The most outstanding player in college football is a comeback story, a first-tier NFL prospect and the centerpiece of the nation’s top-ranked team. He is a beautifully lofted ball over the outstretched arm of a defensive back, a quick body feint to leave a pass rusher grasping at air. He is a 238.9 passer rating in a treacherous road game at NC State and 420 yards of total offense with five touchdowns to vanquish North Carolina in the ACC title game. He is Deshaun Watson.
About a year after undergoing surgery to repair the torn ACL in his left knee, Watson, a sophomore, has Clemson on the cusp of its first national championship since 1981. All he needs to do now is lead the Tigers past Oklahoma—which ranks No. 12 in the country in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ metric—and then the winner of Alabama and Michigan State. Simple, right? For Watson, the answer lies somewhere between “yes” and “maybe,” which is more than what you could say for any other quarterback set to start a College Football Playoff game.
Still, to become the 81st Heisman winner, he must have persuaded many of the 929 voters that he’s more deserving than every other player on every other team of a prestigious award with vague criteria. There is no doubt Watson did this, that his candidacy towers over those of the other two finalists, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Alabama’s Derrick Henry. At a basic level, he is the best player lining up at the most important position on the best team in the country. That’s a pretty good place to start, but if you’re not convinced, consider:
• Among quarterbacks with at least 80 attempts against Power Five opponents, Watson ranked second in completion percentage and fifth in passer rating.
• He led the ACC with 30 touchdown passes, averaged 8.5 yards per attempt and helped the Tigers rank third in the nation in Passing S&P+.
• He ranked seventh in the ACC with 887 rushing yards, bested all Tigers' running backs by averaging 6.3 yards per carry (minus sacks) and is the only player in the FBS since 2012 to record over 3,500 passing yards and 800 rushing yards.
And to think: The Tigers’ top returning wide receiver, junior Mike Williams, suffered a season-ending injury against Wofford in Week 1.
Heisman cases are built on a combination of individual feats and team success. The former occupies a larger space on Watson’s pie chart, though the latter cannot be overlooked. A program long derided as an underachiever with a penchant for losing games to inferior opponents now sits two wins away from college football’s ultimate prize. Watson elevated the Tigers from tantalizing to title contender, from a double-digit winner with some nice skill-position talent and a rebuilt defense to a juggernaut that beat back the best the ACC had to offer with remarkable ease.
We’ll find out how good Clemson really is when it takes on the Sooners in Miami Gardens, Fla., on New Year’s Eve. We already know how good Watson is.