A Heisman watch looking at the top 10 players at the conclusion of college football’s regular season. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson narrowed the gap on Louisville’s Lamar Jackson by accounting for five scores in the ACC Championship Game.
An ACC quarterback will be crowned the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner. But there are growing hints of intrigue as to who that QB will be.
Louisville’s Lamar Jackson still remains the favorite to actually execute his prepared acceptance speech Saturday night in New York City. However, he’s no longer a lock. While the sophomore—and his team—was stumbling down the stretch, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson was busy strengthening his case. Six touchdown passes a week ago in the Palmetto Bowl, and then another five scores Saturday in Orlando to win the league title.
Voters have been looking for an alternative to Jackson, concerned about championing a candidate who saved his worst for last. They now have one in Watson, who beat the Cards on Oct. 1, finished on a tear and just led his team to another playoff berth.
With the regular season over, we handicap how the Heisman contenders will finish once ballots are counted this week.
10. Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey
It wasn’t McCaffrey’s year for the Heisman—too many injuries and not enough support from an offense that missed QB Kevin Hogan and averaged 11 fewer points per game than in 2015. Still, he used the final month of his junior year, and possibly his amateur career, to remind voters that he’s still one of the nation’s premier all-purpose playmakers. McCaffrey ran away with the Pac-12 rushing title, erupting for 991 yards on the ground and a dozen touchdowns in just the final five games. He ought to finish in the top 10.
9. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
From a Heisman perspective, Cook is the Sunshine State’s McCaffrey. Both are star backs who rushed for more than 1,600 yards and shared a backfield with a first-time starting QB, but got lost in the shuffle when their teams fell three times before Halloween. Cook started slowly before reeling off eight 100-yard efforts in the Noles’ final nine games. And he excelled against two of the best defenses on the schedule, rushing for 322 yards and five scores against Clemson and Florida.
8. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
Hurts wasn’t great in Atlanta. Then again, he didn’t need to be for his Crimson Tide to capture a third straight SEC Championship. The true freshman accounted for just one of Bama’s six touchdowns, two of which occurred when the offense wasn’t even on the field. And his legs were never a factor against the Florida defense. But as the dynamic young quarterback of the nation’s top-ranked team—and the best SEC contender—Hurts should get enough support to finish in the top 10. His opportunity to make a more serious run at Heisman immortality begins in earnest in 2017.
7. Texas RB D’Onta Foreman
Foreman was the best reason to watch Longhorn football this fall. He became just the second Texas player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season, joining 1998 Heisman winner Ricky Williams. Foreman is the nation’s rushing leader at 184 yards per game, including no less than 120 in each of his last 13 games. However, the 249-pounder faced two roadblocks to Heisman immortality that even he couldn’t barrel through—playing for a team that wasn’t even bowl-eligible and facing just one defense ranked in the top 50 in the country.
6. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Barrett is going to get a fair amount of support next week for being the veteran leader of a very young team. And he’s earned the voters’ attention, even if his play hasn’t always been crisp this fall. Barrett has completed 214-of-346 passes for 2,428 yards, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions, including a pair of four-touchdown, no-pick games in blowouts of Oklahoma and Nebraska. He’s also a sneaky-good scrambler, having rushed for 847 yards and nine additional scores.
5. Washington QB Jake Browning
Browning is a Pac-12 champion quarterback. But he wasn’t the key reason the Huskies blew out Colorado Friday night. In fact, with voters paying close attention Browning went 9-of-24 for 118 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. And that’s not going to push him up the chart this week. While the totality of the sophomore’s work is fantastic, like 42 TD strikes and just seven picks, savvy voters will recognize that his two worst games came against the best opponents on the schedule, USC and Colorado.
4. Michigan ATH Jabrill Peppers
Elite player. One of the most versatile in recent history. In fact, Peppers has been named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the Return Specialist of the Year, while also rushing for three scores out of “wildcat” packages. He’s getting to New York City, especially in a year that voters are searching for options. However, winning will be a challenge. Peppers needed to be the star of the Ohio State game in order to rise higher. In fact, it was USC’s Adoree’ Jackson who stole the triple-threat spotlight on that day, Nov. 26, scoring on a punt return, a reception and a kick return.
3. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
The Sooners rallied from a 1-2 hole to win their final nine games, capturing another Big 12 championship in the process. Mayfield was instrumental throughout the run, both as a distributor on the field and a leader off it. Without his big-play receiver, Dede Westbrook, for much of the Oklahoma State game, the quarterback still threw for three scores and 288 yards, while sharing a starring role with backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Mayfield isn’t winning the Heisman, but he’s had the kind of season that warrants inclusion as a finalist.
2. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Heisman voters were watching. And Watson delivered, accounting for five touchdowns and well over 300 total yards to lead the Tigers to the playoffs and a second straight ACC championship. It was a timely performance from one of the game’s premier quarterbacks, but will it be enough? On the one hand, Watson was erratic at times this fall, throwing a league-high 15 picks. But on the other, his Clemson team defeated Lamar Jackson’s Cards on the field, and Watson was the hotter of the quarterbacks at a time when voters were really dialed into all of the candidates.
1. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
What left a bigger impression on voters, Jackson’s last two games or his first 10? The sophomore was running away with the award, both figuratively and literally. Jackson has had his hand in more touchdowns, 51, than any other player, and he’s accounted for almost 5,000 yards. He’s easily been the most exciting player in college football this season. But Jackson is also coming off two of his worst games of the year, committing five turnovers in losses to Houston and Kentucky that opened up a competition that appeared over in mid-November.