With only a week left before Heisman Trophy votes are due, a running back holds the lead in the race for college football’s top award.
Alabama junior Derrick Henry took over the top spot in SI.com’s Heisman Watch after a determined performance against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Even in the thick of the Heisman’s recent quarterback-heavy trend, Henry has proven a consistent yet dominant threat in the Crimson Tide backfield. With a monster outing in next week’s SEC title game, the junior could become the first running back to win the Heisman since 2009, when Mark Ingram, also from Alabama, took home the trophy.
Henry’s lead is hardly safe, however. Two other viable contenders, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, will also suit up on Championship Saturday. That’s why the 2015 Heisman race could finish as one of the more exciting campaigns in recent history.
1. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Last week: 46 carries, 271 yards, 1 TD in 29-13 win vs. Auburn
Next week: Dec. 5 vs. Florida in SEC Championship Game
Whether or not Henry is the best running back in Alabama history is up for debate. But after the Tide’s win over Auburn on Saturday, Henry is at least the most prolific. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he’s now the current favorite for the Heisman Trophy.
The junior became Alabama’s all-time single-season rushing leader against Auburn by scampering for a season-high 271 yards and 46 carries. Henry set a new mark with 1,797 rushing yards this season, surpassing the previous record set by Trent Richardson, who placed third in the Heisman voting in 2011.
On Saturday Henry was especially effective in the second half, running 30 times for 177 yards and the game-sealing touchdown during the final 30 minutes. He helped the Tide control the clock in the waning moments, as well. “We’d really like for someone else to run the ball, but it got tough to take him out,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said afterward. If Henry continues his current pace of 149.8 rush yards per game, he’ll break the Tide single-season record in that category (133.7) set by Bobby Humphrey in 1986.
Next week Henry can cement his Heisman case in the SEC title game against Florida. Barring a monumental setback, the junior feels like a near-lock for New York and is more than likely the favorite for the Heisman with one week remaining in the race.
2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Last week: 20-27 passing, 279 yards, 1 TD; 21 carries, 114 yards, 3 TDs in 37-32 win vs. South Carolina
Next week: Dec. 5 vs. North Carolina in ACC Championship Game
Watson finished off the regular season with another strong performance, this time against rival South Carolina. The sophomore quarterback compiled 393 yards of total offense along with four total touchdowns in Clemson’s final tune-up before next weekend’s ACC title game. The matchup turned tense late for the Tigers after the Gamecocks scored early in the fourth quarter to cut Clemson’s lead to 28-25. But Watson led his offense on a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive on the ensuing series, capping it with a three-yard touchdown run.
Watson set career-highs with 114 rushing yards and three rushing scores, and the passer remains the ACC’s leader in total offense per game (331.6 yards). Now Clemson is 12-0 for only the second time in school history; the last time the program won 12 games (1981) it won the national championship. Watson will have one more shot to make his Heisman case in Charlotte, where Clemson will face North Carolina for the ACC title.
3. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Last week: 26 carries, 183 yards, 2 TDs
Next week: Regular season completed
The fourth quarter of Florida State’s rivalry win over Florida belonged to Dalvin Cook. The sophomore ran in both of his touchdowns in the final period, one from 15 yards out and another on a 29-yard run. He also reeled off 150 of his 183 yards in that fourth quarter and set a new Florida State single-season record for all-purpose yards (1,875) in the game. The performance marked Cook’s eighth 100-yard outing of the season. “There are a lot of great running backs in this country,” Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said after the win, “and he is as good as any of them with everything he does.”
Cook now ranks fifth nationally with 1,658 rushing yards this season, and his yards-per-carry average (7.86) is better than any of the four rushers ahead of him, including Henry. However, Cook still missed a game against Syracuse earlier this season, and that’ll hurt him with voters. Plus, Henry will have played two full games more than Cook after next week’s SEC title game (Florida State won’t play again before Heisman votes are due). But even though Alabama’s running back gets the edge in our rankings, Cook has done more than enough to reach New York.
4. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Last week: 17-25 passing, 180 yards, 2 TDs; 11 carries, 77 yards, 1 TD in 58-23 win vs. Oklahoma State.
Next week: Regular season completed
Against Oklahoma State on Saturday, Mayfield didn’t look like a quarterback who’d suffered a concussion the previous week. The Oklahoma signal caller recorded 257 yards of offense and three total touchdowns as his team obliterated the rival Cowboys in Bedlam. With the win, the Sooners clinched the Big 12 title and presumably a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Mayfield, a former walk-on at Texas Tech, now has 42 total touchdowns on the year against just five interceptions. His 35 scoring passes tie him with Jason White, the 2003 Heisman winner, for the fifth-most by an Oklahoma quarterback in a single season. Mayfield also leads all Big 12 passers in efficiency rating (178.86) and yards per attempt (9.6), having helped the Sooners topple their three biggest foes this season in Baylor, Oklahoma State and TCU. That means Oklahoma is almost certainly in the playoff despite its one loss.
5. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Last week: 27 carries, 94 yards; 3 catches for 19 yards; 5 kick returns for 109 yards in 38-36 win vs. Notre Dame
Next week: Dec. 5 vs. USC in Pac-12 Championship Game
McCaffrey accounted for 228 all-purpose yards in Stanford’s last-second win over Notre Dame, which sunk the Fighting Irish’s playoff hopes. McCaffrey was held to 94 yards on the ground and didn’t record a touchdown, but he became the third FBS player to top 3,000 all-purpose yards in a single season. His 3,035 yards are just 215 behind the all-time record held by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders (3,250), who won the Heisman in 1988.
At the end of the regular season, McCaffrey still holds a commanding lead in FBS in all-purpose average (252.2 yards per game). According to Stanford, that average ranks second all-time among FBS players. McCaffrey is arguably the most versatile player in the nation, and if he runs all over USC in the Pac-12 title game, he could shake up the top of the Heisman race.
Outside looking in: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State; Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon