Heisman Watch: Deshaun Watson seizes top spot, Fournette struggles
November means many things, such as cooler weather and heaping helpings of food with family. But the penultimate month on the calendar often lends itself to craziness in college football, as well. This season, after just one weekend of November football, a new leader has already taken control of the Heisman Trophy race.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson rose to claim the top spot after leading the No. 1 Tigers to a 23-13 win over No. 16 Florida State on Saturday. The victory pushed Clemson to 9-0 for just the third time in program history. More importantly, it put Watson and company in the driver’s seat for an eventual ACC title and a trip to the College Football Playoff.
But Watson’s ascension happened, in part, because of Leonard Fournette’s struggles. LSU’s stellar sophomore running back—and the Heisman frontrunner since September—didn't step up on his biggest stage of the season against Alabama. Coupled with a lackluster performance from TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin against Oklahoma State, Watson took advantage and now effectively controls his Heisman destiny.
A quick programming note: With only four Saturdays left before Heisman ballots are due on Dec. 7, the race for the trophy becomes a lot less fluid. That’s why the Watchman has simplified his Heisman Watch format. For the rest of the season, we’ll offer a straight top five with detailed breakdowns of each primary contender.
Week 10 Heisman Watch
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson, a sophomore, had never beaten Florida State. Last season the Seminoles topped Clemson in Tallahassee while Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston sat sidelined with a suspension. But entering Saturday, Watson knew a shot at a national championship hung on beating Florida State.
Watson made sure Clemson didn’t suffer another disappointing defeat. The quarterback compiled 404 yards of offense, including a career-high 107 rushing yards, and also set career-highs with completions (28) and attempts (42) in a 23-13 victory. Watson put up the first 100-yard rushing performance by a Clemson quarterback since Tajh Boyd (127 yards) in the 2014 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State.
Watson’s statistics are impressive, and he also came through in the clutch. With Clemson holding a 16-13 lead with six minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Watson completed a pair of throws on third downs to keep alive a touchdown drive that sealed the game.
Now Watson and the Tigers hold the keys to an ACC title in their hands. That also means a possible trip to the playoff and a chance for the program’s first national championship since 1981. Watson is the headliner for the No. 1 team in the country, and he’s doing it as a true sophomore coming off a torn ACL. He should remain the Heisman frontrunner if the Tigers stay undefeated.
2. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Last week: 38 carries, 210 yards, three TDs
Next week: at No. 20 Mississippi State
Henry entered Saturday with a chance to stake his claim as the best running back in the SEC. The Alabama junior outplayed the previous leader in the Heisman race, a player who stood on the opposite sideline.
Against LSU, Henry notched his third three-touchdown game of the season and surpassed the 200-yard rushing mark for the second time in as many games. He carried the ball a season-high 38 times, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Perhaps Henry’s most impressive feat came on Alabama’s final 13-play, 78-yard drive: He ran 10 times for 78 yards to help the Crimson Tide milk the final 9:18 off the clock. Henry was unstoppable until the end.
As luck would have it, Henry’s outing against LSU took place six years to the day of another breakout performance by an Alabama running back. On Nov. 7, 2009, Mark Ingram burst onto the Heisman scene in No. 3 Alabama’s 24-15 win over No. 9 LSU, reeling off 144 yards on 22 carries. Ingram went on to win the Heisman Trophy, and no running back has since taken home the award. After Henry’s efforts against LSU, it’s not unreasonable to predict another Tide winner this year.
3. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Last week: 220 all-purpose yards, one passing TD
Next week: vs. Oregon
McCaffrey did what he does well in Stanford’s 42-10 win over Colorado: Rack up yards. The sophomore entered Week 10 as the FBS leader in all-purpose yards (244.3 per game) and finished with 220 against the Buffaloes. He pulled a trick out of his sleeve with his first-career touchdown pass, a 28-yard toss to tight end Austin Hooper in the fourth quarter. McCaffrey became the first non-quarterback to throw a touchdown pass at Stanford since Toby Gerhart in 2009.
For now, Stanford remains the most viable playoff threat in the Pac-12. That’s good news for McCaffrey, whose versatile game is sure to intrigue Heisman voters on the West Coast.
4. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Last week: 19 carries, 31 yards
Next week: vs. Arkansas
Fournette’s matchup with Alabama was a classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. The Heisman frontrunner entered the weekend as the FBS rushing leader (198.1 yards per game), while the Crimson Tide boasted the country’s third-best rushing defense (2.6 yards per carry allowed). On Saturday, at least, the immovable object came out on top.
Fournette was a virtual non-factor on offense for the entire evening against Alabama. At halftime the sophomore had compiled a mere nine yards on nine carries, and midway through the third quarter he’d amassed just 14 yards on 14 carries. Fournette looked lost at certain moments, searching for holes and blockers against the mighty Tide front. He finished with a season-low 31 yards on 19 carries. His previous low was 150 yards against Western Kentucky on Oct. 24.
LSU’s offensive line didn’t do Fournette any favors, either. The group failed to open holes against Alabama like it had all season long. But Heisman winners emerge as difference-makers in marquee moments, and Fournette simply didn’t answer the call in the Tigers’ biggest game of the season. Of course, one game doesn’t define a player’s legacy, and Fournette is most certainly one of the best players in the country. Moreover, he’ll likely still reach New York as a Heisman finalist. But his shoddy performance against Alabama makes him a long shot to win college football’s top award.
5. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Last week: 26 carries, 114 yards, one TD
Next week: at Illinois
Ohio State might be known for its never-ending quarterback drama, but its top running back has quietly put together a stellar campaign. Ezekiel Elliott is the Big Ten leader in rushing yards (1,244), having surpassed the 100-yard mark in all nine of the Buckeyes’ games in 2015. He also leads the conference with 14 rushing touchdowns; no other Big Ten player has more than nine.
Against Minnesota on Saturday, Elliott rushed 26 times for 114 yards and a touchdown. He helped make up for a sluggish day from quarterback Cardale Jones, who played in place of suspended starter J.T. Barrett. Despite some inefficiency on offense, Ohio State has avoided a loss this season as it heads into a key stretch. It faces Michigan State and Michigan in back-to-back weeks after next Saturday’s meeting with Illinois. That means a bigger spotlight awaits for Elliott, who could still make some Heisman noise.
Outside looking in: Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU; Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor; Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State