Although it took until the 14th week of the season for the Heisman race to truly come into focus, there ended up being little doubt about who the winner should be.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young won the 2021 Heisman Trophy, the first Crimson Tide QB to do so. Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones were both finalists in recent years, but the way Young closed the season -- a dominant performance against Arkansas, a gritty comeback win over Auburn and an astonishing victory over Georgia -- made him the odds-on choice for the hardware.
That Young won the award wouldn't have surprised many pundits when the season began, though it was certainly a twisting path to get here. More surprising, however, was how quickly most of his fellow preseason favorites quickly disappeared from contention -- from Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei to Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler, Georgia's J.T. Daniels to North Carolina's Sam Howell. Essentially every big-name Heisman contender in August save Young and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud was a nonfactor in the race by midseason.
So, will we be any better at predicting the best players in college football in 2022? With Young, Stroud and a host of other top performers returning, odds are we'll get a few more of them right this time around. Still, the Heisman has consistently produced surprises, so the options for 2022 -- from a Young repeat to a comeback performance from Rattler or Uiagalelei -- are extensive.
It's one of those sports factoids everyone knows by heart: The only two-time Heisman winner is Ohio State's Archie Griffin, who took home the hardware in 1974 and 1975. In the past decade, three players have had a shot to repeat -- Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston and Lamar Jackson -- but none came that close (Jackson finished third in 2017 after winning it in 2016). So history suggests 2022 won't be Young's year. His talent and Alabama's offense, however, tell a different story. Young will enter 2022 as the odds-on favorite to win, and it's hard to envision a scenario where he regresses much from his terrific 2021 campaign.
If Young is No. 1 on the list of likely 2022 Heisman winners, Stroud is 1A. A finalist in 2021, Stroud led what was arguably the nation's best offense, and now he has a year of experience under his belt. If he builds on the 35 touchdowns (to go with just five interceptions) and his 71% completion rate as a redshirt sophomore, he'll almost certainly find himself in New York City again next season.
Ohio State RB TreVeyon Henderson
If Stroud doesn't win it next year, perhaps it will be his teammate who takes the trophy. As a true freshman, Henderson was the nation's most explosive runner, averaging better than 7 yards per carry and racking up 19 touchdowns and 28 explosive plays. The biggest obstacle for Henderson is that the Heisman tends to be a QB-centric award, and he's sharing a backfield with one of college football's best.
Williams didn't take over as Oklahoma's starting QB until Week 7, but he nearly forced his way into the Heisman race as a true freshman in 2021. Williams finished the season with 24 total TDs, just four interceptions and more than 2,000 yards of offense despite throwing more than 10 passes in only seven games. The biggest question surrounding Williams will be about his coach. After Lincoln Riley made Oklahoma the epicenter for Heisman contenders, he's off to Southern California, and Brent Venables -- a brilliant defensive mind -- takes over the program. Will the offense be as prolific without Riley?
One of the 2021 preseason favorites, Robinson watched his season crumble as Texas' offense struggled, and an injury finally ended his campaign after 10 games. Still, it's obvious why so many people believed Robinson would take home this year's trophy. He topped 100 rushing yards in six of his first seven games and, despite the injury and lack of offensive support, he still finished as one of just nine Power 5 backs with 1,400 total yards and 15 touchdowns.
Alabama LB Will Anderson Jr.
He created an uproar among many pundits when he wasn't named a finalist for this year's trophy, despite some genuinely eye-popping numbers -- 52 solo tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, nine QB hurries and two pass break-ups. Anderson was a one-man wrecking crew, igniting the Alabama defense the same way Young did its offense. It's always tough for a defensive player to make a real run at the award, but if he's equally productive in 2022, maybe some voters will feel he's due a makeup call.
These guys already have the numbers to showcase their skills. What they need now is a bigger stage, some luck, a few more opportunities or a spotlight focused entirely on them. All should be squarely in the 2022 Heisman mix.
To say Miami fans are excited about 2022 would be like saying Ed Reed played hard. It's true -- just a massive understatement. And yes, new AD Dan Radakovich and new head coach Mario Cristobal are big reasons for all that enthusiasm in Coral Gables, but perhaps the biggest piece to the puzzle is Van Dyke, who came on as a replacement for D'Eriq King in September and quickly blossomed into one of the country's most prolific passers. Van Dyke ended the season by throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns in six straight games, winning five of them.
