Why Alabama quarterback Bryce Young could succeed where others failed, attempting to equal Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winner.
10 times they’ve tried and 10 times they’ve failed.
From Billy Sims to Lamar Jackson, each Heisman Trophy repeat bid has failed since Archie Griffin became the only two-time winner in 1975. For the first time since Jackson in 2017, another will try his hand at equaling Griffin, as Alabama quarterback Bryce Young navigates through the pitfalls and measuring sticks that come with trying to win over voters a second time.
There aren’t many glass ceilings left in the Heisman voting, but post-Griffin winning a second trophy has seemed nearly impossible.
No one has come closer than Tim Tebow, with the Florida quarterback and 2007 winner receiving the most first-place votes in 2008, yet still coming in third in the voting claimed by Oklahoma passer Sam Bradford.
Voters have cast their collective gaze elsewhere on the same team. See Adrian Peterson stealing for Oklahoma as Jason White was third in his 2004 follow-up and the same with Reggie Bush a year later when his USC teammate Matt Leinart returned for a repeat bid.
They’ve held past winners to a different standard, with Johnny Manziel throwing for more yards and touchdowns in 2013 than when he won in 2012, yet his on-and off-field antics — who can forget rubbing his fingers together to symbolize money after he was suspended for a half for allegedly receiving money for an autograph signing? — led to his finishing fifth. That tied for the worst finish of any winner invited to the ceremony.
That Griffin still stands alone becomes that much more surprising given that since Tebow in 2008, there have been seven sophomores or redshirt freshmen that won. But no one has been higher than the third-place finishes of Tebow (2009) and Jackson (2017), and five of those follow-up bids have seen a past winner finish fifth (twice), sixth (once) or completely out of the top 10 (twice).
Why will Young’s attempt at history be any different?
It won’t hurt that everyone’s chasing his team, with the Crimson Tide the preseason No. 1 by a wide margin, taking 54 first-place votes in the AP Top 25 and 54 in the Coaches Poll as well. He’ll be the fourth winner to open the season on the nation’s No. 1 team, and USC’s Leinart is the only one of the other three to play a season not derailed by injury (see Alabama’s Mark Ingram) or scandal (see Florida State’s Jameis Winston and his explicit outburst).
While he does have competition on his own team, unlike Leinart and White, the chief name there is linebacker Will Anderson Jr. Remember those aforementioned glass ceilings? No strictly defensive player has ever won, and only three have even been runner-up. If it comes down to a repeat winner or a defender, the tendencies of the voting body — of which this writer is a part of — will likely side with the defining program of the last decade-plus gaining that distinction of a Heisman repeat.
Don’t buy that?
In 2012 it was Manziel, a redshirt freshman, vs. Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, a linebacker. Voters decided to finally put that dreaded word “freshman” atop their ballot than back a strictly defensive player.
Put up numbers, stay healthy, and Young is in the hunt. Few returners have seemed to be in a better position than Young, but he’s not only being weighed against the rest of the contenders, he’s being stacked up against his own past and 47 years of stigma that has come with those seeking that Heisman repeat.
The push for history begins Sept. 3, as the Crimson Tide open vs. Utah State.
Here are the challengers to know for this year’s Heisman, broken down into tiers.
Heisman Watch 2022: Tier I, The Favorites
CJ Stroud, Ohio State
The betting favorite, Stroud finished fourth a year ago and earned a spot at the ceremony as a finalist after throwing for 4,435 yards, 44 touchdowns and six interceptions with a 71.9 percent completion percentage and the highest passer rating (186.6) of any Power Five player. A player hasn’t gone from finishing fourth one year to hoisting the Heisman the next since USC’s Charles White in 1979, and it’s happened just four times in all.
After leading the nation in total offense (561.2 yards per game) and points (45.7 per), the Buckeyes are down Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, but it’s an embarrassment of riches at receiver and they’re going to put up a ridiculous number of points with Stroud throwing to star wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba, along with Marvin Harrison Jr. Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson are going to get Heisman love as well, but Stroud is the poster boy of this offense and its household name. As the Buckeyes go, so too will Stroud’s candidacy.
Bryce Young, Alabama
As explained above, everything is going to be magnified in Young’s bid to win a second trophy. But it boils down to this: can he equal or surpass his 2021 numbers and keep the Crimson Tide on track for a spot in the playoff? He threw for a program-record 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns with seven picks as a sophomore, but Alabama lost all three of its starting wide receivers from a year ago and has an offensive line with plenty of questions after losing both tackles.
Of course, missing players at receiver and line issues were problems in the national title game and Young still threw for 369 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Georgia. Young has another offseason of development in the system and a home-run hitter kind of running back in Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs to take pressure off of him. The best finish for a repeat winner since 1975 has been Billy Sims coming in second that season. Can Young equal that or do the unthinkable and join Griffin?
Caleb Williams, USC
Last season at Oklahoma, Williams muscled his way into the conversation for a month, taking the starting job from Spencer Rattler vs. rival Texas and averaging over 300 yards of offense in October. But he fizzled the following month and didn’t end up making the top 10 in voting after throwing for 1,912 yards, 21 touchdowns and four picks and running for another 442 yards and six scores.
