CHARLOTTE — While the fire alarm sounded throughout the Westin Charlotte during Friday’s second day of the ACC Kickoff, the conference’s two biggest stars were making their way through the assembled outlets along radio row.
It was if the hotel was all too aware: Dalvin Cook and Deshaun Watson are the kindling poised to again set the nation ablaze.
"We have two teams that have two players that arguably are the best players in the country," said NC State coach Dave Doeren. "If they’re both healthy, I assume both of them can be in the Heisman talks. They’re both that good."
As that stiff-armed trophy, it and this league had a rocky relationship over the years. For the first 47 years of its existence, the ACC produced just one winner — Florida State’s Chris Weinke — and from 2001-12 didn’t have a single finalist before Jameis Winston’s win (another for a Seminole) in ’13.
But as the league has gained more respect, ACC players landing in New York for the ceremony, with Boston College’s Andre Williams joining Winston, and last season Watson was on hand in finishing third behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
The conference is in position to challenge for, at the minimum another finalist — or two — or even another trophy with Cook and Watson, and then there’s even a dark horse contender in Miami QB Brad Kaaya.
"I’ve coached in the other leagues. I know what they are," said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. "This is a great football. Great football players. You name me a league that has bigger stars than Dalvin Cook, Deshaun Watson and Brad Kaaya."
The SEC does boast the likes of LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, the Pac-12 counters with McCaffrey, USC’s Josh Rosen and Oregon’s Royce Freeman, in the Big Ten there’s Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers and Iowa’s Desmond King and in the Big 12, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Samaje Perine and Baylor’s Seth Russell.
But the man does have a point, especially when it comes to legitimate threats to chase down college football’s most important award, with Cook and Watson at the ACC’s marquee programs and playing positions that have been almost necessities to be a Heisman contender.
Watson enters his junior season among the expected front-runners, thanks to a transcendent performance against Alabama in the national title game.
The Tigers came up empty 45-40, but amid that loss, Watson set a title game record with 478 yards, besting the 467 Vince Young burned USC for in Texas’ win in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
It put an exclamation point on a year in which he won the Davey O’Brien Award, the Manning Award and was named the ACC Offensive Player of the Year and its championship game MVP as he threw for 4,104 yards and 35 TDs and ran for another 1,105 yards and 12 scores. He was the first player in FBS history to eclipse the 4,000/1,000-yard plateaus in the same season.
That earned him the praise of Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who recently called him "the best player in college football since Cam Newton," Auburn’s 2013 Heisman winner.
"It’s great to have that, but I understand that I’ve got to go earn it and create my own brand," Watson said of Saban’s comments.
Cook is all too familiar with that brand Watson is creating, watching him throw for 297 yards and two touchdowns and rush for 107 yards in the Tigers’ 23-13 win over the Seminoles last season.
"Amazing, man," Cook said. "Deshaun is one of those quarterbacks that come around every few years. Great players make plays that you don’t see on a daily basis. He’s one of those nightmares that defensive coordinators stay up at night for."
The same can, most certainly be said about Cook, who was seventh in last year’s Heisman voting.
The junior speedster was fifth in FBS last season with 1,691 rushing yards and 19 TDs despite missing all of one game — Oct. 31 vs. Syracuse — and getting just two carries Oct. 3 vs. Wake Forest before leaving with an ankle injury.
Cook ended the year 528 yards behind Henry, the nation’s leading rusher, but it he also had 166 less carries and played in three fewer games.
If we’re taking the Fisher route and quizzing the masses, name another player who’s more explosive than Cook. His 7.4 yards per attempt were bested by only two Power 5 players, Chubb (8.1 per) and Georgia Tech’s Marcus Marshall (7.6), and they had 92 and 86 carries respectively, to Cook’s 229.
"He’s very versatile," Watson said. "He’s one of the best running backs in the country. He does a lot of great things. He runs the ball well, he catches the ball well. He does everything."
He’s also healthy, something he admits he wasn’t last year as he largely played through nagging hamstring and ankle injuries.
"Just got to take care of my body," Cook said. "Last year taught me a lesson."
The battle for supremacy, as if put on repeat, in the ACC again revolves around Clemson and Florida State. The rivals will meet Oct. 29 in Tallahassee, but the game within the game at Doak Walker, and for much of this season will be between its biggest stars.
Cook or Watson? The ACC has a debate on its hands, one that, without question, is good for the business of football. As for picking sides, now’s not the time. The two simply represent the top tier of a conference that has an enviable pair of headliners.
"We have star-studded players," Fisher said. "This is a great league."