Week 3 felt like an important moment in the Heisman Trophy race. Michigan do-everything linebacker Jabrill Peppers made nine tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and amassed 180 return yards in a 45–28 win over Colorado. Stanford star Christian McCaffrey recorded his second consecutive game with at least 210 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in a 17-point victory against USC. Houston dual-threat ace Greg Ward Jr. guided the Cougars past what looked, at the time, like one of the tallest obstacles on their schedule by compiling nearly 400 total yards and three touchdowns in a 40–16 rout at Cincinnati. And Clemson stud Deshaun Watson, after a pair of uneven showings against Auburn and Troy to open the season, lit up South Carolina State.
Those players’ outings did wonders for their respective Heisman candidacies, but two other performances seemingly had a bigger impact on the race. They happened in the same game: Ohio State’s 45–24 win at Oklahoma. Buckeyes passer J.T. Barrett tossed four touchdowns and no interceptions while adding 74 rushing yards. Sooners signal-caller Baker Mayfield, meanwhile, connected on just 53% of his throws and lofted two interceptions. The victory affirmed Barrett’s status near the top of the Heisman ladder. Conversely, it shoved Mayfield out of the picture, a development compounded by the perception that Oklahoma, by virtue of having suffered two nonconference losses, had already been knocked out of the College Football Playoff race.
More than a month later, Mayfield and Barrett faced another turning point. This time, though, the Sooners' passer raised his stock while the Buckeyes' signal-caller watched his drop. Mayfield is the only new entrant to The Watch’s top five after Week 8, while Barrett fell two spots from last week.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Any consideration that Jackson’s meh-by-his-standards performance against Duke in Week 7 foreshadowed a decline over the second half of the season evaporated over four quarters Saturday. One week after NC State came within a field goal of upending the ACC Atlantic and playoff races by pushing Clemson in Death Valley, Jackson pummeled the Wolfpack defense like it was some FCS unit Louisville paid to show up at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. He completed 20 of his 34 pass attempts for 355 yards with three touchdowns and tallied 76 yards and another score on the ground. For Louisville, that was good enough to cinch a 41-point win over a decent conference opponent. For Jackson, it made him the program’s all-time leader in touchdowns for a single season. His 34 scores are more than all but 22 FBS teams have notched in 2016 (excluding Louisville).
Jackson’s path to New York is clear. If he keeps putting up numbers like this, he’ll probably be the favorite heading into the ceremony. The only minor concern is the lack of marquee games remaining on the Cardinals’ schedule. League tilts with Virginia, Boston College and Wake Forest don’t really move the needle, and the season finale against in-state rival Kentucky will be overshadowed by other contests of greater import. Plus, Houston’s two losses and likely removal from playoff and New Year’s Six bowl considerations scrub the sheen off the Cardinals’ matchup with the Cougars at TDECU Stadium on Nov. 17.
2. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning’s Heisman bid hasn’t been in serious danger for more than a month. After leading Washington to an overtime win at Arizona on Sept. 24, the sophomore authored emphatic victories over projected Pac-12 North contenders Stanford and Oregon with a combined scoreline of 111–38. Then, on Saturday at Husky Stadium, he made easy work of another division opponent, tossing three touchdowns and running for another in a 41–17 blowout of Oregon State. That last result flew under the radar nationally because it basically served to confirm what we already knew to be true. The Huskies are the best team in the Pac-12, and they can obliterate lowly conference foes even when their quarterback hits on only 50% of his pass attempts (his season average is 68.6%). But this Saturday's trip to Utah brings one of Washington's two most challenging remaining games. Browning’s first trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium could either help him make up ground on Jackson or create more separation between the two.
Saturday also marks the beginning of the most trying portion of the Huskies’ slate. Browning should roast Cal’s 106th-ranked S&P defense the week after the matchup with the Utes, but Washington faces an improved USC team and Washington State in the Apple Cup (the other of the two most challenging games left for the Huskies) in two of its final three contests. The meeting with Utah will serve as a good barometer for Browning heading into a pivotal stretch that will determine not only whether he remains a viable Heisman candidate but also Washington’s place in the playoff pecking order.
