Cody Kessler had just completed a 372-yard, six-touchdown afternoon in USC’s 49-14 romp over rival Notre Dame last November, when Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian launched into a thinly veiled Heisman campaign for the quarterback.
I noted in my AthlonSports.com breakdown of Pac-12 Heisman contenders that Sarkisian pointed to Kessler’s numbers — 36 touchdowns to just four interceptions and over 3,500 yards at that juncture — juxtaposed with the lack of national attention.
“Cody was on. Cody was throwing the right balls to the right guys at the right time,” Sarkisian said.
Indeed, those six touchdowns were the most any quarterback has ever thrown on a Notre Dame defense in one game — and that’s not the first or last notable record Cody Kessler set last season.
His 39 total touchdowns tied the program’s single-season mark, and he set the USC single-game touchdown mark with seven against Colorado.
It feels weird suggesting a USC quarterback could be overlooked — it’s USC, after all. No Western program is as recognized nationally, including in the Heisman conversation. Before Marcus Mariota’s 2014 Heisman win, all six recipients from the conference now called the Pac-12 were from USC. UCLA’s Gary Beban was the last deviation, in 1967.
Some attention is starting to trickle in from the national stage. Phil Steele tabbed Cody Kessler his Heisman favorite Thursday on ESPN, suggesting the redshirt senior quarterback will lead USC to the College Football Playoff.
Steele is a guru in the truest sense of the word, and one of the nicest people in sports media, so the following is written with all due deference: He has a tendency to overrate USC. Vastly. While Cody Kessler’s name appears on unofficial Heisman watch lists and in top 10 of Bovada’s odds, Steele is the first prominent, national source I’ve seen pick the Trojan to bring the bronze statue to Los Angeles.
Playing quarterback at USC would seemingly be an advantage. In Cody Kessler’s case last season, it probably hindered his Heisman candidacy in 2014, and may be the biggest reason he’s somewhat under the radar heading into 2015.
Kessler wasn’t great against the Trojans’ best opponents, specifically the other four Pac-12 South teams that finished ranked in the final Top 25. Against Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Utah, he combined to throw just four touchdowns with three of the five interceptions he gave up all season. Because of the attention paid to USC, voters were perhaps more acutely aware of Kessler’s big-game struggles in the bigger picture of his outstanding numbers.
Meanwhile, any buzz Kessler might receive coming off his breakout junior campaign may be tempered as a result of the out-of-control hype for predecessor Matt Barkley prior to the 2012 season.
The similarities between Cody Kessler in 2014 and Matt Barkley in 2011 are too plentiful to ignore. Barkley finished 2011 on a decided upswing, garnering some buzz for the 2011 Heisman after setting the single-season touchdown record; the same record Kessler just tied.
Barkley and Kessler both passed on pursuing the NFL, opting to return for his senior season in pursuit of a championship — which, when you play quarterback at USC, typically means also competing for the Heisman.
Having a much dimmer spotlight heading into the new season than Barkley had should benefit Kessler. Besides, it won’t take long for the rest of the nation to catch one if Kessler’s play warrants attention.