the quarterback in these situations.
Why he could win: If there’s a non-QB offensive player who could swoop in and take home the hardware, it might be Robinson. He has all the physical tools to dominate again with the perfect blend of size, speed and vision. Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian paved the way for RB Najee Harris to finish fifth in the 2020 Heisman race when he called plays at Alabama and could unleash Robinson in a similar way.
A big showing on Sept. 10 versus Alabama — win or loss — could kickstart Robinson’s campaign, and a late-season game at Kansas could give Robinson some stat padding to get him to New York as a finalist. He gashed the Jayhawks last year before a third-quarter elbow injury ended his season, and KU sneaked out of Austin with a win in overtime.
Biggest potential roadblock: Can Texas have a season befitting of a Heisman winner? It’s hard enough for a non-quarterback to win the thing, and it typically requires a combination of individual dominance and team success.
Robinson also has had his share of injuries the past two seasons, making a fully healthy season a bit of a projection. He likely will need to be out there dominating on a weekly basis to be in the Heisman mix. But Texas also has a terrific backup in Roschon Johnson, whose presence likely prevents Robinson from being overworked.
Why he could win: Considered a Heisman-finalist snub last year, Williams was absolutely tremendous for the Tide, collecting an FBS-best 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss. There easily could be a makeup call here this season if Anderson comes close to that level of production again.
The Bama defense once again should be loaded, and they’re on national TV every week. Anderson is as close to a non-QB household name as there is in college football, and a big 2022 season has to at least put him in the Heisman conversation, especially if the Tide make another big run again.
Biggest potential roadblock: He isn’t considered the Heisman favorite on his own team — that would be quarterback Bryce Young. The fact that only one primarily defensive player (Charles Woodson, 1997) has won the award certainly plays against Anderson and every other defender in the country. Matching his absurd 2021 production also will be no easy chore.
Why he could win: Williams didn’t start a game for Oklahoma until Oct. 16 last year but somehow entered the Heisman discussion as a true freshman before a few late-season slip-ups. He was an immediate star, accounting for 27 TDs despite barely attempting 200 passes.
Now Williams and Lincoln Riley have made the trip together to USC and could be part of a huge program revival as it starts the process of joining the Big Ten in a couple years. Williams is a gifted runner and thrower and he’ll have one of the best receivers in the country, Pitt transfer Jordan Addison, as part of a talented crop of newcomers with which to work.
The schedule isn’t that daunting outside of the Notre Dame and Utah games, as USC doesn’t face Oregon this season. Riley’s OU teams went 55-10 and never lost more than two games in any of his five seasons.
Biggest potential roadblock: There are many new faces that need to mesh together under Riley’s watch, and yet the expectations are already sky high. The collection of talent is tremendous, but how it could take some time to jell.
USC’s three games prior to the Heisman voting deadline — at UCLA, versus Notre Dame and potentially the Pac-12 title game — all could have an outsized effect on Williams’ chances to win. Any type of stumble down the stretch, something Riley’s OU teams were occasionally prone to, could hinder his candidacy.
In the early 2000s, the Trojans had Heisman winners in three out of four seasons. But amazingly, they’ve not even had a finalist for the award since 2005.
Why he could win: Stroud is favored by some to win the award. Ohio State’s offense once again could be a monster this season, and Stroud’s passing numbers last year — in three fewer games — were quite comparable to (and in some cases, better than) reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young’s.
Stroud will have an explosive target in Jaxon Smith-Njigba (No. 6 on this list), along with other promising WR options in Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming. There’s also star RB TreVeyon Henderson (No. 10 on this list), a strong offensive line and Ryan Day, one of the best play-callers in college football. It’s a perfect environment in which Stroud should thrive.
Biggest potential roadblock: Stroud hasn’t been a big running threat in college, so there could be dual-threat passers elsewhere with more gaudy overall numbers. Plus, Stroud was occasionally prone to slow starts in games last year and loses two top-11 overall picks in WRs Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, plus two starting linemen and TE Jeremy Ruckert.
