Matchups between top-10 teams can radically affect division and conference championship races as well as the College Football Playoff picture, but they can make an even larger impact on the Heisman Trophy race. Marquee showdowns in prime television windows enable candidates to shine when the stage lights are brightest or, alternatively, stumble with everyone watching. These are the sort of games that stick in voters’ minds.
The outcome of the contest factors heavily into the impression it leaves on a player's Heisman stock, but it's possible to enhance one's case even in defeat. The line separating those two scenarios could not have been illustrated more clearly than it was this weekend. On Friday night, Washington shut down Stanford star Christian McCaffrey in a 44–6 win in Seattle. McCaffrey finally met his match in a ferocious Huskies defense, and Stanford’s seemingly unassailable formula of unforgiving defense and physical offense fell flat. On Saturday, Louisville went into Death Valley looking to effectively seal the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic division and become the league’s clear top playoff threat with a win over national champiomship runner-up Clemson. The Cardinals fell one yard short, but their quarterback, Lamar Jackson, performed so well that the resulting L on Louisville’s schedule will register as nothing more than a footnote on his Heisman résumé come December. Even though he didn’t guide his team to a win, Jackson seized the opportunity to put on a show in a high-profile setting.
Both Jackson and McCaffrey remain in the Watch’s top five this week, but McCaffrey's chances have dropped. Meanwhile, a new name claimed the No. 4 spot. There also was a shakeup in the honorable mention section, with three new quarterbacks entering the conversation.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
It took a while for Jackson to get going against Clemson, but once he did, a sense of inevitability crept in: Even though the Cardinals had never notched a win of this magnitude with Jackson under center, it was difficult to shake the feeling that he was about to lead them to one of their biggest victories in program history. After going into the half trailing 28–10, Jackson orchestrated five unanswered scoring drives to give Louisville a 36–28 lead midway through the fourth quarter. He evaded pressure from maybe the nation’s best defensive line North of Tuscaloosa, showed off his blurring straight-line speed and mobility in the open field and, most impressive in the Watch’s eyes, exhibited the kind of poise that allows for nonchalant sidesteps of would-be tacklers in crunch time. Had Cardinals wide receiver James Quick somehow gotten into the end zone (or a first down) with under a minute remaining, Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware would have drawn more scrutiny for provoking Louisville’s dual-threat star with a lengthy choke hold.
Jackson totaled 295 passing yards with a touchdown and an interception as well as 162 rushing yards and two scores on the ground. That’s a relatively unremarkable line for him, but Jackson probably won’t face a better defense over the rest of the regular season. The Tigers currently rank third in Football Outsiders S&P + metric. The next three opponents Jackson will face? Duke (41st), NC State (62nd), Virginia (94th).
2. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
You would have thought Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer might take it easy on former defensive coordinator and current Rutgers coach Chris Ash when the two programs met Saturday in Columbus. The Scarlet Knights are on the early stretch of a long road to respectability in the Big Ten East, and the Buckeyes are a fully formed juggernaut brimming with NFL talent on both sides of the ball. Meyer ensured this distinction would be clear to anyone who tuned in Saturday by turning Barrett loose on a defense with virtually no hope of limiting him and the bevy of potent playmakers at his disposal. Barrett connected on 21 of his 29 throws for 238 yards with four touchdowns, making him the program leader for career passing scores (58). That figure and the time at which Barrett reached it are especially notable given that Barrett spent part of his sophomore campaign working his way through an unwieldy quarterback rotation with Cardale Jones and that he’ll have another year to add to it if he decides against entering the NFL draft.
This is beginning to resemble Barrett’s stellar 2014 season, when he rose to the top of the depth chart after Braxton Miller went down with a shoulder injury, guided Ohio State to an 11–1 record and finished fifth in the Heisman voting. Buckeyes fans will recall that season ended with Barrett on the mend (he suffered a broken ankle in a win over Michigan), but that didn’t stop Ohio State from hoisting the first CFP trophy. The way Barrett is playing right now, it won’t be surprising if he leads them to another one in January.
3. Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston
It’s been fun watching Ward rip through American Athletic Conference defenses on Thursday nights two of the last three weeks. While top Heisman candidates often have to fight for viewers’ attention with other marquee tilts taking place on Saturdays, Ward can count on less channel-flipping from a national audience.
His latest victim was Connecticut. Ward delivered one of his best games of the season, completing 32 of his 38 throws for 389 yards with three touchdowns, good for a 196.3 passer rating. He also rushed for 65 yards and two scores. Unfortunately for Ward, the game did not extinguish concerns about the possibility of his health eventually derailing his candidacy. He absorbed a huge hit from Huskies linebacker Junior Joseph early in the second quarter and he’s still battling a shoulder injury that forced him to sit out the Cougars’ win over Lamar last month. When he’s at full strength, Ward is an explosive playmaker who can unhinge Power 5 defenses and make Group of Five ones look utterly clueless. If he’s not, his output inevitably will decline, and Houston’s offense will suffer as a result.
The Cougars will need him at something close to top form this weekend, when they’ll face a Navy team hoping to rebound after suffering its first loss of the season on Saturday at Air Force. If Ward and his receivers are clicking like they were against UConn, the Midshipmen won’t be able to stop him. Still, this is one of the few games on the Cougars’ conference schedule that bears monitoring, if only because it’s not completely certain they’ll be able to put it away before halftime.
4. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning’s Heisman campaign was alive and well even before Stanford walked into Husky Stadium on Friday night. When the Cardinal left after suffering a 44–6 loss thanks in no small part to a Browning-commanded aerial bombardment, he’d made a quantum leap in the race for the nation’s most coveted individual honor. In one of the most stunning showings of the season to date, Browning coolly picked apart Stanford’s defense (15 for 21, 210 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT) to vault Washington to the forefront of the playoff conversation. Watching the Cardinal repeatedly fail to stymie Browning, receivers John Ross and Dante Pettis and running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavonte Coleman was shocking. Browning kept finding holes in Stanford’s coverage and kept throwing darts through them to purple-and-black-clad targets in open space. So clinical was Browning in leading the Huskies on scoring drives that there’s little reason to suspect he won’t be able to transfer what we saw against the Cardinal to other Pac-12 venues.
We’ll find out for sure when Washington visits Oregon on Saturday. The Ducks have beaten the Huskies 12 times in a row, but if Washington hung 44 points on one of the best defenses in the country last week, it stands to reason Browning and Co. can inflict some serious damage on an Oregon unit that checks in at 109th nationally in points allowed per game. And though the Ducks clearly have taken a step back since their Chip Kelly-heyday, a victory in Eugene would not only do wonders for Browning’s Heisman bid, but also provide the résumé heft the Huskies need to continue adding given their putrid non-conference schedule.
5. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
The Watch seriously considered dropping McCaffrey out of the top five this week. A no-show in Stanford’s biggest game of the year leaves a massive blotch on McCaffrey’s CV and, in a more abstract sense, chips away at the notion that his presence alone is sufficient to upend a defensive gameplan. Though the Cardinal’s all-world junior did amass 144 yards on kickoff returns, his 28.8-yard average on those returns is only 2.8 yards more than his average over the course of this season. More importantly, McCaffrey was running in quicksand against Washington’s defense, tallying only 49 yards on 12 carries. Watch McCaffrey enough, and you start to feel like he’s capable of breaking free for a 50-yard gain on every touch. It seems only a matter of time before he eyes a small gap amid a pile of colliding bodies, eludes a defender or two and outraces the rest to the pylon. That never happened on Friday night, as the Huskies kept bringing down McCaffrey before he could get going.
His body of work suggests this was an anomalous dud that can be overcome. McCaffrey can still repair his Heisman stock and perhaps even make a run at the top spot. We know what he can do when Stanford’s offensive line creates the room necessary for him to burst past the line of scrimmage, and the fronts he faces the rest of the season will be far more permissive than the Huskies’ stable of run-stuffers. A return to normalcy next week against Washington State is expected.
Five others on the radar: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson; Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee; Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina; Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami; Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama