Kenny Pickett can’t win.
Pickett is the Pitt quarterback, so he’s not even playing for a good team. After all, the ACC sucks. But even if he was playing for Alabama or LSU, there’s no chance that’d he’d play well because he’s just a Pitt guy.
So, while he’s rewriting ACC record books, with Deshaun Watson, Jameis Winston and Lamar Jackson all playing in the ACC over the past decade, just for reference, it doesn’t actually mean anything because he’s a redshirt senior from Pitt. Pickett’s record-breaking stats, with two games left on the season, actually aren’t impressive because, once again, he plays for Pitt in the ACC.
Now, if Pickett was, say, the gritty veteran at Notre Dame or an out-of-nowhere Auburn star, his rise would be legitimate. But he’s Pitt’s quarterback? No, no chance. Except, Pickett has really been that good for Pitt this season. While his play hasn’t gone unnoticed — at least over the second half of the season — this season, he’s still entirely under-appreciated for just what he’s done for Pitt.
With the least amount of talent surrounding him — when looking at opposing contenders — by far, Pickett has led Pitt to its best season in four decades. And it’s not as if Pickett has simply done enough to win, he’s rewritten the record books for an ACC quarterback along the way.
It’s not as if Pickett is a plug-and-play high four-star recruit in an offense of four- and five-star recruits either. Pitt has made the most three-star guys, with the occasional four-star like Jordan Addison. And this isn’t a slam against the Pitt roster, which has developed to feature a roster full of contributors this season, but an indictment against the way in which Alabama stars cruise to end-of-the-season awards.
In the five seasons since Pickett committed to Pitt, as a lowly three-star himself, Pitt has picked up nine four-star recruits (with three coming in 2021 that haven’t seen the field yet). Of those nine, only two have actually made contributions. Addison, the best wide receiver in college football, and safety Paris Ford — who was eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft.
OK, OK. Enough of the what-ifs. Let’s talk about what Pickett is. He’s a Maxwell and Davey O’Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award finalist, Walter Camp Award and Manning Award finalist. Pickett is the leader of Pitt’s first 10 win teams in 40 years, the leader of Pitt’s first-ever conference championship win and the leader of a Pitt team that puts others first, even in the face of name, image and likeness deals.
Without Pickett, Pitt — and this still isn’t an insult — would be a middle of the pack team in the ACC. With Pickett, Pitt boasts a top-five offense and a chance to match the best season in program history. With an 11-2 record, yes, Pitt has lost games against Western Michigan and Miami, but in those two games, Pickett threw for 902 yards and nine touchdowns (with just three interceptions) on 62-of-86 passing attempts.
4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns (on 334-of-497 passing attempts), Pickett has reached levels previously unmatched by ACC quarterbacks this season. And for those efforts, he was named the ACC Player of the Year. In Pitt’s most important game in decades, his passing prowess (20-of-33 for 253 yards and two touchdowns) led Pitt to the title, but it was his legs that earned the signature — Heisman — moment.
With a fake slide to freeze the Wake Forest, Pickett’s 58-yard dash to the end zone opened the scoring in the ACC championship and provided Pickett with another signature moment. With pressure escaping up the middle through Pitt’s offensive line, Pickett stepped up in the pocket, saw the expanse of green ahead of him and took off.
While the run would have been impressive even if Pickett had slide to the turf at the 35-yard, he dragged a foot through the turf for a fake-slide, black pellets flying through the air akin to smoke off the wheels of a 2021 Mustang racing off the line, and raced through the stunned Wake Forest defense for a tone-setting touchdown.
KENNY PICKETT: FILTHY ⚡️pic.twitter.com/ZiKQxqphJQ
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 5, 2021
Pickett’s stats and overall impact in bringing Pitt to its first-ever conference championship cannot be overlooked. He’s spurred a passionate yet apathetic (at times) fanbase into levels not seen in years. He’s seen the city of Pittsburgh renamed to Pickettsburg, he’s had a Kenny Pickett Day in his hometown of Oakhurst, N.J. and he’s the most impactful football player in college football this season.
In a season of Heisman parity unseen in the past decade, there are a lot of very deserving candidates. Many deserving quarterbacks, some stud running back, some underappreciated defensive stars and the special teams’ wizardry of San Diego State’s Matt Araiza — only half kidding on Araiza.
