Who would win if it was announced today? It’s tough to say. But we’re looking at the data and revealing the player who should be at the top of the Heisman Trophy race.

The college football races are heating up.

One, obviously, is the battle for the College Football Playoff’s four spots, which is still filled with several realistic contenders. And another, of course, is the race for the most prestigious individual award in college sports: the Heisman Trophy.

Who would be the finalists if they were chosen today? Who would win the award in New York? There’s no way to answer that with certainty. But based on a combination of traditional statistics and advanced metrics, here’s who we believe deserves to be at the top of the ballots as it stands now.

Note: The NCAA’s definition of a qualified passer is a player who has appeared in at least 75% of his team’s games, and has averaged at least 15 attempts per game he has appeared in.

1. Jayden Daniels, LSU QB

Daniels might not be having the best college football season ever by an LSU QB, but he’s a lot closer to it than you’d think. In fact, he’s doing some things that even the great Joe Burrow didn’t accomplish. Daniels leads all qualified FBS QBs with 11.3 pass yards per attempt this season – nearly a full yard ahead of second-place Jalen Milroe of Alabama (10.4), and also ahead of Burrow during his legendary 2019 season (10.8). Daniels also leads qualified passers with a 199.8 passing efficiency rating, comfortably ahead of second-place J.J. McCarthy of Michigan (188.7).

If passing was all that Daniels was good at, his season would still be stellar. But when you incorporate what he’s done on the ground, his body of work truly becomes legendary. Daniels’ 199.8 pass efficiency is on pace to be the fourth best by a qualified FBS passer, trailing Grayson McCall in 2021, Mac Jones in 2020 and Burrow in 2019. But Daniels also has 684 rushing yards through nine games, more than those three quarterbacks had combined in their full seasons (672). Daniels is projected to join a pair of Oklahoma stars in Kyler Murray (199.2 in 2018) and Jalen Hurts (191.2 in 2019) as the only qualified QBs with a 190+ pass efficiency and at least 500 rushing yards in a season. 

passing efficiency and rushing yards since 2000

When looking at that graph, keep in mind that Daniels has up to four more games to pad those numbers. (And it’s also worth noting that 2019 Tua Tagovailoa was not a qualifier by the NCAA’s definition, but did meet the 200-attempt threshold for that chart). As such, while LSU’s three losses might harm him in the eventual Heisman voting, Daniels’ individual performance has been off the charts.

2. Bo Nix, Oregon QB

Perhaps this is controversial given that Nix’s Ducks fell to Michael Penix Jr.’s Washington Huskies in what might be the game of the year so far. But any Heisman contender must be judged on his contributions over the course of the entire season, and Nix has the slightest of edges.

When Nix was a struggling underclassman at Auburn who completed fewer than 60% of his passes in both 2019 and 2020, who thought we would be where we are today? The fifth-year senior’s 78.1 completion percentage is more than 20 points higher than it was as a freshman (57.6), demonstrating just how remarkable his transformation has been. That 78.1% mark leads all qualified FBS passers, well ahead of second-place Noah Fifita of Arizona (76.2%). The analytics back up Nix’s newfound accuracy prowess, as his 88.4 catchable throw percentage (how often a pass is deemed catchable by the receiver) also leads the country. 

But what has separated Nix from the pack is his ability to avoid mistakes. While he ranks fourth nationally with 25 passing touchdowns, he has also thrown a meager two interceptions, making him one of two FBS QBs with 20+ pass TD and two or fewer INT (Penn State’s Drew Allar: 20 TD, 1 INT). And his lack of turnovers hasn’t been sheerly based on luck. Via our tracking data, only 1.2% of Nix’s pass attempts have been “pickable.” That’s the second-lowest rate among QBs with at least 100 “true” attempts (excluding throwaways and spikes), behind only Florida’s Graham Mertz.

Much of this can be attributed to his nation-leading 93.1 open target percentage – which you can choose to either hold against him (good coaching and skill position talent), or credit him for (good decision-making). But nonetheless, Nix has been among the best of the best this season.

3. Michael Penix Jr., Washington QB

Though their last names and schools’ geographic locations are almost identical, Nix and Penix are “fire and ice” when it comes to their play styles. Nix’s bread and butter has been an embrace of the short game, avoiding mistakes to keep a ruthlessly efficient offense on schedule (Oregon has scored at least 33 points in every game). But what Penix brings to the table is that no one has made the difficult throws quite the way he can.

Penix leads the FBS with 3,201 passing yards (no other player is even at 3,000), while also ranking third with 26 pass TD behind Daniels and USC’s Caleb Williams. And those gaudy counting stats have not come easy. Penix has not been afraid to air it out downfield, averaging 11.1 air yards per attempt so far (nearly doubling Nix’s 6.3). And while this has resulted in Penix’s targets not being as open (81.1% open rate, compared to Nix’s 93.1%), he has managed to put the ball where it needs to be.

