Heisman Forecast: Who makes most of final weekend and punches ticket to ceremony?
FOX Sports South
Give this to Lamar Jackson: he's at the very least making things interesting.
The Louisville sophomore quarterback is still the clear leader in this Heisman Trophy race -- and, if we're being honest, he's the only player with a legitimate chance to win -- but back-to-back losses, and the timing of those setbacks, have given his challengers hope.
Jackson and the No. 13 Cardinals are sitting home this weekend awaiting word on their bowl fate while on the final weekend before ballots are due, No. 4 Washington's Jake Browning, No. 1 Alabama's Jalen Hurts, No. 9 Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook, and No. 3 Clemson's Deshaun Watson are all playing.
It's a stage that Jackson won't have, and it's one that has been key to Heisman pushes in recent years. In the past nine seasons, only two players have won that didn't take the field on that final weekend. While that bit of history may seem to benefit those chasing him, there's also this: those two winners were Florida's Tim Tebow (2007) and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel (2012), two of the three Power 5 players who had amassed 20 touchdowns passing and 20 rushing in the same season (the other was Auburn's Cam Newton in 2010).
In last weekend's loss to Kentucky, Jackson joined that club. Considering the lead he'd built up, and that no player is truly in position to knock him off amid setbacks vs. the Wildcats and Houston, Jackson is in line to join the club that Tebow and Manziel later joined with his own Heisman Trophy.
But that doesn't mean that the players in action can't do their part to eat into Jackson's lead by giving voters a strong closing argument.
Instead of breaking down those who will rise and fall this week, let's instead look at who can make the most of this weekend and whether they'll be in or out to earn an invite to New York.
Remember, there is no set number on the amount of finalists -- with as many as six and as few as three since they began inviting players in 1982 -- it's set on the natural break in points accumulated. No. 2 Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, No. 12 Florida State's Dalvin Cook, Texas' D'Onta Foreman, No. 18 Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and No. 5 Michigan's Jabrill Peppers could factor in -- and we'll get into which of them, if any, can make the ceremony -- but these are the players with the most to gain this weekend.
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Jake Browning, QB Washington, Soph.
After back-to-back games vs. USC and Arizona State in which he threw a combined four interceptions, Browning was back the efficient passer we came to expect against Washington State with a 72.4 percent completion rate, three TDs, zero picks and a 191.1 rating. McCaffrey has gained steam in the West voting region, but Browning is its best shot at getting to New York. With the anticipation that the Huskies QB has success against No. 8 Colorado's defense -- which is 20th vs. the pass and allowed 358 yards and three TDs to USC's Sam Darnold and 325 yards and three scores vs. the Cougars' Luke Falk -- here's thinking Browning becomes Washington's first finalist since Steve Emtman in 1991.
Jennifer BuchananUSA TODAY Sports
Jalen Hurts, QB Alabama, Fr.
In terms of the most logical Crimson Tide player to make the ceremony, Hurts makes a strong case. He's the SEC's leader in completion percentage (65.9), has four 100-yard rushing games and as a true freshman has played a major role in Alabama's unbeaten season and place as the country's unquestioned No. 1 team. But how much help can he really get in torching a No. 15 Florida defense that just gave up 387 yards vs. Florida State? The South voting region is a difficult one to crack this season as the home of Lamar Jackson and Dalvin Cook -- and where Watson will be a factor -- and as impressive as Hurts has been in Year 1, his time will come and it doesn't appear to be now.
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Baker Mayfield, QB Oklahoma, Jr.
Fourth last year when he finished with 334 points -- that was 831 points behind the third-place Watson -- Mayfield has been crucial to the Sooners rebounding from 1-3, averaging 323.5 yards per game the last eight games. Facing No. 10 Oklahoma State and its 89th-ranked pass defense this weekend in the Bedlam Game will likely lead to more gaudy stats. A return to the playoff seems like a long shot without some serious chaos, and there's the intriguing case of Foreman, the nation's leader in rushing yards (2,028) and yards per game (184.4) within the Southwest region -- not to mention Mayfield's top target, Dede Westbrook.
Mark D. SmithMark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Donnel Pumphrey, RB San Diego State, Sr.
Sitting 120 yards behind Foreman for the nation's rushing crown and getting a crack at a Wyoming defense that's giving up 199.4 yards a game on the ground (87th in FBS), it's a strong bet Pumphrey seizes that title from the Longhorns star, and if he gets 218 yards in the Mountain West title game, he'll pass Ron Dayne for the NCAA's career rushing record of 6,397. A 2,000-yard season hasn't been an automatic ticket to the ceremony, though, as seven of the 13 players to reach that plateau since 2000 didn't reach the ceremony, and just one player from outside the power conferences (TCU's Ladainian Tomlinson in 2000). Pumphrey may have to be content with the rushing lead and, potentially, history, though if he doesn't get it Saturday it could well come in a bowl game.
Lance IversenUSA TODAY Sports
Deshaun Watson, QB Clemson, Jr.
Third a season ago, Watson doesn't need a transcendent game against No. 23 Virginia Tech in the ACC title game to make his case. He entered the season with history on his side, as six times a player has won a year after finishing third, and of the 11 previous QBs to be named a finalist since 2000, seven returned to New York. If he simply continues his recent tear -- Watson has averaged 342.2 yards per game the past six times out -- he'll stamp his ticket to the ceremony, along with a trip to the playoff. In the race within the race -- that would be who finishes second to Jackson -- Watson is your clear leader. The Mid-Atlantic region's top candidate, who happens to play a number of his games in the South region -- Watson will likely solidify that spot behind Jackson vs. the Hokies.
Tommy GilliganTommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Dede Westbrook, WR Oklahoma, RS Sr.
Here's the debate: if a Sooner does go, is it Mayfield or Westbrook? The favorite for the Biletnikoff Award, Westbrook has had fewer than 100 yards receiving once in the past eight games (88 vs. Baylor on Nov. 12), but still had two TDs in that game. He's also gone over 150 four times in that span, including 232 vs. Texas and 202 vs. Texas Tech. The last wide receiver to make it to New York was Alabama's Amari Cooper in 2014, and before that you have to go back to Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald in 2003. Basically, it takes the truly special season, as well as overshadowing a QB. Westbrook doesn't have that luxury, with Mayfield drawing attention and votes, especially in the Southwest. It cost Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree with QB Graham Harrell in 2008, and the belief here is, like that Red Raiders duo, neither Oklahoma player makes the ceremony.
Foreman and Peppers are options here too, but the thought is that the faces of two of the CFP teams and the work their way in to join Jackson, who is in line to sweep every region and deliver Louisville its first Heisman. How historical of a win are we talking about? That's a topic for next week.