We have reached the midpoint of the Heisman Trophy race. With half of the season in the books, candidates are running out of time to convince voters they should be seriously considered for the most prestigious individual award in college sports. The biggest story from the first seven weeks of 2016 is the rise of a dual-threat quarterback on a team most analysts projected to finish third in its own division. After producing at an outrageous clip that vaulted him to the top of every Heisman list by the middle of September, Lamar Jackson has a commanding lead.
This is his award to lose, yet that hardly means no one else has a chance. The timing of the Louisville quarterback's ascension actually may work against him. Every one of Jackson's remaining performances will be assessed on an unreasonably harsh curve because of how good he’s been to this point. If Jackson falters or, arguably worse, the Cardinals lose and consequently fall out of the College Football Playoff conversation, there will be an urge to supplant him with another candidate on a national championship contender. The statistics Jackson compiled through Friday night’s win over Duke will serve as a bulwark against a major fall in the event he suffers any slump of real consequence, but the electorate expects consistency. Those numbers could serve as grounds for a (probably unfair) argument that Jackson faded toward the end of the season.
Of course, he can forestall that possibility by shredding the defenses he faces in the coming weeks to the same degree he did Syracuse, Florida State and the other teams the Cardinals have faced so far. If Jackson doesn’t, he risks following the path of an Olympic sprinter who flies off the starting blocks, only to be overtaken a few yards from the finish line.
The top four of the Heisman Watch’s rankings did not change from last week. However, a true freshman makes his debut at No. 5 this week, and for the first time this season, the entire top five is composed of players at one position.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
If you tuned into Louisville’s matchup with the Blue Devils expecting to see the sort of pyrotechnic show Jackson has conducted on the regular this season, you probably came away a little bit disappointed. Whereas the Cardinals’ previous Friday night game, at Syracuse on Sept. 9, sent Jackson’s Heisman bid soaring into the stratosphere (and included Jackson literally soaring over a defender), last week served as a reminder that, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, he is, in fact, mortal. The Blue Devils held Jackson below his season average in rushing yards per game and made sure he never got rolling through the air, forcing the sophomore to record a season low in completion percentage (50%) and his second-worst quarterback rating (121.2).
The circumstances surrounding this game hinted at a touchdown barrage that ceased to be competitive well before the start of the fourth quarter. Jackson had run circles around the nation’s No. 2 S&P defense (Clemson) in his previous outing and was coming off a bye. Duke deserves credit for making Jackson uncomfortable, but his showing will reflect as something of a let down. That’s less an indictment on his play than a recognition that Jackson is capable of so much more. He still accounted for 325 yards and two touchdowns in a 10-point win, after all. That’s pretty good.
2. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Saturday night’s trip to Wisconsin had all the makings of a Heisman disqualification game. Ohio State had ridden Barrett to a 5–0 start and No. 2 ranking in the polls. Yet in Wisconsin, Barrett was facing his toughest defensive assignment of the season in a venue that has proven inhospitable to the Buckeyes in the recent past. Ultimately, neither the competition nor the location seemed to bother Barrett much. While the Badgers’ pressure and sound coverage downfield limited the damage Barrett could inflict in the passing game, he found other ways to keep Ohio State’s offense on track. Barrett may not possess Jackson’s straight-line speed or open-field elusiveness, but he’s an agile runner with good pocket awareness who excels at eluding defenders in tight quarters. Consider the touchdown he scored early in the fourth quarter on third-and-six, when Wisconsin linebacker and leading tackler Jack Cichy darted into the backfield on a blitz. Barrett calmly brushed off Cichy’s attempted arm tackle and scooted into the end zone for a four-point lead.
Barrett’s statistics in this game (17 of 29, 226 passing yards, 1 TD, 92 rushing yards, 2 TDs) won’t help him make up ground on Jackson, but the conditions in which he posted them and the resolve he showed in doing so won’t soon be forgotten. Barrett willed Ohio State to another monumental win in a challenging environment against an excellent defense in primetime.
3. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning went into Washington’s bye week having conquered what looked, in the preseason, like the most daunting stretch of the Huskies’ schedule. The sophomore passer, running back Myles Gaskin, wide receivers John Ross and Dante Pettis and the rest of Washington’s offense unhinged a Stanford defense defined by its week-to-week consistency and then pummeled Oregon’s unit in an embarrassing 49-point rout at Autzen Stadium. But Browning’s most difficult work may lie in the future. Stanford is more vulnerable defensively than some of coach David Shaw’s best teams, and Oregon looks leakier by the week under new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke. To preserve the Huskies’ claim to a playoff berth and keep his Heisman bid afloat, Browning will need to navigate formidable road tests against Utah and Washington State as well as a home game against USC.
The Huskies are better than all of those teams, but they lack a buffer against a steep tumble in the rankings if they’re upset in conference play because they don’t have a strong non-league strength of schedule to fall back on. If Washington does lose, its path to the final four would be narrow and would likely require all manner of chaos in other leagues. That will naturally drag down Browning’s Heisman candidacy. It’s safe to assume that scenario won’t come into play next week, as Washington hosts an Oregon State team rebuilding under Gary Andersen. But the trip to Salt Lake City comes seven days later. Browning looks like one of the best quarterbacks in the country this season. He can cement that reputation over the next six weeks.
4. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson’s Heisman campaign was one made field goal away from plunging to depths from which it likely could not be redeemed. Had North Carolina State’s Kyle Bambard connected from 33 yards out at the end of the fourth quarter in Death Valley on Saturday, it would have sealed the most momentous upset of the season to date. Alas, Bambard pushed the kick wide right and Watson went on to toss a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Artavis Scott in overtime to cap a seven-point win in which he recorded a season-high 378 passing yards. A defeat in that game would have cut a huge hole in the safety net the junior has comfortably fallen into whenever his individual performance doesn’t move the needle. Clemson’s perch in the playoff picture, as well as voters’ confidence in the program following its run to the national title game last season, infuses Watson’s every run and throw with more national import those of other quarterbacks. He’s the leader of a team with a clear path to the final four, and he’s yet to buckle under pressure as a junior despite Everest-high preseason expectations and a projected top-10 slot in the upcoming NFL draft.
But as much as the Tigers’ lofty position in the national hierarchy has served as a positive force for Watson in the race, he’s contending with an arguably more powerful headwind. Watson hasn’t performed as well as he did last season, and voters will have a hard time processing that contrast when other candidates, like Jackson, Barrett and Browning, have clearly improved since 2015. It’s up to Watson to close the gap between now and early December.
5. Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
The Watch would not push back against an argument that no Alabama player belongs on this list. The Crimson Tide are not driven by any one star the way they were last season when Derrick Henry was around, one might note. There’s some truth to this. Alabama is a flawlessly designed smartphone with a clean interface and foolproof speech-recognition software; its opponents are Samsung Note 7s. Still, if any of the Crimson Tide's players belong here, it's Hurts. He's the unexpected answer to the biggest question Alabama faced entering this season: Who's going to play quarterback? Coach Nick Saban handed Hurts the No. 1 job even though history suggests it wasn't a prudent choice for programs with national championship ambitions: The last true freshman quarterback to lead his team to a title was Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985. Hurts now looks like a pretty good bet to join him in a few months.
It's clear Hurts is still developing as a passer. He followed an encouraging, 253-yard, two-touchdown effort against Arkansas by connecting on only 16 passes at 5.5 yards per attempt in Alabama's 39-point win over Tennessee this weekend. But even if Hurts's unreliable arm limits what offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin can draw up in the passing game, Kiffin has weaponized Hurts as a spread-option runner to devastating effect. Hurts totaled 132 yards on 11.0 yards per carry against the Volunteers, and he didn't give off the impression that it was all that difficult for him.
Five others on the radar: Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State; Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma; Jabrill Peppers, AP, Michigan; Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State; Zach Terrell, QB, Western Michigan