This Saturday, the Cal football team will attempt to slow down one of college football’s hottest teams: Washington. While numerous players have stepped up to help lead Chris Petersen’s team to an 8-0 record and a well-deserved AP No. 4 ranking, a perfect start would not have been possible without the spectacular play of sophomore quarterback Jake Browning. As Browning attempts to lead the underrated Huskies to their first ever College Football Playoff appearance, he undoubtedly has a secondary goal in mind as well: the Heisman Trophy.
In 2014, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota became the first Pac-12 quarterback to win the Heisman since USC’s Carson Palmer in 2002. Mariota would go on to become the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, while Palmer continues to build upon his already successful NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals. Both Mariota and Palmer have come a long way since capturing college football’s most prized award, and they are valued leaders of two NFL franchises.
Just two years after Mariota’s Heisman victory, another quarterback out of the Pacific Northwest has the chance to stand above the rest. Browning, a native of Folsom, California, who passed for 16 touchdowns and threw 10 interceptions his freshman year, exploded onto the scene with just three interceptions and a Pac-12-leading 195.6 quarterback rating through eight games this season. Browning established himself as a solid passer with a 63.3 percent completion rate as the Huskies’ man under center in his first year, but that number has gone up in his sophomore campaign to 67.7 percent. While he doesn’t possess record-breaking yardage statistics like Cal’s Davis Webb and Washington State’s Luke Falk, his overall efficiency and ability to keep the Huskies’ offense under control has separated him from the rest.
On the year, Webb and Falk have a total of 415 and 394 pass attempts, respectively, compared to Browning’s 192. As a result, his 9.9 yards per attempt leads the conference by a full yard — efficiency at its finest. With weapons like sophomore tailback Myles Gaskin and junior receiver John Ross by his side, Browning doesn’t have to rely solely on his arm to carry his team to victory. His knowledge of the game and ability to read defenses has paid off, leading the Huskies to score at least 31 points in each of their games this season.
Aside from two mediocre — but still solid — performances against Arizona and Utah, Browning has been nearly unstoppable this season. While many watchers will primarily utilize box scores to critique Browning’s overall performance, the most important thing he has done all year is lead Washington into the same conversation as teams like Alabama, Michigan and Clemson. The Huskies began the year ranked No. 14 but weren’t expected to overtake Stanford or even USC in the Pac-12. Instead, Browning has made a name for himself and his team, not just in the state of Washington but across the entire nation. According to ESPN.com’s Heisman Watch, Browning is on track to qualify as a Heisman finalist for a trip to New York and an annual banquet where a winner will be awarded the trophy. At the moment, Browning’s biggest threats include Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, Michigan linebacker/return specialist Jabrill Peppers and, most notably, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Whether Browning is able to make it to New York and win the Heisman remains to be seen. He certainly deserves to be in the conversation as long as his impressive play continues and his team keeps on winning games. His leadership of the Washington offense as a sophomore has been phenomenal all year, and his 8-0 team still has the dream of a perfect season alive.
Just last year, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey was snubbed of the Heisman Trophy after losing out to Alabama’s Derrick Henry. Despite missing out, McCaffrey went on to lead the Cardinal to a 45-16 victory in the acclaimed Rose Bowl Game, just weeks after being deemed one of the biggest snubs in the history of the Heisman. He was also the 2015 AP Player of the Year, on his way to breaking a plethora of Stanford football single-season records.
That’s what Browning has to do: follow in the steps of McCaffrey and lead his team to a banner postseason, no matter who gets to hoist the trophy in New York next month. While Jackson may garner the highlights on SportsCenter as a result of his record-breaking start, his team has a loss on its record while Browning’s team doesn’t. And if the Huskies remain undefeated and are able to capture the Pac-12 title in early December, it would be almost criminal to keep Browning’s team out of the College Football Playoff.
What a story that would be. Browning has the opportunity to either follow in the footsteps of Mariota or McCaffrey or create his own chapter, one where he may be faced with the choice of the Heisman Trophy or a victory in the College Football Playoff.
I think we all know which one Browning would choose.
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