The Heisman Trophy shouldn’t be a quarterback-only honor. It’s been more than 25 years since Charles Woodson became the first primarily defensive player to win the award and, in many ways, that’s an indictment of the process.
This year, though, there actually are enough quarterbacks playing high-level football to have a deeper conversation about who’s worthy of a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist, who’s not and who still might be by the end of the year.
As of Sunday morning, per BetMGM, the Heisman Trophy favorites looked like this:
- Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy (+225)
- Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. (+300)
- LSU QB Jayden Daniels (+500)
- Florida State QB Jordan Travis (+700)
- Oklahoma QB Dillon Gabriel (+1100).
Oregon QB Bo Nix, Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Georgia QB Carson Beck, North Carolina QB Drake Maye and Texas QB Quinn Ewers round out the top 10.
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Is that a fair list, though?
Taking Harrison out of the equation here — he’s not a quarterback, obviously — we can break this down with a few key metrics: expected points added per dropback, EPA/dropback (without play action), EPA/dropback (scrambles/designed runs included), percentage of completions that went 20 yards or more, percentage of completions that resulted in a first down or a touchdown, third-and-long (third-and-7 or more) conversion rate and passer efficiency.
With all that in mind, here’s how I’d bucket the quarterbacks in the Heisman conversation, if the season ended today:
Jayden Daniels, LSU: 2,573 yards (223 attempts), 30 TDs, 3 INTs, 73.1 percent completions, 521 rushing yards
J.J. McCarthy, Michigan: 1,799 yards (169 attempts), 21 TDs, 3 INTs, 78.1 percent completions, 3 rushing TDs
Vegas has this pair at the top — Daniels is tied with Penix for the second-best odds behind McCarthy. That looks about right, except I’d flip Daniels and McCarthy. They’d be my top two contenders as of Sunday, and the only two I’d likely lock in on a three-man ballot.
When we take all of the metrics listed above into account, and look at which passers have benefitted most from yards after catch (Daniels and McCarthy are near the bottom of that list), those QBs stand out — by a pretty decent chunk.
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Neither player has been perfect this season. Daniels had some hiccups in a disappointing season-opening loss to Florida State; McCarthy made a few younger-version-of-himself mistakes versus Bowling Green in September. However, each has been lights out in every other appearance.
McCarthy and Daniels rank No. 1 and No. 2 in EPA/dropback, EPA/dropback without play action and EPA/dropback with runs included. McCarthy has been lethal on third-and-long (73.1 percent completion rate, No. 1 in the FBS), and Daniels has been better as a downfield passer (30.1 percent of his completions have gone for 20-plus yards).
Both QBs are working with highly talented targets, which of course helps — Daniels has Malik Nabers; McCarthy might have the deepest group of weapons in America.
I would give Daniels a slight edge here, though, based on the fact LSU has played an extremely difficult schedule. Daniels, who was on bye this week, will get a major chance to make some NFL Draft money — and cement himself as a serious Heisman candidate — when LSU visits Alabama on Nov. 4. The Tigers wrap their regular season with home games versus Florida, Georgia State and Texas A&M.
McCarthy, meantime, has even bigger opportunities on his plate: road games at Penn State (Nov. 11) and Maryland (Nov. 18), then a home finale against Ohio State (Nov. 25). McCarthy absolutely should be in the Heisman discussion, as his current odds suggest. If his numbers continue to climb, and Michigan keeps winning, he’ll be hard to move off the top spot.
Still in the debate
Michael Penix Jr., Washington: 2,576 yards (257 attempts), 20 TDs, 5 INTs, 70.8 percent completions
Bo Nix, Oregon: 2,089 yards (232 attempts), 21 TDs, 1 INT, 78.4 percent completions
Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma: 2,131 yards (233 attempts), 24 TDs, 3 INTs, 71.2 percent completions, 5 rushing TDs
Jaxson Dart, Ole Miss: 1,840 yards (184 attempts), 19 TDs, 3 INTs, 65.8 percent completions
This isn’t an overreaction to Penix’s poor day versus Arizona State late Saturday night, just more a reflection of what’s been realistic all year. Penix is playing in an extremely aggressive vertical pass attack with three future draft picks at receiver (Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk). The sixth-year senior ranks No. 3 nationally in EPA/dropback, but when you factor out play action — instances in which McCarthy and Daniels hold steady — Penix falls to No. 19.
MICHAEL. PENIX. JR.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 14, 2023
The argument that Penix has gotten more help than others, both from both his teammates and the offense he plays in, remains valid — which is why I’ve got him on the outside here. He also has plenty of chances to prove me wrong, especially since the Huskies dodged that Arizona State upset attempt to remain unbeaten.
Two names in this bucket that might surprise some: Gabriel and Dart.
Gabriel, who is also leading an unbeaten team, is up to No. 4 nationally in EPA/dropback and EPA/dropback without play action, No. 3 in EPA/runs and No. 10 in third-and-long conversion rate.
Dart ranks No. 1 nationally in percentage of completions of 20 yards or more, and he has been less reliant on run-after-catch numbers than the likes of Ewers, Nix and Williams. He’s also No. 10 in EPA/dropback and No. 8 in EPA/runs. He, like McCarthy, has put up big numbers through the air despite attempting fewer than 200 passes thus far — he’s put some big-time throws on tape. Ole Miss has played one of the country’s toughest schedules, too.
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Outside looking in
Quinn Ewers, Texas: 1,915 yards (213 attempts), 18 TDs, 3 INTs, 70.9 percent completions, 5 rushing TDs
Caleb Williams, USC: 2,277 yards (237 attempts), 30 TDs, 4 INTs, 70.0 percent completions, 7 rushing TDs
Jordan Travis, Florida State: 1,750 yards (218 attempts), 20 TDs, 2 INTs, 65.1 percent completions, 5 rushing TDs
Drake Maye, North Carolina: 2,249 yards (260 attempts), 19 TDs, 5 INTs, 65.4 percent completions, 5 rushing TDs
This ranking might be unfair to Ewers (No. 19 in EPA/dropback), who’s likely still in the Heisman discussion — and certainly would be there with a strong finish, although he’s now dealing with a shoulder injury suffered Saturday. The Texas passer has put up good numbers, but his week-to-week and drive-to-drive consistency still could be better.
Williams (No. 14 in EPA/dropback) is, well, Williams. We know what he can do, and — as the potential No. 1 pick in April — probably hold him to an unfair standard. That said, he was not good in a loss at Notre Dame and was hardly much better Saturday in a home loss to Utah.
Even the best have rough weeks. Williams remains the top NFL Draft prospect on the board.
Caleb Williams is full of emotion after the game pic.twitter.com/zaczFHzWxs
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 22, 2023
Drake Maye had scrapped through some stuff that was beyond his control, like a new offensive coordinator and the NCAA’s ruling his best WR ineligible early, but he has also gotten caught trying to do too much at times. As with Williams, his numbers likely aren’t changing too much about how NFL evaluators view him.
Travis (No. 24 in EPA/dropback) hasn’t been as efficient as the others on this list. He’s another QB playing with a loaded roster, including soaring WR Keon Coleman, that helps cover blemishes.
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My current top 3
If I had to cast my ballot today — and, remember, we’re talking about three-man ballots here — I’d go with the top two quarterbacks and the best overall player I’ve seen this year.
- Jayden Daniels
- J.J. McCarthy
- Marvin Harrison Jr.
For my money, Daniels and McCarthy have been the top two passers in the country this season, and each will have major opportunities to add further evidence to that. Big games can work both ways, though — one shaky performance could upend the Heisman (and playoff) race again.
Harrison, who’s playing with an inexperienced QB in an offense that hasn’t found itself, had as dominant a day as a receiver can have Saturday against a very good Penn State defense. A repeat performance in a win over Michigan next month would help him leapfrog over some — maybe all — of the QBs.
We’ll see how much things change as the regular season heads toward the finish line.
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(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photo of J.J. McCarthy: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)
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