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Why Jayden Daniels was our easiest Heisman Trophy vote yet

Michael Penix Jr. had the best career. Jayden Daniels had the best season.
 
LSU football star Jayden Daniels topped Michael Penix Jr. to earn our Heisman Trophy vote.
LSU football star Jayden Daniels topped Michael Penix Jr. to earn our Heisman Trophy vote. [ VASHA HUNT | AP ]
Published Dec. 10, 2023|Updated Dec. 10, 2023

Tampa’s Michael Penix Jr. had the best career of any of the Heisman Trophy contenders. But LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels had the best season.

That, ultimately, is why Daniels was the easy choice for No. 1 on my Heisman ballot. Penix, who starred at Washington, was second. Oregon quarterback Bo Nix took the final spot ahead of a smaller-than-usual group of contenders that included Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis and Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.

The case for Daniels is simple: He rushed for 1,134 yards and had the highest single-season passing efficiency (208.0) ever. The other statistics are great, too. He was tied with Nix for the national lead with 40 touchdown passes and was in the top 10 in completion percentage (72.2). Daniels’ 11.7 yards per passing attempt were more than a full yard better than anyone else.

“The numbers are astonishing…” Tigers coach Brian Kelly said Thursday during a promotional event for the ReliaQuest Bowl.

Daniels’ highlights back up the numbers. He drew Lamar Jackson comparisons after slicing through the Gators (372 passing yards, 234 rushing yards).

But there was no need to overthink things. He was one of the nation’s top 25 rushers and set an NCAA record in the all-encompassing efficiency statistic. I generally do not consider team success, so the fact that LSU only went 9-3 was not a factor. My choice for No. 1 was the easiest in my nine years as a voter.

Tampa's Michael Penix Jr. starred at Washington and was No. 2 on our Heisman Trophy ballot.
Tampa's Michael Penix Jr. starred at Washington and was No. 2 on our Heisman Trophy ballot. [ HOWARD LAO FOR | oregonlive.com ]

No. 2 was, too. Penix, a Tampa Bay Tech alumnus who grew up in Dade City, was the nation’s leader with 4,218 passing yards. His deep passes were exceptional, and he maximized the abilities of the elite receivers around him. In his five games against ranked teams, he accounted for 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. He outplayed Nix in their head-to-head meetings and led fourth-quarter rallies in both.

If the Heisman was a career achievement award, Penix would have been first. Not many players are among the best ever at two different schools; Penix is (both at Indiana and Washington). His diving play to upset Penn State was one of the most memorable moments of the 2020 COVID season.

But I view the Heisman through a single-season lens. No one had a better season than Daniels.

Nix was third. A deciding factor was a completion percentage (77.2) that led the nation by 3 percentage points and ranks second in NCAA history.

I considered the other finalist, Harrison. Though he’s as talented and entertaining as any player in the nation, his statistics were merely good; his 1,211 receiving yards rank ninth, and his 67 catches are outside the top 30.

Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis was on our Heisman Trophy short list but didn't make our final three.
Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis was on our Heisman Trophy short list but didn't make our final three. [ JACOB KUPFERMAN | AP ]
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Travis was also on my short list. I saw arguments from FSU fans that the Seminoles’ playoff exclusion meant that Travis deserved the honor. The logic: If Travis’ absence changed the Seminoles so much that they weren’t a playoff team without him, then he must be the most outstanding player in the nation.

I didn’t buy it. FSU was worthy of a top-four spot without him, in my view, and Travis’ statistics (63.9 completion percentage, outside the top 20 in passing efficiency) weighed down his candidacy. He, like Penix, had a fantastic career but not a Heisman season.

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