With three Saturdays left before the Heisman Trophy voting deadline, the race for college football’s top award feels … well, like an actual race.
In recent years, one player had emerged as a de-facto frontrunner by mid-November. Marcus Mariota (2014), Jameis Winston (2013) and Johnny Manziel (2012) all had built strong cases by this point in the season. We’d have to look back to 2011 to find a Heisman battle that truly felt fluid through the season’s final month. That year, Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Stanford’s Andrew Luck remained viable threats to Baylor’s Robert Griffin III until the 11th hour. In the end, Griffin edged out Luck to win the Heisman by a slim margin of 280 points.
This season LSU’s Leonard Fournette had emerged as the favorite, but two subpar performances from the sophomore over the last two weeks has opened the race back up. At this juncture the Watchman could make a case for at least a half-dozen players as finalists. The notion isn’t far-fetched; in 2013 six players made it to New York. That’s why the final weeks of the season could make for the most entertaining Heisman finish in several years.
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Last week: 34-47 passing, 360 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT; 14 carries, 101 yards, 1 TD vs. Syracuse
Next week: Nov. 21 vs. Wake Forest
Watson put up arguably his best game of the season against Syracuse, accounting for a career-high 461 yards of total offense. He hit receiver Charone Peake with a 64-yard bomb on Clemson’s first play from scrimmage, a pass that set up a Wayne Gallman touchdown run on the next play. The quarterback posted his second straight week with at least 100 rushing yards and set a new career-high with 34 completions, besting his 28 completions set last week against Florida State.
Watson’s performance helped push Clemson to 10-0 for just the third time in school history. He’s currently the ACC’s most accurate passer (70.1%) and its leader in total offense (319.1 yards) per game. He is second to North Carolina’s Marquise Williams in passing efficiency, but Watson averages seven more attempts per game. Right now the Tigers are the team to beat in college football, and as long as that’s the case, Watson should remain the player to beat in the Heisman race.
2. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Last week: 22 carries, 204 yards, 2 TDs vs. Mississippi State
Next week: Nov. 21 vs. Charleston Southern
Henry followed his superb performance against LSU in Week 10 with another Heisman-caliber outing against Mississippi State. The junior rushed for 204 yards on 22 carries, averaging 9.3 yards per carry. Henry broke the game open with a 74-yard run for a touchdown in the first quarter to make it 21-3 Alabama. With the game well in hand, Henry tacked on another score in the fourth quarter, this one from 65 yards out.
Henry became the first player in Alabama history to rush for 200 yards three times in a single season. That’s quite a feat when considering the talent that’s come through Tuscaloosa. Plus, the last running back to win the Heisman, Mark Ingram in 2009, hailed from the Crimson Tide, and not even Ingram was as prolific.
But Henry also has a chance to end the season in historic fashion. If he continues his current pace of 145.8 yards and 1.9 touchdowns per game, he’ll finish with 1,750 yards and 23 touchdowns, both Alabama records. Henry could solidify a spot in New York if he runs all over Auburn in the Iron Bowl and then follows with a stellar performance against Florida in the SEC title game.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, RB Ohio State
Last week: 27 carries, 181 yards, 2 TDs vs. Illinois
Next week: vs. Michigan State
While J.T. Barrett struggled in his return as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, Elliott kept the Buckeyes in control against Illinois. Elliott’s 181 yards were his most since a 274-yard outing against Indiana on Oct. 3, and he averaged a whopping 6.7 yards per carry. He now ranks third nationally and first among Big Ten players in rushing yards (1,425) and is tied for sixth in the country with 16 rushing touchdowns.
That’s how Heisman voters should remember Elliott if Ohio State reaches the playoff. He’s kept this offense afloat while it bounced back and forth between Barrett and Cardale Jones at quarterback. Elliott has been incredibly consistent, as well, running for at least 101 yards in all 10 of Ohio State’s matchups. He’s on pace to surpass last season’s 1,878 yards, and he’ll enjoy big stages over the next two weeks against Michigan and Michigan State.
4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Last week: 22 carries, 138 yards, 2 TDs vs. NC State
Next week: vs. Chattanooga
The Heisman Watchman is usually critical of players who miss games, but Cook has been too electric to overlook. An injured Cook sat out the Seminoles’ 45-21 win over Syracuse on Oct. 31, yet he remains among the nation’s top tier running backs, in terms of production. Cook leads the ACC in rushing yards (1,369), yards per carry (8.05) and rushing touchdowns (14), all in just nine games.
After running for 138 yards and two scores in a win over NC State on Saturday, a reporter asked the sophomore if he should win the Heisman. Cook said yes. “I just feel like I’m one of the great running backs in collegiate football,” he said. It’s hard to argue with Cook’s assessment, but the question is how voters will gauge his candidacy against players like Henry or Watson who headline College Football Playoff contenders. Still, Cook has a huge opportunity in two weeks when Florida State travels to Florida. If he runs all over the Gators, more voters will take notice.
5. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Last week: 24-34 passing, 270 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT; 15 carries, 76 yards, 1 TD
Next week: vs. TCU
Who expected a Big 12 quarterback to sit in this spot in mid-November if that player didn’t play for Baylor or TCU? That’s where we are in the Big 12 race, with Mayfield hanging his hat on perhaps the most impressive win in the conference this year.
On Saturday Mayfield lit up an undefeated Baylor squad, snapping the home team’s 20-game win streak in Waco. He recorded 346 yards of offense and four total touchdowns against the Bears. The performance marked Mayfield’s fifth game of the year with at least three passing scores and one rushing score. In all, Mayfield has accounted for at least four touchdowns in six games this season.
With the exception of Baylor’s Seth Russell, who is out for the year with injury, Mayfield now leads all FBS quarterbacks in efficiency rating (183.88) and yards per attempt (10) while also ranking third nationally in completion percentage (70.2). Right now Mayfield and the Sooners have just one win over a ranked team, and they still have that nagging loss to Texas on their résumé. But a back-loaded Big 12 schedule should give Mayfield plenty of chances to impress: He’ll face TCU and rival Oklahoma State in the next two weeks.
Outside looking in: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford; Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU; Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon