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2023 Heisman Trophy watch list: Caleb Williams, J.J. McCarthy, Quinn Ewers headline top 10 candidates

After spending his freshman year at Oklahoma, Caleb Williams followed head coach Lincoln Riley to USC and led the Trojans to a resurgent 11-3 season en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.
After spending his freshman year at Oklahoma, Caleb Williams followed head coach Lincoln Riley to USC and led the Trojans to a resurgent 11-3 season en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.

Call it the Archie Griffin Curse, if you'd like.

For whatever reason, Griffin remains the only man in college football history to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy award twice, doing so in 1974 and '75 as a star tailback for Ohio State. Several big-name winners have won the award with college eligibility remaining -- including Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Johnny Manziel, Lamar Jackson and, most recently, Bryce Young -- but none could repeat.

That's the history staring USC QB Caleb Williams in the face as the reigning Heisman winner. Williams threw for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns (against just five interceptions) while also running for 382 yards and 10 more scores in a brilliant sophomore campaign. And, not yet eligible for the NFL draft, he's back with a talented Trojans offense built for him to hoist the stiff-arming statue once again.

But we know how that goes. Some years, the August favorite is out of the race by October. One injury, one crushing loss -- a Heisman campaign can go up in flames just that quickly.

And the 2023 college football season promises to be rich in talent at quarterback, the position that has won the award in 19 of the past 23 seasons, which will give Williams some serious competition across the country. Plus, we've seen two non-QBs win it recently -- Alabama WR DeVonta Smith in 2020 and Crimson Tide RB Derrick Henry in 2015 -- so the field appears even more potentially open for competition.

Below you'll find my 10 best candidates to win the 2023 Heisman Trophy. The toughest cuts included a slew of talented QBs: Oregon's Bo Nix, Tennessee's Joe Milton, Clemson's Cade Klubnik, Notre Dame's Sam Hartman and Penn State's Drew Allar, to name a few, along with some who have yet to formally win the starting job (SEE: Ohio State's Kyle McCord and Georgia's Carson Beck).

But before we dive into the top 10, let me hit you with a couple sleeper candidates ...


Conner Weigman
Texas A&M · QB · Sophomore

Why he could win: No apologies needed if you tuned out on the Aggies' 2022 season following the upset loss to Appalachian State -- or during the six straight Ls they took in October and November. But what you missed down the stretch was a rather intriguing performance from Weigman, who threw for eight TDs and zero picks in five games after taking over against South Carolina. Weigman wasn't perfect, and this A&M squad has a long way to go, but the true sophomore is a former five-star recruit with dual-threat ability and enough intriguing weapons -- WR Ainias Smith and mega-recruit RB Rueben Owens are two big ones -- to thrive this season.

There's massive pressure on Jimbo Fisher to deliver more wins, given his massive contract, but don't forget Fisher can be an excellent quarterback sherpa if he has the right talent in his hands. Texas A&M has cycled through many QB options in recent years, but Weigman just might be the guy who helps rescue the Aggies from the doldrums they've found themselves in.

Biggest potential roadblock: One rather sizable one is that Weigman has yet to be named starting quarterback, which is kind of a big deal. He remains locked in a duel with Max Johnson -- with star recruit Marcel Reed also waiting in the wings -- and the loser of that battle should probably be on ready alert the way last season went. So let this be clear: Weigman should be considered a pretty deep sleeper until he wins that battle.

Weigman has attempted 132 college passes and completed just over 55 percent of them. He also fumbled three times and took nine sacks in his five games. As intriguing as last season's debut was, there were enough warts if you look hard enough. Weigman has the talent, but he doesn't have much room for learning on the fly.

In addition to Weigman winning the job, it might take a TCU-like revival for the program and a big statistical jump over a full season for him to enter the Heisman mix. But there was enough in his late-season play for me to go out on a limb here.

Nicholas Singleton
Penn State · RB · Sophomore

Why he could win: Perhaps hyped QB Drew Allar will blowtorch opponents this season and become the centerpiece of the Nittany Lions' offense. I'm not ruling that possibility out. But in a relatively limited sample size, Singleton showed last year he could be a Saquon Barkley-like weapon with true home-run-hitting ability, averaging 6.8 yards per carry and ripping off a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD against Rutgers.

Singleton also displayed some terrific short-yardage ability, with rare vision to pick through tiny creases and elite burst through the hole. He's expected to be used more as a pass catcher, too, which will help his visibility. But one way or another, Singleton needs his paws on the football more than the 12.9 touches per game he averaged last year. Barkley averaged 22 touches in 2017, when he finished fourth in the Heisman voting.

Biggest potential roadblock: Singleton wasn't the only talented young back in Happy Valley last year -- and he won't be this season, either. Kaytron Allen was also terrific as a freshman with 867 rush yards and 10 scores, and PSU also added Minnesota transfer Trey Potts to the RB mix. It would be hard for Allen, in particular, not to receive a fairly big workload, as well.

Plus, Allar might be able to do things that Sean Clifford could not. Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich is entering his third year calling plays, and it wouldn't be shocking if he wants to open up the passing game more. Singleton might be part of that, but he caught just 11 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown last season -- meager production that must improve for Heisman consideration.


Shedeur Sanders
Colorado · QB · Junior

Why he could win: Hey, why not? The biggest story this offseason in college football -- outside of realignment madness -- has been the Buffaloes importing Deion Sanders as head coach, drawing national attention to a long-downtrodden CU program. The fact that his son is quarterback certainly gives us a fascinating hook. Everyone wants to see the Buffs this season (even if they're not guaranteed to be a great team), so you can expect a lot of them in prime viewing slots.

And the kid can play. Really. He's a dual-threat QB with a live arm and some magic to his game. Sanders had a 40:6 TD-to-INT ratio last season while also running for six more scores, and I expect the same pedal-to-the-medal approach in Boulder. The Buffs have imported some decent skill-position talent and could run a lot of four-WR sets if former five-star CB Travis Hunter lines up more on offense. Colorado could be one of the more fun teams to watch offensively.

Biggest potential roadblock: Deion Sanders has definitely impressed in his three-year college coaching tenure, but is the man a certified miracle worker? Colorado's roster is almost completely overhauled from last season, when the Buffaloes went 1-11 and were outscored by nearly 30 points per game. Most everyone expects them to be better in 2023, but by how much? There was once a time when Paul Hornung could win the Heisman with Notre Dame going 2-8, but those days are long gone. Lamar Jackson won it in 2016 with a 9-4 Louisville squad, so that at least gives us a more realistic team projection for what it might take at CU.

Plus, Shedeur faces a steep step up from the SWAC in terms of competition. Even if Colorado inevitably finds itself in some shootouts this season, that's no guarantee that Sanders will rack up impressive numbers and avoid turnovers like he did at Jackson State. Sure, there's unprecedented excitement around the program, but who's to say this whole thing can't blow up this season by the end of September?

Brock Bowers
Georgia · TE · Junior

Why he could win: Bowers has starred for the back-to-back national champion Bulldogs, becoming a household name among college football fans. He also has served as UGA's leading pass catcher in each of the past two seasons -- and very likely could make it three straight this fall. Not to mention, Bowers finds the end zone a lot: In two seasons (29 games), he's caught 20 TD passes and even has run for four scores.

Georgia is college football's big dog now until proven otherwise. UGA will have choice matchups against SEC teams from about late September on. It's hard to say how Bowers will fare without Stetson Bennett, but the Dawgs are loaded with candidates to replace him at QB: Carson Beck, Brock Vandagriff and Gunner Stockton.

Biggest potential roadblock: The last time a tight end cracked the top 10 was back in 1977. The position just isn't given the same respect that even running backs or wide receivers earn in relation to this award, even in cases of superior receiving talents such as Bowers. Kyle Pitts might have been an interesting study if he'd stayed healthy for the full season in 2020, but injuries limited him to eight games (in which he scored 12 touchdowns).

Bowers might have to produce at that kind of pace and have a monster November to even be on voters' radars as a serious candidate. Georgia also has been such a run-dominant team the past several seasons, it would be hard to imagine Kirby Smart and Co. getting away from that. That means it's entirely possible that Bowers has too many three- and four-catch games to even hang with some of college football's top WR talents.

Drake Maye
North Carolina · QB · Sophomore (RS)

Why he could win: Maye is one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the country, compared talent-wise to Justin Herbert. In his first season starting as a redshirt freshman, Maye threw for 4,321 yards and 38 TDs (against just seven interceptions) and ran for a team-high 698 yards and seven more scores. He accounted for five touchdowns in five of his 14 games and only appeared to be scratching the surface of his immense talent.

