- Lamar Jackson moved closer to clinching the Heisman Trophy after leading Louisville to a blowout win over Boston College on Saturday
Making ironclad predictions in college football is a risky endeavor. The disparity between teams’ peak and poorest forms is vast. Everyone from Power 5 juggernauts to mid-major also-rans are liable to produce wacky results, and individual players’ performances are even more difficult to predict.
Yet after this weekend, it’s hard to deny that anyone other than one player hoisting the Heisman Trophy early next month would be a major surprise. Lamar Jackson has been the frontrunner in the Heisman race for most of the season, but there remained a possibility another player could supplant him. Jackson could have flopped in a big game, or his output could have declined just enough for voters to shift their focus elsewhere. Neither of those things happened.
Jackson wiped out any intrigue remaining in the race when he tossed a late touchdown pass to lead the Cardinals to a win at Virginia late last month, but the prospect of Leonard Fournette going Super Saiyan against arguably Nick Saban’s best defense at Alabama gave the Watch pause. The Crimson Tide bottled up the LSU junior in a 10–0 win at Tiger Stadium, though, while Jackson lit up another hopeless ACC defense. If you’re still holding out hope that another player could usurp him at some point over the next month, Vegas would beg to differ: Bovada pegs Jackson a 1/20 favorite to win the award. The Heisman race may not be officially over, but Jackson’s about to cross the finish line.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
That hopeless ACC defense mentioned above actually has been pretty good most of this season. Even after getting ripped to shreds by Jackson in a 52–7 loss in Chestnut Hill on Saturday, Boston College ranks third in the ACC against the run on a per-play basis and 25th nationally in Football Outsiders’ Defensive S&P+ ratings. When the Eagles lined up against Jackson, however, they looked like one of the Group of Five units he used as Heisman launching pads in September. Despite battling cramps in the second quarter, Jackson ran for three touchdowns, threw for another four scores and completed 12 of his 17 attempts, marking the first time he’s exceeded a 70% completion rate since Week 1.
Oddly enough in a game that was decided well before halftime, there were two minor controversies connected to Jackson and Louisville, respectively. After a 53-yard touchdown scamper late in the third quarter, Jackson celebrated by moving his right hand in front of his facemask, a gesture interpreted in some quarters as a throat slash. He later clarified in a statement that the action was, instead, something “my teammates and I refer to as ‘zip it.’” On a different note, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino created a stir when asked about the Cardinals’ No. 7 slot in the first set of rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee. Petrino suggested he should have allowed his starters to pile on more points late in a Sept. 17 game against Florida State, a game the Cardinals won 63–20. That strategy may not lead to a playoff berth, but it definitely will boost Jackson’s statistics.
2. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning isn’t just one of the best quarterbacks in the country in 2016. He’s on track to break a single-season record set by former Wisconsin star and current Seattle Seahawks starter Russell Wilson. Browning’s passer rating of 202.79 would easily eclipse the 191.78 mark Wilson notched five years ago. This weekend alone, Browning posted a 252 rating and elevated his touchdown-interception ratio to 34–3 by throwing for six scores in a 66–27 rout of California. At this pace, Browning should be in New York a month from now, but his place in the Heisman hierarchy isn’t nearly as secure as Jackson’s. Even though Washington remains a top contender for a playoff berth (and could move into the top four this week) and Browning has a legitimate claim to being the best pure passer in the country, the margin separating him from quarterbacks leading other playoff contenders, like Clemson’s Deshaun Watson or Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, is thin.
Chalk it up to a dearth of marquee games in prime television windows, the reluctance to fully buy into a program that has toiled in mediocrity for much of this decade or good old fashioned East Coast bias, but it’s not hard to conceive Browning being denied an invitation to the ceremony if the Huskies don’t run the table. That’s definitely doable for Washington, but it’ll face two of its toughest tests over the next two weeks. A red-hot USC team led by its own promising young signal caller (Sam Darnold) visits Seattle on Saturday, and Washington will take on Washington State in the Apple Cup on Nov. 25 with the Pac-12 North title possibly on the line. Browning can solidify his case by leading the Huskies to their first undefeated regular season since 1991.