First, let’s eliminate the obvious choices. In the kindest way possible, these five players are not going to win the Heisman. The easy choices are Michigan running back Hassan Haskins, Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, Georgia quarterback JT Daniels, Michigan running back Blake Corum and Alabama running back Brian Robinson.
Some of those choices, looking at you Corum, Robinson and Daniels, are easy to eliminate, but that is a group of excellent college football players. However, even Ridder and Haskins aren’t quite on the level of the other finalists.
The trio of Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson, Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral and Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman have been excellent players this season, but all three just haven’t quite done enough to merit legitimate consideration. And this is where it truly gets hard.
It pains me, it really does, but Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud, Alabama linebacker Will Anderson and Georgia’s Jordan Davis just miss out on my Top 4. All three have been freakish for their respective squads this season, impacting games in a variety of obvious and underappreciated ways.
So, my Top 4 in no order, is Pickett, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.
Aidan Hutchinson — Michigan linebacker
Perhaps it’s a case of recency bias, with a Herculean effort against Ohio State, but Hutchinson has been one of the most impactful defenders in college football this season.
While teammate David Ojabo has had an excellent season, playing himself into serious NFL Draft consideration, it wouldn’t have been possible without Hutchinson on the other side of the defensive line.
It’s been a beneficial relationship between the two, but it’s another example of Hutchinson elevating teammates — and the Michigan defense in the process. And Hutchinson’s stats, reaching double-digit sacks (13) and tackles for loss (15.5) only back up his candidacy.
Kenneth Walker III — Michigan State running back
Walker has been a revelation for Michigan State this season, after transferring from Wake Forest before the season, leading the Spartans with 1,646 yards and 18 touchdowns — accounting for about 40 percent of MSU’s scrimmage yards from players receiving at least one carry and 40 percent of all offensive touchdowns.
Despite a couple of late losses, Walker has been the single biggest reason why Michigan State made the jump from conference has-been to legitimate contender through the late half of the season.
Bryce Young — Alabama quarterback
And, the Heisman favorite this season, Alabama’s Bryce Young has continued to ride the Crimson Tide the way predecessors Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones did the past handful of seasons.
Young has been electric for Alabama, throwing for 4,322 yards and 43 touchdowns, completing 68 percent of his passing attempts with just four interceptions. And when the lights were brightest against Georgia’s historic defense, he delivered with 421 yards and three touchdowns through the air and another on the ground.
He’s a deserving candidate and likely the last hurdle Pickett would need to jump to make the leap toward the Heisman.
Pickettsburgh, Pennsylvania, the next Heisman town?
While there are many, many deserving candidates in a wide-open Heisman class, one that could lead to a defender jumping to the forefront for the first time in decades, Pickett has emerged as a quarterback who should not only make it to New York for the ceremony but win college football’s most prestigious award.
He has the support of some in the media, some in the college football landscape and the entirety of the city of Pittsburgh behind him. With Pitt hundreds of miles away Saturday night, hundreds and hundreds flooded the streets of Oakland, chanting Pickett’s name all night long.
HEISMAN 2 PICKETT ✨ ✨ ✨
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) December 4, 2021
There’s a very good chance that Pickett will not win the Heisman this season. Young has had a magical season as the stud quarterback at Alabama, Pitt has lost two games this season to subpar opponents, the Year of the Non-Quarterback hasn’t been as strong in a while (despite Alabama wide receiver Devonta Smith winning last season) and the odds of winning the award aren’t in Pickett’s favor.
However, Pickett’s impact on Pitt, Pittsburgh as a whole really, goes far beyond any single award. He’s truly been a revelation for Pitt football, bringing hope to the program for the first time in a long, long time. He has the look, he has the personality that could win over West Virginia fans (Okay… maybe anyone else) and his gritty, hard-working play on the field inspires the kind of hope that only comes with years and years of hard work and dedication paying off with one shining moment.
That one shining moment may have come in Charlotte, N.C. Saturday night, bleeding into Sunday morning, but if there’s any justice in college football, that one shining moment will come twice for Pitt and Kenny Pickett.
The deadline for Heisman ballots is Monday, Dec. 6 at 5 p.m., and the four finalists for college football’s most prestigious award will be announced later in the evening. The Heisman Trophy ceremony is on Saturday, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. on ESPN.