In 1997, Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson did the impossible.
Against incredible odds and stacked against high-level talent — including Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning — Woodson became the first and only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. While he did also serve the Wolverines as a wide receiver and kick return specialist, Woodson primarily played as cornerback.
Years later, it is still a topic of discussion regarding whether Manning deserved to win the award over Woodson. Manning obviously went on to have a storied career in the NFL, but at the end of the day, it was Woodson who hoisted the trophy in New York.
This season, two SEC defenders have Heisman hopes of their own, and both will be on opposite sidelines in this weekend's SEC Championship Game between No. 1 Georgia and No. 3 Alabama.
For the Georgia Bulldogs, that player is Jordan Davis. This season, the senior defensive lineman has been a key contributor for what many consider to be the best defensive line in college football. While his stats on paper might not be the most impressive with just 24 tackles including 3.5 for a loss and nine quarterback hurries, Davis has presented numerous problems for offensive lines and forced opponents to plan their offensive schemes around him.
"I think the guy is one of the most dominant players in college football," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Davis. "Any defensive lineman, I guess you can look at a lot of things, but the number one thing is how hard are they to block? And he's really hard to block. He's got great size. He's very powerful, but he's got really good initial quickness, short area quickness, and can push the pocket and pass rush.
"He's about as good a player as I've seen for a long time as an inside player on any college football team."
For the Alabama Crimson Tide, their defensive Heisman hopeful is sophomore outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. Through 12 games, Anderson is the nation's sack leader with 14.5. He also leads college football in tackles for loss with 29.5, an incredible 7.5 tackles ahead of second-place Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd.
"He's a tremendous athlete," Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said of Anderson. "He plays with so much passion and toughness and energy. [...] He's so explosive, twitchy, and tough. So he strikes people and really strikes blocks really well. It will be a key part of the game in terms of the way he plays and affects the game. He does a really good job."
Entering this Saturday's SEC title game, both Anderson and Davis have the same Heisman odds at +5,000. Obviously with those numbers, the chance of either winning is slim. But that being said, those odds are still listed by Vegas for a reason.
Thanks to their contributions, the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide are both ranked in the top-10 nationwide. Georgia has built its season on the foundation of its stifling defense, which is ranked No. 1 in the nation by allowing just 229.7 yards per game and an astounding 6.9 points per game to opposing offenses.
For Alabama, the Crimson Tide ranks No. 7 in total defense, giving up an average of 294.2 yards per game to its opposition. Alabama's defense has been particularly effective against the running game and is ranked fourth in the country, giving up just 80.58 rushing yards per outing.
Both Davis and Anderson present far more value than numbers on a stat sheet, thoughStetson certainly two of the top defensive athletes in college football, they also hold a plethora of intangibles that elevate their game. Specifically, they both possess the quality of leadership that allows their defensive unit to form around them.
They also both possess a mutual respect for each other.
"He's a great player," Anderson said of Davis. "He's big. I think he's like the unit of their defense honestly. He's pretty hard to move around. Just watching him, I feel like he's a really great athlete for that size and he's a really good player."
Davis echoed Anderson's sentiments.
"He's a great player," Davis said of Anderson. "He's a game wrecker, watching his film and just seeing him. He's explosive. He's definitely one of those guys you have to make sure to keep contained. It's great to see him play, but we just have to make sure that we game plan for him and that we protect well up front on the offensive side and give Stetson [Bennett] some time to throw."
Regardless of how the SEC Championship Game plays out this weekend, one thing is certain: both Davis and Anderson are expected to contribute heavily for their respective teams.
Davis will need to lead his defensive line against another Heisman hopeful in Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. The Crimson Tide's offensive line has struggled over the past several games, most recently giving up seven sacks to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. This bodes well for Davis, and it is expected that he should have a solid performance should the Alabama o-line not step up its game.
For Anderson, it's quite similar. While Georgia's offensive line has proven to be stout over the course of the season, it hasn't had to face a defensive front quite as formidable as Alabama's. Along with linebacker Henry To'oTo'o — who has shown consistent improvement over the month of November — and defensive linemen Phidarian Mathis and LaBryan Ray, Anderson can have quite a successful game should it be able to get penetration against the Bulldogs.
Should either player have a standout performance, who knows if one will be making the trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. The odds are there, it's just up to Anderson and Davis to make their final statement.
Anderson has shied away from the Heisman conversation this year, consistently reiterating that he's solely focused on his team and what he can do better to ensure its success. That being said, he was quick to note how incredible it is that, with just one week left to play before bowl season, two defensive players are still being considered as potential Heisman Trophy winners.
"I think it's cool," Anderson said. "Especially nowadays a lot of defensive guys, you don't get as much attention. But I think it's good. It's cool. I think it's a mutual respect, and I think it's cool."