2023 Heisman Candidates: To start speculating early, who should belong on the watch list for the trophy?
2023 Heisman Candidates: Early Top Ten Watch List
Sure you had Caleb Williams on the short list of 2022 Heisman candidates last year at this time, but it wasn't a done deal he was going to USC.
CJ Stroud and even Stetson Bennett weren't tough to call, but Max Duggan?
Two years ago no one would've put Kenny Pickett on any Heisman list after a 13 touchdown season. In 2000, who thought a wide receiver - even one as good as DeVonta Smith - would win over one of the tremendous quarterback prospects?
Don't even start with Joe Burrow.
And then there's the truly crazy part about the 2022 race when it comes to basing any future Heisman predictions on talent. Bryce Young, Michael Penix Jr., Hendon Hooker, and Will Levis - and throw in Anthony Richardson - are all potential top ten overall draft picks, and none of them got to New York this year.
This is always tough to do because of all the stars coming out of the blue. This year it's almost impossible, and it's mainly because of the transfer portal.
Just assume a few of the guys on this list will be on a different team by the time it all starts, and a few others will end up being on here after they find a new home.
Who's going to be Deion's quarterback running Kent State's FlashFast style of offense at Colorado?
Really, who's going to be the quarterback at Ohio State? Alabama? Texas? Who's going to bomb away for a gajillion yards, and who's going to rise up out of nowhere and go full Duggan on the season.
Just assume that if you don't see your guy here - CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, Bijan Robinson, Spencer Rattler, Cam Rising - that's because he's a mortal lock to leave early for the NFL. If needed, we'll add those and other stars to the list on the fly.
The goal is getting the early 2023 Heisman call close to the pin - last year we did got two of the four finalists - but there will be some massive misses to go along with easy base hits.
Remember, this isn't a list of the best players. The Heisman is a popularity contest. It's about who has the big, splashy moments in the big, splashy games for the big, splashy teams.
2023 Heisman Candidates Watch List: Just In Case
The first ten are the Johnny Manziel/Cam Newton//Joe Burrow/DeVonta Smith honorary list of fliers, just in case one of them rises up and becomes amazing.
20. The Field
There are a whole slew of cop-outs on this list, and it starts with a big one. It's never a bad call if the betting world gives you The Field.
Again, Duggan, DeVonta, Burrow, Manziel, Lamar, Cam - you never know who's going to rise up and be a big Heisman thing. It's guaranteed that at least two players who'll be deep in the 2023 Heisman race aren't currently on this list.
19. Brock Bowers, TE Georgia
He's a tight end, so of course he's not going to win. He could be a finalist, though, if everything aligns correctly. The hype is going to be off-the-charts as he becomes the cause célèbre for the Best Player In College Football Heisman voting types.
18. KJ Jefferson, QB Arkansas
Like it is for every SEC quarterback, the chances to shine will be there. As is he's going to be one of the conference's best all-around playmakers and leaders, and his Heisman stock could go through the roof with slightly better passing numbers and a win over an SEC West big name.
17. DJ Uiagalelei, QB UNDECIDED
If I put Bo Nix here last season you'd all mock, laugh, and ridicule. And then Nix put up a Heisman-caliber season at Oregon. Uiagalelei might make the same transformation for the Ducks, or UCLA, or Auburn, or … he'll get his shot to shine somewhere large.
16. Georgia starting quarterback
Unlike other top teams later on down the list, the quarterback who takes over Georgia likely won't have the stats or responsibility to crank up a Heisman-level season. Even so, being the starting quarterback of another national title contender puts you on second base in the Heisman race.
Tennessee and Texas will probably have the nation's most interesting quarterback fights this spring, but Brock Vandagriff, Carson Beck, and Gunner Stockton are big-time prospects who'll be worth watching.
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15. Braelon Allen, RB Wisconsin
There are a whole slew of things that could make a Braelon Allen Heisman run go one way or another. Is he really going to stay at Wisconsin? For the moment he says he is. Will the Badgers dominate on the ground under Luke Fickell? Yeah, almost certainly. He's one of the few backs with everything in place to push for a massive-stat run. The other should be …
14. Quinshon Judkins, RB Ole Miss
Bijan Robinson. That's the problem - he wasn't even a finalist - and that's why there aren't a lot of running backs on the list. You can be the best back in college football and not come all that close to winning the Heisman - it's mostly a quarterback award now.
Judkins, though, might have the stats to go along with the elite talent and a ton of high-profile SEC games to break through the position pack.
If it's impossible to win now as a running back, try …
13. Marvin Harrison Jr., WR Ohio State/Kayshon Boutte WR LSU
It took an insane set of circumstances and a perfect storm of factors - including a global pandemic that cut the season in half for a slew of key teams - for a receiver to win the Heisman when DeVonta Smith did it in 2020.
Boutte (chose to come back) and Harrison Jr. (not eligible until next year) are top ten overall NFL draft pick-caliber targets with the ability to be like Smith or, more likely, 2014 Heisman-finalist Amari Cooper. Either one might go from ultra-talented to finalist with an unstoppable season.
12. Jordan Travis, QB Florida State
Travis might not be all that big, but he's got next-level skills and upside. Fortunately for Florida State, this was the wrong year to enter the draft as a quarterback if you're not a sure-thing first rounder.
The stats will have to boost up a bit, but he's got the all-around game, five years of experience, and the offense around him to be one of the ACC's signature stars in a slew of high-profile games.
