The Saturday Slant gives you deep insights on some of the best games — and bets — of the week in college football.
College football’s regular season: Over. Conference championship game season: Over. I’ll be honest with you, folks, this kinda stinks. In many ways, we’re done with the sport for 2023 — there’s bowl season, obviously, but we’re no longer going to be parking ourselves on our couches at 11:59 a.m. EST on Saturdays going forward, flipping between games.
Of course, the good news is that we’re not fully into the cold, dark offseason. Bowl season’s right around the corner, and this weekend, we do have a few things we need to get all sorted out. There’s one FBS game, and we’ll get to that in a bit, but on Saturday night, one of four players is going to win the Heisman Trophy. Markets are closed at this point, so we hope you got your bets in. But we’ll go through each finalist and lay out why they should (and should not) be granted college football immortality.
Jayden Daniels, QB, LSU
Why he should win: Go look at his numbers again. Daniels has long been an up-and-down QB between his stops at Arizona State and LSU, so there is no way anyone could have seen this coming: 236-for-327 (72.2 percent), 3,812 passing yards, 40 touchdowns, four interceptions; 135 carries, 1,134 yards, 10 touchdowns. His passer rating of 208 is the highest single-season mark ever. He was third nationally in passing yards and 22nd nationally in rushing yards! That’s insanity! Some of his performances (Mizzou, Alabama, and Florida come to mind) were among the best we’ve seen from a single player this year, and because of his brilliance under center, LSU had the top offense in America by yards and points per game.
Jayden Daniels is the SEC Offensive Player of the Year pic.twitter.com/EiAZHnE0bn
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) December 6, 2023
Why he shouldn’t win: His brilliance did not necessarily translate to team success. The Tigers are, entering bowl season, the highest-ranked three-loss team in America … but they still lost three games. Now, the losses came to good teams (Florida State on a neutral field, Ole Miss and Alabama on the road, and when he left the Bama game due to an injury, the Crimson Tide were starting to pull away a bit), but we haven’t had a Heisman winner from a team that lost three games in the regular season since Lamar Jackson in 2016. Will that matter? My guess is it won’t and Daniels is going to end up winning the whole thing.
Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State
Why he should win: He’s the best football player in America. If the goal of the Heisman Trophy is to celebrate excellence in the sport, you need nothing other than a pair of eyes to recognize that there’s an all-timer in Columbus. He also showed up in the two games where the Buckeyes needed him the most. In the team’s 20-12 win over Penn State, Harrison reeled in 11 balls for 162 yards and a touchdown. In their 30-24 loss to Michigan, he caught five balls for 118 yards and a score. The team had 643 yards of offense combined in those two games, and Harrison was responsible for about 43.5 percent of them.
He’s not a quarterback, and non-quarterbacks just need a lot to go their way between individual excellence and a down year elsewhere…
Why he shouldn’t win: The first problem: He’s not a quarterback, and non-quarterbacks just need a lot to go their way between individual excellence and a down year elsewhere. Since 2000, the list of non-QBs to win the Heisman: Reggie Bush, Mark Ingram, Derrick Henry, and DeVonta Smith. (It’s also worth mentioning: Only one WR in there.) The other problem: Other WRs were more productive. Harrison was second nationally in receiving touchdowns (14), ninth in receiving yards (1,211), and 36th in receptions (67). Again, he is a magnificent football player who is going to hear his name called very early in the NFL Draft next year, but consider what DeVonta Smith needed to do to win the Heisman (117 receptions, 1,856 yards, 23 touchdowns). Can you look at Harrison’s numbers and say he did enough?
Bo Nix, QB, Oregon
Why he should win: You can make the case no QB ran an offense this year better than Nix did for the Ducks. Nix took a big step forward last year in his first season as the starting signal caller for Oregon before taking an even more emphatic step this season, going 336-for-435 (77.2 percent) for 4,145 yards, 40 touchdowns, and three interceptions with another six scores coming on the ground. The Ducks, as a result, had the No. 1 offense in America by SP+ and were second nationally in points, yards, and passing yards per game. Plus, if you’re a college football romantic, how can you not love the story of Bo Nix, the most Auburn human to ever live, going way outside his comfort zone by transferring to Oregon, blossoming into a star, and becoming a Heisman finalist?
