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‘Straight-up baller’: Could BYU quarterback Zach Wilson really win the Heisman Trophy?

The Deseret News asked several prominent national college football experts if BYU’s spunky junior signal-caller is really a threat to wrest the sport’s most prestigious individual award from a Power Five player such as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson looks toward the game clock game against the Navy, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. After guiding the Cougars to a 5-0 start, his stellar play has landed him squarely in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Tommy Gilligan, Associated Press

An average of 9.6 million viewers tuned in Saturday night to watch No. 2 Alabama defeat No. 3 Georgia on CBS last Saturday night when a graphic entitled “Heisman Watch” popped up on their television screens.

On one side was the familiar face and long-flowing hair of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, accompanied by the stats of his performance earlier that day against Georgia Tech. On the other side was smiling, head band-wearing BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and the stats from his big game against Houston.

The split screen-like image required a double take. Was CBS sports suggesting that Wilson was a bonafide Heisman candidate, and deserving to be mentioned for the most prestigious honor in college football in the same breath as the heavily favored Lawrence?

It sure appeared that way.

Wilson’s phenomenal start to his junior season has been well-chronicled by the Deseret News and other news outlets throughout the country — he has clearly put up Heisman-worthy numbers in leading BYU to a 5-0 record and No. 12 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 poll.

But the question has to be asked: Can Wilson really win the famous stiff-arm trophy?

It can’t be argued that Wilson hasn’t vaulted into the conversation, after completing a nation-leading 78.7% of his passes for 1,641 yards (third most in the country) and directing the No. 6 offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision, averaging 541.0 yards per game. He’s No. 2 in passing efficiency (207.7) and No. 6 in passing yards per completion (15.34), and off the charts in the number of long-range passes he’s completed. He’s also rushed for six touchdowns.

And he’s slowly moved up various Heisman watch charts, after being on few, if any, when the pandemic-altered season began.

For example: Pro Football Focus-College had Wilson at No. 3 Tuesday behind Lawrence and Alabama’s Mac Jones. USA Today, which surveys 22 Heisman voters employed by its network properties every week, put Wilson at No. 3 this week, with two second-place votes and seven third-place votes.

“Another prolific passer, BYU’s Zach Wilson, has moved up to third and could be emerging as a dark horse,” USA Today’s Eddie Timanus wrote.

On its “Heisman Trophy Preview Show” last Tuesday, ESPN first mentioned Wilson 16 minutes into the program after raving about fellow quarterbacks Lawrence, Jones, Ohio State’s Justin Fields (who hasn’t played a down yet) and Florida’s Kyle Trask.

But guest analyst Andre Ware, the 1989 Heisman winner from Houston, gushed about Wilson when given the chance. That’s no surprise — Ware routinely praises Wilson every time he works a BYU game.

“He is a straight-up baller, a guy that if I had to buy a ticket to a college football game, I would go see Zach Wilson play football,” Ware said. “He is that kind of talent. He can run it, he is pinpoint accurate. … He is something else.”

Desmond Howard, the 1991 winner, agreed, saying if he had a chance to buy stock in a quarterback with a chance to win the Heisman, it would be Wilson.

“He is gritty,” Howard said. “He is a big-time quarterback. He is a gamer. I believe when the lights are brightest, that is when he will play his best football.”

So there are plenty of Wilson fans out there among national college football experts and the like. The noise isn’t just coming from Utah and the West, where BYU’s claim to being the only team playing football this side of Texas ends this weekend with the Mountain West starting its season.

But the question persists: Could it really happen?

There are more than 900 Heisman voters across the country, and 12 in the state of Utah, including the author of this piece. That number could drop, as a few local voters have recently retired or left the profession.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) passes during the game against the UTSA Roadrunners at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson passes during game against UTSA at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on , Oct. 10, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The fact that Wilson is a quarterback will help his cause — 17 of the last 20 Heisman winners were quarterbacks — but not playing for a Power Five program, coupled with BYU’s weak, pandemic-decimated schedule, will be major stumbling blocks.

We asked a half-dozen national college football experts this week if Wilson can really win the Heisman.

The short answer: No.

The reasons cited the most were Lawrence, the Clemson quarterback who finished seventh in the balloting last year, and Fields, the OSU QB who was third last year behind LSU’s Joe Burrow and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts.

“He needs … Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields to get kidnapped and not released until after the season and (for there to be no) undefeated Power Five teams,” said Brett McMurphy of Stadium.com. “Don’t shoot the messenger, but too many Heisman voters vote for the best player on the best teams.”

McMurphy notes that Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (2016) is the only winner in the past six years, since the inception of the College Football Playoff, from a team that didn’t make the four-team CFP.

“Then you have the voters’ bias against non-Power Five players (who) put up numbers against easier competition,” McMurphy said. “Not that Wilson shouldn’t be considered, but for him to have a legit shot to win, he needs as much chaos as possible (in college football).”

It could be argued that the current chaos — canceled games, the Big Ten and Pac-12 starting late — is the primary reason Wilson is being talked about so much this year. BYU has received as much national television exposure as any team not named Clemson or Alabama.

“He’s a great player and has been incredibly fun to watch,” said Chris Vannini, national college football reporter for The Athletic, who refers to himself as “a Taysom Hill type” on his Twitter profile.

Like several others, Vannini says a realistic goal for Wilson is to be invited to New York City (or the virtual ceremony, if it comes down to that) as a Heisman finalist, because there is no way he overtakes Lawrence. The Clemson QB is an overwhelming 4-to-7 odds favorite to win it, according to oddsmaker William Hill; Wilson is listed at 22 to 1.

“It is basically impossible for a non-Power Five player to win the award these days, outside of Notre Dame,” Vannini said, noting that Ware was the last non-P5 winner, but Houston’s Southwest Conference was considered a major league at the time.

“Without a Power Five opponent on BYU’s schedule, Wilson’s competition isn’t at a level I believe will garner enough credit from voters in the South and the Midwest,” Vannini continued.

Former SB Nation reporter Matt Brown, now the publisher of Extra Points, a college sports newsletter that primarily deals with “off the field stuff that shapes college sports,” says about the only thing working in Wilson’s favor is that “nothing about this season is normal” and it will take something extraordinary to happen for the BYU quarterback to win it.

Brown is well aware that former BYU QB Ty Detmer won it in 1990, but the landscape has changed dramatically.

“A completion percentage of over 75%, sustained over the course of a season, would be nearly record-breaking, and certainly worthy of Heisman finalist stature, but Wilson would both need to sustain that and hope that (early percentage leader) Mac Jones of Alabama falls off,” Brown said. “Under normal circumstances, it is probably impossible for a BYU player to win the Heisman again. … If Wilson is somehow able to keep producing at this rate, and if Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields or Mac Jones stumble in some way, Wilson may very well have an outside shot. Likely? No. Possible? You complete 75% of your passes and finish with a 36-4 touchdown-interception ratio for a top 15 team? Anything is possible.”

So some are saying there’s a chance. A really, really small chance.

“In Week 8, I can still win the Heisman Trophy,” said Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. “It is a popularity contest that limits consideration to skill players. That being said, Zach Wilson has a tremendous advantage as a BYU quarterback. There’s quite a Heisman legacy there. He’s going to have to get past (Lawrence and Jones), but I think being a Heisman finalist is a definite possibility. The kid is for real.”

Said Nicole Auerbach, senior college football writer for The Athletic: “I think he absolutely has a shot to make it to New York City as a finalist, but it’ll be hard to win without a conference championship game/marquee opponent opportunities like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State will have.”

What does Wilson think?

He was not made available to local media outlets leading up to Saturday’s game against Texas State at LaVell Edwards Stadium (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN), but did talk to an ESPN reporter last week before his 400-yard passing performance against Houston.

“You know, it is awesome. It is a great experience,” Wilson said of the Heisman hype. “But I would say it really doesn’t mean much until we get to the end of the year and we finish what we started. I would say that is probably the biggest thing. When I have teammates, and guys bring it up to me, I always try to tell them the Heisman is one of the most team awards you can get.

“You have to win, but you also have to have great statistics and a team that is making plays,” he continued. “My stats aren’t just me. It is part of my receivers making plays, my (offensive) line blocking for me. So it really just reflects the season we have had so far. I am happy to be a part of that (conversation) because it really just shows the success we have had so far.”

Teammates say the hype hasn’t gone to Wilson’s head — and won’t.

“No, he is still the same dude. He has never changed since I first met him, when we were like 10 or 11 years old,” said BYU receiver Brayden Cosper, one of Wilson’s housemates. “… He is one of the most mentally strong people I know. He is going to handle it well. He is still going to go out and perform well every week. He is already a professional.”

With or without a Heisman chance.