Analyzing top contenders before finalists revealed
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is the overwhelming favorite for the Heisman Trophy after throwing for 421 yards and three touchdowns in the Crimson Tide’s 41-24 win against Georgia to claim the SEC championship.
The debate in this year’s race centers instead on which players will join Young in Manhattan for the Heisman ceremony, with the list of four finalists set to be announced Monday evening.
With no consensus around which three standouts will follow Young, there is a chance that a running back and a defensive player pull votes away from a talented but thin second tier of quarterbacks.
Here’s where the Heisman race stands in advance of Monday’s announcement and Saturday’s ceremony:
QB Bryce Young, Alabama
Young wrestled the award away from Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, who briefly took control of the race after his brilliant performance in the Buckeyes’ win against Michigan State. That Young retook the lead speaks to his consistency as a first-year starter — he had at least two touchdowns in every game and tossed just four interceptions — and his three Heisman moments down the stretch: throwing for 551 yards against Arkansas, marching for the game-tying score late in the Iron Bowl, and leading the Tide past the Bulldogs for the SEC championship.
The next tier of quarterbacks
C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Stroud is a pretty safe bet to be named a Heisman finalist after throwing for 38 touchdowns for a team eventually undone by a defensive collapse against Michigan. That loss ended Stroud’s Heisman hopes and could be a larger issue as voters weigh his candidacy against Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson’s dominant regular season. Hutchinson was the best player on the field during the Wolverines’ rivalry win.
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
Breaking Dan Marino’s career and single-season records might have been enough alone to get Pickett to New York as a finalist. Add the Panthers’ first ACC championship and New Year’s Six berth, and the senior may leap past Stroud and into second place in the final voting.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Getting the Bearcats into the College Football Playoff will give Ridder a late boost in the Heisman race, even if that only results in a smattering of third-place votes. He’s had by far the most successful career of the leading contenders; Ridder was leading Cincinnati to double-digit wins when Stroud and Young were in high school, for example. While not a career-achievement award, that Ridder is an accomplished senior will help him draw in voters looking to fill out their ballots after the top two.
Matt Corral, Ole Miss
Corral is a long shot to finish in the top four, though it was always that way. As late as October, he was considered the best quarterback in the SEC and the league’s top contender for the Heisman. But the numbers weren’t there: Corral finished the regular season with 31 combined touchdowns, well off Young’s pace. He did lead the Rebels to one of the top regular seasons in program history, however.
The running back
Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State
Walker enters the postseason atop the Power Five in rushing yards (1,636) and third in touchdowns (18). As with Stroud, however, he’ll be judged by his performance in the biggest game of the Spartans’ season: Walker was a non-entity in the 56-7 loss to Stroud and the Buckeyes, as an early deficit forced Michigan State to abandon the run. No other back is in the mix for the Heisman, however, which gives Walker a shot at racking up points among voters looking for unorthodox options behind Young.
DE Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan
The most impactful defender in the Big Ten, Hutchinson clearly made the right decision to return for his senior season — in addition to the postseason hardware headed his way, he’s in the mix for the top spot in the upcoming NFL draft. While the numbers are superb across the board, Hutchinson’s biggest draw is his brutal domination of Ohio State’s offensive line in the Wolverines’ win in late November.
LB Will Anderson, Alabama
The national leader in tackles for loss (31.5) and sacks (15.5) has a chance at leaving Alabama as the best defensive player of the Nick Saban era. After a very strong rookie year, the sophomore blossomed into the most unstoppable edge rusher in college football and the linchpin of a defense that struggled early but rallied in November.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg.