Caleb Williams is chasing Heisman Trophy history on more than one level.
The USC quarterback is attempting to join Ohio State running back Archie Griffin as the only repeat winners. But the list of Heisman honorees who finished second the following year is equally short. It includes Oklahoma running back Billy Sims, who won the Heisman in 1978 and was runner-up to USC’s Charles White in 1979, and nobody else.
Even a third-place finish the succeeding year is a high bar for the winners, with just six players accomplishing that feat: SMU running back Doak Walker, BYU quarterback Ty Detmer, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White, USC quarterback Matt Leinart, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Williams has all the ingredients necessary to return to New York City as a finalist, from the brand power of his school to the video-game statistics he produces each week to the big-stage showdowns looming in the heart of the season.
But like so many other winners, Williams is competing against himself — against the standard he set last year and the hype he generated throughout the offseason.
Also, he’s competing against USC’s rickety defense, which stands to cost the Trojans a game or two (or three). And if the Trojans are out of the playoff hunt in the stretch run, Williams’ candidacy could suffer.
Welcome to our weekly look at the Pac-12’s leading Heisman Trophy candidates via an assessment of the top players in the conference. Consider this one Heisman voter’s view of the landscape.
The rankings below are based on individual performance, value to the team and quality of competition.
Also considered: Arizona State WR Elijhah Badger, USC AP Zachariah Branch, Oregon WR Troy Franklin and Colorado WR/CB Travis Hunter.
1. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.
Last week: 1
Key stats: 399.8 yards per game, 11.2 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns
Comment: Penix’s standard of excellence is so high that throwing for 363 yards in a road win (at Arizona) felt like a subpar performance. He has the platform to potentially take control of the race in two weeks when the Huskies host Oregon.
2. USC QB Caleb Williams
Last week: 4
Key stats: 217.7 passer rating, 11.4 yards per attempt, 21 touchdowns
Comment: After Penix duels with Oregon’s Bo Nix on the afternoon of Oct. 14, Williams will take center stage on hallowed ground. USC’s primetime showdown with Notre Dame will determine whether Williams enters the second half of the season as the frontrunner or a contender.
3. Oregon QB Bo Nix
Last week: 2
Key stats: 184.7 passer rating, 80.4 completion percentage, 15 touchdowns
Comment: Nix completed 27-of-32 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns in the victory at Stanford and dropped a spot in our rankings. Such is life in the Pac-12 this season. His chances to ascend are coming, in unrelenting fashion.
4. Washington State QB Cam Ward
Last week: 3
Key stats: 347.3 yards per game, 74.5 completion percentage, zero interceptions
Comment: The most recent Heisman odds from BetMGM list 11 players ahead of Ward. Keep everything about his season the same and change the name on his uniform to USC or Texas, and he would be in the lead pack alongside Penix, Williams and Nix.
5. Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders
Last week: 5
Key stats: 356.2 yards per game, 74.8 completion percentage, 15 touchdowns
Comment: Sanders was marvelous in the second half against USC and finished with numbers that suggest he should remain on the top tier. But victories are essential to sustained Heisman campaigns. A few more losses, and Sanders’ prospects will plunge.
6. Washington WR Rome Odunze
Last week: 6
Key stats: 19 yards per catch, 4 touchdowns, 141.8 all-purpose yards per game
Comment: The best offensive player in the conference who doesn’t play quarterback had a modest evening in the desert with five catches for 64 yards. The margin for receivers is thin. Odunze needs a big game against the Ducks.
7. Utah DE Jonah Elliss
Last week: 7
Key stats: 10.5 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks
Comment: If the season ended today, Elliss would be our pick for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. The son of former Utah star Luther Elliss leads the country in sacks and is second in tackles-for-loss. At his current rate, he will be a finalist for numerous national defensive awards.
8. Oregon State TB Damien Martinez
Last week: 10
Key stats: 99.4 yards per game, 6.8 yards per carry
Comment: The Pac-12’s best tailback managed just 65 yards against Utah’s granite defense but remains on pace for all-conference honors and a 1,000-yard season. As Martinez goes, so go the Beavers — and they hope to go all the way to the conference championship.
9. Cal TB Jaydn Ott
Last week: Not ranked
Key stats: 117.8 yards per game, 5 touchdowns
Comment: Ott carved up Arizona State for 165 yards last weekend and is one of the top off-the-radar playmakers in the conference. Cal simply doesn’t participate in enough high-profile games for Ott to gain recognition outside the conference footprint.
10. Washington State Edge Ron Stone Jr.
Last week: 9
Key stats: 20 tackles, 4 tackles-for-loss, 2 fumbles forced
Comment: Stone lost early-season momentum due to a drop in production and WSU’s bye. But a major opportunity awaits this week against UCLA’s wobbly offensive line, which surrendered seven sacks to Utah.
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