Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams had been a major contender to repeat as the first two-time winner since 1975, but things changed on Saturday. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. became the betting favorite after winning a big win against previously undefeated Oregon and Williams struggled in USC’s loss at Notre Dame.
Penix is now -145 to win the award on BetMGM, far ahead of any other contenders in the odds. Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy and Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel are both +1000 (10-to-1). Florida State’s Jordan Travis and LSU’s Jayden Daniels come in at +1300 (13-to-1). North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye is +1400 (14-to-1) and then the odds drop off past those six contenders.
Penix has the stats to justify his place as the favorite. He is second in the country with 2,301 passing yards (to Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders), fourth with 20 passing touchdowns (behind Williams, Daniels and Sanders) and 11th in completion percentage (72.1). Plus, Washington is top five in the rankings and is likely to be favored in every game until the Pac-12 title game (and could even be favored there). The Huskies do have a trip to USC in November, which could be Williams’ last stand at this year’s Heisman.
Even with all of that, it seems surprising to see Penix as such a clear favorite at this point in the season. Penix’s -145 odds imply that he wins the award nearly 60 percent of the time. At this point, there’s too much uncertainty in the season for Penix to be that far ahead of everyone else. For example, McCarthy’s Michigan hasn’t played a relevant enough game yet to put him on a national stage and give him a chance to boost his status in the Heisman race.
Heading into Week 7, Penix and Williams were close in the odds. Penix threw 302 yards, a season-low, in the 36-33 win against Oregon on Saturday. He also had four touchdowns and an interception. The numbers are solid but are secondary to Washington winning. The Heisman is often about being the best player (and usually the best quarterback) on a national title-contending team. Since the inception of the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014, seven of the nine Heisman winners have been on teams that made the CFP. USC didn’t make the CFP with Williams last year, although USC was one game away from likely making it. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson is the only other exception in 2016.
Meanwhile, Williams had likely the worst game of his USC career and his team got crushed in Notre Dame. He threw three interceptions, all of which came in the first half and led to Notre Dame touchdown drives. Remember that Williams threw four interceptions last season and entered Saturday with one so far this season.
He still has the stats to be a contender as the nation’s leader with 23 passing touchdowns, but faith in this USC team to win enough games to allow Williams to remain a contender, especially as the reigning winner and the hesitance to vote for winners, is fading quickly. So are Williams’ Heisman odds; he is now +3500 (35-to-1) to repeat as winner.
As for the other main contenders, Travis and Gabriel lag behind a bit in terms of numbers but have big games ahead. The same goes for Maye, who is a big name as a top NFL Draft prospect and has North Carolina undefeated. The Tar Heels only have one ranked team left on the schedule, Duke, without starting quarterback Riley Leonard due to injury. UNC does have to travel to Clemson, but if Maye can get his team to 12-0 while putting up solid numbers, he will have a case entering the ACC title game, likely against Travis’ Florida State.
Daniels has arguably the best numbers with 2,294 passing yards (third in the country), 22 touchdowns (second in FBS) and also has 515 rushing yards and four more touchdowns on the ground. LSU already has two losses, which makes it an uphill battle for Daniels, but if Penix and Washington falter and none of the other contenders stand out, Daniels could have a shot. There’s a decent chance he will have the best overall season in sheer production.
(Photo of Michael Penix Jr.: Jeff Halstead / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)