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Forde-Yard Dash: Defensive Players at the Forefront of the Heisman Race

With few offensive standouts, a full ballot of defensive players should be considered. The Dash examines the best contenders on defense.

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where it appears that Massachusetts (1–11) has edged out Florida International and Connecticut for worst FBS program of 2021 in the Sagarin Ratings, checking in at No. 212:

MORE DASH: Lincoln’s Path | Irish Debate | Wild Week


There has been a lot of discussion about this year’s Heisman going to a defensive player for just the second time. Charles Woodson (1997 winner) needs company, and the menu of offensive options is undistinguished.

But selecting a single, token defensive player would shortchange the many who have risen to prominence on that side of the ball in 2021. Given the options, why not consider a full ballot of defensive players?

The standard modern Heisman vote rewards the best offensive players from the best teams. But what if this year, the top teams are better on defense than offense? The numbers:

Georgia is first nationally in total defense, 27th in total offense.

Michigan is 15th in total defense, 19th in total offense.

Cincinnati is eighth in total defense, 44th in total offense.

Alabama is seventh in both total offense and total defense.

Notre Dame is 30th in total defense, 56th in total offense.

Oklahoma State is third in total defense, 61st in total offense.

And what if the best players on those six teams at the forefront of the College Football Playoff race are all defensive guys? Shouldn’t these guys also be at the forefront of the Heisman race?

The list:

Jordan Davis (21), Georgia. His impact is impossible to quantify because he doesn’t make many tackles (just 24 on the season). But his impact also is impossible to ignore as the 6' 6", 340-pound monolith in the middle of the line. Ask the Georgia coaches where its record-setting defense begins and they all point to Davis. Literally and figuratively, he is the biggest reason Georgia is giving up the fewest yards per play (3.67) and per game (229.7) of any FBS team in a decade. And the Bulldogs’ differential between points allowed (6.92) and the national scoring average (28.59) continues to be on all-time record pace of 21.67 points.

“He’s about as good a player as I've seen for a long time as an inside player on any college football team,” says Alabama coach Nick Saban of Davis, and he knows a little about great defense.

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Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jordan Davis runs out of the tunnel

Aidan Hutchinson (22), Michigan. Ask Ohio State about Hutchinson’s ability to wreck a game. He had three sacks against the Buckeyes, raising his season total to a school-record 13. He also drew multiple holding flags on the poor guys assigned to keep him off C.J. Stroud. Armed with both a great motor and great instincts, the 6' 6", 265-pound senior is also third on the team in total tackles with 54—a high number for a defensive end. He certainly was one of the driving forces in establishing an improved off-season buy-in as well, which helped fuel Michigan’s year-over-year transformation.

Will Anderson (23), Alabama. People who have been around the Crimson Tide for most (or all) of Saban’s 15-year tenure say Anderson might be the best defensive player he’s had there. Which is a grand proclamation. The 6' 4", 243-pound sophomore linebacker leads the nation in tackles for loss with a preposterous 29.5, which is 7.5 ahead of second place, an average of 2.5 per game. (The NCAA single-season record is 32, set in 2003, and the per-game record of 2.8 was set in '01.) Anderson also leads the nation in sacks at 14.5.

Sauce Gardner (24), Cincinnati. The Bearcats are not in this position without four-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder, but their best player is arguably Sauce. The junior cornerback has earned Champ Bailey status this season: Opponents have just about given up trying to throw on him. Per school stats, Gardner has been targeted only 25 times in 12 games, and the Bearcats say he’s never given up a touchdown in three college seasons. He has three interceptions, two pass breakups, two sacks and 26 tackles on the year. His nickname is also “Sauce,” which should be enough to merit Heisman consideration even if he was a backup.

Isaiah Foskey (25), Notre Dame. The most talented player—and highest 2022 draft pick—for the Fighting Irish is safety Kyle Hamilton. But he’s been out since getting injured in late October. Now the impact guy is Foskey, a sophomore defensive end from California. He’s tied for second nationally in forced fumbles with five and leads the team in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (11.5). The Fighting Irish defense has allowed only 23 points in its last four games.

Malcolm Rodriguez (26), Oklahoma State. The senior linebacker’s nine tackles per game are the most at Oklahoma State since 2010, and he’s now in his third straight season leading the team in that category. He also leads the team in tackles for loss with 13.5 and forced fumbles with three. He has 387 tackles in his college career. The Cowboys are allowing their fewest points per game (16.4) in 36 years.

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Now, if you insist on offense, there are some options beyond the glam QBs from the glam schools (Alabama and Ohio State). Namely:

Kenny Pickett (27), Pittsburgh quarterback. The Panthers senior is sixth nationally in passing yards per game (338.8) and tied for second in touchdown passes (40). Most importantly, he’s led the Panthers to their first 10-win season since 2009, with a chance for their first 11-win season since 1981 and first 12-win season since the national championship team of 1976.

Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett throws a pass

Kenneth Walker III (28), Michigan State running back. He’s the nation’s No. 2 rusher at 136.3 yards per game, and nobody with more than 215 attempts can top his 6.22 yards per carry. Walker’s arrival from Wake Forest was the biggest of several transfer splashes by the Spartans, fueling them to a 10–2 regular season as one of the nation’s surprise teams. If he wasn’t bottled up by Ohio State in a blowout loss, Walker might still be the Heisman favorite.

Tyler Allgeier (29), BYU running back. The nation’s No. 6 rusher is tied for the national lead in rushing touchdowns with 20. He also had as close to a one-play Heisman Moment as anyone on this list, running down an Arizona State player who could have scored on a fumble return and punching the ball away with a flying leap over his back that gave the ball back to the Cougars. Allgeier has more than 2,500 rushing yards over the past two seasons as the Cougars have gone 21–3.

Grayson McCall (30), Coastal Carolina. He will go into Coastal’s bowl game on pace to break the NCAA FBS record for single-season pass efficiency set last year by Mac Jones. McCall’s rating is 208; Jones’s was 203.1. In two seasons with McCall as their starter, the Chanticleers are 21–3, and he’s accounted for 60 touchdowns running and passing. In the two previous seasons they were 10–14. 

MORE DASH: Lincoln’s Path | Irish Debate | Wild Week

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