CJ Stroud is a Heisman favorite, but is he even Ohio State's best player?
The Heisman Memorial Trophy is annually awarded to the nation’s most outstanding college football player. Which makes it strange that there’s a decent chance it’s about to be awarded to a guy who probably isn’t the most outstanding college football player on his own team. Or even on his own side of the ball. Possibly even within his own class.
Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud.
This will be seen as shade against Stroud. It’s not meant to be. Stroud is the Big Ten’s best quarterback by a unit of measurement longer than a country mile. And as the quarterback of the nation’s most prolific offense, he’s obviously deserving of consideration.
But that consideration would lead an informed Heisman voter to conclude that Stroud is a reason for Ohio State’s offensive greatness rather than the reason. Which gives Stroud’s candidacy major Jason White/Gino Toretta vibes.
The intended target of my shade is Heisman voters, who have a tendency to choose the path of least resistance and pick the best player on the nation’s best team rather than the actual best player. Which is how White ended up beating out Larry Fitzgerald and Eli Manning in 2003, to cite one egregious case.
Georgia is the nation’s obvious top dawg this regular season, but is built on a historically great defense. Voters haven’t gone the defensive route for a Heisman winner since Charles Woodson in 1997, and are unlikely to break that habit this year.
That has vaulted Stroud into the front seat of the race alongside Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. Stroud’s stats are eye-popping: 36 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions for an average of 346.8 yards per game. The touchdowns put him 3rd nationally and the passing yardage 6th.
But there should be more to the Heisman than just numbers.
Ohio State’s wealth of talent
The Heisman winner should be a no-brainer answer to the question “Which guy on this team would I want to build a football team around?”
2019 LSU? Joe Burrow.
2016 Louisville? Lamar Jackson.
2005 USC? Reggie Bush.
Even the last Ohio State player to win the Heisman, Troy Smith, felt like the indisputable answer to that question in 2006.
With this version of the Buckeyes, one could reasonably argue that Stroud is the fifth-most dangerous player on their offense. And that’s no knock on a quarterback doing amazing things as a redshirt freshman.
He’s just surrounded by guys who are that good.
If any of Ohio State’s “Earth, Wind & Fire” receiving trio was the offense’s primary focal point, we’d be looking at a second straight season with a wide receiver winning the Heisman. Chris Olave, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Garrett Wilson are each capable of matching Devonta Smith’s otherworldly production from last year, but since there are 3 of them that’s not necessary.
And then there’s Stroud’s fellow freshman, running back TreVeyon Henderson.
Because of the wealth of talent surrounding him, Henderson has been preserved rather than loaded up for a Heisman run. Henderson’s 15o carries rank a modest 76th nationally, but his 1,098 rushing yards are 19th overall. Henderson is 9th nationally in yards per carry (7.3) and 10th in rushing touchdowns (14). If Henderson were at 200 carries — a work rate that would rank 17th nationally — he’s probably be the Ohio State freshman leading this discussion.
A quality closing argument looms
Thirty years ago this week, Michigan’s Desmond Howard famously (or infamously, if you were a Buckeyes fan) wrapped up his Heisman case in this rivalry game.
Have an announcer and a player ever been more in synch?#OTD 3⃣0⃣ years ago, Keith Jackson delivered the iconic "Hello, Heisman!" call, and @DesmondHoward struck the Heisman pose. pic.twitter.com/IEYggsuOse
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 23, 2021
With a dominant performance against the Wolverines, Stroud could return the long-overdue favor. And that might be what it’s going to take to show that he is in fact the best player on his own offense and thereby the country.
Through 11 weeks, Pro Football Focus grades Stroud as the 7th-best quarterback in the country. Which, again, is pretty heady territory for a guy who never took a college snap before this season. But it’s also behind quarterbacks who have spent time weaving in and out of the Heisman conversation — Young, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Oklahoma’s Caleb Williams.
Michigan boasts the nation’s No. 7 scoring defense. If Stroud comes anywhere close to matching his 6-touchdown performance against Michigan State, our questions will be answered. And if he struggles enough for Michigan to win this game for the first time since 2014, we’ll know that our doubts were warranted.
Either way, that sidebar adds a fascinating additional layer to what was already this weekend’s most important college football game.