Despite a Torrid Start, Lamar Jackson’s Second Heisman Campaign Has Plenty of Obstacles

0:59 | College Football
Lamar Jackson's Heisman Repeat Bid Gets Off To Fast Start
Wednesday September 13th, 2017

The competition Lamar Jackson faces in this season’s Heisman Trophy race is not limited to other candidates. He’s also going to have to beat himself. Jackson will need to outstrip the player that won the award last season after blowing away the field with 3,390 passing yards, 1,538 rushing yards and 51 total touchdowns. That will go down as one of the best individual campaigns in college football history, so it wouldn’t be surprising if no one touches those numbers for a while. But over two games this season, Jackson has set a pace that would give him a legitimate chance.

On Saturday in a 47–35 win over North Carolina, Jackson skewered the Tar Heels’ defense with six touchdowns and 525 total yards, good for 74% of Louisville’s output of 705. He broke ankles on darting runs into the open field, zipped passes to wide receivers in stride and, one assumes, made Tar Heels linebacker Andre Smith sorely lament a pre-game boast about his team’s capacity to stop the Cardinals’ junior QB. It was a typical masterclass from Jackson: Watching him, you couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going to put the ball wherever he wanted, however he pleased, and North Carolina wasn’t going to do anything about it.

Jackson’s showing in Chapel Hill was a prelude to a more high-profile showcase this Saturday. ESPN’s College GameDay is headed to Louisville for the No. 14 Cardinals’ primetime tilt against No. 3 Clemson. As of this Wednesday, the sports book Bovada listed Jackson atop its Heisman odds at +175, and he would consolidate his perch by laying waste to the Tigers’ destructive defense. Even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Jackson matching Clemson’s Deshaun Watson play-for-play in a taut six-point loss in Death Valley last October, Jackson has a splendid opportunity to put some daylight between him and the other candidates in the season’s first month.

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Jackson wasn’t in such an advantageous position entering Week 1, which is sort of strange considering his body of work. To understand why, one must look back to last season. Jackson’s Heisman case was built primarily on a series of dazzling showings he put on in September and October, including a five-touchdown blitzkrieg of Syracuse in which he memorably hurdled an oncoming defensive back in a picture-perfect Heisman moment, another five-touchdown barrage in a 43-point win over Florida State a week later and a trip to Virginia in which he feathered a game-winning, 29-yard dime to wide receiver Jaylen Smith with 13 seconds remaining.

His numbers predictably ebbed in the second half of the season, a slump low-lighted by a three-interception regular-season finale against in-state rival Kentucky that also included a tide-turning fumble and an ill-advised Heisman pose, but at that point Jackson had already built up such a big lead that no other player was able to narrow the gap enough to attract a critical mass of voters by the time balloting closed in early December. As Jackson took the stage in New York wearing a crimson red blazer and a polka dot bow tie to clutch the bronze trophy, few expected a different outcome, but a lot of folks wanted one.

Watson, by far the most popular alternative, spurred more ex post facto grousing over Jackson’s victory by scoring four touchdowns to propel Clemson past Alabama in an epic national championship game rematch. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield finished third on the ballot thanks to his prolific passing statistics; the former Texas Tech walk-on broke Russell Wilson’s single-season record with a 196.39 efficiency rating. And there was also a push, in some quarters, to anoint a primarily defensive candidate like Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, who placed third on the ballot, or three-way contributor Jabrill Peppers of Michigan, who placed fifth.

Of the players who finished in the top 10 on the ballot other than Jackson, only two returned to college football this season—Mayfield and Washington’s Jake Browning—but neither of them were handed the totally nebulous honor of offseason Heisman frontrunner. Instead, powered by the afterglow of a thrilling Rose Bowl, a deluge of preseason USC national title hype and the attention that attends being the starting QB of a glamour program in a major media market, Sam Darnold owned the best odds as of late August, per Bovada. A player on the team the Trojans vanquished in that Rose Bowl, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, checked in second. Mayfield and Jackson tied for third.

