SI's college football experts break down the case for Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Jabrill Peppers, Deshaun Watson and Dede Westbrook to win the Heisman Trophy.
A Heisman Trophy race that seemed essentially over by the end of October gained some extra intrigue when frontrunner Lamar Jackson limped into the finish line with two losses to close out the regular season. Now five finalists (Louisville’s Jackson, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook) are headed to New York, each hoping to raise the coveted bronze statue on Saturday night.
While Jackson is still the favorite, all of finalists have a case to win. To help you decide who is most deserving, SI’s college football writers made the case for each of the five.
This is the first in a series of posts arguing why each of the five Heisman Trophy finalists deserves the award.
The Heisman Trophy Trust’s mission statement is deceptive. The award purports to honor an “outstanding college football player,” but the reality is more restrictive. The Heisman is like an exclusive club granting entry mostly to quarterbacks and running backs, with a wide receiver occasionally making it past the velvet rope. In the 80-year history of the award, there have been only seven winners not listed at one of those three positions. The group has trended toward uniformity in recent years: Quarterbacks have hoisted the bronze trophy all but twice since the turn of the century.
But there are instances when a player who doesn’t line up at one of those positions is so special that voters can’t ignore him. That’s the case with junior Jabrill Peppers, the catalyst behind Michigan’s resurgence under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines designate Peppers as a “LB/DB” on their roster and, as such, he would become the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman since former Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. Yet the best way to gauge Peppers’ performance is to disregard his position altogether.
Peppers arrived at Michigan as a five-star cornerback recruit. After appearing in only three games due to multiple lower-body injuries in 2014, he started 12 games as a defensive back in 2015 before switching to SAM linebacker during the off-season under new coordinator Don Brown. If you tuned into a Michigan game in 2016, however, it quickly became clear that Peppers’ contributions transcend his nominal position.
He is a muscle-bound, lightning-quick rover who lurks menacingly around the line of scrimmage, waiting to upend offensive coordinators’ best-laid plans. Peppers blankets pass-catchers downfield, ranges from sideline to sideline to snuff out screen plays, darts past linemen to pressure quarterbacks and charges into the box to crunch ballcarriers.
And that’s just on one side of the ball. Michigan has deployed Peppers as a running back, wide receiver and quarterback in various packages on offense, and he leads the Big Ten in punt return average. Peppers’ responsibilities may change from snap to snap, but the quality of his play is consistently excellent. Think Christian Bale shifting seamlessly from The Machinist to The Dark Knight to The Big Short, or Apple setting a high bar with its portable media players, smartphones and personal computers. “You can just see the way that he impacts the game from so many different angles,” Steve Palazzolo, a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus, said of Peppers.
In 933 snaps this season, Peppers has seen time at 15 different positions, according to Michigan. He leads the Wolverines with 16 tackles for loss, is tied for second with 72 total tackles and ranks third with 751 all-purpose yards. Peppers’ numbers are dwarfed by those compiled by the Heisman frontrunner, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, but Peppers’ case for the award is grounded less in statistical prowess than qualitative indicators like versatility and a certain “wow” factor that makes his every touch appointment viewing.
A wholesale revision of the Heisman evaluation process is long overdue. The electorate should not hesitate to break the stranglehold quarterbacks and running backs have maintained on the award, a positional duopoly that does a massive disservice to dozens of candidates every year. There are signs that voters are beginning to take defensive players more seriously. Over the last decade three defenders have finished in the top five of the Heisman race (Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh in 2009, LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu in 2011 and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o in 2012). Peppers offers voters a perfect opportunity to take the next step: Elevating a defender to first place.
It’s fitting that Peppers, the defensive lynchpin of a dominant Michigan team, is a strong candidate for the award 19 years after another Wolverines star won it while anchoring the defense of a national champion (split with Nebraska). At the time Peppers was two years and two months old, and it seemed unlikely that nearly two decades, and counting, would pass before another primarily defensive player claimed the Heisman.
