Ohio State has a lot at stake when it meets Michigan on Saturday.
A win in the rivalry game puts the Buckeyes in the Big Ten championship game and in position to reach the college football playoffs.
It will also provide a big stage for quarterback CJ Stroud to make a final case for the Heisman Trophy, adding to all the high stakes of this weekend’s undefeated matchup.
Stroud, who directs the nation’s most-scoring offense, remains the favorite for college football’s most prestigious individual award over a string of contenders that have come and gone this fall.
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“He’s survived almost every challenger,” said Cory McCartney, author of The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.
Injuries stymied Alabama quarterback Bryce Young’s chance of becoming a rare repeat winner, as well as once-flashed cases for Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker and Oregon quarterback Bo Nix.
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The stretch run largely leaves Stroud in a two-man race with Caleb Williams, the dynamic quarterback in Southern California who has the Trojans fighting for a playoff spot. Williams also has a marquee window to wow voters with a prime-time game against Notre Dame this weekend.
It’s no small feat that Stroud has maintained its No. 1 status over the past three months. Pre-season favorites can fall like fall leaves. It’s been almost a decade since one captured the Heisman. The final wire-to-wire winner remains 2014 Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
“I would say it’s just as hard as being a defending champion,” McCartney said. “If you’ve spent the summer with nothing but the hype that you’re the man and everyone’s after you, how much harder is it to live up to that every week?”
One of the main reasons Stroud is keeping his position is because of the Buckeyes’ record. At 11-0, they’re pushing for the playoffs and have stayed at No. 2 on the selection committee’s rankings since the initial reveal earlier this month.
Since the postseason format debuted eight years ago, all but one Heisman winner have been part of a team that made the four-team group.
Stroud’s candidacy as a redshirt freshman last season lost momentum when the Buckeyes fell out of playoff contention after a 42-27 loss in Michigan.
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CJ Stroud enters the Ohio State-Michigan game as the leading Heisman hopeful
While Stroud is widely regarded as the last weekend of the regular season favorite and had a six-touchdown performance in a win over Michigan State the week before last, he slipped despite passing nearly 400 yards against the Wolverines. In the final voting he was fourth.
“I look at a Heisman winner as two different things,” McCartney said. “You’re either the really outstanding player of the season or the poster child of a team that is the most dominant team or one of the most dominant teams of the season. Stroud is probably the latter. He’s not putting up stellar numbers, but he was really, really good and everything he expected from a team that’s doing what it’s supposed to do this season.”
In 11 games, Stroud has thrown for 2,991 yards, 35 touchdowns and just four interceptions with a 66.4% completion rate.
While the numbers aren’t as flashy as those of some of the recent winners of the prestigious award, they have kept him firmly in the competition.
Chris Huston, who covered the award for a decade on HeismanPundit.com and later ran Heisman.com for the Heisman Trust, sees 40 touchdowns as the threshold in the era of widespread offenses.
Every quarterback to win the Heisman since Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2007 has thrown and run at least 40 combined touchdowns.
If Stroud has claimed the lane as a candidate leading a national championship favorite, Williams has staked one as someone reviving a traditional powerhouse.
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The Trojans had a tough time before he followed Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. They went 4-8 last year, their second losing season in four years, prompting Riley to bring an influx of transfers to give the squad the jolt it needed in its first season at the helm.
None was as effective as Williams, who threw for 3,480 yards, 33 touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 64.9% of his passes. He’s also rushed for 316 and seven touchdowns.
Huston, who was also assistant sports information director at USC in the early 2000s and ran Heisman campaigns for Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, sees parallels to Palmer’s winning streak.
When Palmer won the award in 2002, he led the Trojans after a similar downturn for the program, bringing them out of their doldrums at the start of the Pete Carroll era.
Stroud’s push also echoes an earlier one from his school and commemorates Troy Smith’s escape to New York in 2006.
“It’s very similar,” Huston said. “He really didn’t have a Heisman moment. He’s been really strong all year, the clear leader and ended up having this great game against Michigan, did it on a big stage and won by a landslide win.
How they perform in their rivalry matches could decide the ending. Williams is guaranteed to play in two more games with USC after securing a berth in the Pac-12 championship game.
The Buckeyes must beat Michigan to win the Big Ten East and earn a spot in the league’s championship game the following week, giving Stroud another opportunity to amplify his latest push.
“Both have great advantages,” Huston said. “They both play for Heisman forces. Both play for their rivals in huge games that are massively watched.”
It has what it takes to make a convincing finish.