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 expectations were that U.S.C. would return to the upper echelon of college football.
Expectations were met — and then some. U.S.C. won 11 games, seven more than last season, 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 earned 544 first-place votes, finishing comfortably ahead of the other quarterback finalists: Max Duggan of Texas Christian (188), C.J. Stroud of Ohio State (37), and Stetson Bennett of Georgia (36).
“I’ve watched it, to now be a part of it and be a part of this fraternity, it’s a blessing,” Williams said. “It’s everything I dreamed of.”
As Williams began his speech, he pointed out that the other three players had something he did not: a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“Guess you can’t win them all,” Williams said, as the crowd burst out laughing and Bennett nodded in agreement. Williams invited eight of U.S.C.’s offensive lineman to the ceremony, asking them to stand as the crowd cheered for them. He thanked his family, calling his mother “the most important woman in my life,” and his father for “making sacrifices in your life so I could make mine.”
“It may seem to go unnoticed and unappreciated, but you mean the world to me,” Williams said. “We’re in this together and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Williams was brilliant all season, beating defenses with his arms and legs, finishing with 4,075 passing yards and 47 total touchdowns. His value was never more apparent than in U.S.C.’s Pac-12 championship loss to Utah, in which he suffered 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 total touchdowns, he seemed to have the Heisman secured. (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 the 2002 Heisman winner.
It was the second year that Stroud smiled and clapped as another finalist won the Heisman Trophy. Last year, Stroud was a finalist, but he finished last in the final round of voting, 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, Duggan seemed the most improbable before the season. He was a three-year starter, but he was benched in favor of the redshirt freshman Chandler 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 total touchdowns — yet still a step behind Williams.
Bennett was aiming to be Georgia’s first winner since Herschel Walker in 1982. Bennett, 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 finalists.
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.
Williams said he had spent time with Bush earlier in the week, and that Bush had advised him on what the night would be like. On Saturday morning, Williams had breakfast with the former Heisman winners Palmer and Mike Garrett.
“The craziest part to me is that the guys that I was talking to, the Heisman winners, in the past, they all have their jerseys retired,” Williams said. “And now once I leave U.S.C., it’s probably the coolest thing to me that my jersey will be retired.”
Williams’s outstanding season brought championship aspirations to a football program that had not won a title since Bush and Matt Leinart led U.S.C. to consecutive national championships in 2003 and 2004. (The 2004 win was later vacated after Bush’s sanctions.)
“It was hard to watch, it was challenging to watch,” Palmer said. “Getting beat by a bunch of teams you don’t see U.S.C. get beat by.”
Palmer added: “This year I couldn’t wait for Saturday morning, turn the TV on, and watch him play. No doubt he’s changed the level of excitement and the expectation of watching U.S.C. play.”
Williams said he grew up watching the Heisman ceremony, noting that wins by Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III and Joe Burrow were the most memorable. In his speech, with Griffin III and other Heisman winners standing behind him, Williams thanked Riley, his coach, whom Williams left his hometown of Washington D.C. to follow to Oklahoma, and now California.
“We’ve committed to each other on two separate occasions, but with the same dream,” Williams said, adding: “But even with a sudden change from Norman, Oklahoma, to the University of Southern California, our dreams did not change. They say either change your dreams or change your habits, and I damn sure wasn’t going to change my dreams; glad you didn’t change yours, either. Though we both know the job’s not done.”