Penix’s well-thrown percentage of 80.4 is the highest among all FBS QBs with at least 11 air yards per attempt. (This measures the accuracy of throws in terms of physical location, but if the defender bats it down then it isn’t catchable. On the other hand, a throw that’s over the wide receiver’s head but still in a place he can get both hands on it is poorly thrown but still catchable.)

well-thrown vs air yards

The lone knock on Penix is that this aggressive style has led to some turnovers, with his seven interceptions being far ahead of Daniels’ four, McCarthy’s three, or Nix’s two. But even with that, Penix ranks second behind Daniels in total Expected Points Added, as the face of Washington’s unbeaten season.

4. J.J. McCarthy, Michigan QB

The knock on McCarthy is obvious: Michigan hasn’t exactly played an SEC-caliber schedule. The highest-ranked team that Michigan has faced so far, via our TRACR rankings (Team Rating Adjusted for Conference and Roster) is Rutgers, way down at No. 33. But you can only control what you do to the competition in front of you – and McCarthy has dominated so far.

While McCarthy was already one of the nation’s better QBs when he led the Wolverines to a Big Ten title last season, he’s raised his game tremendously as a true junior. His completion percentage (75.7), yards per attempt (10.4) and pass efficiency (188.7) all blow his 2022 numbers out of the water (64.6, 8.4 and 155.0, respectively). He ranks second nationally behind only Daniels in both pass efficiency and ESPN’s “QBR” metric, while also ranking in the top three in completion percentage and yards per attempt. 

And McCarthy aces the advanced analytics tests as well. He leads all qualified QBs with 0.689 Expected Points Added/Play. In catchable throw percentage, his 85.8% mark ranks second, behind only Nix’s 88.4%. Likewise, his 84.0 well-thrown percentage is comfortably the highest among players to average at least 10 air yards per attempt. McCarthy’s Heisman candidacy will either sink or swim following a stretch of Penn State-Maryland-Ohio State over the next three weeks, not to mention a possible Big Ten Championship Game. If his numbers continue to look like this after Michigan gets through the gauntlet of its schedule, he will not be No. 4 on this list for long.

5. Caleb Williams, USC QB

The voters will likely penalize Williams for being the Heisman Trophy winner last season, as “voter fatigue” has been a well-documented phenomenon regarding winners who return to college. But we will not. And the fact of the matter is, based on the numbers, Williams continues to be in the conversation for the best player in the sport.

Perhaps because USC has already lost more games than it did in last year’s regular season, the national perception is that Williams has fallen off, but this is a harsh fallacy. Williams is actually on pace for career highs in completion percentage (69.2), pass yards per attempt (9.5) and pass efficiency (175.9) before heading off to the NFL. His 28 passing touchdowns are the most in the FBS, and for good measure, even his 10 rushing touchdowns are tied for the most at the position with Boston College’s Thomas Castellanos. Williams has become only the third FBS player this century with 25+ pass TD, 10+ rush TD and fewer than five interceptions in his first 10 games of a season, joining Ohio State’s Justin Fields (2019) and Baylor’s Bryce Petty (2013).

Even the advanced metrics support that Williams has improved this season. The Pac-12 star’s well-thrown percentage has jumped from 77.7 a year ago to 81.4 this season, while his catchable throw percentage has similarly leapt from 76.7 to 79.5. Even when accounting for the disastrous three-interception game at Notre Dame, his pickable pass percentage has been eerily identical across the two seasons: 2.27% in each.

Williams may have fallen out of voters’ favor due to USC’s team-wide struggles, and/or the fact that he’s already won it, but his performance on the field has continued to be as good as it’s ever been.

Honorable Mention/Dark Horses

  • Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State WR: Buckeyes wideout is one of three players with 900+ receving yards and 10+ receiving TD (Oregon’s Troy Franklin, LSU’s Malik Nabers)
  • Jordan Travis, Florida State QB: FSU star ranks seventh in ESPN’s QBR and leads the ACC with a 0.7 interception percentage (19 TDs/two picks)
  • Jalen Milroe, Alabama QB: Ranks second in pass yards per attempt behind Daniels
  • Drake Maye, North Carolina QB: Only QB (min. 100 “true” attempts) to average 10+ air yards per attempt and have a pickable pass percentage under 2.0
  • Carson Beck, Georgia QB: Fastest average time to throw among Power 5 QBs (min. 100 “true” attempts)
  • Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma QB: Ranks fifth in ESPN’s QBR and leads the Big 12 with 294.0 passing yards per game and 20 touchdowns

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