The September Heisman is a prized tradition. Seemingly every year, one player posts a jaw-dropping statistical line over his first two or three games to surge atop projections for college football’s highest individual honor. From Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in 2010 to LSU running back Leonard Fournette in 2015 to the host of other players who seized the national spotlight before the Autumnal Equinox, their performance elicited ironclad predictions for an award that’s anything but predictable at this point of the season. And yet, as we move on to Week 4, it appears recent history has not blunted our inclination towards irrationality. Despite mountains of evidence pointing to patience as the most sensible approach in assessing the race at this juncture, if some running back has plowed over every defender in his vicinity through nonconference play, or some quarterback has thrown more touchdown passes than picks over a few shootouts, we’re not going to resist: That dude’s going to New York! Give him the trophy now!
None of which is meant to cast doubt on the candidacy of this year’s clear September Heisman winner, Lamar Jackson. He leads the Watch after Week 3, but that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise if you watched the sophomore quarterback guide Louisville to a 43-point win over Florida State on Saturday. More interesting are the changes in the rankings beneath him. This is shaping up to be a more interesting race than the preseason list of established candidates suggested. Two players who made last week’s top five lost their spots, while others are closer to breaking through after bolstering their cases during a loaded weekend of games.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
When Jackson ripped through Texas A&M’s defense to push Louisville to a six-point win in the Music City Bowl on New Year’s Eve, it would have been difficult to conceive the notion that the performance—a 453-yard, four-touchdown strafing that simultaneously stoked the flames under one coach’s hot seat (Kevin Sumlin) and further validated the decision to hire another (Bobby Petrino)—could be repeated. He provided evidence in season-opening routs of Syracuse and Charlotte, but Jackson still needed to prove the leap from stats-padding non-conference tuneups to marquee intra-conference games would not stunt his rise.
Saturday’s victory over the Seminoles, in which Jackson logged 362 total yards and five touchdowns to raise his season total to a nation-leading 18 (more than most teams in the FBS), did just that. Jackson is no longer the intriguing dual threat populating “breakout player” lists. He’s a bona fide star, complete with social media shoutouts from legendary stylistic analogues to on-camera nods to hometown rappers to a Sports Illustrated cover to an unnecessarily rigorous grading rubric that should strike fear into every defensive coordinator set to face him this season. That includes No. 5 Clemson’s Brent Venables, who’ll need to scheme against Jackson when he visits Death Valley for another ACC bout with potential College Football Playoff implications on Oct. 1.
2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Defenses enter games against Stanford confronting a demoralizing proposition: They’re probably not going to stop McCaffrey. But they can at least give themselves a chance by assigning a defender or two or six to cover him. USC appeared to resign itself to fate late in the first quarter against the Cardinal on Saturday. McCaffrey hauled in a pass from quarterback Ryan Burns near the sideline, turned upfield and galloped ahead for a 56-yard touchdown. To say his path to the end zone was clear would be like calling Elon Musk’s theory about human existence unconventional. McCaffrey was not touched. He finished the game with 260 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, and Stanford gradually wore down the Trojans in a 27–10 win.
File this one away under “just another night at the office” for Stanford’s star junior, who has shown no signs that he’s slowing down after shouldering an enormous workload last season en route to a second-place finish in the Heisman voting. There’s more good news: The return of sophomore Bryce Love, who missed the Cardinal's opener against Kansas State with an injury, means coach David Shaw can tab another potent runner to spare McCaffrey big carry totals every week. That should help keep McCaffrey fresh down the stretch.
3. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Ohio State’s 45–24 trouncing of Oklahoma on Saturday bore testament to coach Urban Meyer’s recruiting success, player development and tactical acumen. You don’t just lose 12 players to the NFL draft from a 12-win team and then calmly subdue a Power 5 conference favorite in its own house without having built a turbo-powered machine. That fact that the Buckeyes can reload every year with blue-chippers should frighten Michigan, Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten. A more urgent concern, though, is whether those teams can do anything about it this season.
Barrett, a junior hardened by multiple years of starting experience and multiple quarterback battles, is steering the ship. The journey has been smooth through the early part of 2016, with Barrett tossing 10 touchdowns against only one interception and besting all Big Ten quarterbacks in passer rating. He has spread the ball around to a host of explosive pass-catchers, most notably sophomore Noah Brown, who missed last season with a broken leg. Brown offers Barrett a big-play threat after Ohio State lost its top three wideouts from 2015, and junior Curtis Samuel is a force in the passing and running game. Barrett’s distribution to Brown, Samuel and other targets has been on-point through three games, and there’s little reason to suspect it’ll falter once the Buckeyes enter conference play, which starts Saturday at home against Rutgers.
4. Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston
Things looked shaky for Ward during much of Thursday night’s faux-Big-12-play-in tilt with Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium. The Bearcats took a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter, and certain overzealous subsets of college football fans across the country presumably began cycling through playoff scenarios in which their favorite teams replaced the Cougars. A loss would have crippled Houston’s CFP hopes and consequently undermined a key plank of Ward’s Heisman bid. Instead, the senior delivered two rushing touchdowns in the final quarter and the Cougars cruised to a 40–16 win to preserve their status as the best team outside the Power 5.
Houston will take the W, but the outlook for its all-world QB is still less than optimal. Ward has not shaken off the shoulder injury that kept him out of Houston’s win over Lamar earlier this month. He probably won’t need to reach Peak Ward to fend off challenges from Texas State and Connecticut over the next two weeks, but any slip-ups in conference play would cause serious damage—both to Houston’s chances of cracking the national semifinals and Ward’s chances of earning an invite to New York. If Houston navigates the rest of its league slate unscathed and Ward gets to 100% in time for the Nov. 17 showdown with Louisville, both goals will be readily attainable. When Ward is healthy, he’s electric—a devastating package of speed, aerial proficiency and playmaking flair. When he’s not, Houston’s vulnerable, and he risks dropping out of the Heisman race.
5. Jabrill Peppers, AP, Michigan
The best way to understand Peppers’s value to Michigan is to ignore positional designation altogether. He’s a supremely talented player who can do a lot of things, the football equivalent of a utility man who hits for power, steals bases and guns down runners from the outfield. Peppers is a dangerous punt and kick returner, a heat-seeking missile crashing down on opposing quarterbacks, a running back with the capability of busting free for big gains and so much more. On Saturday, Peppers ran back a punt 54 yards for a touchdown, racked up nine tackles (including 3.5 for loss) and tallied 204 all-purpose yards to help Michigan pull away from an improved Colorado squad after the Wolverines fell into a two-score hole in the first quarter.
After arriving at Michigan amid a tidal wave of recruiting hype, flashing glimpses of his ceiling in 2015 and making a high-profile switch from defensive back to linebacker under new defensive coordinator Don Brown this off-season, Peppers garnered some buzz as a Heisman candidate entering the fall. Yet his defensive position remained an obvious hurdle. This performance vaulted him to the forefront of the competition for the trophy whose last non-quarterback-or-running-back winner also donned maize and blue. Peppers inevitably will draw comparisons to Charles Woodson. Earning the same piece of coveted hardware Woodson did nearly two decades ago is still a long shot, but Peppers is off to a good start.
Five others on the radar: Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State; Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson; Jake Browning, QB, Washington; Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami; Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama