College football award predictions: Who should (and who will) win

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Friday, December 8, 2023

Before we get to bowl season, we need to get through awards season, and this year's group of nominees are a who's who of college football's best.

Michael Penix Jr., Jayden Daniels, Brock Bowers, Marvin Harrison Jr. and more will all be looking to take home hardware at this year's "Home Depot College Football Awards" on Friday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App) .

Here are our picks for who should be honored -- and who will actually nab the trophies.

Chuck Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year)

Finalists: UCLA's Laiatu Latu, Alabama's Dallas Turner and NC State's Payton Wilson

Who should win: Wilson

It's easy to look at something as simple as sacks and peg Latu or Turner as the favorite here, but the award goes to the best overall defender, and it's impossible to ignore Wilson's all-around dominance. He's one of just 24 Power 5 linebackers to have at least 75 snaps as a pass-rusher and 250 or more in coverage, and of that group, Wilson has the best tackle rate (94.9%), the most run stuffs (25), the most tackles for loss (17.5), the most takeaways (5) and the most passes defended (8) -- not to mention the most tackles overall (138). He's one of just two players to have made or assisted on a TFL in every game this season, and he leads all Power 5 defenders in tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage (37). Since 2018, he's one of just three players to rack up 100 tackles, 15 TFLs, 5 sacks and 3 interceptions in the same season. He has done everything.

Who will win: Latu

We're not saying voters are easily swayed by one or two gaudy stats, but Latu has the sexiest numbers of any of the nominees: 13 sacks (most in Power 5) and 21.5 tackles for loss (most in FBS). He's more of a one-trick pony than Wilson -- but it's a pretty darned impressive trick.

Fred Biletnikoff Award (outstanding receiver)

Finalists: Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr., LSU's Malik Nabers and Washington's Rome Odunze

Who should win: Odunze

All due respect to the other two finalists, but when Washington -- the No. 2 overall playoff seed -- had its season on the line, it put the ball in Odunze's hands because, as coach Kalen DeBoer said, he was the best player on the field. Odunze's 81 catches, 1,428 yards and 13 touchdowns are all impressive -- though, in fairness, all fall short of the stats compiled by Nabers. But Odunze has a higher catch rate on contested throws and a higher rate of first downs, and it's impossible to ignore how critical some of his catches were in shaping the playoff race in 2023.

Who will win: Harrison

Honestly, pick any one of the three, and you'd get little pushback. They all have a compelling case, they're all more than deserving, and all three have been among the very best players at any position this season. But it's hard to imagine Harrison's Ohio State career coming and going without him taking home this trophy. He has been so dominant -- and at times this year, as the only real offensive threat on the field -- that this feels as much a lifetime achievement award as it is one for the best receiver in 2023.

Lou Groza Collegiate Place-Kicker Award (outstanding place-kicker)

Finalists: Miami (Ohio)'s Graham Nicholson, UNLV's Jose Pizano and Alabama's Will Reichard

Who should win: Pizano

He missed just two kicks all season, and was a perfect 16-of-16 on anything less than 40 yards. He connected on both of his attempts beyond 50, so he has the leg. But the most impressive thing about Pizano's efforts were the impact his kicks had on UNLV's season. Six of his field goals put the Rebels ahead. In the playoff era, Pizano is one of just 10 kickers to have at least 20 made field goals, connect on at least 90% of his tries and have six or more of those kicks put his team ahead. Three have won the Groza, and the others all came in seasons in which another kicker with the same marks won it. Pizano is the only kicker to hit those marks in 2023.

Who will win: Reichard

Kicks at Alabama tend to get noticed a lot more than kicks at Miami (Ohio) or UNLV.

Ray Guy Award (punter of the year)

Finalists: Vanderbilt's Matthew Hayball, Florida State's Alex Mastromanno and Iowa's Tory Taylor

Who should win: Taylor

Have you watched any Iowa football lately? Punting is kind of a big deal. Indeed, when a fan base openly roots for punts, it is both an indictment of the offense and a serious point of pride for the guy booting those punts. Taylor certainly gave his fans their money's worth. He punted 86 times this season -- 11 more than any other player in the country. He racked up 4,119 punt yards, 752 more than anyone else and 1,014 more yards than Iowa's offense managed. (In fact, Taylor punted for more yards than 33 offenses in FBS.)

