Michael Penix Jr.'s effort in Washington's thrilling 36-33 win over Pac-12 rival Oregon this past weekend made him the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. While the reigning Heisman winner, USC's Caleb Williams, has put together a solid body of work that's practically made him a lock to be taken first in next spring's NFL Draft, Penix’s crunchtime heroics, paired with his ability to carry an offense, should at least put him contention for that prized No. 1 spot.
Perhaps the fans of NFL teams already out of playoff contention paid closer attention to the weekend's spread of college football games than pro ones. Saturday's slate offered plenty of intrigue at quarterback, as Penix opposed Oregon sensation Bo Nix in Seattle. Williams also faced his first true test and struggled, throwing three interceptions in USC's loss to Notre Dame. Maybe fans and analysts shouldn't place so much weight on one lousy game, while potentially overreacting to another performance. But at the halfway point of this season, everyone's allowed to start formulating some conclusions.
First conclusion: Williams has inflated his stats against armpit defenses of the Pac-12, while getting lifted up by bruiser Marshawn Lloyd in the backfield and a stable of really talented receivers. This isn't to say he lacks the generational talent everyone's drooling over, and if the draft was held tomorrow, anyone in their right mind would still go with the reigning Heisman champion. But Penix is slowly creeping up and closing the gap.
Although he's still a No. 1 pick longshot right now, Saturday made Penix's rise that much more possible, when taking a closer look at the situation. With four of the Trojans' final five games against ranked teams, the pressure is squarely on Williams to carry the load and make every single play to propel his team to victory. With a defense that's currently ranked 93rd in the nation, the odds of USC making a College Football Playoff push are much lower.
Washington also has its hands full with matchups against Utah, Oregon State, and USC, but they're a much stronger all-around team. Shining in the national spotlight, coming up with signature victories, and potentially competing in the Football Playoff will do wonders for the Washington signal-caller's draft stock.
Those who believe the factors mentioned above aren't pertinent to where a player is drafted should reassess their thought process. Rewinding the tape to 2019 would indicate Joe Burrow benefited from competing in the College Football Playoff and leading LSU to a national championship. His out-of-body performances throughout the season contributed to him being chosen No. 1 overall by the Bengals, but he went from late-round developmental prospect to leapfrogging Tua Tagovailoa largely because of his late-season heroics.
For better or worse, recency bias prevails among NFL front offices weighing positives and negatives of each possible selection. Right now, Penix seems likely to make an impression deep into the postseason behind a strong team, and the last glimpse at Williams will most likely come in USC's lower-tier bowl game. To some degree, the success of both Penix and Williams is contingent upon their program's record and ability to play in big games. Now, this isn't to say other factors -- i.e. USC’s swiss cheese defense -- wouldn't be taken into consideration. But the toughened-up Huskies could put Penix on a pedestal.
Penix has leveraged his situation while delivering top performances as a fifth-year senior. The more NFL general managers watch him play, the more they'll fall in love with his style. Who wouldn't consider taking the country's second- leading passer and Heisman frontrunner with the first pick? Penix's 6-foot-3, 213-pound frame is made for the NFL level, and with 20 touchdowns through six games, he's certainly put his explosiveness and accuracy on display.
Those preferring Penix over Williams on their draft big boards right now may be viewed as foolish by some fans and analysts. But, those who entered the season ready to objectively evaluate each quarterback prospect would think differently. In a meritocracy where status is earned, the tough-nosed star for Washington has outperformed USC's gunslinger. Based on those metrics for success, Penix's draft spot should be reflective of that.