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December 9, 2023

Heisman Trophy leaders in college football so far for 2023, ranked

Heisman Trophy leaders in college football so far for 2023, ranked

With the college football season at least one-third of the way through, we can really get a good look at not only the best teams in the country, but the best players. The Heisman race is opening up, and we have a bevy of talented players who are in the mix for the sports’ most prestigious individual award.

Which means our Heisman ballots are back, baby! Every few weeks my colleague Mark Schofield and I will be bringing you fresh new Heisman ballots, updated as more games get played. It’s worth noting that neither of us have an actual Heisman vote, but Mark definitely should and we will work on getting that changed, indubitably.

So, let’s get into the Officially Unofficial SB Nation Heisman Ballot (patent pending).

JP Acosta’s Ballot
First Place: Michael Penix Jr., QB, Washington

The Washington Huskies are just blasting every team they’ve played so far this season, and it’s behind an offense that’s playing like the best one in college football due to Penix. The sixth-year senior is putting up unbelievable stats in both the raw and advanced category. Penix leads the country in passing yards and passing touchdowns, while also leading the country in Positive Play Rate and Total EPA if you’re into that as well.

The only real knock on Penix’s Heisman case so far is the lack of Heisman moments vs. top competition, but with Pac-12 conference play beginning soon, look out for Penix and some signature Heisman moments.

Second Place: Caleb Williams, QB, USC

Look, it’s REALLY hard to win the Heisman twice in a college football career. Voter fatigue combined with other players dominating that year just kinda wash out previous winners, who may make it to New York but won’t win. Williams will for sure be headed to New York if he keeps his play up, however. He’s right behind Penix in passing touchdowns, 14th in passing yards and third in Total EPA and Positive Play Rate. Oh, he also hasn’t thrown an interception yet and does things like this on the regular:

Voter fatigue is a very real thing, but Williams is good enough and makes enough splash plays to work past that.

Third Place: Jordan Travis, QB, Florida State

The year of the senior QB is here, and with two super seniors in the top three of the Heisman ballot, it’s a testament to the effectiveness of both NIL and the transfer portal. Travis was a preseason dark horse Heisman pick, and there’s been nothing that changes that at all. The Seminoles are undefeated, and Travis has thrown ten touchdowns while adding two on the ground as the Noles march their way through the ACC. Travis also has the signature wins on deck, guiding the Noles to wins over both LSU and Clemson.

He hasn’t had the gaudy stat performances of the two in front of him yet, but with the success of the Seminoles continuing deep into the season, he’ll find his way to New York.

Honorable Mention: Oregon QB Bo Nix, Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders, Kansas QB Jalon Daniels, Duke QB Riley Leonard

Riley Leonard is an interesting case as a dark horse Heisman candidate. He’s leading the Duke Blue Devils to an undefeated record so far and has put up numbers in both the run and passing game, but it still feels like he’s being underrated. The Blue Devils took out Clemson on their home field to open the season and Leonard was good, but it feels like the Blue Devils have been somewhat forgotten. They have three big games left on the schedule however, starting this Saturday with a home game against Notre Dame, so if Leonard can impress there, his Heisman stock will rise even quicker.

Mark Schofield’s Ballot
First Place: Caleb Williams, QB, USC

My dear friend JP makes a number of brilliant points above, as he always does (except for that part about me receiving a real Heisman Trophy ballot because … yeah that is not happening anytime soon) but perhaps the wisest point he makes involves Williams.

Voter fatigue is a real thing. We have not seen a repeat winner of the Heisman since Archie Griffin. Yes, some players have come close, such as Glenn “Mr. Outside” Davis for Army, as well as Tim Tebow. But winning a pair of Heismans, let alone repeating, is a difficult feat.

Williams has the best shot in recent memory. He will also have some big stage moments coming up, starting this weekend against Colorado. Over the next month-plus USC plays not just Colorado, but Notre Dame, Utah, and Washington. That game against the Huskies, at least looking at it right now, might actually determine who ends up holding this trophy.

Second Place: Michael Penix, Jr, QB, Washington

See, this is why that Washington-USC game might determine who ends up holding college football’s most prestigious trophy aloft.

While Williams has been good, as JP points out, Penix has been just as good, if not better.

In some ways, you can view Washington’s offense in a similar light to what the Miami Dolphins are doing on Sundays. This Huskies offense is dynamic, explosive, and led by a QB in Penix who is pushing all the right buttons. Yes, his Heisman resume lacks a “Heisman Moment,” but with games against Oregon, USC, and Utah coming up, those can come.

As an aside, if this year’s Oregon-Washington tilt is half as good as last year’s, we are in for a treat.

Third Place: Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton, DT, Illinois

Part of the reason I will never receive an official Heisman ballot? My ongoing campaign on behalf of defensive players.

A few years ago I made a strong case for Will Anderson Jr., one that continued into last season.

That continues with Newton.

Remember, the Heisman is awarded to the player deemed the “most outstanding college football player” in the nation each season. For my money? Newton has a strong argument in his favor. Go beyond the 17 tackles and 2 sacks he has posted this year as a defensive lineman.

Against Penn State Pro Football Focus charted him with seven pressures. The rest of the Illinois defense accounted for five. Combined.

Watch him on these two plays against the Nittany Lions:

#Illinois DT Jer’Zhan Newton made a lot of plays as a pass rusher against Penn State, but this two play sequence on the goal line may be the best from him all season.

Wins the leverage battle on both and walks the guards into the RB’s paths on both plays. A dominant player, man. pic.twitter.com/4oS6E3tzav

— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) September 19, 2023

Newton is a tremendous football player. Will he win the Heisman? Absolutely not. But if I had a vote, he would certainly get one.

Honorable Mention: Oregon QB Bo Nix, Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders, Kansas QB Jalon Daniels, Duke QB Riley Leonard, Texas QB Quinn Ewers, Colorado DB/WR Travis Hunter

Compelling cases can be made for all six of these players to receive votes.

The game this weekend between Kansas and Texas might be one of the best games of the week, and the QB of whichever team emerges victorious will generate some buzz going forward. Also, Notre Dame has to bounce back from their loss to Ohio State and take on a Duke team that has one big win to their credit already this season, and Riley Leonard is making his own case for QB3.

Then there is the Colorado duo. Both Sanders and Hunter have been amazing this season — as they were last year at Jackson State — and what Hunter has done on both sides of the ball this year is worthy of mention.

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