Before last week’s game against Houston, Lamar Jackson seemed to have the Heisman Trophy all but locked up. He had delivered a collection of signature moments and compiled a virtually unimpeachable statistical profile while quarterbacking a team in contention for a College Football Playoff berth. But when Jackson left TDECU Stadium on Thursday night after a 36–10 loss, the Cardinals had been ejected from the playoff picture and his lead in the Heisman race no longer felt insurmountable.
Predictably, the result spurred questions over whether Jackson had actually surrendered his grip on the No. 1 spot. Perhaps that would have been the case were there a really compelling candidate to challenge the Louisville quarterback. Yet as we turn to Week 13, the threat posed by the field trying to usurp Jackson seems minor. For the better part of this season, he has been competing mostly against himself, trying to maintain the level he set when he lit nonconference defenses ablaze in September. Several possible challengers have stepped forward at various points, only to retreat into the background with a subpar effort a week later.
There’s no obvious player ready to vault over Jackson should he stumble in his final regular-season game against Kentucky, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Last week’s meeting with the Cougars was a precarious proposition for Jackson and Louisville. If he dominated Houston, the dual-threat dynamo wouldn’t garner a lot of praise for piling up statistics against an American Athletic Conference defense. Nor would a win over Houston have meaningfully improved the Cardinals’ place in the playoff pecking order: They were probably going to have a hard time getting in without a Clemson loss to Wake Forest on Saturday (the Tigers won). Of course, Louisville would have preferred to at least have a spot at the big kids’ table on selection Sunday, even if it didn’t result in a spot in the final four. And Jackson would have gladly taken another road win, despite the unlikelihood it would have changed voters’ convictions about him at this late stage.
Instead, the Cardinals will spend the off-season ruing what could have been (and hoping they can still make the Orange Bowl), and Jackson isn’t a lock to take home college sports’ most coveted individual award. He remains in great shape to win it, but to be safe, Jackson’s best bet is to treat the finale against Kentucky like the last rap battle in 8 Mile: Perform so well that the all he’ll need to do is drop the mic and walk away.
2. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
It is not unreasonable to argue that Mayfield is not only unworthy of a spot in the top five of a Heisman ranking, but also that he’s not even the most qualified candidate on his own team. The prime beneficiary of Mayfield’s prolific passing, wide receiver Dede Westbrook, may have a better case. The senior has recorded 1,354 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns at 19.3 yards per catch on 91 targets, according to SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, and no player at his position has been more productive since the start of conference play. Plus, Westbrook’s best effort came in one of Oklahoma’s most high-profile games: He registered 232 yards and three touchdowns on 10 receptions in a five-point win over Texas in the Red River Shootout.
Why, then, is Mayfield listed here instead of Westbrook? It was not an easy decision, but the former has displayed more consistency over the course of the season, and his throwing ability is one of the biggest reasons Westbrook has been so successful. Also, Mayfield is on track to submit one of the best campaigns from a quarterback in recent memory. He leads the nation in yards per attempt and completion percentage, and his passer rating is better than the record set by Russell Wilson at Wisconsin five years ago.
3. Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
We didn’t learn anything new about Hurts week. After a slow start out of the gates, he tossed three touchdown passes to ensure Alabama wouldn’t suffer an unimaginable loss to an FCS opponent (Chattanooga) a week before the Iron Bowl.
Now that he’s enjoyed the SEC's de facto late-November bye week, however, it’s time for Hurts to make his move. While the Crimson Tide will probably make the playoff even if they lose one of their next two games (Auburn and SEC East champion Florida), Hurts needs to shine to secure an invitation to New York. That won’t be easy, considering both the Tigers (10th) and the Gators (fifth) rank in the top 10 nationally of Football Outsiders defensive S&P + statistic. Then again, Hurts has faced formidable defenses all season and rarely missed a step.
Ironically, Alabama’s undisputed status as the best team in the country has arguably put Hurts in a worse position to make a late charge at the Heisman. While he may not have even been in consideration for the award had the Crimson Tide slipped up at some point in 2016, their routine obliteration of conference opponents has deprived Hurts’ final two regular-season games of major import. That’s not to say that Hurts can’t make up ground over the next two weeks. But whereas candidates like Washington’s Jake Browning and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett will play in massive matchups against conference rivals with playoff berths on the line, Hurts will lead Alabama into two games with relatively low stakes.
4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
It’s been a while, but McCaffrey is back where most observers thought he would be at this point of the season. A 38-point defeat to Washington in late September banished McCaffrey to the Heisman Upside Down, and it took him a few weeks to find the portal back to the national spotlight. The Stanford star amassed “only” 176 yards on 41 carries in three games from Sept. 30 to Oct. 22, losses to the Huskies, Washington State and Colorado. Since that ugly stretch, however, McCaffrey has restored a sense of normalcy: The searing runs down the sideline, the ankle-breaking moves that leave defenders grasping at air, the perceptive cuts and bursts along the line of scrimmage.
On Saturday, the incandescent junior served up a masterpiece, rushing for 284 yards on 9.2 yards per carry to power the Cardinal past Cal in the Big Game. This is the part where you point out that the Golden Bears can’t stop anyone. That’s worth mentioning, but it also elides everything McCaffrey accomplished before the Washington loss and over the three games before the Cal win (503 total rushing yards on 7.0 yards per carry). McCaffrey may not return to New York for the second straight year, but his late-season surge reminded everyone why he opened 2016 near or at the top of most Heisman lists.
5. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
It is difficult to overstate the damage Washington’s defeat to USC caused Browning’s Heisman campaign. Not only did Browning lose a game against a conference opponent that potentially could cost the Huskies a playoff spot, but he was also decidedly outplayed by Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold on his home turf. Browning couldn’t hope to completely wipe away that blotch from his résumé, but a return to the pinpoint passing that propelled him to the top of the Heisman totem pole earlier this season would have helped.
He didn’t meet that lofty standard Saturday against Arizona State. Browning tossed a pair of interceptions and posted his lowest quarterback rating (131.8) of the season other than the USC game (105.7). The showing against the Sun Devils represented progress for Browning a week after the Trojans completely shut him down, but it’s important to note that it came against the No. 123 S&P pass defense in the country.
The good news for Browning is that no other player on this list has better opportunities to ascend the Heisman ladder over the next two weeks. First comes a meeting with Washington State in the Apple Cup for the Pac-12 North title. Win there, and Browning would face either a Colorado team with a stingy pass defense or the same USC squad that clobbered Washington in Seattle.
Five others on the radar: J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State; Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson; D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas; Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State; Sam Darnold, QB, USC