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

UW’s quarterback unleashed a spectacular first half in Big Ten country

Welcome to our weekly look at the Pac-12’s leading Heisman Trophy candidates, as determined by a power ranking of the conference’s top players. Consider one Heisman voter’s perspective on the conference hierarchy, which is loaded with contenders for the first time in a long time.

The rankings are based on a subjective evaluation of individual performance, team value, and competition quality. Yes, defensive players are taken into account.

Michael Penix Jr.’s run for the Heisman Trophy is going exactly as Washington hoped after three games, with as many boxes checked as touchdowns thrown.

Now here it is:

— Lots of wins and big numbers? Yes, check.

The Huskies are 3-0, ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll, and getting a lot of attention from the media very quickly. UW is ranked No. 1 this week by both Yahoo! and ESPN. Penix, on the other hand, is second in the country in touchdowns and first in passing yards (444 per game).

— How beautiful on big stages? Yes, check.

Penix completed 20 out of 25 passes for 375 yards and four touchdowns in the first half as Washington beat Michigan State in the Big Ten opener. The game started at 2 p.m., which gave ESPN and Fox plenty of time to show highlights of the game to viewers across the country all afternoon and evening.

— National competition that can be handled? Yes, check.

This season, none of the players from Ohio State, Alabama, or Georgia are in the running for the Heisman. Quarterbacks from Texas (Quinn Ewers), Notre Dame (Sam Hartman), and Florida State (Jordan Travis) are Penix’s main rivals from big schools outside the Pacific Time Zone. It’s not great, but things could be much worse.

— Pac-12 games coming up? Yes, check.

The conference has eight ranked teams and several other Heisman contenders. This means Penix will have a lot of chances to create memorable moments in high-profile games that will be shown on network TV.

—Where do the oddsmakers see the sweet spot? Yes, check.

BetMGM’s odds show that Penix is currently the second-most likely winner of the Heisman Trophy, after 2022 winner and USC quarterback Caleb Williams. Williams is 3.5/1, and Penix is 5.5/1. The positioning gives the company the national recognition it needs without becoming the clear leader, which can set an unrealistic standard.

All of this leads us to this conclusion: Penix will make it to New York City as a finalist if he keeps playing at the same high level and the Huskies keep winning (they don’t have to go undefeated, though). Even a few games on the Pac-12 Networks won’t stop him.

Our lists of the best Pac-12 players…

1. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.

Last week: 5

Key stats: 11.8 yards per attempt, 12 touchdowns, one interception

Leave a comment: Penix is one of the top four quarterbacks in the country in a lot of important categories, such as touchdowns, yards per game, passer rating, and yards per attempt. But his completion rate is only 9%, which is very, very low. Oh, come on.

2. Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders

Last week: 4

Key stats: 417 yards per game, 78.7 completion percentage, 10 touchdowns

Leave a comment: On Saturday night, Sanders had a Heisman moment when he led a 98-yard drive that tied the game in the last minute and helped the Buffaloes win in overtime over Colorado State. Sanders won’t have his receiver partner Travis Hunter for a few weeks. (Read on.) That unfortunate event does, however, give Sanders a bigger stage.

3. USC QB Caleb Williams

Last week: 3

Key stats: 12 touchdowns, no interceptions, 78.6 completion percentage

Leave a comment: The Trojans didn’t play in Week 3, so they should really beat Arizona State on Saturday night. When USC goes to Colorado next week for a “Big Noon” game on Fox, Williams will have the best of both worlds: a high-level platform and a low-level defense. They agreed to play at 9 a.m. Pacific time.

4. Oregon QB Bo Nix

Last week: 3

Key stats: 77.6 completion percentage, eight touchdowns, no interceptions

Leave a comment: Nix has had another almost perfect week. He has done everything he needs to do to build a resume that would make a Heisman winner proud… except play a game that really speaks to the whole country. (The Texas Tech case didn’t quite fit the bill.) He will get his chance this Saturday when Colorado plays. Nix could improve his chances of winning and also hurt a competitor.

5. WSU QB Cam Ward

Last week: 7

Key stats: 330 yards per game, 11 total touchdowns (two rushing), no interceptions

Leave a comment: Ward’s chances of winning the Heisman are very slim. For WSU to make it to the conference championship game, he will need to play at an extremely high level. If you remember, Gardner Minshew, the quarterback for WSU, came in fifth place 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

Leave a comment: Hunter was kicked out of the Colorado State game because of a dirty play. He will likely miss three weeks of games, including two big ones at Oregon and USC. He has a lot of ground to make up, but because of the attention on CU and Hunter’s unique candidacy as a two-way star, he might have time to get back on track.

7. Washington State edge Ron Stone Jr.

Last week: 10

Key stats: 16 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, two fumbles forced

Leave a comment: Stone was great on defense again on Saturday. He had four tackles and a sack in the rout of Northern Colorado. His skills fit perfectly with WSU’s system. Or did WSU make their system to fit Stone’s skills? Both, please.

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

Leave a comment: Odunze is the only player new to the rankings this week. His performance at Michigan State (eight catches for 180 yards) made him more famous. In a conference full of fast-paced offenses and top receivers, he is 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

Leave a comment: The all-purpose (AP) superstar had the week off, but he is still one of the best touch-for-touch players in the country and can make a difference in games as a receiver or a punt and kickoff returner. Branch has very little room for error in USC’s offense because he doesn’t have many chances to make a play.

10. Utah S Cole Bishop

Last week: 8

Key stats: Four tackles-for-loss, one interception, one fumble forced

Leave a comment: Bishop didn’t do much in Utah’s easy win over Weber State. He had one sack and one pass breakup. He is still the most important part of a defense that gives up 10.3 points per game. However, when UCLA comes to town on Saturday, it will be the toughest test of the season for them.

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