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

Oregon’s Bo Nix remains quietly well positioned in the Heisman race

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 quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

Last week: 1

Key stats: 368.1 yards per game, 10 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns

Comment: Physically, Penix hasn’t been the same player since the Oregon game three weeks ago. We know he was battling an illness at Stanford last weekend. Is he hurt as well? That is not clear. But one thing is certain: Penix will be a Heisman Trophy contender as long as Washington wins the Pac-12 championship. Why? Because the Huskies will not reach the championship game if he does not play at a Heisman-caliber level.

2. Oregon quarterback Bo Nix

Last week: 2

Key stats: 178.6 efficiency rating, 21 touchdowns, 1 interception

Comment: Nix was outstanding in the rout of Utah and is well-positioned (current odds: 6-to-1) for a November charge. He’s not under as much pressure as the leaders (Penix, Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, and LSU’s Jayden Daniels), but he’s close enough to catch them. And Nix will have several high-profile matchups to use as rocket fuel (USC, Oregon State, and possibly the Pac-12 title game).

3. USC QB Caleb Williams’s

Last week: 4

Key stats: 175.4 efficiency rating, 9.6 yards per attempt, 25 touchdowns

Comment: Williams’ heroics last weekend in Berkeley — he directed three fourth-quarter touchdown drives — saved USC’s season and his candidacy. But how long will this last? The November schedule for USC includes games against Washington, Oregon, and UCLA. A third defeat appears to be unavoidable.

4. Shedeur Sanders, QB, Colorado

Last week: 3

Key stats: 329.6 yards per game, 71.1% completion, 22 touchdowns

Comment: To be clear, Sanders is not the cause of Colorado’s slump; as the statistics show, he continues to perform well. However, the result of that slump is a rapidly fading Heisman candidacy.

5. Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita

Last week: Not ranked

Key stats: 75.8% completion, 160.4 efficiency rating, 7.8 yards per attempt

Comment: The redshirt freshman has just passed an important milestone in our evaluation: he has now started half of the Wildcats’ eight games. With 11 touchdowns, only three interceptions, and immeasurable leadership, his performance and impact are significant. Fifita’s 2-2 record in starts for Arizona includes a triple-overtime loss to USC and a seven-point loss to Washington.

6. Troy Franklin of Oregon

Last week: 8

Key stats: 52 catches, 16.7 yards per catch, 9 receiving touchdowns

Comment: With eight catches for 99 yards and a touchdown at Utah, Nix’s favorite target has surpassed Washington’s Rome Odunze as the conference’s top wideout. Granted, that dynamic could change again in the coming weeks. However, Franklin will be as difficult to dethrone as he is to defend.

7.Jonah Elliss, Utah DE

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 explains why the Utes were defeated by 29 points). However, his impact over the previous seven games was such that a single poor performance does not result in removal from our top Pac-12 players ranking.

8. Rome Odunze of Washington

Last week: 5

Key stats: 51 catches, 17.8 yards per catch, 7 receiving touchdowns

Comment: The bar is set so high for UW’s ultra-talented receiver that six catches for 89 yards and a touchdown (against Stanford) is considered a letdown. Odunze, on the other hand, has a great chance to regain momentum this week when the Huskies face a USC defense that has allowed the most passing touchdowns (22) of any team in the country (except 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, Laiatu Latu of UCLA, Jacob Manu of Arizona, Damien Martinez of Oregon State, Jaydn Ott of Cal, Lincoln Victor of Washington State, and Cam Ward of Washington State

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