What is the value of a win?
In the world of sports, and in college football particularly, that question seems to have an obvious answer. Winning is the most important thing. Winning keeps your team alive. Winning puts fans in the stands. Winning separates the haves from the have-nots. Winning is the one single measure of success that matters at the end of the day.
Why shouldn’t that be the same thing when it comes to the Heisman Trophy conversation?
As we enter the back half of November, and the talk surrounding conference championships, bowl games, the College Football Playoff, and yes, the Heisman Trophy, starts to heat up, this is a debate that is only going to get louder, so prepare yourself. With just three weeks until the most historic piece of bronze hardware is given out to the “best player” in college football on December 9th in New York City, we seemingly have our finalists for the award set and ready to go.
Oregon Ducks quarterback Bo Nix. LSU Tigers quarterback Jayden Daniels. Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr.
All three players have had historic seasons, and all three can easily possess the argument that they’ve been, at times, the best players in college football. The stats are there. The “Heisman moments” are there. The flash, and glamour, and fan adoration is there.
Is the winning there? For two of them, the answer is yes.
This is where the debate gets a bit tricky. How important should a win-loss record be in the Heisman race? I ask that question again because it could directly impact who takes home the award this year. If you look at just numbers, then I think we have a pretty clear winner in 2023. Through 12 weeks of the season, here’s how the stats stack up between those three:
Jayden Daniels: 220-for-303 (72.6%), 3,577 yards, 36 TD, 4 INT // 124 rushes, 1,014 yards, 10 TD — LSU Record: 8-3
Bo Nix: 282-for-361 (78.1%), 3,539 yards, 35 TD, 2 INT // 41 rushes, 128 yards, 5 TD — Oregon Record: 10-1
Michael Penix Jr.: 262-for-394 (66.5%), 3,695 yards, 30 TD, 7 INT — Washington Record: 11-0
In a vacuum, I think you have a clear winner there. So far this year, Daniels has slightly more yards and passing TDs on fewer attempts. The rushing is where he really stands apart, though, racking up over 1,000 yards with twice as many TDs as Nix.
In a world where win-loss records don’t matter, and the award is simply given to the player with the best stats on the year, Jayden Daniels is your 2023 Heisman Trophy winner. Lock it up.
That’s not the world we live in. Argue with me all you want, but history is on my side.
Over the last 15 years, a trend has become very evident in the world of college football, particularly when it comes to handing out the Heisman Trophy. It’s largely said to be an award that goes to the best quarterback on one of the best teams.
In 11 of the last 15 years, the Heisman winner has appeared in the College Football Playoff or BCS Championship Game the year that they won it. In 6 of those 15 years, the Heisman winner’s team was undefeated, or had just one loss; in six of those 15 years, the winner’s team had 2 losses. Only 3 times in the past 15 years has the Heisman winner suffered 3 losses or more during the season and still gone on to win the award.
Four times in the past decade and a half has a Heisman winner not won, or not even played in a conference championship game. Based on those numbers, it’s pretty clear that Heisman voters value winning, at least to an extent.
So who are those few examples of players on “losing” teams that we should look at closer?
USC QB Caleb Williams (2022), Louisville QB Lamar Jackson (2016), Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel (2012), and Baylor QB Robert Griffin III (2011).
Taking a deeper dive into all of those players, it’s impossible to argue that they deserved the award, even in seasons where they were unable to lead their team to conference championships, or national championship opportunities. It’s not just the fact that they put up the necessary statistics, but more glaringly obvious that their numbers were far and away better than the rest of the competition.
Let’s take a deeper look.
USC QB Caleb Williams (1st Place): 333-for-500, 4,537 yards, 42 TD, 5 INT // 113 rushes, 382 yards, 10 TD — No Conference Title / No CFP
TCU QB Max Duggan (2nd Place): 267-for-419, 3,698 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT // 137 rushes, 423 yards, 9 TD — Made College Football Playoff
Ohio State QB CJ Stroud (3rd Place): 258-for-389, 3,688 yards, 41 TD, 6 INT // 47 rushes, 108 yards, 0 TD — Made College Football Playoff
Louisville QB Lamar Jackson (1st Place): 230-for-409, 3,543 yards, 30 TD, 9 INT // 260 rushes, 1,571 yards, 21 TD — No Conference Title / No CFP
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson (2nd Place): 388-for-579, 4,593 yards, 41 TD, 17 INT // 165 rushes, 629 yards, 9 TD — Made College Football Playoff
Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield (3rd Place): 254-for-358, 3,965 yards, 40 TD, 8 INT // 78 rushes, 177 yards, 6 TD — No College Football Playoff
Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel (1st Place): 295-for-434, 3,706 yards, 26 TD, 9 INT // 201 rushes, 1,410 yards, 21 TD — No Conference Title / No BCS
Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o (2nd Place): 113 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 7 INT — No BCS
Kansas State QB Collin Klein (3rd Place): 197-for304, 2,641 yards, 16 TD, 9 INT // 207 rushes, 920 yards, 23 TD // No BCS
Baylor QB Robert Griffin III (1st Place): 291-for-402, 4,293 yards, 37 TD, 6 INT // 179 rushes, 699 yards, 10 TD — No Conference Title / No BCS
Stanford QB Andrew Luck (2nd Place): 288-for-404, 3,517 yards, 37 TD, 10 INT // 47 rushes, 150 yards, 2 TD — No BCS
Alabama RB Trent Richardson (3rd Place): 283 rushes, 1,679 yards, 21 TD — Won BCS Championship
As you can see, in each of those years, a clear divide can be seen between the winner and the second-place vote-getter. The only year that doesn’t go along those lines is when Lamar Jackson beat out Deshaun Watson in 2016, and to this day that is still considered one of the most highly-contested outcomes, with many believing that the Clemson QB deserved the honor, having gone on to play in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.
In three of those four years, winning didn’t ultimately matter. What mattered was that there were largely undisputed victors who were clearly in a class of their own as the best players in the nation.
In 2023, that’s not the case.
The numbers for Jayden Daniels are impressive, for sure. So are the numbers for Bo Nix. So are the numbers for Michael Penix Jr. In a world where the latter two members of that conversation are (likely) going to be playing ball on conference championship weekend, with a shot to get their teams into the College Football Playoff, I think winning should bridge the gap between any minor disparities between overall statistics.
The argument against that is 2016 with Jackson over Watson. While Jackson sat at home during conference championship weekend, Watson went on to win every game before the last one of the year. In the end, it was the Louisville QB who got the award.
We’ll see how things play out this season. The Oregon Ducks have at least one more game, and quite possibly two games before Heisman voting is locked in, should they make it to the Pac-12 Championship with a win over Oregon State this weekend. Nix will undoubtedly see his stats rise, as will Penix.
Meanwhile, because of their three losses on the year, Daniels and the LSU Tigers have already been eliminated from the SEC Championship Game. On the final weekend of the season, while Heisman voters get one last look at the candidates, Daniels won’t have an opportunity to make a final case. There’s a good chance that Nix and Michael Penix Jr. will be squaring off in Las Vegas for a spot in the playoffs. In my opinion, the winner of that Pac-12 Championship Game should ultimately be the winner of the Heisman Trophy in 2023. Why?
Because the stats are comparable, and winning matters — in football, and in the Heisman Trophy race as well.