Heisman Watch: Huge November opens with Michael Penix Jr.-Caleb Williams showdown

Heisman Watch: Huge November opens with Michael Penix Jr.-Caleb Williams showdown

Welcome to our weekly look at the Pac-12’s leading Heisman Trophy candidates via an assessment of the top players in the conference. Consider this one Heisman voter’s view of the landscape. The rankings are based on individual performance, value to the team and quality of competition. And yes, we consider defensive players.

The high-stakes affair Saturday afternoon in the L.A. Coliseum doubles as a Heisman Trophy elimination game — but only for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams has fallen to the outskirts of the race following two losses and several subpar performances. His current odds are 80-to-1, according to BetMGM.

If the Trojans lose to Washington, or if Williams is decisively outplayed by UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr., his prospects for becoming the first repeat Heisman winner since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin (1974-75) will vanish altogether.

After all, Williams is competing against other 2023 candidates and against his brilliant 2022 performance, with the latter as daunting as the former.

But Penix has a substantial cushion: As the betting favorite (11-to-4) with an undefeated record, he can afford a loss or a mediocre performance (or both).

Also, he’s a newcomer to the race — voters won’t judge every throw against the standard he established last season.

The key for Penix: Reaching the Pac-12 championship game and playing at a Heisman level with all eyes on the Huskies and a playoff berth at stake.

1. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.

Last week: 1
Key stats: 368.1 yards per game, 10 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns
Comment: Penix hasn’t been the same player physically since the Oregon game three weeks ago. We know he was dealing with an illness last weekend at Stanford. Is he injured, as well? That’s unclear. But this much is certain: Penix will remain a Heisman frontrunner as long as UW reaches the Pac-12 title game. Why? Because the Huskies won’t reach the title game if he doesn’t play at a Heisman level.

2. Oregon QB Bo Nix

Last week: 2
Key stats: 178.6 efficiency rating, 21 touchdowns, 1 interception
Comment: Nix was fabulous in the blowout of Utah and is perfectly positioned (current odds: 6-to-1) for a November charge. He doesn’t have as much pressure as the frontrunners (Penix, Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and LSU’s Jayden Daniels), but he’s close enough to overtake the leaders. And Nix will have several high-profile matchups (USC, Oregon State and perhaps the Pac-12 title game) to use as rocket fuel.

3. USC QB Caleb Williams

Last week: 4
Key stats: 175.4 efficiency rating, 9.6 yards per attempt, 25 touchdowns
Comment: Williams’ exploits last weekend in Berkeley — he directed three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter — saved USC’s season and his candidacy. But for how long? USC’s November schedule is brutal with Washington, Oregon and UCLA. A third loss seems inevitable.

4. Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders

Last week: 3
Key stats: 329.6 yards per game, 71.1% completion, 22 touchdowns
Comment: Let’s be clear: Sanders isn’t the cause of Colorado’s skid; as the statistics suggest, he continues to perform at a high level. But the result of that skid is a rapidly dissolving Heisman candidacy.

5. Arizona QB Noah Fifita

Last week: Not ranked
Key stats: 75.8% completion, 160.4 efficiency rating, 7.8 yards per attempt
Comment: The redshirt freshman just cleared an important threshold in our evaluation: He has now served as the primary quarterback in half of the Wildcats’ eight games. His performance and impact are substantial with 11 touchdowns, only three interceptions and immeasurable leadership. Arizona’s 2-2 record in Fifita’s starts includes a triple-overtime loss at USC and a seven-point loss to Washington.

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6. Oregon WR Troy Franklin

Last week: 8
Key stats: 52 catches, 16.7 yards per catch, 9 receiving touchdowns
Comment: Nix’s favorite target was superb at Utah with eight catches for 99 yards and a touchdown and has overtaken Washington’s Rome Odunze as the conference’s top wideout. Granted, that dynamic could shift again over the final weeks. But Franklin will be as difficult to unseat as he is to defend.

7. Utah DE Jonah Elliss

Last week: 6
Key stats: 10 sacks, 14 tackles for loss
Comment: Elliss did not record a tackle in Utah’s 35-6 loss to Oregon (which helps explain why the Utes lost by 29 points). But his impact through the previous seven games was such that a single poor performance doesn’t result in removal from our ranking of the top Pac-12 players.

8. Washington WR Rome Odunze

Last week: 5
Key stats: 51 catches, 17.8 yards per catch, 7 receiving touchdowns
Comment: The bar is high enough that six catches for 89 yards and a touchdown (against Stanford) stands as a disappointing performance for UW’s ultra-gifted receiver. But Odunze has a terrific chance to regain momentum this week when the Huskies face a USC defense that has allowed more passing touchdowns (22) than any team in the country, save Colorado and Stanford.

Also considered (alphabetically): Arizona State WR Elijhah Badger, Arizona WR Jacob Cowing, Oregon DL Brandon Dorlus, Oregon State OL Taliese Fuaga and Joshua Gray, Stanford K Joshua Karty, UCLA Edge Laiatu Latu, Arizona LB Jacob Manu, Oregon State TB Damien Martinez, Cal TB Jaydn Ott, Washington State WR Lincoln Victor and Washington State QB Cam Ward

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