11. Drew Allar, QB Penn State
Here comes the hype.
The 6-5, 238-pound super-recruit had to wait behind better-than-you-think veteran Sean Clifford - I'll save that rant for another time - but it's going to be his team now. Penn State is loaded with young talent, and Allar should be the signature star who leads all of it. 2023 is expected to be the breakthrough season to maybe be what Michigan has been over the past few seasons.
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NEXT: 2023 Heisman Candidates: Top Ten
10. Dillon Gabriel, QB Oklahoma
Fantastic at UCF before getting hurt, he was far better than he got credit for nationally after transferring to Oklahoma. He got knocked out on a bad hit against TCU. That not only stalled the Sooner season, it kept him out of the high-profile game against Texas.
Even so, he threw for close to 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for five scores. The stats will be there, and the team around him should be far stronger.
9. JJ McCarthy, QB/Donovan Edwards RB/Blake Corum RB, Michigan
If Corum was healthy and did what Edwards pulled off against Ohio State and Purdue, there would be a running back among the 2022 Heisman finalists. Corum is an X factor depending on health and status, but Edwards proved he's special when given more work, and McCarthy looked every bit the star Wolverine fans were hoping for. One of them will rise up and be in the Heisman mix.
8. Quinn Ewers, QB or Arch Manning, QB Texas
Texas has two of the most talented young quarterbacks in all of football to work with - the winner of this derby will be anointed as the next big college football thing. The attention is half the Heisman battle, and then it's about the talent, stats, and ability in the biggest games. The 2023 Texas starting quarterback will have all three.
7. Alabama starting quarterback
This might be where one of the elite quarterback transfers ends up. North Carolina's Drake Maye would've been perfect, and the he told everyone he's not going anywhere.
Jalen Milroe was great in relief when needed for Bryce Young - assuming he's gone to the NFL - but it's probably going to be one of the young stars taking over. Ty Simpson was the big get of the last recruiting class, a few more big-time prospects are on the way, and … again, a superstar transfer is an instant Heisman candidate.
Speaking of a place certain to get an elite transfer who'll be in the spotlight from the start …
6. Tennessee starting quarterback
Like Alabama and USC, Tennessee should be a destination for any and every quarterback in the transfer portal with next-level upside. Who doesn't want to put up a bazillion yards in this attack?
It could still be Joe Milton's offense to run. He's got all the tools, experience, and time in the system, but he could end up transferring out depending on how the offseason goes. If it's not Milton, this will be one of the key quarterback battles among a slew of great young prospects, but give it a little bit. Milton might just end the speculation before it starts.
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2023 Heisman Candidates: Top Five
5. Kyle McCord, QB Ohio State
This is assuming CJ Stroud really does leave for the NFL Draft. If he's around, put him No. 1 on the list.
McCord isn't a rock-solid sure thing to start - Devin Brown could be 1A on the depth chart here - but all the main options are fantastic. Anyone under center for the loaded 2023 Buckeyes - with Marvin Harrison Jr. to throw to - will be in the Heisman mix from the moment the ball is kicked off against Indiana.
4. Cade Klubnik, QB Clemson
Deshaun couldn't do it, and neither could Trevor or DJ. Klubnik might just be the quarterback that brings Clemson a Heisman in the Dabo Swinney era.
With Uiagalelei in the transfer portal, it's Klubnik's offense to run - he seemed ready yesterday. The superstar recruit and elite all-around athlete waited all year to do more for the inconsistent attack, and when needed against North Carolina in the ACC Championship he came through.
20-of-24 for 279 yards and a touchdown to go along with 30 rushing yards and a score in the win. Expect that to be the norm.
3. Drake Maye, QB North Carolina
Okay, so he couldn't get the win in some of the biggest games, but the production was there and he looked the part against Notre Dame, Pitt, and Miami with the next-level passing skills and stats to be in the Heisman race late into November.
There was a thought he might leave North Carolina and be the star of one of the top teams with an open slot - Alabama (cough) - but he announced he's sticking around. Get ready for another massive statistical season, but the numbers probably won't keep up with …
2. Michael Penix Jr., QB Washington
Yeah, Caleb went to New York. So did CJ, and Max, and Stetson. Bryce or Will might go No. 1 overall in the draft, and Anthony is sure to go top 15, and none of those superstar quarterbacks came remotely close to matching what Penix Jr. did through the air.
He announced he's coming back for another year, and over 4,000 yards of passing offense are along for the ride.
The former Indiana Hoosier took to the Kalen DeBoer offense right away and led the nation with 363 yards per game. Among those other top players listed, Caleb Williams was the closest averaging 314 yards per outing.
But he'll once again have to battle for respect in the Pac-12 with …
1. Caleb Williams, QB USC
The voters tend to like Lincoln Riley-coached quarterbacks.
He looked like a potential star over the second half of the 2021 season at Oklahoma, and he obviously proved he was worthy of the Heisman when he moved to USC.
There might have been all-star talent around him, but he made it all go with a flair for the moment, coming up large when everyone was watching against UCLA and Notre Dame.
It would've been nice to have seen what he could've done if he hadn't suffered a bad hamstring injury against Utah, but on one leg he threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns in the Pac-12 Championship loss.
The machine isn't stopping. The pressure will be on to do even more, but he's more than capable of handling it.
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Story originally appeared on College Football News