When coach Lincoln Riley bolted from the University of Oklahoma after last season, and his star freshman quarterback Caleb Williams followed, along with a boatload of other transfers to the University of Southern California, the expectation was that U.S.C. would return to the upper echelon of college football.
That expectation was met — and then some. U.S.C. won 11 games, seven more than last season, and its highest win total since 2017. If it had not been for a loss in the Pac-12 championship, U.S.C. would be in the College Football Playoff for the first time, with a chance to win its first national title since 2004.
The national championship will evade the Trojans this season, but Williams, who won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night in New York, gives U.S.C. a consolation prize.
Williams, who has been celebrated for his pregame outfits and painted nails, wore a custom tan suit designed by Gucci and Adidas, along with “boots that look like loafers” and clear nail polish.
Williams was brilliant all season, beating defenses with his arms and legs, finishing with 4,075 passing yards and 47 touchdowns. His value was never more apparent than in U.S.C.’s Pac-12 championship loss to Utah, in which he sustained a leg injury that left him hobbling. Though Williams managed to stay in the game, U.S.C.’s offense could not muster anything with him injured.
Despite finishing his sophomore season as college football’s most outstanding player, Williams didn’t start out as the favorite. Late-night television starts for West Coast teams, in conjunction with a Pac-12 conference that historically has been lackluster, may have kept Williams’s name off early-season Heisman favorite lists.
But after a game against rival U.C.L.A., then ranked No. 18, in which Williams willed his team to victory by amassing 503 total yards (470 passing, 33 rushing), along with three touchdowns, he was seemingly a lock to win the Heisman. (The game also began at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)
“It took an entire season for the rest of the country to catch on,” said Carson Palmer, the former U.S.C. quarterback and 2002 Heisman winner.
It was the second year that Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud smiled and clapped as another finalist won the Heisman Trophy. Last year, Stroud was a finalist but finished last in voting among the group, as Alabama’s Bryce Young took home the award. Young was not a finalist this year, and Stroud was the favorite to win for most of the season, especially after a game against Michigan State in which he threw for 361 yards and six touchdowns. But Stroud struggled over the final stretch of the season, including in a 45-23 loss to Michigan.
This might have been Stroud’s last chance at the Heisman. He will be eligible for the N.F.L. draft after this season, and he is projected to be a first-round pick.
Of the finalists, Texas Christian quarterback Max Duggan seemed the most improbable victor before the season. Duggan, a three-year starter, was benched in favor of the redshirt freshman Morris, then thrust back into the starting lineup after Morris was injured in the first week. Duggan led Texas Christian to a 12-1 record and a College Football Playoff berth, and his numbers were stellar — 3,321 passing yards, 36 touchdowns — and yet still a step behind Williams.
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett was aiming to be the Bulldogs’ first winner since Herschel Walker in 1982. Walker, a former walk-on, was the only finalist to win his conference title game, but he didn’t have the gaudy statistics of the other players.
Williams is U.S.C.’s eighth Heisman winner — technically — but the N.C.A.A. vacated Reggie Bush’s 2005 win after determining that he and his family had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from two California agents while he was in college. Bush returned the award in 2010, and he was initially banned from associating with U.S.C. permanently, but the ban was reduced to 10 years in 2017.