The Tar Heels started out 9-1 last season, helping Maye finish 10th in the Heisman Trophy voting. UNC lost three games by one possession and lost their final four outings, which took a lot of steam out of Maye's candidacy. If the Heels have to lean on Maye this season as much as they did in 2022 -- and assuming the defense and run game haven't taken major strides -- there could be a lot of aerial fireworks from the Carolina Blue and White this fall. Maye should have a host of weapons to throw to, even with WRs Josh Downs and Antoine Green off to the NFL.

Biggest potential roadblock: Phil Longo, the Heels' offensive wizard the past few years, has left for Wisconsin. New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is an experienced play caller, but doesn't quite have the track record of his predecessor. One of the early tasks will be to make sure the pass blocking holds up. When Maye was pressured -- check out the brutal loss to Georgia Tech -- the offense went to shambles.

A wicked September slate also could derail Maye's Heisman chances before they ever get off the ground. And for good measure, UNC closes out the season with a rough road duo: at Clemson and North Carolina State, both of whom beat the Tar Heels last year and have NFL-caliber QB talents. (Clemson's Cade Klubnik, who outplayed Maye head to head last season, just missed the cut for this list.) And after all, Maye might be the next Herbert, but Herbert spent four years at Oregon and never cracked the top 10 in the Heisman voting. A fair number of talented, NFL-quality signal-callers are routinely ignored for the award.

Penix Jr._Michael
Michael Penix Jr.
Washington · QB · Senior (RS)

Why he could win: The flame-throwing lefty is now a household name among college football followers, having started his career at Indiana back in 2018. His winding road has landed him in Seattle, where Penix displayed NFL-caliber ability last season, throwing for 4,641 yards -- second in the FBS and more than USC's Caleb Williams, in one fewer game -- and accounting for 35 total TDs. Kalen DeBoer's offense appears loaded again around Penix, with WRs Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, the foundation of a good O-line and RBs Cameron Davis and Dillon Johnson.

Washington will open the season with a seven-game win streak as a true contender for the Pac-12 title. If things go right, there's a realistic path to the College Football Playoff, even in its final year of the four-team format. With several showcase games on the schedule, including must-see showdowns against USC's Caleb Williams and Oregon's Bo Nix, Penix will have every chance to win over voters. The rematch against the Ducks could be an all-timer.

Biggest potential roadblock: The Huskies face a few landmines, including the home opener against Boise State, an early-season visit to Michigan State and the likely-underdog game at USC. There are even a few sneaky tough roadies at Arizona and Oregon State, both of whom matched up well against Washington last year.

Health also is a hidden factor we must consider. Penix was healthy last season, starting all 13 games, but injuries have followed him throughout his career. He suffered torn ACLs in both 2018 and 2020, a clavicle injury in 2019 and an AC joint (shoulder) injury in 2021. Penix was one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the country last season, which helped, but the odds might be against the 23-year-old making it through the season unscathed.

Jordan Travis
Florida State · QB · Senior (RS)

Why he could win: Once a message-board target for angry FSU fans during his early-career struggles, Travis now represents their best hopes for a playoff shot since Jameis Winston left. Travis took a major step forward last season in throwing for 3,214 yards and 24 TDs, running for seven more scores and even catching a TD pass. He's experienced and looks like a perfect fit in Mike Norvell's high-octane system.

Now he's back for his sixth college season, ready to guide one of the more talented offensive units in the country. The O-line appears to be massively helped by the transfer portal, and the run game has significantly developed in Tallahassee. But it's Travis' receiving weapons that really lather us up, including 6-foot-7, 240-pound WR Johnny Wilson, South Carolina transfer TE-RB Jaheim Bell and Michigan State transfer WR Keon Coleman. FSU averaged 36.1 points last year, but that number could blow past 40 in 2023.

Biggest potential roadblock: The 'Noles have a tough opener in Orlando against LSU, who'll be seeking revenge after their upset loss to FSU a year ago at the Superdome. There are also tough road games sprinkled throughout the schedule -- at Clemson, Pitt and Florida -- that can't go overlooked.

There's also a chance that the run game, even with RB Treshaun Ward transferring to Kansas State, will be too good. FSU had eight 200-yard rushing games last season, which kept Travis' passing totals a bit watered down compared to some of the best passers in the country.