Deshaun Watson amassed 4,443 yards of total offense in 2016, fourth-most in the country, as the undisputed offensive fulcrum for a Clemson team that won its league, lost just once along the way and earned a second straight trip to the College Football Playoff. The Tigers’ wizened, do-everything junior quarterback also will graduate in two and a half years, and his contributions to Habitat for Humanity are well chronicled and earned him a spot on the AFCA Good Works Team. In short: He was really good for a really good team and appears to be a really good person when he’s not being a really good quarterback. Even shorter: He hits all the notes a Heisman Trophy winner is supposed to hit.
So in a vacuum, it’s incredibly easy to make an argument that Watson should bring home college football’s top honor after finishing third in the voting a year ago. Votes aren’t tallied in a vacuum, of course, and the production becomes a bit more complicated to contextualize when set against the accomplishments of the other primary contenders. But even that shouldn’t disqualify Watson out of hand. His path to another spot as a repeat Heisman finalist was hardly preordained, and he nevertheless performed well enough in the klieg-lit spots to earn a return trip to New York.
Clemson’s offense ranks 11th nationally in Football Outsiders S&P+ metric, and that’s with a run game that, for much of the season, was not as reliable as it was last fall. Watson can and should claim a great deal of responsibility for that efficiency, especially considering a schedule full of defenses capable of exposing weakness. Consider: Seven of Clemson’s 13 games featured opponents with defenses that, at the end of the regular season, ranked in the top 30 nationally per the S&P+ metric. Five were in the top 20. Against those seven stout defenses, Watson completed 65.9% of his attempts with an average of 295.7 passing yards per game, totaling 23 touchdowns against seven interceptions. The Tigers won all seven of those games. When Watson’s team needed him to produce against formidable opposition, he delivered.
Any concern over his overall efficiency as a passer seems a bit post-fact, too. He threw 15 interceptions in 487 pass attempts this year. He threw 13 in 491 attempts last season. His quarterback rating in 2016: 154.0. His quarterback rating in 2015: 156.3. He’s been effectively the same passer from season to season. Unless you insist upon dramatic leaps in efficiency with every additional year of experience, it’s basically inaccurate to propagate an argument that Watson is more mistake-prone now. If his numbers through the air were Heisman-worthy a year ago, they’re Heisman-worthy today.
It is fair to closely inspect the rushing numbers that plunged. Watson ran for 1,105 yards a year ago and just 529 this season. But even that might not be his fault. His carries dropped from 207 to 129, suggesting Clemson’s offensive staff might have been more inclined to protect their most valuable asset through play calling. Even more ammo for that thought: Watson recorded double-digit carries in five of the seven games against those S&P+ top 30 defenses, notching five of his six rushing touchdowns in those outings. When Clemson didn’t need to deploy Watson as a runner, it didn’t. When it did, it did. And Watson produced in those circumstances.
Ultimately a vote for Watson is a vote for the comprehensive picture of a Heisman Trophy winner: The quarterback whose numbers were terrific, if not as eye-popping in some departments as what other candidates mustered. The quarterback who delivered his team one championship and the chance to play for another. The quarterback who, as far as anyone can tell, goes out of his way to be a good citizen.
It’s possible the others check those boxes, too. But, in this space, we’re talking about the case for Deshaun Watson to hoist the Heisman. In almost every conceivable way, it doesn’t require much effort to make that argument.
For starters: Dede Westbrook is not going to win the Heisman. It’ll be shocking if he gets a first place vote. The last wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy was Desmond Howard in 1991 (in large part because of his special teams play) and the last finalist was Amari Cooper in 2014. Cooper finished a distant third, and Westbrook’s stats are inferior to his. The math is easy. Wide receivers almost never win (three in 79 years) and Westbrook had an outstanding, but not transcendent season for a wide receiver. He may lose credibility in the eyes of some voters because he was only one cog of one of college football’s top offenses with a fellow Heisman finalist (quarterback Baker Mayfield) and two of the Big 12’s best running backs (Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon).
As a result, the arguments for rewarding Westbrook with college football’s most hallowed individual award are ultimately philosophical and narrow. Those shouldn’t preclude him receiving a few first-place votes.
