It was a strange year for college football’s most popular player award. It can be argued that going into mid-November, there wasn’t a real a Heisman Trophy favorite.
It had been a few weeks since Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III had run for five touchdowns against Michigan. It was a couple of weeks before Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for six touchdowns in one half. But neither of those guys, nor their teams, could sustain their excellence.
That narrowed the field for the award, which doesn’t necessarily go to the best player but usually whoever wins sort of a Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice popularity contest. The Heisman is best defined these days as the award that goes to a skill player from a Power Five team that wins 10+ games who does something dramatic in November.
That leaves room on this ballot for only three players. The quarterback legacy at Alabama has been dizzying with the single-season passing record has been set five times since 2012. Bryce Young is about to do that again. Ah, but in these NIL days, you are who you can be. Before starting his first game, Young was already guaranteed $1 million in NIL earnings.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett charismatically led Pittsburgh to only its fourth conference title in history. Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson was the ultimate legacy. His dad was an All-American for the Wolverines playing the same position.
None of their teams would be in their current position would them. Alabama is favored to win its seventh national championship under coach Nick Saban. Pittsburgh ended Clemson’s streak of six straight ACC titles. Hutchinson is the cornerstone of Michigan’s first Big Ten title since 2004.
The Heisman Trust terminates voters who have the audacity to reveal their vote for a college football trophy before the ceremony concludes. As I gave mine up in the interest of transparency, here’s who would be on my Heisman ballot if I still had one to submit.
1. Bryce Young, quarterback, Alabama: With 95 seconds on the clock at Auburn, Young was in the middle of one of the worst games of his career: 16 of 34 passing for 204 yards with an interception. The Tigers inexplicably had clamped down on Young to the point they had held the Crimson Tide to only three points. Then Young won the Heisman, not only with a stirring comeback in the Iron Bowl but then in a dismantling of Georgia in the 2021 SEC Championship Game.
From that moment on in the Auburn game, Young finished 35 of 61 passing for 534 yards with five touchdowns to finish the season. His performance against Georgia pushed Alabama into the CFP (as the No. 1 seed) for the seventh time in eight years. There were other Heisman moments for Young. He set the school passing record against Arkansas (559 yards) and threw for five touchdowns three times. With at least one game to go, his 43 touchdown passes have tied the school record. He is 178 yards short of the single-season passing record. Simply put, the Tide wouldn’t be back in the playoff without him.
2. Kenny Pickett, quarterback, Pittsburgh: When the comparisons are being made between you and Dan Marino, you know you’re having a special season. Marino was at the 2021 ACC Championship Game when Pickett broke a record that was thought to be unbreakable: Marino’s 79 career touchdown passes. Pickett also broke Alex Van Pelt’s career passing and total offense records. The kid from New Jersey made Pittsburgh football fun and relevant this season.
Further evidence the year was special: Wake Forest asked for the NCAA to intervene. Coach Dave Clawson now wants the NCAA to look into Pickett’s “fake slide” that allowed him to go 58 yards for a score in the ACC title game. Are you kidding? That goes in the “Heisman moments” bin. Pickett added a danger and swagger to a program that is not lacking for tradition. It’s been a long time since Marino and Tony Dorsett. Pickett’s name deserves to be up on a ring of honor someday, too.
3. Aidan Hutchinson, defensive end, Michigan: One Michigan All-American edge rusher who was Big Ten defensive lineman of the year gave birth to another. Like father (Chris), like son, right down to the same number (97). Aidan is the latest reincarnation of J.J. Watt or Joey Bosa or whoever you want to put up there as a sack machine with an endless motor. That’s Hutchinson, who seems to impact every one of his opponent’s snap. He saved the best for last, getting four sacks in the last two games — three against Ohio State, one against Iowa.
In a season defined by a comeback by defenses, Hutchinson deserves his trip to New York. He’s the foundation of the best Michigan team of the Jim Harbaugh era. Who can doubt a kid who practices both meditation and yoga and plays like a madman? There is some karma here. The last time Michigan won the national championship in 1997, it also had a defensive player among the finalists (Charles Woodson). Fun fact: Hutchinson would be Harbaugh’s second defensive Heisman finalist (Jabrill Peppers, 2016).