The unveiling of the first rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee tonight is an important guidepost in the Heisman Trophy race. With only a month of the regular season remaining, candidates are preparing to make their closing arguments. There’s not a lot of time left, but those in need of a late push to earn an invitation to New York can take solace in the tendency for November games to leave outsize impressions on the electorate. A virtuoso performance against a rival can negate the series of uninspiring showings that came before it.
On the other hand, candidates in commanding positions just need to keep everything together. Voters crave consistency and are quick to punish players for unexpected slumps, so even a minor statistical downswing at this stage could be really damaging. One can’t win the most coveted honor in college sports in November without having performed like one of the nation’s best players in September and October, but it’s clear this month represents the most important stretch of the Heisman derby.
A longtime member of the Watch’s top five was cut this week even though his team won. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett deserves credit for leading a young Buckeyes team in one of the nation’s toughest divisions to a 7–1 start, but he’s ranged from mediocre to underwhelming since a 58–0 win over Rutgers on Oct. 1. Barrett isn’t out of the running yet; no player will have an opportunity to make a bigger leap in one game than the junior when Ohio State hosts Michigan two days after Thanksgiving. For now, though, he’ll bide his time in the honorable mention section.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Just when it looked like Louisville was on the verge of suffering a loss that would cast doubt on Jackson’s primacy in the Heisman race, he tightened his grip on the award by making a game-saving play. After Virginia scored a touchdown and added a two-point conversion to take a one-point lead on the Cardinals with less than two minutes remaining in Charlottesville on Saturday, Jackson orchestrated an eight play, 75-yard scoring drive to give the Cardinals a seven-point win. He was superb throughout that series, including when he completed a five-yard pass on fourth down near midfield, but the scoring strike was a masterpiece. On first down at the Virginia 29-yard-line, Jackson lofted a pass that barely cleared the right arm of Cavaliers defensive back Juan Thornhill before being snatched in the end zone by Louisville wideout Jaylen Smith.
Jackson, who finished with 361 passing yards and four touchdowns against Virginia, has delivered so many Heisman moments this season that it’s difficult to pick one. The Syracuse hurdle and the 47-yard touchdown scamper against Florida State would have qualified. Yet the late TD toss against the Cavaliers could be the sequence that leads his highlight reel the night of the ceremony.
2. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
For the first time in a long time, Browning was under pressure in a tight game. It had been more than a month since Washington won a contest by fewer than 24 points. On Saturday, not only were the Huskies struggling to create separation against a conference opponent. They were facing one of the best teams in the Pac-12 in an inhospitable road environment from which no road team in 2016 had escaped without a loss. Utah’s physical play at the line of scrimmage was a challenge unlike any Washington had faced in league play so far. An efficient Huskies offense that had knifed through North division foes Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State with startling ease met resistance on every series. Browning looked rattled at times, and his stat line (12-of-20 passing, two touchdowns, one interception) is an apt reflection of his inability to consistently connect with receivers against sound coverage downfield.
Still, the sophomore stayed poised as the game wound to its conclusion, and even though he didn’t push Washington over the top with a breathtaking throw like Jackson, he put the Huskies in position to triumph in their most challenging game of the season to date. (A 58-yard punt return from receiver Dante Pettis in the fourth quarter sealed it.) This game won’t go down as the high point of Browning’s 2016 campaign, but presiding over a critical league victory on the road against a talented and motivated foe is no small thing.
3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
There’s an unflattering subtext to Watson’s Heisman campaign: He’s not playing nearly as well as he did last season. His passer rating has decreased more than 10 points, his completion percentage is down more than four points, he’s averaging nearly a yard fewer per attempt and he’s thrown more interceptions, 10, than any other ACC starter (Watson tossed 13 total in 2015). He remains a viable contender for this award because of what he’s done in spite of putting up those ugly statistics. Watson marshaled Clemson past a talented Auburn team with one of the nation’s top defenses at Jordan-Hare Stadium, outdueled Jackson in a primetime showdown that effectively decided the ACC Atlantic, and engineered game-winning drives in consecutive conference games against NC State and Florida State. The latter win came Saturday, when Watson connected with tight end Jordan Leggett for a 34-yard touchdown around the two-minute mark in the fourth quarter.
In the early part of coach Dabo Swinney’s tenure, critics often derided Clemson for its propensity to lose certain games against inferior competition. By contrast, one of the Tigers' defining characteristics with Watson under center has been their ability to pull out wins in close contests. If his numbers don’t improve, there won’t be much room for upward mobility in the Heisman race. Yet Watson’s penchant for coming up big with the game on the line sets him apart.
4. Jabrill Peppers, AP, Michigan
Peppers garnered some Heisman buzz in the preseason, but the drumbeat for his case as the first primarily defensive player to win the award in nearly two decades (Michigan’s Charles Woodson, 1997) didn’t morph into a Travis Barker solo until Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told media members to start paying attention in early October. Peppers has picked up more steam since then, with Saturday’s effort in the Wolverines’ nine-point win at rival Michigan State serving as the latest piece of evidence in an eight-week stretch of exceptional three-way play. He returned a kick and a punt, recorded a reception, scored a rushing touchdown on a direct snap, logged seven total tackles (including two for loss), made two critical fourth-down stops and ran back Michigan State’s last-gasp two-point conversion for two points the other way. Peppers lined up at nine different positions, according to ESPN’s charting.
Supporting Peppers as a Heisman candidate entails a disregard of the statistical compilation upon which most candidates build their campaigns. He’s not going to post gaudy numbers every week. What Peppers will do, however, is affect the game in so many different ways, from so many different spots on the field, that coaches cannot devise an effective way to stop him. The absence of familiar quantitative markers (passer rating, rushing touchdowns, etc.) should not detract from Peppers’s status as one of the nation’s best players.
5. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
The lack of attention Mayfield is drawing at this stage of the season is puzzling. No Power 5 quarterback is putting together a better season with so little fanfare. Mayfield leads the nation in passer rating and yards per attempt, he ranks fifth in completion percentage and he’s piloted Oklahoma to the No. 2 spot in Football Outsiders’ offensive S&P+ rankings. Plus, although the Sooners were dismissed as an overhyped pretender after nonconference losses to Ohio State and Houston, Mayfield has helped them rattle off five consecutive wins and reassert their status as the Big 12’s best hope for a playoff berth. But maybe the weirdest part about the dearth of Mayfield hype is his track record: Everyone knew Mayfield was great before the start of the season, after he finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 2015.
Oklahoma hasn’t beaten anyone of note in 2016, and Saturday’s 56–3 pasting of Kansas certainly won’t convince anyone to hop on the Mayfield bandwagon. It’s understandable that no one game has distinguished him among a collection of great quarterbacks across the country. But that should change starting in the middle of November, when the Sooners will meet No. 13 Baylor, No. 14 West Virginia and No. 22 Oklahoma State in a three-week stretch that will decide the Big 12 title winner.
Five others on the radar: Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State; J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State; Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama; Zach Terrell, QB, Western Michigan; Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State