Are you exhausted by conference realignment chatter? Does the chaotic state of college sports make you yearn for the days of yore? Are you having a hard time getting excited about this fall?
Fear not, because here’s a story we can all get behind on.
For the first time in almost 50 years, we might see something special. You can make a case that no player in recent memory is better positioned to win a second straight Heisman Trophy than Caleb Williams.
The USC quarterback is the betting favorite to repeat for good reason. The junior has a shot to lead the Trojans to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the College Football Playoff. If he does so and statistically has a similar season to last year when he passed for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns, he’ll win easily. There hasn’t been a back-to-back Heisman recipient since Ohio State running back Archie Griffin won in 1974 and 1975.
Williams will benefit by playing in a Lincoln Riley offense with a proven track record. At Oklahoma, Riley turned Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into Heisman winners.
So, it’s reasonable to expect Williams will be just as good or better in his third year in Riley’s system. We all expected Williams to do great things at USC when he transferred to follow his coach from Norman, Oklahoma to Los Angeles. But 2022 was next level. For 2023, he might rewrite the record books again.
Williams will be without his top target from last season in Jordan Addison, who was a first-round pick in 2023 by the Minnesota Vikings. But veteran wide receivers Tahj Washington, Mario Williams, and Brenden Rice are back, and the Trojans added All-Pac-12 Arizona transfer Dorian Singer.
USC’s schedule is manageable. The Trojans should be undefeated heading into their nationally televised showdown at Notre Dame on Oct. 14. The following week is a home game against Utah. In November, there are consecutive games against Washington (home) and Oregon (road). If Williams performs at a high level in victories over Notre Dame and Utah, that might be enough to put him way ahead of the competition.
What could sabotage Williams’s Heisman chances? Last year, he had to overcome a porous defense that allowed 29.2 points per game. The Trojans’ 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game cost them a shot at the CFP. And they were embarrassed by Tulane 46-45 in the Cotton Bowl.
There’s also the issue of voter fatigue. Heisman winners who return to school often face tougher standards. If you’re not as statistically dominant or your team isn’t as good, it will cost you votes. The 2021 Heisman winner Bryce Young’s passer rating dipped only slightly last year (163.2 vs. 167.5 in 2021). However, Alabama had a “down year”, going 11-2 with road losses to Tennessee and LSU. Young finished sixth in the voting. Johnny Manziel had far better passer statistics in 2013 than he did in his 2012 Heisman year. However, Texas A&M slipped to 9-4 and Manziel finished fifth in 2013.
In January, David M. Hale weighed in on Williams’ tall task for ESPN.com.
“It’s not unreasonable to think that Williams and the Trojans could be better in 2023 than they were in 2022. Still, the Heisman voters have been loath to vote for a player twice, so it remains an uphill battle. Should Williams take even a small step back, the list of alternatives is long — (Drake) Maye, Jordan Travis, Michael Penix Jr., Bo Nix, among others — but if a repeat winner is ever going to happen again, Williams may have as good a shot as anyone.”
Williams has a slim margin for error. But he might put up numbers too big for even the most cynical voters to ignore. If he does, that will be a fun story to watch unfold in a sport that desperately needs positive press.