I almost changed my mind.
Listening to the Southeastern Conference championship game on my drive from Columbus to Hattiesburg last weekend, I was nearly convinced to reverse course on my looming Heisman Trophy vote. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young just seemed too impressive against the nation’s best defense, capping a stellar season with another great performance.
For a few hours Saturday night, Young leapt to the top of my Heisman ballot.
But then I remembered why I had him second to begin with.
Instead, I cast my first-place vote for Young’s teammate, linebacker Will Anderson Jr. Anderson didn’t win the Heisman. He was not among the four finalists for the trophy, and it was announced Thursday night that he finished in fifth place. But he got my vote — and deserved a much better Heisman fate.
The Heisman honors the “outstanding player in college football,” and that was Anderson in 2021. The sophomore linebacker put up eye-popping stats from his pass-rushing position to help the Crimson Tide earn the College Football Playoff’s No. 1 seed.
Anderson led the nation with 31.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 more than second-place Devin Lloyd of Utah. His 15.5 sacks were tops in the country as well — more than nine teams, including Stanford, Colorado and Vanderbilt, had all season.
On Oct. 16, I got to witness Anderson’s dominance firsthand. He had four of Alabama’s seven sacks at Mississippi State, wrecking the right side of the Bulldogs’ offensive line all night. Young had an impressive game, too, but Anderson was the best player on the field in my eyes.
Of course, one of the issues with the Heisman voting system is its regionalism, making it hard for some writers who cover teams week in and week out to watch every player who should be in contention.
For example, I can’t honestly say I watched a full Pittsburgh game this year, making it harder for me to evaluate star quarterback Kenny Pickett when it came to my Heisman vote.
But that’s why we have statistics, and Anderson’s stats stood out among any of his counterparts.
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, the lone defensive player invited to New York as a Heisman finalist, didn’t measure up to Anderson in 2021. Hutchinson was phenomenal at getting pressure on the quarterback, probably the best in the country; but he had 15.5 tackles for loss — less than half of Anderson’s total — and 14 sacks to Anderson’s 15.5.
What likely hurt Anderson in Heisman voting was his lack of a true “Heisman moment,” the game or the play where one player stands out above the rest. Young had his shredding of Georgia, Hutchinson his role in the Wolverines’ win over Ohio State, Pickett his ACC title.
Anderson didn’t have a moment like that. Ultimately, it cost him.
But he was the best player in the country all year long, and he should have at least been on stage Saturday as a finalist. Winning the trophy was unlikely; Charles Woodson in 1997 was the most recent defensive player to win the Heisman, and the odds were stacked against Anderson from the start.
Seventeen quarterbacks have won since Woodson’s victory, along with four running backs and just one wide receiver, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith. In most cases, the Heisman has become the quarterback of the year award, and it’s easy to see why: It’s the most important position and the one with the most publicity.
And there were some great quarterbacks in 2021.
Young finished the season with 40 passing touchdowns and just 4 interceptions, throwing for 3,901 yards and completing 68.9 percent of his passes. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud had similar numbers, throwing for 3,862 yards, 38 touchdowns and 5 interceptions on 70.9 percent passing.
Ultimately, I had Young second and Stroud third on my Heisman ballot, mostly because of the better weapons around the Buckeyes signal-caller — Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Ngijba. Of course, Young had help himself with Jameson Williams and John Metchie III.
But Anderson put up one of the best defensive seasons in college football history, and he deserved the Heisman Trophy in 2021.
The best of the rest
Anderson was one of many players across the country to put up noteworthy seasons, and I considered several besides Stroud for third place on my ballot. Here’s who I would have voted for if I’d had 10 spots to fill — and why each player didn’t make the top three.
- Pitt QB Kenny Pickett. Pickett helped Pitt win its first ACC championship and led the Panthers to a 10-win regular season for the first time since 1981 under former Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill. But he played in a weaker conference and didn’t have quite the numbers of Young or Stroud.
- Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson was one of the best defenders in college football and perhaps its best pure pass-rusher. But he wasn’t quite on Anderson’s level this season.
- Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker III. Walker was a huge part of the Spartans’ successful season, scoring five touchdowns in a big win over Michigan on Oct. 30. But he was invisible in a blowout loss to Ohio State and was outshined by the Wolverines’ Hassan Haskins late in the year.
- Georgia DL Jordan Davis. Davis, a mountain of a man, was nearly unstoppable as the Bulldogs went undefeated in the regular season. But he wasn’t much of a factor against Alabama in the SEC title game.
- Ole Miss QB Matt Corral. I got to watch Corral in person Nov. 25 in the Egg Bowl at Mississippi State, and he once again showed his importance in leading the Rebels to 10 wins and a Sugar Bowl berth. But even factoring in his rushing numbers, Corral just didn’t measure up statistically.
- Georgia LB Nakobe Dean. Dean, a Horn Lake product, was an extremely productive middle linebacker for the Bulldogs’ historically good defense. But unfortunately for the Butkus Award winner, he shared the spotlight with Davis all season, making it harder for either to stand out.
- San Diego State K/P Matt Araiza. A specialist has never won the Heisman and probably never will. Matt Araiza shouldn’t have, but he was one of the best punters in the history of college football, averaging 51.4 yards per punt with a long of 86. The so-called “punt god” doubled as the Aztecs’ kicker, going 17 of 27 on field goals and making all of his extra points. But a special teams player only can be so valuable, keeping Araiza off Heisman ballots this year.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.