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Caleb Williams Seizes His Heisman Moment

USC’s sophomore Superman is a heavy favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and become the third Lincoln Riley–coached quarterback to do so. What might he do as an encore next season?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I get why the television broadcast of the Heisman Trophy ceremony pretends there is suspense. It is a TV awards show after all, and it would be rude to the other finalists to announce the winner at the very start. But as far as December TV is concerned, the Heisman show is only slightly less predictable than a Hallmark Christmas movie. There hasn’t really been a competitive Heisman vote since 2009, and I can confidently project this year’s winner: It’s going to be USC quarterback Caleb Williams, college football’s very own Superman. He’s clearly a superior candidate to the other QB finalists: Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, TCU’s Max Duggan, and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett.

Williams was the catalyst of a USC team that went from 4-8 before his arrival to 11-2 this season, bolstered by an offense that scored over 40 points per game. Williams is tied for the nation’s lead in passing touchdowns with 37, while simultaneously possessing a borderline magical capability to go Houdini Mode on opposing tacklers. It’s a good combo.

The “Superman” nickname has followed Williams since high school, and it makes sense based on the whole “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive” thing—Williams hits on both counts. But could Superman make throws like this? IDK, man. He was always too busy flying around and saving the day to really show his arm strength and accuracy.

Williams has accounted for 47 touchdowns in 13 games—37 passing, plus 10 rushing—the most of any player in college football this year. That total puts him just four short of the 51 touchdowns Joe Burrow had at this point in 2019, when Burrow won with the biggest Heisman voting margin ever. (Burrow added 14 more TDs in his two College Football Playoff games after winning the Heisman—12 passing, two rushing—finishing with a total of 65 touchdowns for the season.)

USC has lost two games, but Williams threw for five touchdowns in one of those losses (a 43-42 loss to Utah) and got injured in the other (the Pac-12 championship game, also against Utah.) It feels hard to ding Williams for a game in which he still looked like the best player on the field before his injury:

Williams will be the third QB coached by Lincoln Riley to win the Heisman, joining Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray; and a fourth Riley QB, Jalen Hurts, finished second to Burrow. All four have also been transfers—but Williams’s story is dramatically different from the other three. Mayfield, Murray, and Hurts all played at other schools before transferring to Oklahoma to play for Riley. Williams, a consensus five-star quarterback prospect from Washington, D.C., signed with Riley out of high school hoping to become Riley’s next great QB with the Sooners. He broke through as a true freshman, usurping Spencer Rattler by leading a stunning comeback in the Red River Rivalry game against Texas.

Williams transferred to USC not to join forces with Riley like the Oklahoma Heis-men, but to stay with Riley when the coach left Oklahoma for Southern California. At Oklahoma, Williams would have been part of a run of legendary QBs; at USC, he feels like a savior, raising one of college football’s giants from the dead.

Historically, the Heisman Trophy has been an award that caps a player’s career. When writing Heisman pieces about Burrow or DeVonta Smith, the Alabama receiver who won the award two years ago, I could do a retrospective of their growth, achievements, and place in college football history. With Williams, though, that’s impossible, since he’s only a sophomore. The NFL will not allow him to join its ranks until the 2024 draft, in which Williams is already considered among the favorites to be the no. 1 pick. But first, he’ll have to play another season at USC.

Simply winning the Heisman makes Williams a college football legend and entitles him to appear in Nissan commercials with Eddie George and Steve Spurrier. But with a year left in his career, Williams has the potential to be even greater. The Trojans were so close to their first College Football Playoff bid this year. What if Williams gets them there next year? What if he wins two Heismans and a national championship?

Normally, things don’t work out that way. Last year’s Heisman winner, Alabama QB Bryce Young, wasn’t one of this year’s four finalists thanks to a statistical drop-off and a rare two-loss season for the Crimson Tide. Nobody has won the Heisman twice since Archie Griffin in the 1970s—and nowadays, lots of players are getting the opportunity.

From 1935 to 2006, a span of over 70 years, all but 15 Heisman winners were seniors. But the equation flipped starting in 2007, when Tim Tebow became the first underclassman to win the award. Since then, there have been only three senior Heisman winners: Mayfield, Burrow, and Smith. Ten years ago, we saw the first freshman winner, Johnny Manziel (who had taken a redshirt season the year before). Of the 15 winners since 2007, seven have played a season in college after winning the trophy; Williams will be the eighth.

College football careers start and end earlier than they used to. It’s more socially acceptable for players to go pro after just three years than it was 20 years ago—at this point, it’s almost expected for elite prospects. And it used to be almost universal for players to take a redshirt season at the beginning of their careers. With players now able to freely transfer without sitting out a season, there’s increased pressure on coaches to get production out of players earlier. A pro-caliber prospect like Williams isn’t going to spend two or three years sitting on the bench when they may only be planning to spend three years in college to begin with.

The result is a lot of players who hit exceptional highs earlier in their careers—and often, don’t really have any place to go from there besides the NFL. The first six Heisman winners with the chance to repeat ended up getting drafted in the first round (yes, including Tim Tebow), including three no. 1 picks. But only one of them managed to win a national championship in their post-Heisman season. (Yes, it was Tebow.) It almost seems like a post-Heisman season is an awkward formality rather than a chance to seize all-time greatness. Maybe in a fairer world, players would be able to leave earlier, allowing Young to be last year’s no. 1 pick and Williams to be this year’s.

The era of the auto-redshirt is never coming back. The era of the Young Heisman Winner is much more fun. Eventually, somebody will seize greatness and become the first two-time Heisman winner in 50 years—and maybe it can be Caleb Williams. After all, he is Superman, and we all know how much they like making sequels of superhero movies.