Heisman Watch: Running backs strengthen cases as huge week looms

Who leads the Heisman Trophy race after Week 12?
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Week 12 didn’t shake the foundation of the Heisman Trophy race. Week 13, however, could make things very interesting.

This past Saturday several top-tier Heisman contenders faced overmatched opponents. Charleston Southern, Chattanooga and Wake Forest don’t provide the kind of challenge that defines a Heisman campaign. But a couple of candidates still managed to make moves in our Heisman Watch, including two Pac-12 running backs in Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Oregon’s Royce Freeman. In fact, our new Heisman Watch now features four running backs and only one quarterback.

We’ll learn a lot more about these candidates next week. That’s when Rivalry Week pits most of these players against emotionally charged opponents. It’s also the final chance for some Heisman contenders to impress voters.

1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

Last week: 24-35 passing, 343 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs; 10 carries, 44 yards, 1 TD in a 33-13 win over Wake Forest
Next week: Nov. 28 at South Carolina

Watson wasted no time making an impact in Clemson’s 33-13 win over Wake Forest. He threw two touchdown passes and ran in another score to help the Tigers build a 20-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. In the end, Watson accounted for 387 yards of offense and four touchdowns, his fifth outing with at least 350 total yards in the last six games.

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Watson remains the ACC leader in total offense (326 yards per game) and passing efficiency. Many seem to forget Watson leads the No. 1 team in the country as a true sophomore, one that tore his ACL a year ago. Now history bodes well for Watson’s program: Clemson is 11-0 for just the third time in school history, and both previous teams (1948 and 1981) finished unbeaten, with the ’81 squad winning the national title. Now let’s see if Watson can continue his surge on the road against rival South Carolina next Saturday.

2. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama

Last week: 9 carries, 68 yards, 2 TDs in a 56-6 win over Charleston Southern
Next week: Nov. 28 at Auburn

Alabama faced a glorified bye week against Charleston Southern at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and the Crimson Tide led their FCS foe 49-0 at halftime. By that point Derrick Henry had rushed nine times for 68 yards, including a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter. Henry then sat out the second half while Alabama’s second team finished off a 56-6 victory.

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Against Charleston Southern Henry tied the program’s single-season mark for rushing touchdowns (21), a record set by former running back Trent Richardson in 2011. Henry has now amassed 1,526 rushing yards on the season, becoming just the third Tide back to rush for 1,500 yards alongside Richardson and Mark Ingram (2009). Of course, Ingram went on to win the Heisman, while Richardson finished third in 2011. Now Henry could further solidify his spot in the Heisman race with a massive performance in the Iron Bowl next week.

3. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

Last week: 29 carries, 192 yards; one catch, 49 yards, 1 TD; three kick returns, 148 yards, 1 TD in a 35-22 win over Cal
Next week: Nov. 28 vs. No. 4 Notre Dame

Once again, McCaffrey did a little bit of everything in helping Stanford clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game. The sophomore set a school record with 389 all-purpose yards as the Cardinal sunk Cal 35-22. McCaffrey ran for 192 yards, hauled in a 49-yard touchdown catch and ran back one of his three kickoff returns for another 98-yard score. It was his fourth 300-yard all-purpose game of the season.

After the win Stanford coach David Shaw did a little politicking for his prized sophomore. “Has anybody seen a running back—I’ll say this, a football player—better than Christian McCaffrey this year?” Shaw said. “Tell me. Show him to me. I haven't seen anybody.”

McCaffrey remains the most productive offensive weapon on a Stanford team that will now play for the Pac-12 title. But the running back’s versatility is what sets him apart from other Heisman contenders. McCaffrey currently ranks first nationally in all-purpose yards per game (255.2), almost 50 more yards than that of the second-place player, Tyler Ervin of San Jose State. The next two weeks will be a chance for McCaffrey to make his final Heisman case: The Cardinal host Notre Dame before playing for the conference championship.

4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

Last week: 15 carries, 106 yards, 2 TDs in a 52-13 win over Chattanooga
Next week: at No. 10 Florida

Cook notched his seventh 100-yard game of the year against Chattanooga, adding to his program-record 1,475 rushing yards this season. The sophomore also chipped in two rushing touchdowns to his season total of 16, tied for the second-most in school history.

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Cook might not get a ton of Heisman love after Florida State lost its shot at playing for the ACC title. Plus, a banged-up Cook sat out the Seminoles’ win over Syracuse on Oct. 31, and players who miss games are historically limited in the Heisman race. But Cook remains the ACC’s leader in rushing yards (147.5 per game) and rushing touchdowns (16) while ranking fifth nationally in yards-per-carry (7.97). He’s without a doubt one of the best runners in the country, and he can earn more Heisman voters’ attention next week when the ‘Noles travel to play a top-10 Florida team.

5. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

Last week: 20 carries, 147 yards; two catches for 50 yards in a 48-28 win over USC
Next week: Nov. 27 vs. Oregon State

Freeman might be one of the most underappreciated players in the country. That’s mostly because the Ducks’ shoddy 3-3 start to the year became the prevailing storyline in Eugene. But Oregon has started to look like Oregon again, and on Saturday Freeman helped his team win its fifth straight game—a 48-28 win over USC—since that lackluster start.

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With one week left in the regular season, Freeman ranks third nationally with 1,539 rushing yards. But more importantly, the sophomore has averaged 136 rushing yards per game—and 6.4 yards per carry—during Oregon’s current five-game winning stream. Freeman only has one more shot at impressing Heisman voters, and that comes next Friday against Oregon State in the Civil War. If the sophomore steamrolls the Beavers, he can make it to New York.

Outside looking in: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma; Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State; Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU