Heisman belongs to Bryce Young, but who will join him as finalists?

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is poised for a runaway Heisman victory, but in a crowded race, the real intrigue is in who will join him in New York.

Yale, Army, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, and in the coming days, Alabama.

Bryce Young made certain that the Crimson Tide will become the latest team to win back-to-back Heisman Trophies with his dissection of Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, a performance that took all the drama out of this Saturday’s proceedings.

About the only thing still up in the air after the sophomore quarterback threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 40 yards and a score against a seemingly unbreakable Bulldogs defense is just how many players will be joining Young at the ceremony. More on that in a moment, as the Alabama passer has set the stage for what should be an intriguing finish in the annals of the award’s voting history.

Young won’t challenge the last quarterback to win, LSU’s Joe Burrow, who set all-time records for the highest percentages of possible points (93.8) and ballots appeared on (95.5) and the largest margin of victory (1,846). But with the way this race unfolded, it’s within reason to see his posting numbers that easily rank in the top 10 in each category.

There was no clear secondary player in his race going into the final weekend before votes were due. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud had positioned himself as exactly that before Michigan knocked off the Buckeyes to reach the Big Ten Championship Game, and while the Wolverines have a viable threat in Aidan Hutchinson, we know the glass ceiling that exists for defensive players limits how much a threat the end really was.

With the likes of Hutchinson, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, and Young’s teammate, linebacker Will Anderson Jr. — the only other candidates active on championship weekend — Stroud, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III, there’s a long list of players that figure to appear on the Nos. 2 and 3 spots on ballots. That creates a scenario where the numbers within Young’s win are influenced by the field, along with what he did on it.

He’s had the kind of season we’ve come to expect from Heisman winners in this era. With 4,322 yards and 43 touchdowns, Young’s numbers are better than the average of the last 10 quarterbacks to win (4,228 yards and 40 scores). None of them, though, had the benefit of facing the nation’s No. 1 defense in his last game before votes were due — the last player to do so was the Crimson Tide’s first winner, Mark Ingram, against Florida in the 2009 SEC title game — and with the sport’s universe circling around the College Football Playoff, Young will continue the trend as the eighth winner in the postseason format’s nine years to appear in a semifinal.

That should lead to his getting at least 725 first-place votes, and in the range of the 1,500-point margin of victory that Florida State’s Jameis Winston posted in beating out Alabama’s A.J. McCarron in 2013, both of which would be in the top eight all-time. Young figures to be around the 90 percent threshold on ballots the winner appeared on — which would be in the top-five historically — while snagging at least 90 percent of the possible points, a figure only equaled by Burrow (93.8), Ohio State’s Troy Smith (91.6) and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (90.9).

Had Young either had a mediocre day in an Alabama win or been bottled up by Georgia in a loss, we’d be talking about a different kind of finish, and potentially another defensive candidate for a spot in New York with Bulldogs lineman Jordan Davis. But with the level of dominance Georgia’s D displayed all season long — allowing an average of 230.8 yards in total, 151.9 through the air and 6.9 points per game, figures Young had obliterated in less than two quarters — we saw one of the best closing arguments in recent Heisman history, and one that delivered a blow to a would-be finalist.

With Bryce Young and Alabama’s Heisman secured, who will join him at the ceremony?

Before we dive in, this is the annual plea to not say anyone was “snubbed” from being a finalist. No one is left out due to slight or spite. It’s based on the natural break in voting numbers, giving us between three or six players since the Heisman Trust began extending invitations in 1982.

In those 38 years, four has been the most common number with 13 instances, including in each of the last two seasons, while there have been three players 12 times (the last in 2018) and five players 11 times (the last coming in 2016). Just twice have there been six, and that hasn’t happened since 2013.

It’s important to note that “natural break” in voting. In a four-player field, the biggest gap between the last two finalists was in 1997 (Ryan Leaf and Randy Moss); with five players, it’s 425 (Ndamukong Suh and Tim Tebow in 2009); and the biggest gap with six at the ceremony is 103 (Jay Baker and Warren Sapp in 1994). Over the last 20 years, the average gap in any field with more than the minimum of three players is 465.

The Heisman voting is spread across six regions — the South, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Southwest and Far West — and of late, it’s been rare that a player hasn’t swept them all. In 2011, Stanford’s Andrew Luck took the Far West, while Baylor’s Robert Griffin III claimed the rest of the regions; a year later, Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o took the Midwest and the rest of the country was slanted to Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, and in 2015, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey was the only player to deny Alabama’s Derrick Henry the sweep.

That’s all worthwhile, not only in being educated about the process but also in understanding how crucial that could be in a vote that figures to be murky, especially in two regions in particular.

There’s the potential that Hutchinson and his program-record 14 sacks emerge as the Midwest region winner but given that the dominance of Georgia’s defense was among the key plot points of this season, it’s unlikely that Young is left off ballots altogether. That means the rest of the Midwest’s candidates — Ridder, Stroud, and Walker — vying for one spot in the place they figure to garner the most support.

The same with the South, which has Anderson, Corral, Davis and Young. Again, Young is likely to be a fixture, but it’s a crowded field of challengers for those other two places on the ballot.

That all could end up impacting Pickett, who plays in the Mid-Atlantic, but whose conference — the ACC — stretches into the South, as well as the Northeast. He put up ridiculous numbers throwing for 4,319 yards (fourth in Power 5) and 42 touchdowns (second), while leading the Panthers to a conference crown, but was playing outside the playoff conversation and battling perceptions the ACC is in a down year, all while all four semifinal teams had a player in the mix entering the last weekend.

The only regions without a dog in the fight are the Southwest — though Nebraska’s inclusion could make the Big Ten’s stars the de facto candidates — and the Far West.

The South and Midwest may be outliers with the number of candidates in those regions but look for the rest of the country — the West and Far West, especially — to follow national storylines.

That puts Young on top, with Hutchinson a factor as the face of Michigan’s playoff run. Stroud, who up until his final game was in the top two among sportsbooks and still had a strong game vs. the Wolverines, should also make the cut as a finalist and so should Pickett, behind the gaudiness of his numbers and the benefit of showing out in the final days before votes are due.

This could stretch into a six-player field, but the vast number of contenders in the South and Midwest may end up canceling each other out. The expectation is that we’ll have four finalists for the third straight year, with Young joined by Hutchinson, Stroud, and Pickett.

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