Here’s a handy way to predict the Heisman Trophy winner: List every team in the country and then eliminate every possible contender from those teams outside the top 10.
Only twice since 2000 has the Heisman winner come from this group. In 2011, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III won with the Bears ranked No. 16 in the final USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll of the regular season. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson took home the Heisman in 2016 with the Cardinals ranked No. 15.
All of the current crop of Heisman front-runners hail from the nation’s best teams, including perennial powers Alabama and Ohio State. A few come from surprising success stories such as Michigan State and Wake Forest.
With five more weeks until the Heisman announces this year’s finalists, here are USA TODAY Sports’ staff picks for which player has the lead in early November:
Scooby Axson: QB Bryce Young, Alabama
It certainly seems there isn’t a Heisman favorite going into the last month of the regular season, but Young has been impressive as Alabama just chugs along despite losing to Texas A&M. Young ranks fifth in the nation in passer efficiency and is tied for fourth in touchdown passes while completing 70% of his passes, and has a chance to stat pad the next two weeks against LSU and New Mexico State.
Jace Evans: QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud can ride the #narrative wave to the Heisman. Despite missing time, the redshirt freshman is still tied for seventh in the Bowl Subdivision with 23 passing touchdowns to just three interceptions and he’s behind only Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall when it comes to efficiency rating and yards per pass throw among passers with at least 110 attempts.
More importantly, though, Stroud is the trigger-man for nation’s No. 1 offense by points (47.2) and second in yards (548.1). He’s thrown for 15 touchdowns in his last four games and he’ll be front and center down the stretch as Ohio State plays a number of massive Big Ten games. If the Buckeyes run the table to reach the playoff again, I think Stroud will get the Heisman nod.
HIGHS AND LOWS:College Football Playoff rankings winners and losers
BOWL PROJECTIONS:Cincinnati on outside looking in at this point
Paul Myerberg: QB Bryce Young, Alabama
Young is the centerpiece of an Alabama offense that hasn’t met last year’s standard — an unreachable benchmark anyway — but still ranks second nationally in scoring (45.9 points per game) and first in the SEC in yards per play (6.8). The first-year starter has tossed 26 touchdowns against three picks and is hitting on an even 70% of his throws. He also ran for 42 yards and two scores in the recent win against Tennessee, perhaps showing a new side of his game after not playing any major role in the Crimson Tide’s running game for the first seven games of the season.
Erick Smith: RB Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State
Quarterbacks are always going to have the edge come Heisman time. Before wide receiver DeVonta Smith of Alabama took home the honor last year, signal callers had won nine of the previous 10 awards. This year, the unexpected winner may come from a running back. Kenneth Walker has been outstanding for Michigan State, leading the nation in rushing yards per game (149.2) and capitalizing on the exposure of a top-10 matchup with Michigan by scoring five touchdowns last week. The Spartans are unbeaten and still have big games against Ohio State and Penn State for Walker to continue to impress voters. Almost 40 years after another running back named Walker won the award, it could happen again.
Eddie Timanus: QB Sam Hartman, Wake Forest
In a year with no clear Heisman front-runner, it is time to think outside the box. That could mean a vote for a candidate who doesn’t play one of the sport’s glamor positions. It could also mean a nod toward a skill player from a program outside the traditional powers.
The performance of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett against Clemson, out of the playoff picture but still featuring a top-notch defense, enhanced his case — although that argument took a hit with the Panthers’ subsequent loss to Miami.
But the same argument might be made in a few weeks for another prolific passer from the ACC whose team is still undefeated. That would be Sam Hartman of Wake Forest.
Full disclosure: This writer and Heisman voter is also a Wake Forest graduate. But the Demon Deacons are already accomplishing unprecedented things. They’re 8-0 for the first time ever, and their current No. 9 ranking in the Coaches Poll is the highest in program history. If the Deacons keep winning and Hartman keeps producing, he’ll be impossible to overlook, especially if he can match Pickett’s success against Clemson but do so on the road.
Dan Wolken: RB Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State
I’ll admit to some recency bias here, but if the final vote were today I would put Kenneth Walker III at the top of the ballot. I’m not quite sold on Bryce Young yet as the Heisman winner, though he could certainly change my mind if he has some big games down the stretch. I also don’t know if Georgia has one standout candidate, though Jordan Davis has been a dominating presence on the defensive line.
Walker’s emergence after transferring from Wake Forest where he was a good but non-descript player exemplifies what this Michigan State team is all about. Averaging 6.8 yards per carry as a tough, physical, after-contact runner has allowed the Spartans to grind opponents down and finish close games when they get the lead. As of now, he’s the best player in the country.