At this point in last season’s Heisman race, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota still maintained the top spot in our Heisman Watch rankings. Florida State’s Jameis Winston was coming off his biggest win after throttling Clemson on the road. Names like Bryce Petty and Aaron Murray, both of whom failed to reach New York, still cracked the top 10.
Last year’s rankings have nothing to do with this year. But they do illustrate how the Heisman race can drastically change from the middle of a season to the end. Games in late October and November mean much more than September openers. Heisman contenders can’t afford to falter late in a season.
So while Dak Prescott may maintain his lead in the Heisman race for now, he’s still got a lot of work to do to keep it -- and a full field of candidates ready to leapfrog him.
Week 8 Heisman Watch
1. Dak Prescott, QB Mississippi State
2. Marcus Mariota, QB Oregon
3. Everett Golson, QB Notre Dame
4. Melvin Gordon, RB Wisconsin
5. Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska
6. Nick Marshall, QB Auburn
7. Bryce Petty, QB Baylor
8. Brett Hundley, QB UCLA
9. Cody Kessler, QB USC
10. Kevin White, WR West Virginia
Dak Prescott, QB Mississippi State
Marcus Mariota, QB Oregon
Everett Golson, QB Notre Dame
Melvin Gordon, RB Wisconsin
Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska
With 90 seconds remaining in Saturday night's showdown with Florida State, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson faced a fourth-and-18 at his team’s own 43-yard line. Golson scrambled right and hit wideout Corey Robinson near the sideline for a 20-yard gain, a pass that kept Notre Dame’s final drive alive.
Much will be made of the penalty that negated the Irish’s game-winning touchdown pass eight plays later. That flag -- and Golson’s interception on the replayed fourth down -- helped Florida State escape with the victory. But Notre Dame never would have gotten its chance at fourth-and-goal if Golson didn’t convert that fourth-and-18. That play was a big reason why Golson cemented his status as a legit Heisman contender, even with a loss.
The senior completed 31-of-52 passes for 346 total yards, three touchdowns and two picks. He did it against a smothering Florida State defense on its home field, which also happened to be Saturday’s biggest college football stage. While Golson certainly made key mistakes -- like his game-ending interception -- it’s difficult to blame the quarterback for a deciding pass interference penalty or a last-gasp heave to the end zone. In the bigger picture, Golson played remarkably well in one of the toughest environments in the country.
True Heisman contenders excel when the stakes are high, so a loss to Florida State shouldn’t be completely omitted from Golson’s resume. But voters should also put Saturday’s performance in perspective if Notre Dame wins out. An 11-1 Irish squad at season’s end with a single loss on the road to Florida State -- now a near lock for a playoff berth -- should look impressive to the selection committee. In that scenario, Golson’s name will linger in the Heisman conversation if his current production continues.
I’ll offer one disclaimer regarding Golson, however: He shouldn’t benefit from any “redemption” narrative in the Heisman race. Golson was suspended for the 2013 season due to his own academic misconduct, not adversity beyond his control. It’s his own fault he missed an entire season. His mistake shouldn’t hold him back in the current Heisman race, as it occurred last season, but save “redemption” talk for true adversity.
As for Winston? Florida State’s quarterback was also dominant (23-of-31 passing, 271 yards, two scores), especially in the second half, but I don’t think Heisman voters will forget Winston’s suspension for the Clemson game. Like Golson’s year-long suspension in 2013, Winston’s absence against the Tigers was due to his own poor decision making. The Seminoles’ star isn’t a serious Heisman contender as long as voters are allowed to interpret the word “integrity” in the award’s mission statement however they want.
Cody Kessler, QB USC
J.T. Barrett, QBOhio State
Kevin White, WR West Virginia
Kessler wasn’t focused on setting any records against Colorado on Saturday. “Someone made a joke about it on the sideline that I only needed one or two more [touchdowns],” Kessler said after the game. “But I cut him off before he could say anything.”
Perhaps that concentration helped Kessler put on a career performance against the Buffaloes. The Trojans’ quarterback set a school record with seven passing touchdowns in a 56-28 win. That broke the previous mark held by Matt Barkley since 2011, also set against Colorado.
Kessler became the first Pac-12 quarterback to throw seven scoring passes in the first three quarters of a game, tossing his seventh scored with 6:30 remaining in the quarter. He delivered 100-yard receiving days to receivers Nelson Agholor (128 yards) and Juju Smith (104). The quarterback also didn’t throw an interception and through seven games has thrown only one pick.
Kessler’s name won’t fly up many Heisman lists, and he remains a relative longshot to claim the trophy. But how Kessler and the Trojans end the season could ultimately determine the quarterback’s chance at reaching New York. USC visits UCLA on Nov. 22 before welcoming Notre Dame to the Coliseum in its regular-season finale. Two straight wins over power programs might just give Kessler the clout to sneak into the Heisman picture. But he faces an uphill battle in the Far West voting region as long as Marcus Mariota remains a viable threat at Oregon.
Bryce Petty, QB Baylor
Has anyone had a more up-and-down Heisman campaign than Petty? The Baylor quarterback looked sluggish in a win over Texas on Oct. 4. He redeemed himself with fourth-quarter heroics in a shootout victory over TCU last week. But on Saturday Petty’s roller coaster Heisman campaign took another dip against West Virginia.
The Mountaineers pressured the quarterback all day in Morgantown, W. Va., sacking Petty four times and holding the Bears to only one touchdown in the second half. He completed just 16-of-36 passes -- 44.4 percent -- while both of his touchdowns came before halftime. Even though West Virginia turned the ball over three times, Petty and Baylor couldn’t take advantage of the Mountaineers’ miscues and converted only three of their 16 third downs.
The Bears’ normally prolific attack managed just 318 yards of offense (4.0 yards per play). Meanwhile, West Virginia snagged its first win over a top-five team since beating fifth-ranked Oklahoma in 2008 Fiesta Bowl. At this point the Big 12 might be on the outside looking in when it comes to the College Football Playoff. That’s bad news for Petty, whose Heisman shot hinges on eye-popping stats and his leadership of a contending team.
Baylor still has high-profile matchups with Oklahoma and Kansas State on its schedule. Perhaps Petty can make voters forget about his performance in Morgantown by lighting up the Big 12 the rest of the way. It wouldn’t be the first time he bounced back after a bad performance.
Heisman video of the week
West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White, the nation’s leading pass-catcher, hauled in a one-handed grab in the Mountaineers upset of No. 4 Baylor:
Dak Prescott, QB Mississippi State
No. 1 Mississippi State at Kentucky
The last time Prescott faced an SEC team on the road, his Bulldogs upended LSU in Death Valley. Kentucky is a much improved team, but it’s hard to see Mississippi State struggling against the Wildcats. Prescott can build some separation from Marcus Mariota with a big day in Lexington.
J.T. Barrett, QB Ohio State
No. 13 Ohio State at Penn State
No one is talking about the Buckeyes’ quarterback, who is quietly having a terrific year. The issue is that Barrett hasn’t played a team currently ranked in the top 25. That won’t change this week, but a road win against 4-2 Penn State could be a start.
Marcus Mariota, QB Oregon
No. 6 Oregon at Cal
Mariota will have the stage to himself again Friday night. But Oregon fell to Arizona the last time it played on a non-Saturday. This time the Ducks travel to Cal, which gave UCLA a run for its money on Saturday.