The case for and against each 2021 Heisman candidate, from Aidan Hutchinson to Bryce Young

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The 2021 Heisman Trophy race had no clear front-runner for most of the season. 

Four finalists will attend the award ceremony on Saturday. This year’s field consists of three quarterbacks in Alabama’s Bryce Young, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. Michigan defensive end Aidan Huthinson is the other finalist.

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Young is the favorite to win this year’s award, but given the nature of the unpredictable season there is a case to be made for all four. Sporting News sizes up that case for each candidate (in alphabetical order by last name):  

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Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan 

Pros: Hutchinson had a 94.7 rating on Pro Football Focus, the highest mark of any finalist. Hutchinson set a Michigan single-season record with 14 sacks, and he finished with 10 quarterback hurries. He was a game-changing force off the edge, and he had three sacks in huge spotlight games against Penn State and Ohio State. The Wolverines finally broke through to win a Big Ten championship and made the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines allowed 16.1 points per game. 

Cons: There is an argument to be made that Hutchinson is the wrong defensive player in New York. Alabama linebacker Will Anderson had 15.5 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss. Georgia’s Jordan Davis was a dominant force in the middle for a better statistical defense. Hutchinson was a later riser in the rankings, but it’s difficult for defensive players to win the Heisman Trophy. Of course, Michigan’s Charles Woodson won the award in 1997, but he also played offense. 

One stat: According to PFF, Hutchinson had 15 quarterback pressures in the Ohio State game, the most in a single game since the site started tracking in 2014. 

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Kenny Pickett, QB, Pitt 

Pros: Pickett, a senior, led the Panthers to an 11-2 season and their first ACC championship. If the award is given to a most valuable player, then Pickett would have the strongest case. He finished with 4,319 passing yards, 42 TDs and seven interceptions. He also had 241 rushing yards and five TDs, including a fake slide for a score against Wake Forest. Pickett had eight games with 300 passing yards or more. 

Cons: Pickett did throw two interceptions in the loss to Miami, and the Panthers beat just one ranked team this season. Stroud and Young put up better numbers with stronger supporting casts, too. The Western Michigan loss always comes up, but that was hardly Pickett’s fault. He passed for 382 yards and six TDs. Pickett did take 28 sacks this season, and there are some detractors who think Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral should be in New York instead, and North Carolina’s Sam Howell has 10 more career TD passes. 

One stat: Pickett broke two of Dan Marino’s long-standing records this season. Pickett is the Panthers’ all-time passing TDs leader (81) and single-season TD pass leader (42). 

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C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State

Pros: Stroud has followed Dwayne Haskins (2018) and Justin Fields (2019) as the third straight Ohio State starting quarterback to be a Heisman finalist. He finished with 3,862 passing yards, 38 TDs and five interceptions for the highest-scoring offense in the FBS. Stroud also had arguably the best single-game performance of the season in a 56-7 victory against Michigan State. He hit 32 of 35 passes for 432 yards and six TDs. 

Cons: Ohio State didn’t beat Michigan. Is that Stroud’s fault? No, he passed for 394 yards and two TDs in the loss. But Hutchinson was the more dominant player in the game. Stroud’s success is also largely because of a ridiculous receiving trio that includes Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Again, that’s not his fault. Still, Stroud likely wins this award if the Buckeyes close the deal and win the Big Ten championship. Like Haskins and Fields, he’ll likely have to settle as a finalist for this season. 

One stat: Stroud had a 182.2 quarterback rating this season, the highest mark of any Power 5 quarterback. 

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Bryce Young, QB, Alabama 

Pros: Young took his candidacy to the next level the last two weeks. He delivered a game-saving 99-yard drive against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Then, Young lit up Georgia for 421 yards and three TDs in the SEC championship game. The Alabama sophomore finished with 4,322 yards, 43 TDs and four interceptions in a remarkable season as a first-year starter. A.J. McCarron (2013) and Tua Tagovailoa (2018) finished second in the Heisman voting. Mac Jones (2020) finished third last season. Young appears to be the best bet to become the first Alabama quarterback to win the award. 

Cons: Was Young the best player on Alabama’s team? Anderson had that label for most of the season, and it’s an argument that gets used quite a bit. Young didn’t really have a bad game to pick at, though he had a few costly turnovers in the loss to Texas A&M on Oct. 9. Is Young more valuable to his team than Pickett is to Pitt? Or Stroud? Or Hutchinson? That’s debatable, but most of the arguments against Young require stretching at this point.

One stat: Nine FBS quarterbacks had more than 450 passing attempts this season. Young led those QBs with 9.4 yards per attempt. The next-best was Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong at 8.9.



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