Heisman race 2021: After shaky start, C.J. Stroud’s candidacy forcing reevaluation

A September loss and early struggles hurt his case, but Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud is gaining ground in the Heisman race with one dominating performance after another.

Over the years determining the Heisman Trophy contenders has boiled down to a flowchart, a meandering process where challengers try to avoid dead end after dead end.

Is he an offensive star? Is he the face of a College Football Playoff contender? If so, advance. If not, game over. Is he, and will he continue to up worthy numbers? Did he deliver on the biggest stages? Was there a moment on those stages that defined player and season?

On and on it goes, with the winding ‘Yes, move on,’ or ‘No, you’re out.’

It’s all obviously arbitrary for a trophy whose only criteria is vague in itself in going to the “most outstanding player” in the country. But there are things that don’t generally come into consideration when answering those questions about a contender, factors that just don’t become part of the conversation, because we’re ultimately judging an entire body of work.

Growth and improvement.

C.J. Stroud is making up for missed time in the Heisman race

C.J. Stroud stepped in to take over an Ohio State offense that was built for the playoff. He had at his disposal the best wide receiver tandem in the country, a deep set of talented runners behind him an offensive line anchored by a preseason All-American left tackle in Thayer Munford.

But it turns out, being a first-time starter with hype and expectations is ridiculously hard.

Out of the gate, Stroud looked less than refined as he hit on 59.1 percent of his passes in a closer-than-the-final-score-shows win at Minnesota. Then came the loss to Oregon and an interception with 1:53 to play that stopped a comeback attempt in its tracks.

It was the first knock, the first blemish on Stroud’s resume. Next came a so-so day vs. Tulsa, where he threw for a mere 185 yards on 25 attempts — with 47 of those yards coming on one pass to Chris Olave — as he threw another pick and fumbled the ball away. Then the death knell came a week later when he sat out a rout of Akron.

A shaky first three weeks. Coming up short on the big stage. Missing a game. On the flowchart of the Heisman, it amounted to the same thing over and over: Game over.

Like that, he’s written off, his spot in the proceedings more procedural than promise — and therein lies the problem with narrowing down the Heisman with a formula or connecting dots, because since the calendar flipped to October, the Buckeyes passer hasn’t just been great. He’s been the nation’s best player at the position.

After Stroud’s four touchdown passes and 266 yards against Indiana, the redshirt freshman has thrown for 14 scores this month, the most among Power 5 quarterbacks and he’s the only player in the nation with double-digit scoring strikes and zero picks in October. He also leads the major conferences in efficiency rating (229.01) and completion percentage (73.8). That run puts him in the efficiency rating lead (192.7) on the season in P5, only Alabama’s Bryce Young (26), Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong (23) and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett (23) have thrown more touchdown passes than Stroud’s 22, and he’s at 1,965 yards despite sitting out a game.

Stroud’s not alone in fueling an Ohio State offense that, since the loss to Oregon has won five in a row by an average of 41.6 points – true freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson has been exceptional – but his level of play and comfort in the position is arguably the biggest reason why he’s now leading the nation’s top-scoring attack at 49.3 points per game.

Taking over for Justin Fields wasn’t seamless. Just look at the flipside in Clemson with D.J. Uiagalelei. He’d struggled in succeeding Trevor Lawrence, and it came to a head in Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Pitt when he was benched after throwing two interceptions, including one on a shovel pass that led to a Panthers touchdown.

Stroud had the same kind of measuring stick as Uiagalelei, and he hasn’t just improved. It’s become elite, and every bit the stuff of a Heisman campaign. But can it become enough for voters to look past a less-than-trophy-worthy start and move Stroud ahead of Young and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, both of whom are above the Ohio State quarterback in the latest odds?

Neither of those SEC contenders can match Stroud’s next five weeks, which begins Saturday night against No. 17 Penn State, No. 9 Michigan State (Nov. 20) and No. 6 Michigan (No. 27) to follow. Young and the Crimson Tide have just one ranked opponent remaining in the regular season in No. 19 Auburn on Nov. 27; Corral has those same Tigers on Saturday and No. 17 Texas A&M on Nov. 13.

Add in Stroud’s matchup with the Spartans including another member of the Heisman challenger shortlist in running back Kenneth Walker III, and there may not be a player with more to gain.

In the end, it may be insurmountable. Since 2000, only three players have won the trophy after suffering a September loss – USC’s Carson Palmer in 2002, Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2009 and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012 – and none of them missed any playing time.

But that’s putting Stroud back into the old flowchart, isn’t it? Operating on another level, he may be challenging that line of thinking.

Heisman race 2021: Who is heating up, who is cooling off?

Buy: Kenny Pickett, Pitt

The ACC isn’t likely to win a Heisman this year, but it has at least one player who is a contender to reach New York, and it has a very intriguing battle on who will end up as its first-team quarterback. We’ll get into another one of those candidates for all-conference honors shortly, but first up is Pickett, who spearheaded Pitt’s first win over Clemson since 2016, throwing for 302 yards and two touchdowns and leading five scoring drives in all. He also made a little history on the way, producing his 868th career completion to supplant Alex Van Pelt for the school record. The Panthers haven’t had a Heisman finalist since Larry Fitzgerald was runner-up to Oklahoma’s Jason White in 2003, but with a manageable path to the ACC Championship Game that doesn’t include another ranked opponent, Pickett may be poised to end that drought.

Sell: Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

This isn’t an indictment of Ridder’s campaign. If Cincinnati can navigate the weeks ahead and lands in the College Football Playoff, he’s going to have his supporters and should become the first finalist from outside the major conferences since Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch in 2013. It’s just that it’s becoming difficult to match Ridder’s overall stats against the rest of the quarterbacks in this race. He threw for 176 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in Saturday’s 27-20 win over Navy and has yet to go over 297 yards on the season. Ridder is tied for 21st in touchdown passes (15), he’s 30th in efficiency rating (154.3), 49th in completion percentage (63.6) and 51st in yards (1,620). The Bearcats’ continued zero in the loss column is the most important stat in his favor, but it does hurt his case as a Heisman contender when the counting stats don’t match up to the more traditional challengers.

Buy: Sam Hartman, Wake Forest

There’s no ignoring Wake Forest, which has gone from unranked to No. 13 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, and its quarterback is making serious noise in a crowded ACC landscape. He threw for a career-high 458 yards and five touchdowns – his best in a Demon Deacons uniform and tying a program record – in a 70-56 win over Army. He also had a rushing score, and on the month is averaging 392.3 yards per game. It’s setting up for a showdown with Pickett for the ACC crown, and the leg up in determining the conference’s top dog at the position. But let’s also give some love to Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong, whose team already has two losses, but no FBS passer has thrown for more yards (3,220).

Sell: Sean Clifford, Penn State

Knocked out of the loss to Iowa last time out, Clifford had a truly forgettable day against the Big Ten’s worst defense in the longest game in college football history. The redshirt senior threw for 165 yards on 34 attempts against an Illinois defense that came in yielding 264.7 yards per game (107th in FBS). Clifford’s mobility was limited, and it showed as he had minus-28 rushing yards and was sacked four times, amounting to the second time in his Nittany Lions career that he had negative rushing yards. It’s been a major drop-off for Penn State after reaching as high as No. 4, and it figures to get worse this week with a trip to Columbus to face Stroud and the red-hot Buckeyes offense.

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