In theory, any college football player can win the Heisman Trophy. Reality, however, has told an incompatible story.
Since the Heisman was first awarded in 1935, a quarterback or running back has hoisted the prestigious honor in 79 of 86 seasons. Lately, it's been a QB-dominated award; 17 of the 21 winners in this millennium played the position.
Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith interrupted the trend in 2020, but voting tendencies are well-established and very likely to continue.
There is good reason for this QB-centric inclination. Quarterback is arguably the most important position in all of sports, let alone football. Transcendent talents behind center—think Auburn's Cam Newton (2010) and LSU's Joe Burrow (2019)—can rapidly turn a decent program into a national contender.
Not every season, though, has true Heisman-level superstars at QB. That is dangerously close to being the case in 2021.
Entering championship week, Alabama's Bryce Young is the award's favorite. If he puts together a strong showing in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday against Georgia, the nation's top-ranked team and defense, he'd be a deserving winner.
The challenge is Young's team, like Ohio State and C.J. Stroud did, might lose a second time. Georgia has ceded 200-plus yards to three QBs and multiple touchdowns to two. There's a reasonable chance Young's final appearance—his last chance to sway Heisman voters—is mostly a dud, and Alabama falls to 11-2.
And since 2000, only five Heisman winners played on teams with multiple pre-bowl losses.
USC's Carson Palmer (2002) would be the lone comparable player to Young and Stroud; the others—Florida's Tim Tebow (2007), Baylor's Robert Griffin III (2011), Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel (2012) and Louisville's Lamar Jackson (2016)—were all dual-threat QBs who also put up prolific numbers on the ground.
The question is not: Did either Young or Stroud have an excellent year? That answer would be a resounding yes. They've both thrown for at least 3,800 yards and 38 touchdowns. So did Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder, who enters the AAC Championship Game with 3,342 total yards and 34 touchdowns (27 passing, six rushing, one receiving).
The proper question is: Did any of them have a Heisman-worthy year? Those responses are more debatable.
Historically, the honor goes to the best quarterback on a top team; Alabama and Ohio State wouldn't fit the latter if the Tide lose again. Beyond that trend, the Heisman lands with a transcendent player such as Griffin or Jackson; neither Young nor Stroud is that.
None of the other QBs leading zero- or one-loss teams have the production expected of a top candidate. Ridder is closest, but his year is better characterized as "very good." No shame in that! Just not Heisman-worthy. For good measure, there's no Derrick Henry-like running back or Smith-like receiver to pick, either.
The best candidates in 2021 are defensive players—a group that has accounted for one Heisman win since 1950.
If you've followed our weekly updates this season, you're well aware of my pessimism about the voting. Defenders simply aren't a high priority on the official ballots.
You want transcendent, though? The clear choice is Alabama edge-rusher Will Anderson Jr.
The sophomore leads the FBS in both tackles for loss (30.5) and sacks (14.5). He's only 1.5 stops for loss behind the single-season record (32) and ranks second on the Tide with 86 total takedowns. As if the TFL and sack numbers aren't impressive enough, the latter stat is absurd for a pass-rusher.
Even if Alabama falls short of the College Football Playoff, this type of season is incredibly rare. That's Heisman-worthy.
After him, there's Michigan star Aidan Hutchinson. Last week against Ohio State, PFF College credited him with 15 pressures. Hutchinson, who is also PFF's highest-graded defender this year, set Michigan's single-season sack record (12.5) during the win.
If Michigan makes the CFP, there's no question that Hutchinson propelled the team there. That's Heisman-worthy.
As skeptical as I am about Georgia's Jordan Davis—he doesn't play half of the Bulldogs' snaps per game—the overpowering defensive tackle has a vocal group of supporters. Regardless of your feelings on Davis, it should be clear that two of 2021's top three choices are defenders.
That doesn't mean Anderson or Hutchinson is destined to lift the iconic trophy. Young remains the favorite, and Stroud will likely be a finalist even after Ohio State's second loss.
But in a season that is nearly without a quarterback who fits the traditional Heisman mold, Anderson and Hutchinson already have strong cases as the most deserving.