The Pac-12 claimed its first Heisman Trophy in eight years on Saturday night when USC sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams won by a resounding margin.
What are the odds of a 2023 repeat for the conference?
For Williams, not very good.
No player has won the Heisman in back-to-back seasons since Ohio State tailback Archie Griffin in 1974-75.
As we saw with Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, the 2021 winner who finished sixth in the voting this year, small changes on the margins can be the difference.
Instead, the Pac-12’s best hope at this ridiculously early stage of the 2023 race is another quarterback: Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., who announced earlier this month that he would return for what will be his sixth collegiate season.
Granted, other contenders could emerge from the Pac-12 footprint, including Oregon quarterback Bo Nix — if he returns for ’23.
Perhaps the transfer portal will produce a shining star like dynamic quarterback Shedeur Sanders, who plays for Jackson State but is expected to follow his father, Deion, to Colorado.
Or maybe Williams becomes the first repeat winner in four decades.
But our focus here is Penix, who led the country in yards per game (362.8) and finished eighth in the voting.
With the Heisman, context is vital. And two pieces stand above the others:
— USC plays by different rules.
In the past half-century, the Pac-12 has produced seven Heisman winners. Six are from USC (Charles White, Marcus Allen, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Williams), where the rich tradition and massive media market provide a platform unmatched elsewhere in the conference.
The exception to USC’s dominance is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, and we’ll address his situation momentarily — for there are crucial parallels to Penix.
(Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman in 1994, when the Buffaloes were part of the Big 12.)
— Dark horse candidates from the West Coast have no chance.
The Pac-12 receives limited media exposure compared to other Power Five leagues because of the time zone challenge and its poor media rights contract. For that reason, players with no Heisman buzz at the start of the season cannot make up enough ground nationally to win the award.
The Heisman’s 900-something voters — a combination of media members and former winners — are split evenly into six regions.
Five of them are east of, or touch, the Mississippi. The Dakotas are in the Far West region, with Hawaii. Colorado is in the Southwest region, along with Missouri and Texas.
It’s not enough for Pac-12 stars to dominate the Far West. They must carry other regions, as well.
Williams was a preseason favorite who had USC’s brand power behind him, and he won every region.
Contrast his situation to Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey, who broke one of the most hallowed records in the sport in 2015: Barry Sanders’ mark for all-purpose yards.
But McCaffrey was unknown nationally when the season began, and more than half of his yards were generated in games that started at 10 p.m. or later on the East Coast.
He finished second to Alabama tailback Derrick Henry.
If McCaffrey couldn’t win from off the pace, no Pac-12 player can.
Which brings us to Penix and the 2023 campaign.
He doesn’t have USC’s platform, but thanks to his stellar year and top-10 finish in the Heisman voting, he should enter next season as a front-runner.
That’s the parallel to Mariota in 2014.
The Oregon quarterback didn’t come from off the pace that year. Instead, he was a preseason front-runner thanks to a superb performance in 2013, when the Ducks finished with an 11-2 record and No. 9 placement in the AP poll. (Washington is currently 10-2 with a No. 12 ranking ahead of the Alamo Bowl.)
By the summer of 2014, Mariota was 6-to-1 to win the Heisman, behind only Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner.
Mariota combined his front-runner fuel with a brilliant season, leading Oregon to the playoff. He won every Heisman region and was named on 95 percent of all ballots cast.
Penix might not enter the 2023 season on the top tier of betting favorites, but he will have enough recognition across all the voting regions to provide a foundation.
And thanks to the Huskies’ mid-September trip to Michigan State, Penix will have a chance to build support with voters in the Midwest region.
If he plays as well as he did this season and the Huskies emerge as a playoff contender — that’s the trickiest piece, of course — then a trip to New York City could follow.
***Editor’s note: Wilner is a Heisman voter. His 2022 ballot was as follows: 1) USC quarterback Caleb Williams; 2) TCU quarterback Max Duggan; 3) Washington quarterback Michael Penix.
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