He’ll look to build on the positives from that season after following his Sooners coach Lincoln Riley to USC and will benefit from the Trojans’ addition of another transfer, last season’s Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison. USC has a manageable slate, facing just two Top-25 teams (No. 7 Utah on Oct. 15 and No. 5 Notre Dame on Nov. 26) and has eight opponents that ranked 58th or lower against the pass last year.
Heisman Watch 2022: Tier II, The Next Wave
Will Anderson Jr., Alabama
He may be the best player in the country and is already sitting atop most 2023 NFL mock drafts. The Heisman, as we know, isn’t a most valuable player award and isn’t always given to the top talent in the land. Anderson has the benefit of coming in fifth last season and earning 31 first-place votes in the process, and that coming back after that finish creates a unique situation.
No defensive player who ever finished that high in the voting took the field again the following season. History would tell us that with a Heisman winner on his team, voters’ eyes are likely to stray elsewhere on the Alabama roster and that should help Anderson … but that’s that whole defense hangup. There could be shades of Ndamukong Suh, who had to settle for fourth in 2009 despite his dominance, but Anderson is going to make a push a season after leading the country in sacks (17.5) and tackles for loss (34.5).
Bijan Robinson, Texas
Running backs have won more Heismans than any other position, with 42 in all. That includes taking 21 of the first 27 and a run from 1973-1983 in which the position won every year. That stranglehold was broken long ago, with backs having produced just two currently recognized wins since 2000 — Ingram in 2009 and fellow Alabama runner Derrick Henry in 2015 — and since Henry’s win, the only running back to finish better than fourth was Stanford’s Bryce Love, who was the runner-up in 2017.
Robinson, namesake of a gourmet Dijon mustard, might be the position’s best bet to change all that. The junior ran for 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns on 195 carries last season, while also catching 26 balls for 295 yards and four scores. He faded down the stretch in 2021, failing to go over 90 yards in any of the last three games. Robinson is going to need a fast start with a date with No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 10, a stage that could well make or break his candidacy.
Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma
In the great quarterback carousel of 2021, Gabriel was originally committed to UCLA after leaving UCF, only to flip to Oklahoma and new coach Brent Venables after Williams bolted for USC and will be the Sooners’ third starting quarterback in the past year. Gabriel threw for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns under new Sooners offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby when the two were together in Orlando in 2019, and that familiarity could be crucial.
The Sooners are returning just five starters on offense from last season, including four of their top five pass-catchers and the two leading rushers. Gabriel will benefit from the return of Marvin Mimis, who had 32 catches for 705 yards and five scores, and with over 8,000 career yards, Gabriel is more than capable of putting up the kind of numbers to keep him in the race.
Heisman Watch 2022: Tier III, The Long-Shots
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
DeVonta Smith’s 2020 win showed there’s an appetite for voting for a receiver, even if that player’s own quarterback is the more logical choice to win. Smith-Njigba will hope to replicate that, as the nation’s best pass-catcher looks to build off a season in which he had 95 receptions for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns. He got the ball rolling in Ohio State’s Rose Bowl win over Utah as Wilson and Olave sat out, establishing a record for any FBS bowl game with 347 yards on a school-record 15 catches with three scores.
When Smith won, his quarterback (Mac Jones) finished third, but before that, there were only two instances of a wide receiver and a quarterback from the same team finishing in the top 10 (Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree in 2008, and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook in 2016). Neither school won the award in those seasons.
If Smith-Njigba grabs enough attention will the Buckeyes follow suit or did Smith’s win show a wideout can outshine his passer in voters’ eyes? That it’s up for debate makes Smith-Njigba a long shot going into the season.
Spencer Rattler, South Carolina
One-half of the Palmetto State’s candidates, Rattler looked like a future Heisman winner during a 2020 season in Norman when he threw for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns, only to lose his job to Williams the following season. He’s now under the tutelage of Shane Beamer in Columbia and brings plenty of hype to a program that has had one player finish in the top 10 — Jadeveon Clowney, who was sixth in 2012 — since George Rogers won in 1980.
But which player is Rattler: the one that led the Sooners to a Big 12 championship two years ago, or the one that was benched a year later? That we don’t know is why Rattler finds himself in long-shot territory, but the potential of putting the Gamecocks on his back in the rugged SEC makes him worth watching.
D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
Things didn’t go as planned in Uiagalelei’s first season at the helm of the Tigers. With the added pressure of following one of the best players the school had ever produced at the position in Trevor Lawrence, Uiagalelei was bottled up in a season-opening loss to eventual national champion Georgia, through eight games had gone over 181 yards passing once and ended up with more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). Uiagalelei was the lowest-rated passer in the ACC and 107th overall (101.7).
So why is he even on this list?
The Tigers remain the best team in the conference and Uiagalelei is going to have to put it together with freshman Cade Klubnik applying pressure. With a schedule that doesn’t heat up until late September, Uiagalelei has time to get the kinks out and prove he belongs.