— Oregon Football (@oregonfootball) December 6, 2023
Why he shouldn’t win: The infrastructure around Nix was excellent. He played behind a terrific offensive line, his running backs were the best of all three finalists, and his collection of pass catchers were some of the best in America. While Nix did a fantastic job running this offense, the staff in Eugene frequently wanted him to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. According to cfb-graphs.com, Nix’s average depth of target was 6.242 yards, while receivers averaged 8.143 yards after catch on his receptions. Daniels: 9.055 yards and 7.724 yards, respectively. Penix: 10.389 yards and 5.571 yards, respectively. I don’t believe in punishing guys for having a good team around them — the whole thing only works if the QB can run it well! — but if a voter thinks Nix had to do less than Daniels or Penix, he’ll be the third QB on ballots.
Michael Penix Jr., QB, Washington
Why he should win: You can take most of what was written for Nix and apply it to Penix. He did an unbelievable job under center for Washington, he gave them the nation’s most prolific passing offense, and his story of going from a promising player who just could not stay healthy at Indiana to the nation’s passing leader at Washington is legitimately unbelievable. He also has a leg-up on Nix: Penix beat him twice, once in Seattle in one of college football’s games of the year, and once in Las Vegas as a 9.5-point underdog with the Pac-12 title and a Playoff berth on the line. In those games, Penix went 49-for-76 (64.5 percent) with 621 passing yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions against a very good Oregon defense. Obviously that’s not the end-all be-all, but winning matters, and not only is there only one finalist on an undefeated team that made the Playoff, he beat another finalist twice to get there.
…his story of going from a promising player who just could not stay healthy at Indiana to the nation’s passing leader at Washington is legitimately unbelievable.
Why he shouldn’t win: Penix weirdly had some stinkers this season. This is by no means a perfect way to measure things, but if you listed out every game by passer rating from the three QBs who will go to New York, the five worst performances all came from Penix. Daniels put up a passer rating of 141.5 against Florida State, his worst game of the year. Nix’s worst mark came in the Pac-12 title game against Washington, where he had a passer rating of 144. As for Penix, he had passer ratings of 109.8 against Arizona State, 118.6 against Oregon State, 120.4 against Washington State, 139.3 against Utah, and 141.3 in the rematch against Oregon. Passer rating isn’t a perfect metric, and even some of his less flattering games look better through the lens of QBR (that Arizona State game, funny enough, was not one of them, with a QBR of 30.9). But still, his lows were just lower than the other guys’ lows.
The Winner Is…
So, who’s going to end up winning? Daniels was the betting favorite before markets closed, and he seems to be the likely pick. I don’t have a Heisman vote, but if I did, my ballot among these four finalists would look like this:
- Michael Penix Jr.
- Jayden Daniels
- Marvin Harrison Jr.
- Bo Nix
I am frustrated most years by how the Heisman has turned into a quarterbacks award, but this season, I think Penix has mixed excellence on the field with team success better than any other player in America. The video game numbers that Daniels put up make him second on my ballot — and, if I had to guess, will make him the winner of the award — while I have Harrison over Nix for really no reason other than I just don’t want to put the guy who I think is better at football than anyone else in the sport lower than third. But ultimately, all four of these guys were great, and whoever wins will deserve it.
Anyway, we’re now sitting here and waiting for bowl season. But before that, let’s talk about the only game this week, shall we?
Army vs. Navy, 3:00 p.m., CBS (Saturday)
There’s nothing like the annual battle between the Black Knights and the Midshipmen. This year, both teams enter with a 5-6 record and an unsettled Commander-in-Chief’s trophy — Army gets it with a win, while a Navy win would mean every service academy beat one another and Air Force gets to keep it as the team that won it last year. Like most games between service academies, you can probably guess the winner based on the answers to three questions: 1. Which team can run the ball more efficiently? 2. Which team can hit a few big chunk plays, either on the ground or in the air? 3. Which team can avoid giving the other one favorable field position, whether it’s via turnover or special teams? I think Army’s a better team top to bottom, but look out for their propensity to give the ball away (they’re 131st nationally in giveaways per game with 2.3 and tied for 131st in fumbles lost per game with 1.1) against a Navy defense that is second nationally with 2.2 takeaways per game and can get after quarterbacks — their 2.7 sacks per game are tied for 19th nationally.
The pick: Under 27.5
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