College News & Analysis

Top 10 Heisman Trophy candidates heading into the 2023 season

2NHMXJN USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) looks to pass against Utah in the Pac 12 Championship college football game, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Jeff Lewis via AP)

• Caleb Williams leads the way: The reigning Heisman winner is also the favorite to take home the stiff-arm trophy in 2023. 

• Jordan Travis is right behind Williams: The Florida State quarterback is my pick to win the Heisman this season.

• Jayden Daniels rounds out the top three: The LSU quarterback will try to bring home the program’s first Heisman since Joe Burrow in 2019.

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

The Heisman Trophy is perhaps the most distinguished and recognizable individual honor in sports. Every year, the award goes to the most outstanding player in college football and immortalizes them forever. Most importantly, it also guarantees them a spot in Nissan’s legendary “Heisman House” commercials.

With the 2023 season kicking off, here are the 10 players with the best chance to take home the coveted stiff-arm trophy, starting with last year’s winner.

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1. QB Caleb Williams, USC Trojans

Only former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin has been able to win the Heisman Trophy twice, doing so in 1974 and 1975. Caleb Williams will attempt to join him this season. In an interview with PFF, Williams said, “Hopefully, I can join him this year. I told Archie I’d be back in New York.”

Williams led all Power Five quarterbacks in 2022 in overall grade (91.8) and touchdown passes (42). With one of the nation’s best receiving corps and offensive lines returning, in addition to Lincoln Riley and Kliff Kingsbury coaching him, it’s a good bet that he’s even better as a junior.

Ultimately, what this could come down to is whether Williams can lead USC to the College Football Playoff. Five of the past six Heisman winners have played on teams that made it to the playoff, with Williams being the lone exception in 2022. Voters likely won’t allow him to win the stiff-arm trophy again without securing a spot in the final four.

2. QB Jordan Travis, Florida State Seminoles

While Williams is certainly the favorite to win the Heisman entering the season, Jordan Travis is my pick. The sixth-year senior is one of the three best quarterbacks in the country. He was the only FBS signal-caller who placed in the top 15 in both big-time throw rate (10th) and turnover-worthy play rate (12th) last year. His 91.7 grade trailed only Williams in 2022 among Power Five quarterbacks.

While stats certainly play a major role in who takes home the Heisman Trophy, it’s also a narrative-driven award. If Travis and Florida State are as good as I believe they will be this season, there likely won’t be a better story in college football. The Seminoles endured four straight losing seasons from 2018 to 2021. Before that, they hadn’t had a sub-.500 year since 1976.

Behind one of the most loaded rosters in the country, I’m predicting Travis to lead Florida State to the College Football Playoff. His toughest test will come in Week 1, when No. 8 Florida State takes on sixth-ranked LSU and the next player on this list.

3. QB Jayden Daniels, LSU Tigers

Jayden Daniels and LSU bounced back in a major way in 2022. He posted a career-high 87.8 grade in his first season in Baton Rouge while the Tigers went 10-4 after going a combined 11-12 in the previous two seasons. Daniels also led all quarterbacks in the country with 1,079 rushing yards and a 0.6% turnover-worthy play rate.

The winning quarterback of the LSU-Florida State game could take the early pole position on this list. Daniels would likely have to lead the Tigers to another SEC West title, and probably a College Football Playoff appearance, to win this award.

4. RB Blake Corum, Michigan Wolverines

The Heisman Trophy is awarded to “the most outstanding player in college football.” By that definition, it’s baffling that Blake Corum wasn’t at least invited to New York as a finalist in 2022.

He was the star player on a then-undefeated Michigan team that won the Big Ten championship and made the College Football Playoff for the second straight season. He finished with the highest-graded single season (96.2) by a Power Five player since PFF began charting college football in 2014. 

Highest-Graded Seasons in PFF College Era (Since 2014) | Power Five
Name School Position Season Grade
Blake Corum Michigan RB 2022 96.2
Kyle Pitts Florida TE 2020 96.0
Chase Young Ohio State EDGE 2019 96.0
Quinnen Williams Alabama DI 2018 96.0

The other three players were selected in the top five of their respective drafts, while Corum made the surprising decision to return for his senior season. His 96 combined rushing first downs and touchdowns were the second most in the country — behind only Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, who received 72 more carries. 

There are a couple of downsides to picking Corum, both outside of his control. One is that the Heisman Trophy is typically awarded to a quarterback. Of the 23 winners this century, only four have been non-quarterbacks. The other is that his teammate, Donovan Edwards, is also a top-10 running back in college football. Since Corum went down late in the season with an injury a year ago, there’s a good chance he splits more carries with Edwards this time around in order to keep both fresh for a potential run at a national championship.

5. QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington Huskies

Washington’s passing attack was one of the most electric in the country in 2022, and there are no signs of that changing this season. Michael Penix Jr. led all Power Five quarterbacks with 4,641 passing yards last year, and his 1.3% turnover-worthy play rate ranked fourth. He also returns the third-best receiving corps in the nation along with two offensive masterminds in head coach Kalen DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb. 

For Penix to win the first Heisman in program history, the Huskies will likely need to win the Pac-12 and make the College Football Playoff. 

6. QB Bo Nix, Oregon Ducks

Bo Nix enjoyed an incredible career resurgence in 2022. His 69.7% adjusted completion rate across his first three seasons at Auburn ranked just 108th among FBS quarterbacks. But this past season, Nix’s 82.3% mark led the Power Five and ranked second in the nation. He also led all quarterbacks in college football with 14 rushing touchdowns last season.

With the Pac-12 featuring three of the top five quarterbacks in the country, all eyes will be fixated on the conference in what’ll likely be its final year of existence. That should only help Williams, Penix and Nix in their Heisman campaigns. However, Nix will have to overcome losing his offensive coordinator from 2022, Kenny Dillingham — who left to become Arizona State’s head coach. Luckily for him, he still gets to throw to a top-10 receiving corps in the country, one that now features his adopted brother, Troy transfer Tez Johnson.

7. QB Drake Maye, North Carolina Tar Heels

Based on talent alone, Drake Maye should be No. 2 on this list. He’s the second-best quarterback in the country after Williams. His 45 big-time throws in 2022 were 10 more than the next-closest quarterback in the FBS, while his 899 rushing yards ranked third among the nation’s signal-callers.

The issue is that North Carolina's roster might not be good enough for Maye to have a real shot at the Heisman. The Tar Heels’ offensive line was one of the 15 lowest-graded units in the Power Five a year ago and lost one of its lone bright spots, left tackle Asim Richards, to the NFL. Both of Maye’s top targets are gone, too, in Josh Downs and Antoine Green. His new top receiver, Kent State transfer Tez Walker, is currently waiting on an NCAA appeal to allow him to play this year. 

8. QB Quinn Ewers, Texas Longhorns

Ewers is, by far, the biggest boom-or-bust player on this list. If he lives up to his potential, he could be Texas’ first Heisman winner since Ricky Williams in 1998. If he’s as inconsistent as last year, he could end up losing his job to Arch Manning.

Ewers flashed his ridiculous arm talent in 2022 with a 6.6% big-time throw rate that stood sixth among Power Five quarterbacks. The issues are his decision-making and accuracy, as his 65.2% adjusted completion rate was the eighth worst in that same group. 

Since he was dealing with an injury to his throwing shoulder for most of the season, it’s fair to expect some improvement this year. It also doesn’t hurt that Ewers will be throwing to the second-best receiving corps in college football in a conference not known for stingy defense.

9. WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State Buckeyes

Only four wide receivers have taken home the Heisman Trophy in its 88-year history, most recently DeVonta Smith in 2020. Marvin Harrison Jr. has the talent to make it five this season. He was both the highest-graded (90.2) and most valuable receiver in the country last year, according to PFF’s wins above average metric.

Against single coverage, Harrison’s 878 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns were the most among all FBS receivers. Like Corum, Harrison’s lone concern for winning this award could be his teammate. Emeka Egbuka is the second-best receiver in the country and could benefit from Harrison getting routinely double-teamed.

10. QB Cade Klubnik, Clemson Tigers

Klubnik is the only player on this list who wasn’t a full-time starter last season. However, he still deserves a spot here for his potential. Klubnik was the top quarterback recruit in the 2022 class and impressed in the ACC championship game with an adjusted completion rate of 91.1%. He was still relatively up and down as a true freshman, finishing with more turnover-worthy plays (five) than big-time throws (three).

Besides having a year under his belt, another reason to be optimistic about Klubnik taking the next step is the arrival of the best offensive coordinator in college football, Garrett Riley. Lincoln’s younger brother won the Broyles Award as TCU’s offensive coordinator in 2022, given to the best assistant coach in the country. His quarterback that year, Max Duggan, finished in second place for the Heisman Trophy.

If the Riley-Klubnik partnership leads No. 9 Clemson back to the College Football Playoff, expect to see the sophomore quarterback in New York City at the Heisman ceremony.

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