Voters did well to choose Westbrook and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers in the non quarterback-running-back division. The award is designed to go to the best player in college football, and if you’re looking for a high-usage, durable one who shredded opposing defenses and was central to the success of an elite offense, then Westbrook is your guy. Mayfield openly stumped for his best receiver to win after the Sooners beat Oklahoma State in the teams’ season finale because “Dede is the best player in college football.” Too often the award goes to the most important player on the most important team instead of the best individual talent. Derrick Henry was a great Alabama running back, but his victory last year over Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook—all more deserving individual candidates—exemplified this discrepancy.
After a quiet first three games of the season, Westbrook became the central playmaker on Oklahoma’s 11th-ranked passing offense. Outside of a four-catch, 88-yard performance against Baylor (two of which were touchdowns), Westbrook exceeded 100 yards receiving and caught at least one touchdown in every conference game. Against the Cowboys in the Bedlam rivalry, he caught four passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns and juked this poor defender out of his knickers, all in one half, before leaving with the game with a concussion. His mid-October stretch (four games, 35 receptions, 776 yards, 10 touchdowns) was the most spectacular individual performance of any of the candidates all season. No sane voter will argue that Westbrook influences defensive gameplanning more than Lamar Jackson or Deshaun Watson, but he was the single-most influential playmaker in the Sooners’ attack.
College football thrives off of the electricity of individual playmakers, and Westbrook spent all season shedding double teams and piling up yards after the catch to help propel Oklahoma to its nine-game winning streak. When he has the ball, his shiftiness and speed make him one of the most dangerous open-field threats in the nation. His effectiveness is predicated less on the design of the offense (something that aids Jackson) as it is his own individual skillset. He’s damn near impossible to stop in single coverage, he rarely drops the ball, and he’s one of the nation’s most difficult players to tackle.
Break up the quarterback-running back bias of the award and hand it to a guy whose energy and individual talent pulsated every time he was on the field. Dede Westbrook for Heisman, even if it’s just a single first-place vote.
So you’re looking for a Heisman Trophy winner, and you want it to be a quarterback. You’d prefer someone with a penchant for clutch plays, a guy who can stuff a stat sheet while leading his team to big wins. I know exactly who it should be: Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
What, you thought I was going to talk about one of those other QBs, the ones in the ACC? No, thanks. I’ll stick with the guy who is not turnover prone (38 touchdowns to eight interceptions compared to someone else who has coughed up the ball 15 times) and the guy who got better as the season went on (a combined 457 passing yards and seven total touchdowns in his last two games, both Sooners wins, as opposed to a different quarterback, who lost to Houston and Kentucky. Kentucky!) Did I mention that Mayfield leads in the country in passing efficiency, at 197.8? Oh, and also completion percentage (71.2). And yards per pass attempt (11.1), too.
I know the beginning of the season was rough, when Oklahoma lost 33–23 at Houston and then essentially got slaughtered at home against Ohio State in a 45–24 butt kicking. Mayfield wasn’t great in those games, but his defense was considerably worse. What we should really focus on is how much better he got, leading the Sooners to nine consecutive wins and the Big 12 title, a testament to his leadership and poise.
Also the numbers: In a conference loaded with offense, Mayfield dominated, leading the Big 12 in passing touchdowns (31), completion percentage (73.5) and pass efficiency (208.8) during conference play. He isn’t necessarily known as a runner—he finished the season with just 143 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns—but he is one hell of a scrambler. Mayfield buys time in the pocket so he can whip a pass downfield and move the chains for the Sooners, who have the third-best offense in college football, by the way.
About that offense. You’ve probably heard a lot of praise, and rightfully so, for a guy catching a lot of Mayfield’s passes. Yes, fellow Heisman finalist Dede Westbrook is the best receiver in college football this season. Mayfield himself calls his 6-foot, 174-pound teammate “the most dangerous man in college football” and hey, I get it. But, uh, who was throwing all those dimes to him? Oh yeah, Mayfield.
