Heisman Trophy candidates: The case for each 2023 finalist

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The class of finalists for the 2023 Heisman Trophy is as deep as it is talented.

On one hand, you have the best receiver in the nation — with a Hall of Fame father to boot! — in Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., who dominated as few can without playing the quarterback position.

[Complete list of Heisman Trophy winners]

On the other hand, you have a trio of such signal-callers — LSU’s Jayden Daniels, Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. — all experienced transfer quarterbacks who have each played at least five college seasons.

You might assume the quarterbacks have the edge here just by the nature of their position, but how do you choose between them?

Daniels put up video game numbers for the Tigers, Nix was so efficient it was a shock whenever he threw an incompletion, and Penix not only led the nation in passing, but is the only finalist who will be competing in the College Football Playoff.

It will be interesting to see how it all goes down during the Heisman ceremony on Saturday in New York.

In the meantime, we’re providing a handy guide to the finalists.

FOX Sports college football experts Bryan Fischer, Michael Cohen, Laken Litman and RJ Young will each make a case for one of the finalists, then they’ll all share their picks at the end.

RJ Young’s top Heisman candidates

RJ Young's top Heisman candidates

Let’s dig into the credentials for each candidate and explain how each finalist could win.

The case for Marvin Harrison Jr.

RJ Young: Start with this: Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord threw for 3,170 yards and 24 TDs in 2023. Harrison caught 67 passes for 1,211 yards and 14 TDs.

This means Harrison accounted for 38.2% of McCord’s passing yards and 58.3% of his TD passes.

In most of OSU’s games, Harrison was the only guy Ryan Day could depend on to play at an elite level. He was the passing offense.

The proof? Harrison is the only player to account for more than 100 receiving yards (119) against No. 1-ranked Michigan, which features the best-scoring defense in the country.

Harrison emerged as a unanimous All-American receiver in 2022 and is likely to earn that recognition once more following a season that could also see him become Ohio State’s first Biletnikoff Award winner since Terry Glenn in 1995.

At a program not just renowned for its run game but proud to showcase the tailbacks it has recruited and developed, Harrison succeeded in making Ohio State not just a program that spreads the ball all over the field — as it has since Day began calling plays — but into the kind of program that, isn’t afraid to throw the ball out to the numbers, to the sideline, deep down the field in 50-50 situations. That’s because the Buckeyes know that Harrison will win.

If the Heisman is meant to recognize individual achievement across positions and against the best the sport has to offer, Harrison is one of just a handful that can make that claim.

The case for Bo Nix … 

Bryan Fischer: When it comes to Nix, perhaps the greatest compliment that’s been paid to his play has been the reaction of those who saw him up close at Auburn, and how they marvel at how great he’s been in leading Oregon back into the national spotlight. Though Nix was a five-star coming out of high school, he never seemed to live up to such expectations while on the Plains, but has fully transformed into one of the best quarterbacks in the country and somebody worthy of being named the most outstanding player in college football.

Any discussion surrounding the Heisman tends to start with numbers, and there’s little question that Nix ticks off all the boxes in that area. He’s second in the nation in passing yards, fifth in yards/attempt, and is tied for first (with Jayden Daniels) in touchdown passes. Impressively, he’s thrown just three picks in 13 games and is the most accurate passer in the country by five full percentage points (and on the verge of an NCAA record at 77.2%). Throw in six rushing scores, and few embody what it means to be a dual-threat at the highest level more than Nix.

Nix’s dreams of a Pac-12 championship came up heartbreakingly short in Las Vegas — and with it, a trip to the Playoff — but veteran observers of the league will tell you that Nix was the biggest reason why Oregon was largely the team to beat during the regular season and why the Ducks pretty much destroyed everyone save rival Washington in the toughest conference in the country. Remarkably, he didn’t throw a single interception in true road games this year and was hardly part of the reason why his team’s two losses came by just a field goal each time.  

More than that, the leadership that Nix provided over his two seasons in Eugene — and particularly in this one — was incalculable for a program that was still quite young and inexperienced at key positions. Perhaps that comes as a result of making more starts than any QB in FBS history, but I’d argue it is more related to the fact that Nix was just that outstanding as a player.

The case for Michael Penix Jr.

Michael Cohen: There are only two players on this list who performed well enough to be named Heisman Trophy finalists after navigating a conference that, at one point, had eight teams in the Top 25. Penix is one of them, and Nix is the other. The gauntlet better known as the Pac-12 provided stiffer tests for its quarterbacks every week than any other league in the country. Not only did the Pac-12 have five teams finish among the top 40 nationally in total defense, meaning Penix and Nix faced serious challenges in more than half of their conference games, but the league also had seven teams finish among the top 40 nationally in scoring offense, which meant keeping pace was essential to long-term survival. The quarterbacks in the Pac-12 were required to score, score and score some more.

Penix emerged from that melee unscathed, leading Washington to the College Football Playoff by throwing for 4,218 yards (first in FBS) with 33 touchdowns (tied for third in FBS) and nine interceptions. And if those numbers weren’t impressive enough, some of the underlying metrics are even more eye-catching. Penix finished second in the country with 33 Big Time Throws, a metric created by Pro Football Focus to measure passes that have “excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window.” He was tied for first in fewest turnover-worthy plays (eight) among quarterbacks with at least 475 dropbacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and led the nation in NFL passer rating (110.2) for the same collection of players. No quarterback attempted (100) or completed (44) more passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield than Penix, as a reflection of Washington’s elite vertical attack.

The only remaining question is what separates Penix from Nix, his counterpart in two of college football’s best games this season. Winning is the simple answer after the Huskies bested the Ducks in Seattle earlier this year and then downed them again in Las Vegas to win the Pac-12 title. But one last statistical nugget is also worth noting: When his team needed him most during hard-fought battles with Oregon, Penix completed 49-of-76 passes (65.6%) for 621 yards, five touchdowns and only two interceptions.

The case for Jayden Daniels

Laken Litman: LSU didn’t play for the SEC title and won’t be competing in the College Football Playoff, either. But does that mean that Daniels, who has been one of the most electric players in the sport this season, shouldn’t win the Heisman Trophy? Sure, the Tigers went 9-3, with their three losses to ranked opponents Florida State, Ole Miss and Alabama. But Daniels amassed more than 380 yards of total offense in all three of those matchups, and just because LSU isn’t contending for a title doesn’t mean he should be discounted for an award that celebrates the best player in college football.

Let’s look at the dual-threat talent a bit more closely: Through 12 games this season, Daniels has tallied 4,946 total yards. That breaks down to 3,812 yards passing and 1,134 yards rushing — in fact, he’s the nation’s 22nd-leading rusher and the only quarterback ranked among the top 25. He’s passed for 40 touchdowns with just four interceptions and is averaging 11.7 yards per attempt. He leads the nation with 20 passes of 40 yards or more, and 70 passes of 20 yards or more. He also leads the country with 20 runs for 20 yards or more.

Daniels has the nation’s best passer efficiency rating (208.0, which would be an FBS record). For what it’s worth, when USC quarterback Caleb Williams won the Heisman last year, his passer efficiency rating was 168.5. 

Penix averages the most yards per game (324.5) and is competing in the CFP, while Nix leads the country in completion percentage (77.2%). The Huskies are undefeated Pac-12 champions, while the Ducks’ only two losses are to UW. If Daniels doesn’t win, it will likely be because he plays on a team that lost three games.

Time for your picks — who wins on Saturday?

Michael: Though the award should probably go to Penix, who is the only finalist still competing for a national title, the individual success of Daniels is impossible to ignore. Even though his team finished 9-3 and never had a chance of reaching the College Football Playoff, Daniels put together one of the greatest statistical seasons in history for an offense that finished No. 1 in the country.

Even compared to some of his elite quarterbacking peers, Daniels was in a category all his own. He led the country with an average of 412.2 yards of total offense per game, which was nearly 75 yards per game more than Nix, who finished second. He established a new FBS record for passer efficiency at 208.01, and Daniels’ combined total of 50 touchdowns exceeds that of 83 FBS teams this season. He also became the first player in FBS history with more than 350 passing yards and at least 200 rushing yards in a game, which he did in a win over Florida last month.

If the award is about recognizing individual greatness, then Daniels is a deserving winner. 

Bryan: Had Oregon triumphed in the Pac-12 championship game and had Nix been the impetus behind a great second-half comeback, the path was certainly there for the Heisman Trophy to remain on the West Coast for another year. That loss by the Ducks combined with Penix dip in form down the stretch in the regular season, however, was likely enough to send the trophy to Baton Rouge and Daniels. The LSU signal-caller has truly been outstanding this year and you probably won’t get many arguments from those coast-to-coast on that front given how much he has meant to the Tigers. 

Laken: Daniels. The award goes to the most outstanding player in college football — not the best player who is playing in the CFP or the best player who won his conference championship. The best player, period. Therefore, Daniels deserves it.

RJ: That kid Jayden.

The numbers he put up are ridiculous. No player has enjoyed a higher passer rating and thrown for more yards in the same year. And this is before we revisit the 350/250 club he created this season — because no one else had ever done it.

But the best part is the person Daniels is. He’s not just one of the best players in the sport but one of the best people, too. And we need all the great ones we can find in our sport — players and people alike. How joyous to find that Jayden Daniels is both.

The result: It’s Jayden Daniels, 4-0.

Jayden Daniels discusses LSU’s success, Heisman race and more

Jayden Daniels discusses LSU's success, Heisman race and more

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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.

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