Harrison Jr._Marvin
Marvin Harrison Jr.
Ohio State · WR · Junior

Why he could win: Because he's the best receiver in college football, the son of a Hall of Fame wideout and one of the best talents at the position to come along in a few years. The 6-4, 205-pound Harrison was absolutely electric last season for the Buckeyes, catching 77 passes for 1,263 yards (a 16.4-yard average that's shocking for a man his size) and 14 TDs. Even with a few quiet games, Harrison diced up some terrific secondaries, including those of Michigan and Georgia, whom he stung for a combined 12 catches, 226 yards and three scores -- even if both games ended in losses.

The Buckeyes are expected to be monsters offensively again in the hands of Ryan Day, even with QB C.J. Stroud, OT Paris Johnson Jr., WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba and others off to the NFL. Kyle McCord, who was Harrison's high-school QB, is expected to pick up where Stroud left off; if not, Devin Brown could be that guy. WRs Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming might be No. 1 options were it not for the presence of Harrison. Oh, and OSU boasts the best RB trio in the country with TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden. Who do opponents game-plan to stop?

Biggest potential roadblock: The Buckeyes are so loaded and so balanced, it might be tough for Harrison to repeat his video-game numbers from 2022. He had three-catch games against the likes of Wisconsin and Rutgers and pedestrian yardage totals against Notre Dame and Northwestern (granted, it was in a deluge in that latter contest) a year ago.

The Buckeyes' biggest question offensively might be on the offensive line. Losing three starters -- Johnson and Dawand Jones at tackle and center Luke Wypler -- leaves some holes up front and could put a lot of pressure on OT Josh Simmons, a San Diego State transfer. Even with a strong interior O-line, the blocking might not be quite as good in 2023 as it was in 2022.

Plus, Harrison is a receiver. Yes, DeVonta Smith won the award in 2020, and Harrison having royal football blood doesn't hurt his cause, but there is still an invisible Heisman bias against wideouts for some reason.

Jayden Daniels
LSU · QB · Senior

Why he could win: Following an up-and-down tenure at Arizona State, Daniels endured a three-way QB crowd to turn in his best college season to date in 2022 and remind NFL scouts of the talent he previously flashed. The dual-threat Daniels accounted for 29 TDs (17 passing, 11 rushing, one receiving) in 14 games last year and will enter this season as one of the SEC's most experienced QBs. He's also bulked up his formerly spindly frame, which should help him stay healthy.

WR Malik Nabers is an NFL-caliber talent and a true No. 1 target who had 1,017 yards receiving last season. TE Mason Taylor looked like a blossoming star as a true freshman and appears poised for a bigger role. WR Brian Thomas Jr. also stepped up last season with five TD catches and figures to receive expanded volume with Kayshon Boutte in the NFL. The Tigers have some young standouts on both sides of the ball, and head coach Brian Kelly has this team thinking about championships -- of the SEC and national variety.

Biggest potential roadblock: Part of the hope this season is that Daniels won't have to run as much as he did a year ago. His 186 carries not only led the team, but they were more than the team's second- and third-leading rushers combined. Daniels may have crossed the 200-pound threshold with recent weight gains, but he's still lean -- and just took too many hits last season. Even if Daniels throws more, he'll almost certainly have to blow past his 208-yard passing average in 2022 to be a real Heisman contender in this day and age.

Kelly has said Daniels is the Tigers' starter, but the coach caught a few listeners off guard when he mentioned how backup Garrett Nussmeier was breathing down Daniels' neck for the job. Perhaps this is a way to convince Nussmeier to stay in the program and also to offer confidence in case Daniels gets hurt. But it was an intriguing nugget nonetheless, suggesting Kelly might think Daniels still needs to tighten up in some areas.

Quinn Ewers
Texas · QB · Sophomore (RS)

Why he could win: It's Texas. If the Longhorns win, you'll hear about it. They haven't been competing for national titles annually as they once did, but the program is back on the upswing again with the talent to make a big jump this season. Ewers is coming off a what-might-have-been season. He was tearing up Alabama in the second game of the year when he suffered a collarbone injury that knocked him out for a month. Ewers was up and down after returning, but had big outings against Oklahoma, Iowa State and Washington in the Alamo Bowl loss. And despite plenty of talent in the Texas QB room, Ewers cemented his role as the starter with a strong spring.

