Overreaction is the foremost peril when tracking the Heisman Trophy race. Certain games, sequences within them and individual plays can have an outsize impact on one’s perception of a candidate’s standing. When Lamar Jackson ascended the Heisman totem pole over the first month of the season, for example, the distance he placed between him and his competitors seemed so vast that it was difficult to pay much attention to anyone else. Deshaun Watson and Dalvin Cook, two players who entered the season with better odds to win the award than Jackson, were cast aside amid shaky starts in favor of the flavor of the month.
Louisville’s super sophomore has kept his foot on the gas pedal, and it would require a precipitous dip in form and probably a loss to go with it for him to cede the top spot in the near future. Yet the two players who ply their trade in the same league as Jackson—Clemson's Watson and Florida State's Cook—are showing that we probably dismissed them too quickly. While Jackson attracted copious national media coverage and pushed the Cardinals up the polls, Watson and Cook started to do the sorts of things that made them so fun to watch in 2015. For both players, weeks of puzzlingly subpar production has given way to a positive trend line pointing towards New York. It’s too early to say whether Watson, Cook or both will receive an invitation, but their chances look better by the week.
Losses by three teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 Poll produced some turnover in the Watch’s rankings. Most notably, two players in last week’s top five fell out, and three quarterbacks who were honorable mentions lost their spots.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
A bye week gave Jackson the opportunity to relax and hit the reset button after a four-week stretch that saw him emerge as one of the biggest stories in the sport. Jackson has built such a big lead in the race at this point that he belongs in his own category. It’s going to require a drastic downturn in performance for him to relinquish the top spot, and that seems unlikely to occur in the near future given only one of the defenses he’ll face over the next three weeks ranks in the top 30 nationally in Football Outsiders’ S&P + metric. Jackson, by the way, is just over a week removed from lighting up the No. 2 unit in that category (Clemson) in a six-point road loss.
Still, all things considered, this wasn’t a great week for Jackson’s Heisman candidacy or for Louisville. Houston’s loss to Navy depresses the value a Cardinals win over the Cougars in November would add to their College Football Playoff résumé. The result could be that Louisville is less a central pillar than a peripheral figure in the CFP conversation as the season progresses. That would make it more difficult for Jackson to solidify his candidacy in big games with massive audiences. It's not a major concern right now, though; with his scorching stretch over the first month still fresh in everyone’s minds, Jackson is in really good shape.
2. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Saturday’s 21-point win over Indiana was Barrett’s worst outing as a passer this season. The junior completed less than half of his throws, averaged only 4.4 yards per attempt and registered a quarterback rating below 100 for the first time since September 2015. But Barrett made up for Ohio State’s inability to get things going through the air by turning in one of the most productive outings as a rusher in his career to date. His 137 yards on 26 carries led the Buckeyes in a game in which top tailback Mike Weber failed to crack the 100-yard barrier for only the second time in 2016.
For Barrett, the win over the Hoosiers amounted to a statement of adaptability: If the passing game isn’t humming, the running game will work just fine. That was the case, at least, against Indiana, a squad that, to its credit, has improved markedly on defense. Ohio State will have a harder time using a similar formula to win Saturday night at Wisconsin. To unhinge the Badgers’ D, which ranks sixth nationally in S&P+ and is coming off a bye after holding Michigan to only 14 points in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes are probably better off with Barrett using the other part of his dual-threat skill set (throwing) as his primary means of offense generation.
3. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
If a three-touchdown clinic in the Huskies’ win over Stanford on Sept. 30 was Browning’s coming out party, his effort in Saturday’s 70–21 win over Oregon was a confirmation of the obvious. Browning is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and deserving of every ounce of praise he attracted this summer as the conductor of college football’s most packed hype train. The Ducks haven’t been able to stop anyone this season, but Browning was so on-point that Oregon fans were flooding the exits of Autzen Stadium by halftime. He finished with 204 yards on 22-of-28 passing with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. Browning also tacked on two rushing scores. That’s the sort of line you’d expect a seasoned Pac-12 passer to put up against an FCS foe in September. Browning did it in a hostile road environment against a bitter rival during his squad’s most rigorous stretch of the conference slate.
The victory over the Ducks, coupled with the Cardinal’s loss to Washington State, also shored up Washington’s case as the conference’s best bet to make the playoff. The Huskies’ quest to earn a spot in the top four will infuse Browning’s bid with the narrative juice he needs to remain at the forefront of college football’s collective consciousness even if none of his remaining games stand out as headliners (with the possible exception of the season finale against the rival Cougars).
4. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
A win over Boston College on a Friday night in early October isn’t going to raise eyebrows in the playoff selection committee war room. The Tigers did what a national championship contender should do to a program that has not won a conference game since 2014. Yet there was something reassuring about the nature of Clemson’s win, and Watson’s role in it. After overcoming tests of varying severity from the likes of Auburn, Georgia Tech and Louisville, the Tigers barely broke a sweat in notching by far their greatest margin of victory (56–10) against an FBS opponent this season. And Watson recorded his best passing numbers yet as a junior (270 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), burying the nation’s ninth-ranked S&P+ defense under a barrage of well-placed throws to a clutch of talented receivers.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Watson’s night is that it provides more evidence that he’s plugged the holes that were sinking his Heisman ship in the first month of the season. Over his last two games, Watson has posted a 191.22 quarterback rating and averaged 10.3 yards per passing attempt, compared to 130.25 and 6.6, respectively, during four contests in September. Two games is not a large body of evidence, but there’s no doubt Watson is playing better now than he was a few weeks ago.
5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
When coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters after the Seminoles' blowout loss at Louisville that nothing was wrong with Cook, we probably should have believed him. Instead, Cook’s Heisman stock plummeted faster than the value of the pound in the aftermath of Brexit. Charges that Florida State was overrated, which precipitated the Seminoles’ nosedive in various polls and rankings, didn’t help Cook's case. But it took only a week for the junior to make clear that his status as one of the nation’s top running backs is not in dispute. A week after the loss to the Cardinals, he posted a career-high 267 rushing yards on 9.5 yards per carry. Two weeks after that, on Saturday night, he ran all over No. 10 Miami to push Florida State to a one-point win in a rivalry game in primetime. Cook now leads all Power 5 players in all-purpose yards per game.
It may prove impossible for Cook to climb out of the early hole he dug himself. Jackson already one-upped him in a head-to-head matchup, and Cook would have to leapfrog some other guys just to get within shouting distance of the Cardinals’ signal caller. That said, Cook could get a significant bump in two weeks. Clemson visits Tallahassee for what had been touted this summer as a “game of the year” of sorts. The matchup is no longer as intriguing as its preseason billing suggested, but Cook can use it as a platform to show what he can do against an elite defense.
Five others on the radar: Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama; Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma; Greg Ward, QB, Houston; Jabrill Peppers, AP, Michigan; Zach Terrell, QB, Western Michigan