Word on the street has it that players who don’t win a lot of big games won’t finish the year with a ton of end-of-season awards. This applies to most professional sports, especially those with long seasons. In Major League Baseball, for example, Los Angeles Angels phenom Mike Trout led all American League players in Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, and stood out statistically in a number of categories, culminating in arguably the best individual performance of the year. Trout’s team, however, faded from the playoff picture early on and did not come close to qualifying for the postseason. It’s a simple concept: If you don’t lead your team to success, the MVP and other awards will go to the players who did.
The same can be said of college football, where a number of talented players are pursuing the highly acclaimed Heisman Trophy. The college football season consists of just 12 or 13 games or maybe one or two more than that, meaning there isn’t a lot of room for teams who have players competing for the trip to New York to lose games that they should win. As a result, you won’t be seeing names like Adoree’ Jackson, Mitch Trubisky and, yes, even Christian McCaffrey on many Heisman watch boards as the season winds down. As we take a look at where players stand now, only one of the top five players is on a team that has lost even a single game all year. He happens to be No. 1 on this list, and his team lost to the team that is led by No. 2.
Honorable Mentions: Donnel Pumphrey (SDSU), Greg Ward Jr. (Houston), Dalvin Cook (FSU), Jamaal Williams (BYU) and Jackson (USC) — terrific players who play on teams that have done well but will not be among the elite four playoff teams when things are said and done.
5) Jake Browning, Washington
Two years ago, beating Stanford and Oregon in a single season seemed impossible for any team in the nation, not just within the conference. Browning and the Huskies not only knocked off the recent “kings” of the Pac-12 in back-to-back weeks but have at last captured the attention they have deserved since the beginning of the year. The defense has been a wall in recent weeks, and Browning has capitalized on nearly every possession that his defense has given him. He was effective against the Cardinal and produced Lamar Jackson-like numbers with eight total touchdowns against the Ducks last weekend, boosting his stock to an all-time high (and a nation-leading) 204.9 QBR. The Huskies scored six touchdowns on six consecutive drives during the game, as new viewers of Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin began to realize that the blowout against Stanford wasn’t a joke. While he won’t get to showcase his abilities very often with the Pac-12 struggling mightily in recent weeks, the Huskies have an excellent shot at finishing the year undefeated, with Browning as their first-ever Heisman Trophy winner.
4) Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
This guy has all of the tools that Jackson possesses but has displayed them under a brighter light. A junior who dominates on all sides of the ball (primarily defense but also in special teams and occasionally on offense), Peppers has blossomed into the Wolverines’ best player and undisputed leader. He leads all of college football in punt return average, seemingly making an appearance every Saturday night on social media and SportsCenter with a remarkable athletic play. The Michigan defense has surrendered more than 14 points in a game only once all year, in large part because of Peppers’ ability to play multiple defensive positions. The leader of arguably the best team in the nation cannot go unnoticed, even if he does play primarily on the defensive side. With Michigan in prime position to snag a spot in the college football playoff, look for coach Jim Harbaugh to give Peppers’ name a push as the Heisman competition heads into the latter part of the year.
3) J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Barrett’s Ohio State career has seen him rise as the immediate “future” of the program, cede his role and fame to Cardale Jones during the latter quarter of the 2014 season and blossom under Urban Meyer’s offensive game plans throughout the first four games of this season. He makes plays with his legs (four touchdowns and 342 yards on the ground) and through the air (15 touchdowns and 981 yards), making him a dangerous threat against opposing defenses who can only take away one or the other. While he took a small step back against Indiana statistically speaking this week, the offense he leads possesses fire power at all levels, with 16 touchdowns via running and throwing the football. While you’re looking out for Barrett to lead the Buckeyes against some tough upcoming opponents, keep an eye out for junior running back Curtis Samuel, one of the most underrated playmakers in the nation, as well. It won’t be easy for Ohio State to put away teams such as Wisconsin and Michigan, but if it can, Barrett and Samuel will undoubtedly be part of the Heisman conversation.
2) Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Despite struggling throughout the first few weeks of the season, Watson has regained the confidence he held during last year’s run to the National Championship Game where he nearly became a hero for years to come. His five-touchdown performance against Lamar Jackson and then-No. 3 Louisville during week five served as a reminder of the talent that got Watson to New York as a Heisman finalist last year. After missing out on both the Heisman and a national championship, Watson has Clemson primed for revenge, potentially against the team that narrowly edged them out (Alabama). He is on pace to break his personal record of 35 passing touchdowns from his sophomore campaign but, more importantly, has kept Clemson in the same conversation as Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan despite some minor hiccups. Given his experience and top-three finish in last year’s Heisman rankings, don’t be surprised if he really starts to put up big numbers during the second half of the season.
1) Lamar Jackson, Louisville
As good as Browning, Watson and other quarterbacks have been this season, none have shined brighter than Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. Twenty-eight touchdowns in five starts says it all, but when you think about bringing a team from a No. 19 ranking to begin the year to No. 3 in a span of four weeks, that’s about as Heisman-worthy as it gets. Despite falling late to Clemson 42-36, Jackson has put himself and his team in a position to succeed. In the ACC, Jackson trails only Heisman honorable mention Dalvin Cook in total rush yards with 688, from the quarterback position. He finished last year with 12 passing touchdowns and a respectable eight interceptions but primarily relied on his legs as his main weapon. He already has 14 touchdowns throwing to go with his remarkable 2,313 combined rushing and throwing yards. More importantly, the schedule that lies in front of him is favorable for him to tack on more yards against beatable teams leading up to a Thursday night showdown with No. 13 Houston on Nov. 17. Along with Browning, he’s ahead of the rest of the field in terms of schedule difficulty by a lot. If he continues to single-handedly carry No. 7 Louisville in a record-smashing fashion, his numbers will stand out as one of the most impressive seasons in the history of college football. He’s the one to catch in the Heisman conversation, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be caught for at least another couple weeks.
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