3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
This weekend offered Watson an opportunity to relax, hit the reset button and spend extra time preparing for one of the most consequential games of his college career. Louisville’s unexpected ascendance under Jackson stripped the Tigers’ visit to Tallahassee this weekend of the “Game of the Year” label it bore entering the season. Still, even though Florida State hasn’t quite coalesced into the playoff shoo-in many of us thought it would be, this matchup still feels like a make-or-break affair for Watson and Clemson. If Watson guides the Tigers past the Seminoles by performing at the level that had Nick Saban describing him this summer as the best college football player since Cam Newton, his place in the Heisman race will need to be reconsidered and the Tigers will have passed the most daunting test on their journey back to the national semifinals. On the other hand, a loss could be disqualifying for Watson, who won’t play in any other big-time games before the end of the regular season, even if Clemson remains in the hunt for a playoff berth.
Few expected Watson would be in such a precarious position at this point of the season. Widely considered a frontrunner for the Heisman entering 2016, the junior was thought to have the sort of proven track record and national profile that would keep him in contention even if he didn’t play to his immense potential. Like a movie franchise whose brand-name value gooses its bottom line irrespective of the product on the screen, Watson had built up enough equity with voters that he didn’t need to bring his A-game every week. Now, though, a big day against a top-15 opponent in a hostile environment is the only way for him to keep his candidacy from going off the rails.
4. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
When Barrett and the Buckeyes trounced Oklahoma by 21 points on Sept. 17, it was easy to envision the Ohio State passer finishing the season within striking distance of the Heisman winner or claiming the award himself. Barrett had placed fifth in the voting two years ago, and he began his junior campaign as a steady hand at the most important position on the field for a team that lost 16 starters this off-season. A 58–0 whipping of Rutgers the week after the win over the Sooners was window dressing for what looked like a sturdy candidacy. Yet over his last three games, Barrett has fallen further and further from the lofty perch he inhabited following that trip to Norman. He’s failed to post a quarterback rating better than 129 (his mark over the season in that statistic is 150.81) and tossed only three touchdowns against two interceptions. Barrett helped pull out wins for Ohio State in two of those contests, but the Buckeyes' thin margin for error was exposed in the fourth quarter in State College on Saturday. Penn State took advantage.
This isn’t the end of the world for Barrett or the Buckeyes. He’ll have a chance to patch up the holes on his résumé with two remaining games against top-10 opponents, including a season finale in Columbus against Michigan that figures to have major implications for the CFP. If Barrett slays the Wolverines, the loss to the Nittany Lions will be remembered as only a minor stumbling block over the course of another really successful season.
5. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
It took a while for Mayfield to recover from the aforementioned defeat at the hands of Ohio State, but he’s been awesome since that game. Mayfield has connected on no less than 70% of his throws and tossed two touchdown passes in four consecutive outings, and Pro Football Focus notes that he now leads the country in adjusted completion rate. On Saturday at Texas Tech, Mayfield registered season highs in passing yards (545) and passing touchdowns (7) while outdueling Red Raiders counterpart Patrick Mahomes. This game was an abomination for any football fan or coach with an appreciation for defense, but it also provided the backdrop for one of the most interesting quarterback battles of the season. While Mahomes outpaced Mayfield in the box score (he set an NCAA record with 819 yards of total offense), the outcome of the game, a seven-point win for Oklahoma, ultimately matters more for Mayfield’s Heisman hopes.
The Sooners are unbeaten since falling to the Buckeyes last month, and with upcoming contests against Kansas and at Iowa State, it would be a shock if they don’t remain that way into the middle of November. Then Oklahoma meets undefeated Baylor and West Virginia in consecutive weeks, a pair of tilts that should decide the Big 12 championship. Mayfield can hang in the Heisman race by pushing the Sooners past those opponents. The matchup with the Mountaineers, in particular, can help expunge any doubts about Mayfield’s body of work regarding the quality of defenses he faces on a weekly basis. If Oklahoma loses, though, it won’t make the playoff, and he’ll retreat to the periphery of the Heisman conversation.
Five others on the radar:Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama; Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State; Jabrill Peppers, AP, Michigan; Zach Terrell, QB, Western Michigan; Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State