The ACC didn’t just get shut out of the College Football Playoff this season. It also went uninvited to the Heisman party Saturday in New York.

Conference players had to watch the festivities on television with the rest of us as Southern Cal quarterback Caleb Williams won the sport’s most prestigious trophy in a landslide over fellow finalists Max Duggan of TCU, CJ Stroud of Ohio State and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett.

North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye was the ACC’s top finisher in the balloting. After spending a few weeks as the trendy frontrunner for the award, a late slump dropped him down to 10th with 3 first-place, 6 2nd-place and 21 3rd-place votes.

The ACC Rookie and Player of the Year still posted some award-worthy overall numbers.
His 4,115 passing yards were the 3rd-most among Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks, 40 more than Heisman winner Williams. His 35 touchdown passes were tied for 5th nationally, more than both Duggan and Bennett. And he also led the Tar Heels in rushing with 653 yards and 7 more scores.

His work in guiding the offense is a major reason why UNC was able to overcome the league’s worst defense, win 9 games and a earn spot in the ACC Championship Game.

Maye’s prospects for next season are clouded by the departure of offensive coordinator Phil Longo to Wisconsin and favorite receiver Josh Downs to the NFL. But with elite arm talent and a knack for using his athleticism and field vision to make something out of nothing, he’s already being projected as the top overall pick in the 2024 draft.

As disappointing as his finish might have been, Maye’s breakout redshirt freshman performance succeeded in introducing him to the nation as a legitimate candidate for the award next season.

But he’s not the only returning ACC player with the potential to generate at least some Heisman buzz.
So let the hype begin.

Riley Leonard, Duke

Wait, a Dukie being mentioned for his sport’s top award? And it’s not basketball?

Sure, it’s a longshot.

But it’s not as laughable a proposition as it might have seemed a year ago at this time. After the Blue Devils’ surprising debut season under ACC Coach of the Year Mike Elko and Leonard’s individual contribution to it, taking Duke and its sophomore quarterback seriously will become a lot easier during 2023.

Riley Leonard completed 63.5% of his passes for 2,794 yards and 20 touchdowns with only 6 interceptions. He was just as much of a threat running the ball, with 636 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.

His passing, running and leadership propelled the Blue Devils to an 8-4 regular-season record and a 2nd-place finish behind UNC in the Coastal Division. A big game in Duke’s Military Bowl game against Central Florida could be the springboard that catapults his name into the national conversation.

Israel Abanikanda, Pittsburgh

The ACC’s leading rusher is a draft-eligible junior, but as of yet has not declared. If he does choose to return for his senior season, he would immediately join Maye at the head of the ACC’s class of leading Heisman hopefuls.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Despite missing 1 1/2 games because of injury, Israel Abinakanda rushed for 1,431 yards while averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He leads the country with 20 rushing touchdowns and is 2nd nationally in total points (128) and all-purpose yards per game (164.1).

And he already has produced a Heisman moment. It came on the afternoon of Oct. 8 when he shredded the Virginia Tech defense for 320 yards and 6 touchdowns on 36 carries in a 45-29 victory. His performance surpassed the single-game school rushing record of 303 yards set in 1975 by Heisman winner Tony Dorsett.

Will Shipley, Clemson

Quarterbacks get far more Heisman love than running backs these days, as illustrated by this year’s 4 finalists. And young Cade Klubnik sure is to get his share of it heading into next season based on his MVP performance in leading the Tigers to their ACC championship victory this month against UNC in Charlotte.

But Will Shipley is the catalyst who fuels Clemson’s offense with both his running and his ability to make big plays out of the backfield in the passing game.

The sophomore is the 1st player in ACC history to earn 1st-team all-conference honors at 3 positions – running back, all-purpose and return specialist. He also was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, presented annually to the nation’s most versatile player.

Shipley ran for 1,110 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He ranked 3rd on the team with 34 catches and averaged 21.8 yards on his 12 kickoff returns. He’s a 5-star talent who could become even more effective if Klubnik fulfills his promise and gives the Tigers a credible passing threat next season in much the same way Travis Etienne was with Trevor Lawrence in 2018-20.

Jordan Travis, Florida State

No team in the ACC finished the regular season on a higher note than the Seminoles. Coach Mike Norvell’s resurgent team won its final 5 games, all but 1 of which came by 3 touchdowns or more. Jordan Travis’ play during that stretch was a major reason for the surge.

The junior quarterback, who has announced his intention to return to Tallahassee in 2023, finished the year throwing for 2,796 yards with 22 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions while rushing for 367 yards and 7 scores.

But he was especially good at the end. He accounted for 16 total touchdowns and threw just 1 interception during the 5-game winning streak that secured FSU a 9-3 record and a date with Oklahoma in the Cheez-It Bowl.

While his play next season will determine how serious of a Heisman candidate Travis becomes, his performance against SEC rival Florida, in which he drove the Seminoles to the winning touchdown with just more than 4 minutes remaining, already has opened some eyes.