Who will win: Taylor

Not only should he win, they should probably name a street after him in Iowa City.

Maxwell Award (college player of the year)

Finalists: LSU's Jayden Daniels, Oregon's Bo Nix and Washington's Michael Penix Jr.

Who should win: Daniels

There are lots of ways to measure who the best player in college football is, but here's one pretty simple metric: Who averaged the most yards? That'd be Daniels ... by an incredible 74 yards per game. OK, another one: Who was responsible for the most touchdowns? Again, it's Daniels with 50 (40 passing and 10 rushing), who had four more total TDs than Nix despite playing one fewer game. Here's one more amazing stat for the LSU QB: In the history of college football, only one player has ever had 50 touchdowns, committed five or fewer turnovers and averaged 400 yards of offense per game. That's Daniels. No one else is close.

Who will win: Daniels

In eight of the past nine years, the Maxwell winner has also taken home the Heisman. Here's guessing Daniels makes it nine of 10.

Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award (best quarterback)

Finalists: LSU's Jayden Daniels, Oregon's Bo Nix and Washington's Michael Penix Jr.

Who should win: Daniels

As noted above, he was quite good at pretty much everything.

Who will win: Penix

Unlike the Maxwell Award, the Davey O'Brien tends to differ a bit from the Heisman and leans toward quarterbacks who also won a bunch of games. That might be the edge Penix needs to win it. Because while Nix had the nifty completion percentage, he lost head-to-head against Penix twice. And while Daniels' stat line is on another planet, LSU never sniffed the playoff, while Penix has his Washington Huskies in the mix for a national title.

Outland Trophy (most outstanding interior lineman)

Finalists: Notre Dame's Joe Alt, Kansas State's Cooper Beebe and Texas' T'Vondre Sweat

Who should win: Alt

The Notre Dame left tackle has been arguably the best offensive lineman in the country the past two seasons. He graded out as Pro Football Focus' top tackle for the second straight season, and his numbers support the placement. He allowed just three pressures and one sack all season from his left tackle spot, and on 347 run-blocking snaps, he blew just two.

Who will win: Alt

All three finalists had tremendous seasons, but sometimes the obvious pick is obvious for a reason.

Paycom Jim Thorpe Award (best defensive back)

Finalists: Iowa's Cooper DeJean, Georgia's Malaki Starks and Air Force's Trey Taylor

Who should win: Taylor

He's the odd man out when it comes to notoriously tough defenses, but the numbers make Taylor's case pretty easy. He has more interceptions (3) than DeJean or Starks. He has 30 more tackles (71) than Starks and 40 more than DeJean. He allowed just 72 total yards on 21 targets in coverage, posting an eye-popping 0.22 yards per coverage snap.

Who will win: Starks

DeJean missed three games down the stretch. Taylor plays in the Mountain West. Starks played on a team that spent the bulk of the season atop the rankings. At the end of the day, Starks was certainly good enough to win -- 51 tackles, 7 pass breakups, 2 interceptions, 0.4 yards per coverage snap -- but the extra eyeballs on his games certainly don't hurt.

Doak Walker Award (premier running back)

Finalists: Oklahoma State's Ollie Gordon II, North Carolina's Omarion Hampton and Missouri's Cody Schrader

Who should win: Gordon

Gordon led the nation in rushing yards (1,614), finished second in rushing TDs (20) and finished third among Power 5 backs in yards per rush. He topped 100 yards in eight of his past 10 games and had one stretch of three straight games with more than 270 yards of total offense.

Who will win: Gordon

Among the finalists, he has the most rushing yards, most touchdowns, best yards-per-carry average and the most scrimmage yards, while also being the only one of the three to play for a conference title. Sometimes it's easy.

John Mackey Award (outstanding tight end)

Finalists: Ohio State's Cade Stover, Georgia's Brock Bowers and Colorado State's Dallin Holker

Who should win: Bowers

OK, so he missed three games. What Bowers does in 10 games is more than what most tight ends do in ... a lifetime? Despite running nearly half as many routes as Holker, Bowers finished with the same number of receiving TDs (six) and just eight fewer catches and 43 fewer yards.

Who will win: Bowers

He'll take his trophy and every defensive coordinator in the SEC will breathe a sigh of relief that they won't have to see him again in a Georgia uniform.