3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
A shoulder injury limited Watson to only one half of work against Syracuse on Saturday, but that didn’t really matter for the Tigers, who cruised to a 54–0 win to move to 9–0. The injury also won’t have a big impact on Watson’s Heisman bid. He was brilliant before leaving the game, completing 13 of his 16 pass attempts for 169 yards with two touchdowns and adding another score on the ground. More importantly, Watson should be fine for Saturday’s meeting with Pittsburgh, as Clemson announced during the Syracuse game that he was available to play in the second half (the Tigers just didn't need him to).
There isn’t much Watson can do at this point to improve his case as the nation’s premier player. He has already guided Clemson to wins in pivotal tests against Louisville and Florida State and helped the Tigers avoid a potentially season-crushing defeat in overtime against NC State. While he hasn’t met the lofty statistical bar he set as a sophomore, the penchant Watson has flashed for delivering big plays in critical moments shouldn’t be lost on the electorate. Last season’s national title game, in which he gave Alabama’s defense all it could handle in a five-point loss, portended Watson’s progression into a cold-blooded, touchdown-slinging ace in crunch time. That will serve Clemson well if it makes the national semifinals again, but the Tigers shouldn’t need any heroics from Watson until then. They close the regular season against Pittsburgh, at Wake Forest and against South Carolina. Watson can use those games to keep Clemson in line for a top-two seed in the CFP.
4. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Browning isn’t the only quarterback who could beat the passer rating Wilson set in 2011. At 194.8, Mayfield may well get there, too, and it’s possible he could even catch the Washington quarterback depending on how he fares against two of the Big 12’s better passing defenses (Baylor and West Virginia). Unfortunately for Oklahoma’s walk-on-turned-dual-threat-stud, it’s looking like he could suffer the same Heisman fate that befell him a year ago. If the Sooners can’t parlay their six-game winning streak into serious consideration for a playoff berth, Mayfield could again be relegated to spectator status the night of the ceremony after finishing fourth in the voting last year. And just like 2015, the player who places one spot ahead of him could be Watson.
The range of scenarios in which Mayfield would pass Watson, Browning or Jackson is narrow. Watson likely will spend the rest of the season stuffing box scores against weak competition, Browning is the leader of a national title threat sporting a Marcus Mariota-esque stat line and Jackson resides in his own, exclusive tier. Oklahoma getting in striking distance of a spot in the final four seems like a prerequisite for Mayfield to jump one of those guys. Otherwise, voters already looking askance at his output in an up-tempo Air Raid system against leaky Big 12 defenses will be even more eager to write off his gaudy numbers as hollow achievement in an atmosphere conducive to offensive success.
5. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
After being banished to the Honorable Mention netherworld for one week, Barrett rejoins the top five with major potential for upward mobility in the near future. Two weeks of questions over the Buckeyes’ viability as a national championship threat were answered unambiguously Saturday night, when Barrett roasted Nebraska with 290 passing yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and his best passer rating in more than a month. The performance revived the notion that Ohio State, so dominant during the early part of the season, may be one of the few teams capable of giving Alabama a run for its money in a potential playoff matchup. It also served as a reminder that the Buckeyes feature one of the most explosive playmakers in the nation (and, in coach Urban Meyer’s eyes, a one-time Heisman candidate) in Curtis Samuel, who totaled 178 yards and two touchdowns against the Cornhuskers.
The Nebraska win represented a big leap forward for Barrett, but there’s a clear path for him to take an even bigger leap in a couple of weeks. Assuming he pushes Ohio State past Big Ten East bottom feeders Maryland and Michigan State, Barrett will get a chance to slay undefeated Michigan in the most anticipated game of the season the Saturday after Thanksgiving. If Barrett unhinges the Wolverines’ top-ranked scoring defense in The Game, he’ll ascend a few rungs on the Heisman ladder while also undermining the candidacy of Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers. A win over a longtime rival to claim a division title and become the Big Ten’s best bet for the playoff would be an emphatic statement at just the right time.
Five others on the radar: Jabrill Peppers, AP, Michigan; Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama; Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State; D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas; Zach Terrell, QB, Western Michigan