Despite getting just 12 carries the first month of the season, Allen blossomed into a star and finished with 1,109 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, including a stretch of seven straight 100-yard games. In a two-week span against Northwestern and Nebraska, Allen racked up 401 rushing yards and six rushing TDs. He'll enter 2022 as Wisconsin's clear-cut starter, No. 1 weapon and a genuine contender for the Heisman.
If things had gone just a little differently in 2021, McCall might've been a Heisman contender this year. Coastal Carolina lost to App State by a field goal, and McCall missed a two-point November loss to Georgia State. The Chanticleers' fall out of the top 25 likely meant most folks missed McCall's terrific sophomore season, in which he led the nation in yards per attempt (by a full two yards!) and passer rating, while tossing 23 touchdowns and just three picks. If Coastal can again be a force in the Group of 5 in 2022, McCall might well find himself in NYC.
The ACC's QB class was so deep in 2021, it was easy to overlook the work Leary did in Raleigh. After battling injuries in 2020, he returned to throw for 3,433 yards, 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions. At a school like NC State, where Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Finley set the precedent, Leary's performance still stood out. With a win in the Holiday Bowl, he can join Rivers as the only QBs in school history to win 10 games in a season.
Speaking of ACC QBs, Jurkovec should get plenty of preseason Heisman love. Two years ago, he was among the most prolific passers in the country, throwing for 2,558 yards and 17 TDs in his first year for the Eagles after transferring from Notre Dame. He seemed like a possible dark-horse Heisman candidate in 2021, but a wrist injury interrupted his season in September. He returned to the field in November, but was never 100 percent. A healthy Jurkovec in 2022 figures to be a genuine contender to blossom into next season's Kenny Pickett.
The guys who were so good in 2021 that they have to be in the mix
Michigan QB Cade McNamara and RB Blake Corum
Who's the more valuable player to Michigan's offense? Corum shouldered a lot of work early in the 2021 season, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of the Wolverines' first three games. But McNamara made some major strides over the season's first month, and by October, he was making his share of plays in the passing game, too. Corum dealt with an injury late in the year and split time with senior Hassan Haskins, but he figures to be the featured back next season, and McNamara won't need a month to warm up to Big Ten football this time. Both should be in the Heisman mix.
An All-American as a freshman, Tucker set the school rushing record in 2021 with 1,496 yards (to go with another 255 as a receiver). He's a powerful runner, but has enough moves to evade tackles, too. Syracuse has made a change at offensive coordinator, and it remains to be seen how committed head coach Dino Babers -- once known for his up-tempo offense -- will be to the ground-and-pound approach that brought a modicum of success in 2021. Still, Tucker is the best runner in the ACC, and he should be getting his share of touches regardless of the offensive approach.
Mike Leach has a long and impressive history of QBs putting up big numbers, but it's possible Rogers ends up as the best of the bunch. Rogers threw for 300 yards or more in 11 of 12 games in the regular season (he managed a measly 294 in a win over NC State) and finished with 35 touchdowns. Entering Year 3 as the starter in Leach's Air Raid scheme, we know Rogers will have a Heisman stat line. Whether he can elevate the Bulldogs enough for voters to embrace the player rather than the scheme is the big question.
Five years ago, it was safe to say college football had never seen anyone like Lamar Jackson before. Now, it looks like Cunningham has been cut from the same cloth -- and he just so happens to play for the same team. Cunningham is an electric runner with a dynamic change-of-direction ability that made Jackson such a marvel. In 2021, he ran for 968 yards and 19 touchdowns, making him one of the most productive ball-carriers in the country. And all of that is before counting his solid performance in the passing game, where he completed 62% of his throws with 18 touchdowns and just six picks. Since 2004, only five other Power 5 QBs had 18 rushing TDs and 18 passing TDs in the same season. Four of them won the Heisman (Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Manziel and Jackson), and the other finished second (Jalen Hurts).
The redemption stories
Former Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler
Entering 2021, no QB seemed like a safer bet for the Heisman than Rattler. By mid-October, he wasn't even Oklahoma's starter anymore. The criticism of Rattler's performance was vastly overstated -- he was still completing 75% of his throws when he was benched -- but for some reason, the offense never clicked with him. Now, he's in the transfer portal, and wherever he lands, he'll enter 2022 as one of the most talented players in the country.