Over two games against Purdue and North Carolina, Jackson has jumped into the Heisman lead, but that was the easy part. To maintain the lead, he’ll have to buck 40 years of history. The last and only time someone pulled off the Heisman repeat was Ohio State running back Archie Griffin in 1974-’75. Between Griffin’s second Heisman and Jackson’s first, nine players have returned to college football after winning. Of that group, only Florida quarterback Tim Tebow made a serious run at a second Heisman, when he guided the Gators to a national title and ended up third in the voting in ’08, behind a pair of Big 12 signal-callers piloting go-go offenses: Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford and Texas’s Colt McCoy.

The bias against repeat bids is part statistical, part abstract. A failure to eclipse numbers posted the previous season inevitably registers as a demerit on a player’s résumé, especially when voters don’t take into account mitigating factors, like schematic changes or supporting cast departures, that could explain the disparity. There’s also the challenge of charming the electorate—of recapturing the ineffable magnetism that defines winners—when each season is sui generis.

“The feel and spirit of each season is different, and the player who wins the Heisman generally personifies the tenor of the season,” Chris Huston, the official Heisman Trophy historian, wrote in an email. He added, “What Archie Griffin did is one of the great accomplishments in sports, something that doesn't get talked about enough, in my opinion. I think it's in the realm of what Dimaggio did, or what John Wooden did at UCLA.”

The leeway voters granted Jackson when his statistics dipped at the end of last season may not be there if he fades at some point over the next three months. Jackson is old hat now; it’s up to him to figure out how to impress people who’ve already sat through a year of the LJ8 show. Though Jackson cooked the Boilermakers and Tar Heels in Weeks 1 and 2, that was par for his September course, and keeping up this torrid pace will be exceedingly difficult considering the quality defenses remaining on Louisville’s schedule (Clemson, Florida State, Wake Forest, Boston College). There’s also a strong likelihood that in this, the Year of the Quarterback, Jackson will have to fend off a more robust crop of candidates.

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Mayfield asserted himself by slaying preseason Big Ten favorite Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday, and then driving an OU flag into the logo at midfield of the Horseshoe (a celebratory act for which he did not need to issue an apology). UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen piloted one of the greatest comebacks in college football history in Week 1, when he carried the Bruins back from a 34-point deficit to Texas A&M and KO’d the Aggies with a fake-spike touchdown in a 45–44 win. And Darnold rebounded from a two-interception opener against Western Michigan by completing 81% of his throws and tossing four touchdowns in an 18-point victory over Pac-12 North challenger Stanford on Saturday.

Jackson doesn’t have a signature moment to mark his campaign yet, but that could well come against Clemson. If the Cardinals hand the reigning national champions their first true road loss in nearly three years to take pole position in arguably the Power 5’s toughest division, they’d instantly enter the College Football Playoff discussion, which would have the ancillary benefit of setting up Jackson to play more meaningful games on national television over the rest of the season. Putting up gaudy numbers is a must for Heisman threats, but there’s a lower numerical bar for guys fronting squads with viable paths to a playoff bid.

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino has said he plans to put Jackson under center more often this season, but a bigger worry for him coming out of 2016 was passing accuracy. And while it’s too early to draw sweeping conclusions about Jackson’s year-to-year progression, his 64.7% completion percentage through two games is up from the 56.2% clip he posted over the course of the 2016 season. Louisville’s top three pass catchers from last season (WRs James Quick and Jamari Staples and TE Cole Hikutini) are gone, but Jackson and junior Jaylen Smith have hooked up 17 times for 300 yards so far, and with seniors Malik Williams and Reggie Bonnafon, the Cardinals can spare Jackson some of the heavy lifting on offense with a solid ground attack (in spite of lead returning back Jeremy Smith being done for the year with a foot fracture).

Jackson has put himself in position to at least make people begin considering him nabbing the Heisman again, but with only one-sixth of the regular-season schedule in the books, Jackson is in the early stages of a long, arduous climb. He could tail off starting this Saturday, or another candidate could pass Jackson the following Saturday and never look back. Until either of those things happen, or something else knocks Jackson out of the lead, the Heisman double possibility shouldn’t be discounted.

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