Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was a Heisman Trophy finalist last year. Delivering the Tigers’ first award winner could be on the horizon with a big finish to the season.
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson has been considered the Heisman Trophy leader by college football observers for the majority of the 2016 season.
But after some recent struggles, including his performance in a 41-38 loss to Kentucky this past Saturday, has Jackson opened the door for another contender to win it with a big Championship Saturday performance? Say, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson?
Watson misfired on just six passes while throwing for 347 yards and six touchdowns in a thrashing of South Carolina during the Palmetto Bowl last Saturday night. He’s been a central figure in the Tigers’ strong play the last two weeks after slipping up against Pitt in the team’s lone loss of the season.
In that one-point setback to the Panthers, Watson threw for 580 yards and three touchdowns on 52-of-70 passing, setting an ACC record for most passing yards in a game. But when Clemson was driving up 42-34, Watson threw his third interception of the game, one that was returned 70 yards to set up a Pitt touchdown. It eventually led to a 43-42 win for Pat Narduzzi’s squad.
As much as Clemson has played with fire this season, the Tigers would not be in the situation to compete for a College Football Playoff spot against Virginia Tech on Saturday without their dual-threat field general. And, as he told Campus Insiders this past offseason, he has always embraced the high expectations for himself and his Tigers.
Watson was asked during Monday’s 2016 ACC Championship teleconference if he thinks he will be able to bring the first Heisman Trophy to Clemson on Dec. 10, a year after going to New York but ultimately coming up short.
“I guess so … All I can do is influence and focus on the way I’m performing and playing on the big stage and winning games,” Watson said. “I really don’t have much say-so in who wins it [the Heisman]. That’s up to the voters.
“I finished up last year and thought I did enough to win it, but I guess I didn’t. At the end of the day it’s all in guys’ hands, to the voters, and who they feel like really deserves it.”
Last year, Alabama’s Derrick Henry took home the sport’s most prestigious individual award, claiming the 81st Heisman Trophy after rushing for an SEC-record 1,986 yards, breaking the mark set in 1982 by Herschel Walker. Watson, meanwhile, finished third after completing 69.5 percent of his passes, rushing for 887 yards and recording 41 total touchdowns.
Of course, Jackson has been a special player throughout the season, a Human Highlight Reel more often than not each week. So he certainly has looked like a most deserving player for much of the year.
But the Louisville signal-caller’s play has leveled off a bit, especially the last two weeks during his team’s losses. He’s had his two worst performances of the season in consecutive setbacks to Houston and Kentucky, the latter of which saw him commit four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble). The Cardinals’ November swoon eliminated them from CFP contention as well.
While a team’s win-loss record should not necessarily be a huge factor in the Heisman race, the last winner to be on a team with three regular-season losses was Robert Griffin III, who quarterbacked Baylor in 2011. There is also Jackson’s head-to-head, 42-36 loss to Watson and Clemson in October.
In the Death Valley matchup, Jackson passed for 295 yards and a touchdown with an interception, adding 162 yards and two more scores on the ground. He was an elite quarterback that night. However, it was Watson’s evening as well.
While he threw three interceptions and endured a third quarter in which his team blew an 18-point halftime lead, Watson battled adversity and led his team to a comeback win. Down eight points midway through the fourth quarter, he engineered back-to-back touchdown drives and helped deliver the Tigers a showcase win. He threw for 306 yards and five touchdowns, adding 91 yards on the ground.
Two elite quarterbacks, both of whom are competing for one elite prize.
While Jackson is arguably the Heisman leader as we enter Championship Saturday, Watson has an extra game to show the nation and award voters (if they haven’t already submitted their ballots) that he deserves to win the hardware that fell just short of his grasp in 2015.
Without the Heisman, Watson will still be one of the fiercest competitors the sport has ever seen. With it, he’ll go down as one of the hardest-working and most prolific quarterbacks in the award’s storied history.