It's a credit to Uiagalelei that, despite the significant struggles in the face of huge expectations in 2021, he kept taking the field and fighting for points, eventually getting Clemson to a 9-3 record that, while far short of the Tigers' typical record, was still an impressive enough performance. Perhaps the experience will sharpen Uiagalelei's resolve -- whatever doesn't kill you, right? -- and he'll return for 2022 as the player we all imagined he'd be this year.
Who'll be taking snaps for the Trojans in 2022? Kedon Slovis hasn't announced his NFL decision. Jaxson Dart finished 2021 by showing some flashes of his immense talent. The transfer portal could be an option, too. It really doesn't matter, because what's important is that Riley, the Heisman whisperer, is coaching the Trojans now, and that means whoever lands the job warrants real attention.
Gators fans wanted him starting from the outset in 2021, but while Emory Jones presided over an immensely frustrating offense for much of the season, Richardson wasn't without his own hiccups. Perhaps the more important storyline is the new coaching staff and fresh start for everyone. There's no ignoring Richardson's athleticism, and given a clean slate for 2022, it's possible he puts it all together.
We don't know yet if Daniels will return for 2022, and as the past two seasons at Georgia have shown, he's certainly not guaranteed to be the starter there regardless. The transfer portal could be another option for a QB who was once among the top recruits in the nation alongside Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, but due to injuries and competition on the depth chart, has started just eight games in the past three years (all wins, by the way). Along with Daniels, a few other players could be in the Heisman mix should they surprise fans and return for another year, including North Carolina's Sam Howell, Michigan State's Kenneth Walker and Alabama's Jameson Williams.
Want to go way off the board? That's probably not a bad bet. Pickett and Aidan Hutchinson certainly weren't getting much preseason love this year, and they both made strong cases by season's end. Manziel, Winston, Joe Burrow, DeVonta Smith -- none were heavy favorites when their Heisman seasons began. It's just as likely the 2022 winner comes from nowhere, so here are a few others to keep in mind.
Need a defender to rival Alabama's Anderson? Oliver might be your best bet. As a freshman in 2021, he ignited the stifling Oklahoma State defense, racking up 15 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks while making big plays down the stretch that almost led the Pokes to a Big 12 title.
Clemson QB Cade Klubnik
If Uiagalelei isn't going to make the leap in 2022, perhaps it will be the incoming freshman who'll get the nod. Klubnik is among the nation's top recruits, won Texas football player of the year honors as a high school senior and has the leadership and moxie that helped make Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence Heisman contenders for the Tigers.
Texas Tech's QB
Who will it be? We don't know yet. The transfer portal could offer some intriguing options. But this mention is more about the Red Raiders' new offensive coordinator, Zach Kittley, who turned Bailey Zappe into a star -- first at Houston Baptist and then at Western Kentucky -- and now moves to Lubbock hoping to up the ante a little more.
The big-name transfers
If the portal was envisioned as a space for role players to find a bigger role on a different team, it has quickly shifted to an outlet store for big-time talent. Among the names in the portal ahead of the 2022 season are former Georgia Tech RB Jahmyr Gibbs, former TCU back Zach Evans and former Ohio State QB Quinn Ewers. Depending on their landing spots and how quickly they adjust to their new surroundings, any one of them -- or a host of others, for that matter -- could make a run at the Heisman.
Pitt's Jordan Addison won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver, but a repeat performance will need to come with a new QB, which makes a real Heisman run a long shot.
It's not likely a tight end is going to make a real run at the Heisman, but Notre Dame's Michael Mayer and Georgia's Brock Bowers represent unique talents at the position, and both are coming off exceptional seasons in 2021. Yes, this will more likely be a race to see who takes home the Mackey Award for the nation's top tight end, but let's take a moment to dream of a day when anyone -- even a bruising tight end -- can win the Heisman.
Kansas State tailback Deuce Vaughn certainly deserves a mention, too. He's the centerpiece of the Wildcats' offense, and his ability to pick up yards as a runner and receiver makes him a unique weapon.
If Clemson's offense gets a new spark after a miserable 2021, odds are running back Will Shipley will be a big part of the story, putting him in the Heisman mix, too. Texas A&M running back Devon Achane is perhaps the fastest man in college football, won MVP of last season's Orange Bowl, dominated the SEC on the track in the spring, then played a supporting role in Texas A&M's backfield in 2021 and still ran for 900 yards and nine TDs, averaging 7 yards per carry.
With starter Isaiah Spiller expected to enter the NFL draft, Achane should get the lion's share of the carries next season, and that could be a nightmare for opposing defenses.