Heisman Watch: Breaking down one of the closest races in recent memory

This could be one of the tightest Heisman Trophy races in recent memory. The final Heisman Watch breaks down this year's top contenders.
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The closest race in Heisman Trophy history took place just six years ago. That year (2009) Alabama running back Mark Ingram earned the Crimson Tide’s first trophy by running for 1,542 yards and 15 touchdowns, helping his program claim its first SEC title since 1999. Ingram, the last running back to win the Heisman, beat out Stanford running back Toby Gerhart by a mere 28 points, still the record for slimmest voting margin. Just 159 points separated Ingram from the third-place finisher, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, and each of the top three vote-getters earned at least 203 first-place votes.

Since that year it’s been much easier to pinpoint the Heisman frontrunner heading into the ceremony. But this season’s race could resemble Ingram’s tight victory in 2009. While at least six players, including a deep crop of running backs, had a legitimate shot at reaching New York as finalists, the Heisman Trust released its list of three finalists on Monday night: Alabama running back Derrick Henry, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. Each of those players left a lasting impression on Championship Saturday.

Unlike in recent years, very little is obvious in the 2015 Heisman race. But that’s exactly what will make Saturday’s ceremony fun.

*SI.com’s Heisman Watch does not reflect the individual ballot of the author. Instead, this is how the Watchman expects the 2015 race to unfold.
** An asterisk (*) denotes a finalist.

1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson* 

2015 stats: 287-413 passing (69.5 percent), 3,512 yards, 30 TDs, 11 INTs; 163 carries, 887 yards, 11 TDs (13 games)

The case for: Watson finished fourth nationally in total offense with 4,399 yards in 2015, including setting an ACC Championship Game record with 420 yards of offense in Clemson’s 45-37 win over North Carolina on Saturday. Watson moved to second on Clemson’s single-season list for total offense, trailing a mark set by Tajh Boyd in 2012 (4,410) by just 11 yards. The sophomore completed nearly 70% of his passes in helping the Tigers remain unbeaten and clinch the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff.

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The case against: Watson has thrown 11 interceptions this season, which would be the most of any Heisman-winning quarterback since Florida State’s Chris Weinke threw 11 picks in 2000.

Final verdict: Many forget Watson is just a true sophomore, one that suffered a torn ACL in 2014. That should make the quarterback’s season that much more remarkable. Plus, Watson was at his best against North Carolina in the ACC title game, Clemson’s biggest stage of the season. That’s what Heisman winners do. Add in the Tigers’ ascension to the No. 1 spot in the playoff, and Watson stands the best chance of taking home the trophy.

2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford*

2015 stats: 319 carries, 1,847 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, 8 TDs; 41 catches, 540 yards, 4 TDs; 36 kick returns, 1,042 yards, 1 TD; 2-3 passing, 2 TDs (13 games)

The case for: No player in college football is as versatile as McCaffrey. By setting a Stanford record with 461 all-purpose yards in a win over USC in the Pac-12 title game, McCaffrey finished as the FBS leader in all-purpose yards (3,496). That number broke Barry Sanders' single-season record of 3,250 yards set in 1988, a mark that was once considered unbreakable. Against the Trojans on Saturday, McCaffrey threw for, passed for and caught a touchdown. According to Stanford, McCaffrey is the only FBS player since 1996 to compile 1,500 rushing, 500 receiving and 1,000 kickoff return yards in a single season.

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The case against: McCaffrey is responsible for just 13 touchdowns this season, including only eight rushing scores as a primary running back. And while McCaffrey broke Sanders’s long-standing all-purpose record, he needed two extra games to do it. The junior also plays for a Stanford program with more losses (two) than several Heisman candidates.

Final verdict: Heisman voters love players who can do it all. If that’s the case, they need look no further than McCaffrey. The junior’s performance in the Pac-12 title game put an exclamation point on his Heisman candidacy, as did the shattering of Sanders’ epic record. But unfortunately McCaffrey won’t get to play for a national championship, and playing in the Pac-12 likely affected his exposure with voters on the East Coast. Stanford’s two losses might prevent McCaffrey from winning the Heisman.

3. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama*

2015 stats: 339 carries, 1,986 yards, 5.9 yards per carry, 23 TDs (13 games)

The case for: Henry ran for almost 2,000 yards as the primary offensive weapon for the SEC champion, finishing the season tied for the FBS lead in total touchdowns (23), which ties an SEC mark set by Tim Tebow. Henry’s 1,986 yards also broke Herschel Walker's single-season SEC record of 1,891 yards set during the 1981 season, and the Crimson Tide rusher did it on 46 fewer carries (339 vs. 385). Henry was a workhorse in Alabama’s final two games against Auburn and Florida, carrying the ball a whopping 90 times for 460 yards.

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The case against: At 5.9 yards per carry, Henry hasn’t been as efficient as other stellar backs like Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (7.86), LSU’s Leonard Fournette (6.42) or Oregon’s Royce Freeman (6.64). Henry has also carried the ball 339 times, more than any other FBS player.

Final verdict: The importance of Henry in Alabama’s offense is a huge boost to his Heisman candidacy. The Tide routinely utilize the junior in wearing down opposing defenses. As Alabama nursed a fourth-quarter lead against Auburn, coach Nick Saban ran Henry 10 times for 56 yards to run 5:03 off the clock. Few backs in college football are as durable as Henry. Plus, breaking an SEC record set by another Heisman winner (Herschel Walker, 1982) doesn’t hurt.


4. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

2015 stats: 243-354 passing (68.6 percent), 3,389 yards, 35 TDs, 5 INTs; 131 carries, 420 yards, 3.2 per carry, 7 TDs (12 games)

The case for: Mayfield has been the primary catalyst behind Oklahoma’s offensive turnaround this season. As a first-year starter for the playoff-bound Sooners, Mayfield finished the year second nationally in passing efficiency (178.86 rating) and yards per attempt (9.6). Plus, the former walk-on has thrown 35 touchdowns against just five interceptions. Mayfield also came through when it counted for Oklahoma, completing 70% of his throws with three scores and just one pick in his team’s biggest game of the year, a 44-34 win at Baylor on Nov. 14.

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​​The case against: Mayfield couldn’t prevent his Oklahoma team from suffering one of the worst losses of 2015. The Sooners fell, 24-17, to rival Texas on Oct. 10, a game in which Oklahoma’s offense converted only three of its 12 third down attempts. Moreover, Mayfield didn’t play on Championship Saturday, giving him one less data point for his campaign.

Final verdict: Heisman voters are known to ride narratives (hello, Manti Te’o), which is one reason why Mayfield is an attractive candidate. He’s a former walk-on who transferred from Texas Tech and rejuvenated Oklahoma’s offense and led the program to a Big 12 title. That’s a great story. But Mayfield’s absence during Championship Saturday—as well as that glaring loss to Texas—should keep him from winning the Heisman.

5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

2015 stats: 211 carries, 1,658 yards, 7.9 yards per carry, 18 TDs; 22 catches, 218 yards, 1 TD (11 games)

The case for: Florida State’s running back recorded a program-record 1,658 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns in 2015. Cook was among the most efficient runners in the country; his 7.86 yards-per-carry average is best among FBS players with more than 200 carries and leads all Power Five running backs. According to Florida State, Cook joins Reggie Bush (2005) as the only Power Five running backs with at least 1,600 rushing yards and a 7.9 yards-per carry-average in the last 35 years.  

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The case against: Cook is perhaps the only legitimate Heisman candidate to have missed a full game with injury (a 45-21 win vs. Syracuse on Oct. 31). And because Florida State didn’t play for the ACC title, Cook played in just 11 games this season, the fewest of the most serious Heisman candidates. Plus, Cook largely disappeared in one of the ‘Noles’ two losses this season, managing just 82 yards (4.8 per carry) in a 22-16 setback against Georgia Tech on Oct. 24.

Final verdict: Cook’s explosiveness sets him apart from other backs like Henry and McCaffrey. Without a doubt, he is one of the top running backs in the sport. But a player can’t win an award if he isn’t on the field, and playing two full games fewer than other Heisman candidates is something many voters won’t overlook.