Texas has a beefy O-line and looks loaded with pass-catching talent, too, with WRs Xavier Worthy and Jordan Whittington and TE Ja'Tavion Sanders all returning and transfers Adonai Mitchell (Georgia) and Isaiah Neyor (who transfered from Wyoming last year, but suffered a torn ACL before the 2022 season kicked off) expected to add juice. With Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson off to the NFL, it will be shocking if the Longhorns don't surpass the 31.2 pass attempts per game they averaged last season.

Biggest potential roadblock: Ewers is the starter, but you might have heard about another QB on the roster. Arch Manning might have looked out of sorts this spring as he adjusted to college football, but he was born into football royalty and was the recruit every program in the country wanted before he committed to the Longhorns last summer. If Ewers is as inconsistent as he was a year ago (when he completed just 58.1 percent of his passes) and the team drops a few early games, the fans could throatily demand Steve Sarkisian to consider a switch. (And don't overlook QB Maalik Murphy, a physical freak who might be ahead of Manning on this depth chart.)

Many voters probably still need to be convinced that Texas isn't susceptible to more heartbreaking losses this season, so it's not only Ewers who needs to be more consistent -- it's the entire program. The early-season tilt at 'Bama could serve as a showcase setting for Ewers and the program ... or it could be a "wait till next year" type of game.

J.J. McCarthy
Michigan · QB · Junior

Why he could win: In 2022, Michigan beat Ohio State and made the College Football Playoff for a second straight season, with McCarthy ultimately pushing Cade McNamara out the door after claiming the starting QB job and becoming one of the conference's most promising young talents. Everything came crashing down in the shocking semifinal loss to TCU, but all signs point to another big season for Michigan and McCarthy.

The 6-foot-3, 202-pound QB only threw more than 27 times in three games last season, but became a weapon with his arm (2,719 yards, 22 TDs) and his legs (306 yards, five TDs). He'll be operating behind a bulwark of an offensive line and elevated by a terrific run game and defense that will make McCarthy's job a lot easier. Plus, the trust should now be there from Jim Harbaugh to put McCarthy in positions to help the Wolverines win games.

Biggest potential roadblock: McCarthy's accuracy waned as the season wore on, and the loss to TCU displayed some of his very best -- but also some of his very worst, as he threw two crushing pick-sixes, struggled with pressure and just missed some makeable throws. There's some refinement needed in his game to take another step, and Michigan's pass-catching talent might rank as good, but it's hardly one of the top groups in the country.

Michigan is a run-first team until proven otherwise, led by Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, two of the best running backs in the country. Harbaugh's formula has always been to wear people down with the ground game, and it's hard to see that changing, even with a terrific talent in McCarthy. And did you realize no Michigan QB has ever won the Heisman? That might not be a true roadblock, but it is interesting to note.

Caleb Williams
USC · QB · Junior

Why he could win: Well, he won it a year ago. Granted, I already noted the daunting history when it comes to repeating. But Williams is fresh off a brilliant season (4,537 pass yards, 52 total TDs), has the attention of NFL scouts and again will operate in one of the more QB-friendly environments in college football. Ever since Williams took the reins under Lincoln Riley two years ago at Oklahoma, it was clear he was a rare talent. The two of them reached even loftier heights last season, and now Kliff Kingsbury has joined the coaching staff to help add wisdom for Williams.

The offensive talent might not be quite what it was a year ago, but it remains extremely strong thanks to recruiting and the transfer portal. Jordan Addison is gone, but Arizona transfer WR Dorian Singer could put up Addison-like numbers this season. USC expects a far better defensive performance this season, but it still could find itself in a number of shootouts in what should be a wild season in the Pac-12, which has several talented quarterbacks. The Trojans leaned hard on Williams last year and might have to ask him to go out and win games by himself once more.

Biggest potential roadblock: Williams "popped his hamstring" in the Pac-12 title game, taking an absolute beating against Utah (SEE: seven sacks) while gamely trying to play through pain. It's a reminder that even superior talents of his ilk can't escape injury completely, and it was at least partly because of the titanic load he was asked to carry. There's some turnover at receiver, running back and along the offensive line, so keep an eye on how Williams holds up during the softer part of the schedule.

A few losses could bury Williams' chances of repeating, and there don't appear to be many cupcakes on the slate. Things really start heating up in October, with a trip to Notre Dame followed up by a home game against back-to-back Pac-12 champion Utah. With all the fine quarterbacks USC and Williams will face this season, the Trojans have minimal margin for error.

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