Come to think of it, Mayfield is surrounded by ballers. His numbers are that much more impressive when you consider that he had not one, but two running backs who went over 900 yards this season (Joe Mixon is at 1,183 yards and counting; Samaje Perine and 974 so far).
Mayfield constantly hands the ball off, but when Oklahoma needs a hero, he’s the guy it leans on. Take, for example, the Texas Tech game, when the Sooners found themselves in a shootout. It was Mayfield, playing in front of a Lubbock crowd that hates him, who came through big that day. He threw for a school-record seven touchdowns, completing 27 of 36 passes for a career-high 545 yards.
I don’t want to hear complaints about Texas Tech not playing defense. When the game is on the line, you need a gamer. That’s what Mayfield is. He’s also the best quarterback in college football this year and deserving of being named the most outstanding player.
The voters got it wrong last year, not even giving Mayfield an invite to New York. That much has been amended. Maybe this year they’ll get it right and give him the trophy. And if they mess up, good news: Mayfield’s coming back again. And as the saying goes, the third time is a charm.
This is the fifth in a series of posts arguing why each of the five Heisman Trophy finalists deserves the award. For more, here is SI's case for Jabrill Peppers, Deshaun Watson, Dede Westbrook and Baker Mayfield.
It seems like it’s human nature to do this: We declare a competition over only to talk ourselves into there being a late change that makes the race up for grabs again. It keeps things fun and adds late drama, even if it’s not grounded in reality.
You heard it with the College Football Playoff race. Everyone knew that if Clemson and Washington won their conference championship games, they’d stay in the playoff field, and the Big Ten title game wouldn’t matter. Then, that exact situation happens, and suddenly the talk focuses on whether Penn State should leapfrog one of the teams to get into the top four.
The Nittany Lions didn’t. The sage common wisdom prevailed. Expect the same in the Heisman Trophy race.
From late October through mid-November, the general consensus was that Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had the trophy all but locked up. He’d have to choke big time while someone else played to perfection to have a chance. Now, with the regular season over, there’s a desire to inject more suspense so we’re waiting on the edge of our seats when the winner is revealed Saturday night.
But this is still unquestionably Jackson’s award. It’s true he didn’t finish on the highest note, and it’s true Clemson’s Deshaun Watson played some of his best games of the season down the stretch. But the Heisman doesn’t award who’s playing the best right now, and Jackson was clearly still the best over the course of the season.
He racked up nearly 5,000 yards of offense with remarkable efficiency, gaining 8.9 yards per pass attempt and 6.6 yards per rush. His 51 touchdowns put him even with or ahead of all but 38 teams.
Beyond the numbers, he took over games and made unbelievable plays in the ways we expect Heisman winners to do so. He was so good in fact that he often hurt his own campaign by building too large of a lead too quickly, allowing Louisville to take him out early.
But Jackson was clutch, too. Remember his game-winning pass against Virginia? Perfectly floated in to Jaylen Smith, he spared the Cardinals an embarrassing loss to the Cavaliers.
Anyone pretending Jackson isn’t the clear winner will fixate on his last two games, but let’s take a closer look. On the surface, his numbers in Louisville’s 36–10 defeat to Houston look pretty mediocre: 211 yards passing, 33 yards rushing and one touchdown. But the Cougars sacked Jackson 11 times as they repeatedly sliced through and around a dreadful offensive line. If anything, that makes Jackson’s season-long stats even more impressive; he did it behind a shaky and at times dreadful line.
As for the loss to Kentucky the next week, it’s important to remember that amid Jackson’s four turnovers (the final one coming on a last-second desperation heave), he also compiled 281 yards passing, 171 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Plus any discussion of turnovers has to consider that Jackson’s 16 this season are equal to Watson’s total.
Ultimately, these stats from ESPN ACC reporter David Hale put to rest just about any argument against Jackson’s case:
Jackson was better against good defenses, he was better in close games and he was better when he was at neither his best or his worst.
So don’t overthink this one. You’ve known it all along. No matter what you thought of Jackson’s final two performances, his complete season was simply extraordinary. He deserves to be rewarded for that.