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Heisman Watch: Penix, Sanders surge in our breakdown of the top Pac-12 candidates

Heisman Watch: Penix, Sanders surge in our breakdown of the top Pac-12 candidates

Welcome to our weekly look at the Pac-12’s leading Heisman Trophy candidates via a power ranking of the top players in the conference. Consider this one Heisman voter’s view of the conference hierarchy, which is packed with contenders for the first time in forever.

The rankings are based on a subjective assessment of individual performance, value to the team and quality of competition. And yes, we consider defensive players.

Three games down, and Michael Penix Jr.’s pursuit of the Heisman Trophy is unfolding exactly as Washington hoped, with as many boxes checked as touchdowns thrown.

Here we go:

— Big wins and gaudy stats? Check.

The Huskies are 3-0, ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll and rapidly amassing media attention. (UW is No. 1 in the Yahoo! and ESPN rankings this week.) Meanwhile, Penix leads the nation in passing yards (444 per game) and is second in touchdowns.

— Brilliance on big stages? Check.

Washington just ventured into Big Ten territory and blasted Michigan State as Penix completed 20-of-25 passes for 375 yards and four touchdowns in the first half. Kickoff was 2 p.m., providing plenty of time for ESPN and Fox to show game highlights to their national audiences throughout the afternoon and evening.

— Manageable national competition? Check.

There is no top Heisman candidate this season from Ohio State, Alabama or Georgia. Penix’s primary challengers from powerhouse programs outside the Pacific Time Zone are quarterbacks from Texas (Quinn Ewers), Notre Dame (Sam Hartman) and Florida State (Jordan Travis). That’s not great, but it could be far worse.

— Pac-12 showdowns looming? Check.

The conference has eight ranked teams and several other Heisman contenders, creating a slew of opportunities in high-profile matchups — on network television — for Penix to produce the indelible moments that fuel successful campaigns.

— Sweet spot with the oddsmakers? Check.

Penix is currently the No. 2 betting favorite for the Heisman behind USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the 2022 winner, according to odds posted by BetMGM. (Williams is 3.5/1, with Penix at 5.5/1.) The positioning provides necessary national recognition without the frontrunner status that can create an unreasonable bar.

All of which leads us to the following conclusion: If Penix maintains his level of play and the Huskies keep winning — they don’t need to go undefeated, however — then even a handful of games on the Pac-12 Networks won’t stop him from reaching New York City as a finalist.

Our Pac-12 player power rankings …

1. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.

Last week: 5
Key stats: 11.8 yards per attempt, 12 touchdowns, one interception
Comment: Penix ranks in the top four nationally in numerous key metrics, including touchdown passes, yards per game, passer rating and yards-per-attempt. But he’s way, way down the list (No. 9) in completion percentage. Sheesh.

2. Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders

Last week: 4
Key stats: 417 yards per game, 78.7 completion percentage, 10 touchdowns
Comment: Sanders had a Heisman moment on Saturday night, leading a 98-yard, game-tying drive in the final minute as the Buffaloes eventually beat Colorado State in overtime. Sanders will be without his wingman, receiver Travis Hunter, for several weeks. (See below.) That unfortunate circumstance nonetheless creates a bigger stage for Sanders.

3. USC QB Caleb Williams

Last week: 3
Key stats: 12 touchdowns, no interceptions, 78.6 completion percentage
Comment: The Trojans were idle in Week 3 and should dismantle Arizona State on Saturday night. But Williams will have the ideal combination of a high-level platform and low-level defense when USC visits Colorado next week for a ‘Big Noon’ broadcast on Fox. Yes, the Trojans agreed to play at 9 a.m. Pacific.

4. Oregon QB Bo Nix

Last week: 3
Key stats: 77.6 completion percentage, eight touchdowns, no interceptions
Comment: Another week of near-perfection for Nix, who has done everything necessary to build a Heisman-worthy resume … except play a game with truly national resonance. (The Texas Tech affair didn’t quite qualify.) His chance comes Saturday, against Colorado. Nix could elevate his candidacy and undercut a competitor at the same time.

5. WSU QB Cam Ward

Last week: 7
Key stats: 330 yards per game, 11 total touchdowns (two rushing), no interceptions
Comment: Ward’s path to the Heisman ceremony is extraordinarily narrow and probably requires WSU to reach the conference championship game, along with A-level execution on his part. If you’ll recall, WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew finished fifth in the 2018 race but wasn’t invited to New York.

6. Colorado WR/CB Travis Hunter

Last week: 1
Key stats: 16 catches, 13.3 yards per catch, nine tackles, one interception
Comment: Hunter was knocked out of the Colorado State game on a dirty play and is expected to miss three weeks and two huge games (Oregon and USC). He’ll have loads of ground to make up, but given the spotlight on CU and Hunter’s unusual candidacy — as a two-way star — he might have time to recover.

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7. Washington State edge Ron Stone Jr.

Last week: 10
Key stats: 16 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, two fumbles forced
Comment: Another Saturday of defensive dominance for Stone, who had four tackles and a sack in the blowout victory over Northern Colorado. His skill set is a perfect match for WSU’s system, or was WSU’s system crafted to suit Stone’s talents? Answer: Both.

8. Washington WR Rome Odunze

Last week: Not ranked
Key stats: 139.7 yards per game, 19.1 yards per catch, 7.3 catches per game
Comment: Odunze is the lone newcomer to the rankings this week, his stature enhanced by a superb performance at Michigan State (eight catches for 180 yards). In a conference loaded with high-octane offenses and elite receivers, he stands as the best of the bunch.

9. USC AP Zachariah Branch

Last week: 6
Key stats: 41.7 yards per kick return, 22.6 yards per punt return
Comment: The all-purpose (AP) dynamo had the week off but remains one of the best touch-for-touch performers in the country, capable of changing games as a receiver or punt and kickoff returner. Because his opportunities are limited in USC’s offense, Branch has a slim margin for error.

10. Utah S Cole Bishop

Last week: 8
Key stats: Four tackles-for-loss, one interception, one fumble forced
Comment: Bishop had a quiet afternoon in Utah’s dominant victory over Weber State, with one sack and a pass breakup. He remains the central figure in a defense that allows 10.3 points per game but faces its most difficult challenge of the season Saturday when UCLA pays a visit.

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