The Heisman Trophy race is unfailingly difficult to predict. A combination of unexpected breakthroughs from players hovering below the radar and surprising dips in performance from established candidates makes a seemingly simple concept—highlighting the quarterbacks and running backs (let's be honest, that's essentially who the Heisman is limited to) who put up big stats for blueblood programs—fascinatingly complicated.
Yet in the lead up to this season, there was good reason to suspect the 2016 Heisman race would be less volatile than most in recent memory. Five of the top vote-getters from 2015 (Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook) were returning to teams ranked in the top eight of the preseason Associated Press Poll. Those players had a built-in advantage: Voters already knew they were awesome. All they needed to do was show that hadn’t changed.
The first month of the season has evinced a far more complicated picture. Florida State suffered one of the biggest losses in program history, Oklahoma dropped its two marquee nonconference games and LSU fired its head coach after falling to 2–2.
Those programs’ unforeseen missteps—and the subpar individual performances that attended them—have pushed three prime candidates to the periphery of the conversation surrounding college football’s most prized individual honor. Watson endured a baffling stretch of inconsistent play to open 2016 but remains in contention in part because Clemson remains undefeated, and McCaffrey has basically picked up right where he left off. For the second consecutive week, the Stanford star is the only one of that group of preseason favorites to make the Heisman Watch’s top five. Whether other members join him any time soon, the tenor of the race so far—widespread admiration for a young, swaggering quarterback from a basketball school hogging the spotlight at the expense of guys with big reputations and glittering track records—is a reminder of why the Heisman is not the straightforward endeavor its mission statement (recognizing the “most outstanding college football player”) makes it out to be.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
A week after captivating the nation with a five-touchdown fusillade in a blowout win over national championship contender Florida State, Jackson led the Cardinals to a comfortable victory against an overmatched opponent, Marshall. In the process, he racked up seven more touchdowns to raise his total on the season to 25, a preposterous figure eclipsed by only one team other than the one Jackson plays for. That he eviscerated another defense is not shocking; no one has been able to stop Jackson this season. Yet his consistency across different levels of competition cannot be ignored. In four games against two Conference USA also-rans (Charlotte and Marshall), a rebuilding ACC foe (Syracuse) and a trendy College Football Playoff pick (Florida State), Jackson has amassed no less than 360 combined passing and rushing yards and five touchdowns, and registered only one quarterback rating below 160.
So far, the statistical absurdity alone has been more than enough to carry Jackson, but this weekend presents an opportunity for him to create even more separation in the race. If Jackson can guide Louisville past Clemson and its second-ranked defense in Death Valley, he’ll put the Cardinals in the ACC driver’s seat to earn a playoff berth while adding another marquee win to his résumé in advance of a manageable stretch on the schedule (Duke, NC State, at Virginia, at Boston College, Wake Forest). Jackson can use those games to pad his stat line some more. The focus right now is beating the Tigers, which would also serve to thwart the potential ascendance of Watson in the Heisman hierarchy.
2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
The main Heisman-related takeaway from Stanford’s win over UCLA in Los Angeles on Saturday is that McCaffrey wasn’t on his game. There’s some truth to this: He ran for only 138 yards, failed to score a rushing touchdown for the first time in 2016, caught just two passes for 13 yards and ran back one kick for 14 yards. Using the insanely high bar McCaffrey set for himself by breaking Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yardage record and finishing second in the Heisman voting in 2015, the UCLA game rates as a statistical trough in his college career. That view, though, can be framed as a sort of commendation: We expect McCaffrey to be awesome all of the time. And more importantly, whatever ground the Stanford junior ceded in the Heisman chase because he failed to deliver his customary three-phase onslaught of an opponent is outweighed by the benefits of the Cardinal winning a tough road game against a projected conference title challenger.
In beating the Bruins, Stanford cleared one of its biggest hurdles on a rigorous schedule (remaining games include at Notre Dame, Colorado and at Oregon) and ensured McCaffrey would remain front and center of the Pac-12’s best bet for the playoff. This week’s meeting with Washington is of greater import, but at least Stanford can travel to Seattle toting an air-tight case for the final four. The national spotlight that game will command on a Friday night—this won’t be one of those #Pac12AfterDark bouts only diehards stay up to watch—is a huge opportunity for McCaffrey to shine against another quality opponent with the entire college football world tuned in.
3. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
While one Big Ten East powerhouse (Michigan) throttled a division opponent (Penn State) and another was dominated on its own field (Michigan State) by a Big Ten West powerhouse (Wisconsin) on Saturday, Barrett and the Buckeyes enjoyed a bye week. It was well-earned, following their remarkably breezy win over Big 12 heavyweight Oklahoma in Norman earlier this month. Whether or not Barrett wins the Heisman will hinge on how he performs against three of those Big Ten teams, all of which look capable of stealing a playoff spot away from Ohio State. Road tilts with the Badgers and Spartans, plus a home date with the Wolverines to close the regular season, will either elevate Barrett to the middle of the debate surrounding the nation’s most outstanding player or take the wind out of his Heisman sails.
Before then, though, he’ll likely spend a couple of weeks carving up impotent defenses and continuing to remind everyone that he’s one of the nation’s best passers after last year’s ill-managed rotation with Cardale Jones. Matchups with Rutgers and Indiana should enable Barrett to get more comfortable with an inexperienced set of playmakers and bolster his statistical profile before the aforementioned trip to Madison. Don’t expect to hear much from Barrett or the Buckeyes until that game, unless former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash—now the Scarlet Knights’ head coach—manages to shut down the signal-caller he watched in practice every week during his time in Columbus. But let’s not kid ourselves: Rutgers is not beating Ohio State at The Horseshoe, and Barrett is going to throw for a lot of yards and multiple touchdowns.
4. Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston
The biggest concern coming out of the Cougars’ win at Cincinnati last week was the status of Ward’s shoulder. “It hurts to play,” coach Tom Herman said of Ward last week, according to the Houston Chronicle. “He’s hurting.” However much the injury is affecting Ward, it probably won’t make much of a difference in the short term—both for his Heisman stock and the Cougars’ attempt to become the first team from the Group of Five conferences to make the playoff. On Saturday against Texas State, Ward completed 20 of his 26 pass attempts for 289 yards with two touchdowns and added 39 yards on the ground and another touchdown before being removed in the third quarter of a 64–3 romp.
The level of difficulty will increase over the next month and a half, including a trip to undefeated Navy on Oct. 8, but it’s not unreasonable to expect six consecutive wins leading into Houston's Nov. 17 showdown with Louisville. Until that game, it will be difficult for Ward to catch up to the guys ahead of him on this list. While Jackson, McCaffrey and Barrett are jousting with brand-name programs in primetime, Ward will be stacking gaudy passing and rushing numbers and running AAC defensive coordinators ragged in front of unremarkable TV audiences. This ho-hum stretch certainly won’t help Ward—voters probably won’t give him a lot of credit for gashing toothless defenses—but the matchup with the Cardinals will serve not only as a national platform for Ward’s Heisman candidacy, but also a chance to undercut Jackson’s.
5. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Leave it to a quarterback whose only area to improve as a recruit, according to Scout.com, was “size,” to provide one of the best blocks we’ll see all season. In the second quarter of Washington’s game at Arizona on Saturday, Browning handed the ball off on a double-reverse play before springing wide receiver John Ross III for a 32-yard touchdown by driving his right (throwing) shoulder into Arizona’s Calvin Allen, a 6’6", 281-pound redshirt junior defensive lineman. The block, which warrants even more praise in light of Matt Ryan’s maneuver (for lack of better words) on Monday Night Football, proved critical: Washington went on to beat Arizona in overtime, 35–28, and preserve its undefeated record before the momentous visit from Pac-12 North favorite Stanford. Browning wasn’t spectacular in this game; he connected on 14 of his 21 passing attempts for two touchdowns against an interception. But one uninspiring stat line doesn’t override the sophomore’s entire body of work.
Browning has completed 70.5% of his throws, tossed 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions and leads Pac-12 signal callers in passer rating. He also helped the Huskies survive a tricky trip to a conference opponent, and he’s the leader of a squad with a clear path to the playoff if it can get past the Cardinal on Friday.
The Watch would be remiss to fail to disclose another motivation: There may not be many chances for Browning to make this Heisman top five. If the sophomore can’t slay Stanford’s conference-leading scoring defense and Washington drops its most important home tilt in recent memory, the Huskies will fade into the rearview as the Cardinal validate their claim to the Pac-12 throne. Browning, meanwhile, will remain a few rungs below McCaffrey until further notice.
Five others on the radar: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson; Jabrill Peppers, AP, Michigan; Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State; Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State; Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama