Last year was a great year for the Heisman Trophy, because wide receiver DeVonta Smith — i.e., someone who doesn’t line up under center — took home college football’s most prestigious award.
Since 2010, only two non-quarterbacks have won the Heisman Trophy, with Smith taking it in 2020 and running back Derrick Henry bringing it home in 2015. Running backs Mark Ingram and Reggie Bush (if you count it, which I do) were the only other two non-quarterbacks to win a Heisman this century.
You’d have to go back to the 1990s to get consecutive non-quarterback Heisman winners (cornerback/returner Charles Woodson, running back Ricky Williams and running back Ron Dayne from 1997-99). As is famously documented, Woodson remains the only defensive player to win the Heisman — and we all know he didn’t win it for his abilities as a defensive back (which were top tier at every level), but rather his prowess as a returner.
All this to say that the Heisman really is not fairly awarded. It makes sense that it goes so often to quarterbacks — who are the only players guaranteed to touch the ball on most of a team’s offensive snaps — but that often means the award doesn’t go to the actual best player in college football.
Heisman odds are statistically skewed in favor of quarterbacks and, to a lesser degree, running backs. Even the most prolific tacklers on defense won’t get a comparable set of stats, nor do voters see sacks and tackles versus touchdowns and completions as apples to apples.
Also troublesome is the fact that, oftentimes, whole position groups can quietly drive the outcome of a season. A great offensive line paves the way for even a mediocre running back to have a stellar season while protecting a pocket passer quarterback from being hurried. A strong defensive front seven creates a one-dimensional offense with the occasional highlight of a tackle for loss or a sack, with those key plays distributed throughout the line.
And yet, with the exception of the Joe Moore Award given annually to the nation’s best offensive line, there aren’t even awards to recognize position groups.
So if the Heisman Trophy could go to a position group, who would be the frontrunner?
Defensive line, Georgia
Hands down. This unit’s impact has led the Bulldogs to become one of the most dominant defenses in the country in every major statistical category. Georgia leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing 6.6 points per game — yes, less than a touchdown and extra point per game. Cincinnati, the next team on the list, is giving up 14.25. That should give an indication of just how marked this defensive front is. In particular, Georgia has been stifling in the red zone. For starters, the Bulldogs have only allowed opponents in the red zone 14 times this season. Even so, the defense allowed just four touchdowns and four field goals. That’s just a 57% success rate in the red zone for opposing offenses.
The Bulldogs are second in the country in total defense behind Wisconsin, giving up a mere 226.6 yards per game, including a stifling 75.6 on the ground. Georgia has allowed just two (TWO!) rushing touchdowns all year. Kirby Smart has been rotating around 10 players per game on his defensive front — all of whom have worked together to allow only five offensive touchdowns this season.
But there are other units on the watch list, including some familiar faces for Ohio State fans.
Wide receivers, Ohio State
Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba would individually be the top receiver at any other program, and yet here they are, altogether bringing the most formidable collection of route runners in college football. The trio has caught 1,897 yards and 18 touchdowns so far this season.
Yes, wide receivers are skill position players and, as already mentioned, a wide out just won the Heisman, but it’s the trio as a whole that makes this group so challenging to defend. Who gets double covered and who gets dropped by opposing defensive secondaries? Together, these receivers spread defenses in a way that single great receivers cannot.
Other honorable mention wide receiver corps include those from Alabama and Oklahoma.
Offensive line, Ohio State
The wide receivers aren’t the only elite unit coming out of Columbus this year. The group that has paved the way for TreVeyon Henderson to emerge as one of the hottest running backs in the nation as a true freshman and allowed just nine sacks on the season is certainly the best in the nation at its role.
There’s no doubt that Henderson is a talented running back in his own right. He leads the nation in rushing yards per attempt with 7.91. A lot of that credit has to go to the folks creating holes for Henderson to rush through — the likes of Thayer Minford, Nicholas Petit-Frere, Dawand Jones, Harry Miller and Paris Johnson.
Michigan and Alabama make the honorable mention list here for outstanding offensive line.
As previously mentioned, Wisconsin is up there with Georgia in terms of the overall strength of its defense. Anchoring the Badgers’ defense is its linebacking corps, anchored by Leo Chenal. A semi-finalist for the Bednarik and Butkus Awards, Chenal has recorded 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in just six games on the season. But, as is the theme of this column, he isn’t doing it alone. Fellow linebackers Jack Sanborn and Nick Herbig have added a collective eight sacks and two fumble recoveries between them. The trip represents the three leading tacklers for the Badgers.
Defensive secondary, Cincinnati and Iowa
When it comes to pass coverage, Cincinnati has been the gold standard this season. While some might argue that the Bearcats haven’t faced a worthwhile opponent, there’s something to be said for a team that’s allowed just 155 passing yards per game and picked off 14 passes. And the Bearcats know how to spread the wealth, with three players recording three picks apiece.
But then there’s Iowa. While the Hawkeyes have fallen off to a degree in the past few weeks, they still lead the nation in picks on the season with 16. Riley Moss, Iowa’s best defensive player who, unfortunately, has been out for the past two games due to injury, has four picks on the season, including two which he returned for touchdowns.