Stroud might also need to beat Michigan in their annual late-season tilt, nearly always a significant game. This award often is shifted by one or two big contests. A huge performance against the Wolverines could give him his Heisman moment, but a stinker could sink Stroud’s chances late.
Why he could win: He won the Heisman last season. Young wowed with his poise and accuracy, consistently making great decisions in his first full campaign as a starter after watching Heisman finalist Mac Jones lead the Tide to a national title the year before.
Young completed more than 70 percent of his passes in eight games in 2021 and logged a stunning 47:7 TD-INT ratio. He floundered a bit in the second half of the national title game loss to Georgia after the injury to Jameson Williams and when Bama’s offensive line came up short. But we’re talking about one of the more precocious and efficient passers in college football here. There’s a good reason why Young is one of the clear favorites for the award.
Biggest potential roadblock: He won the award last season. After all, the last (and only) back-to-back winner was Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in the mid-1970s. Whether voters are biased against former winners repeating or if the pressure of matching or surpassing the previous year’s achievements is too great, repeating is just difficult.
More taxing for Young’s chances to win might be the fact that he loses the team’s top four leaders in receptions from last season, as well as his best blocker (Evan Neal). The Tide’s schedule is also once again a monster, and the addition of RB Jahmyr Gibbs could cut into Young’s massive passing numbers from a year ago. Surpassing, or even matching, his 2021 passing stats could be extremely difficult for Young.
TWO DARK-HORSE CANDIDATES
Why he could win: There’s nothing quite like a Wisconsin tailback to fire up the college-football nostalgia generator, and Allen is one of the best runners in the sport. After receiving only 12 carries in the first three games of last season, Allen averaged 135.4 yards per game and 7.0 yards per carry over the final nine games and totaled 11 TDs.
The Badgers won’t wait that long this season to get Allen going. There are tough road games at Ohio State and Michigan State, but the schedule is much softer at other times, and seeing Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game wouldn’t shock anyone.
Biggest potential roadblock: The Ron Dayne era sadly is gone. If Jonathan Taylor can finish sixth, ninth and fifth, respectively, in the Heisman voting in his three years of college, what pray tell must Allen do to improve on that? He’s also not displayed much receiving prowess to date, something that also limited Taylor’s mass appeal a bit.
Teaming with Chez Mellusi also could cut into Allen’s production, and the Badgers’ one-dimensional quality likely will make for some tough sledding until Graham Mertz shows he can threaten teams with the downfield pass game. There’s a reason Allen is more of a sleeper for the Heisman.
Why he could win: I considered a host of QBs here, including Louisville’s Malik Cunningham, Texas’ Quinn Ewers and Florida’s Anthony Richardson. So why Rising over all of them? First off, he’s certainly a longshot, which adds to the appeal, even if there’s a reason why. But second, Utah could be a top-10 team when it’s all said and done, and Rising has a chance to experience a Joe Burrow-ish leap in his second year starting.
He’s a quality run threat, was very efficient in a 25-throw-per-game setting and might put up some big numbers with more opportunities, as his heroic effort in the Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State seemed to show. Rising has perhaps the best receiving duo in the country at tight end with Dalton Kincaid and Brant Kuithe, along with a robust run game. This is the best Heisman shot for a Utes QB since Alex Smith finished fourth in the voting back in 2004.
Biggest potential roadblock: Utah is in the Pac-12, and the Heisman top fives have been dominated in recent years by the SEC and Big Ten. It would take a pretty deep run for Rising to get on the Heisman radar, and there are some potential pitfalls. The season opens with a big game at Florida, includes a sneaky home game in September against San Diego State (who beat the Utes in 2021) and features a season-on-the-line type of showdown at Oregon on Nov. 19 — assuming there are no other slip-ups along the way.
Burrow went from 23 total TDs in 2019 to 65 in 2020. That’s the kind of massive leap Rising might need to crash this party. Even with Utah’s willingness to open things up offensively, that’s quite the imagination stretch, especially with security blanket Britain Covey gone.
Follow Eric Edholm on Twitter.
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