After a wildly unpredictable race, the Heisman Trophy finalists were named on Monday: Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey and Deshaun Watson.
No Ezekiel Elliott or Trevone Boykin, who entered the season perceived by many to be the top two favorites. No Leonard Fournette, who appeared to be running away with the award in the middle of the season. And no Baker Mayfield or Dalvin Cook, who were especially dominant toward the end of the season and finished with some of the best statistics for their respective positions.
Nope, only three players will head to New York next Saturday with the chance to claim college football’s greatest individual honor.
A small field, yes, but it’s hard to argue the voters made a mistake with their top three.
Henry, McCaffrey and Watson were the three best players this season and deserve this recognition.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the candidates:
Derrick Henry, Alabama, RB
Henry is the driving force behind perhaps the most dangerous team in the country right now. The junior was the Crimson Tide’s workhorse, toting the ball a whopping 339 times for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns this season. He set Alabama records for touchdowns rushing and yards rushing in a season and he also toppled Georgia legend Herschel Walker’s SEC record of yards rushing in a season.
Henry scored a touchdown in every game this season and had seven games in which he recorded multiple touchdowns. He also rushed for at least 200 yards in four games (another Alabama record).
Henry came up especially big when the Crimson Tide needed him most. The Florida native carried the ball 46 times in the Iron Bowl with an SEC Championship berth on the line and then hammered Florida’s defense to the tune of 44 carries the next week in Atlanta with a College Football Playoff berth at stake. Henry recorded an absurd 460 yards rushing and two touchdowns combined in the must-win games.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, RB
What didn’t Christian McCaffrey do this season? The Stanford running back put together one of the most impressive statistical seasons in college football history, embodying the word “versatile” on a weekly basis. McCaffrey was an all-purpose yardage machine, racking up an FBS record 3,496 yards. He saved his best performance for last, posting 207 yards on the ground and 461 total yards (a school record) in Stanford’s Pac-12 title game win over USC on Saturday.
McCaffrey finished the season with 1,847 yards rushing (second most in the FBS), 1,109 yards returning, 540 yards receiving and 14 total touchdowns (eight rushing, four receiving and two passing).
McCaffrey’s record-breaking season is made even more special when considering that he started slow. After two weeks of the season, Stanford was 1-1 and McCaffrey had racked up just 124 total yards rushing. But McCaffrey was nearly unstoppable from that point forward, rushing for at least 100 yards in 10 of his final 11 games, and helping turn Stanford into the type of elite team that will play in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson, QB
Deshaun Watson led Clemson to unprecedented success in 2015, as the Tigers went 13-0 and earned the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff. Along the way, the dual-threat quarterback made life a nightmare for opposing defenses. He finished with 3,512 yards passing (69.5 completion percentage, third best in the country), 30 touchdowns passing, 887 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns rushing.
Similar to Henry and McCaffrey, Watson stepped up as the lights got brighter. The sophomore had one of, if not the, best games of his season against North Carolina in the ACC title game, throwing for 289 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 131 yards and two scores. He finished the season by throwing for at least 275 yards in his last six games (three 300-yard games) and rushed for at least 100 yards in four of his final five games.
Who’s the favorite?
The best part about this Heisman race is that, unlike years past, there’s no runaway favorite. All three of the finalists have a legitimate chance to win this award, and each of their candidacies is different.
If we’re taking the player with simply the best numbers, McCaffrey’s the guy. The Stanford running back toppling Barry Sanders’ FBS record of all-purpose yards was nothing short of amazing. But the Cardinal aren't headed to the playoff, which is why heading into championship week this writer viewed McCaffrey more as a player that would make the ceremony and less as a guy that could realistically win the award. But 461 yards against USC changed things, and, in a real testament to simply how good he was this season, McCaffrey is right in the mix to win the award despite his team finishing outside of the top four. This isn’t to say Stanford’s No. 6 ranking doesn’t hurt McCaffrey – it absolutely does – just that the running back has done all he can to minimize its impact.
If we’re taking the player who has the most winning on his side, then Watson’s obviously the guy. Watson is the leader of an undefeated team that made the College Football Playoff, and that’s huge when it comes to the Heisman. Five of the last seven winners of the award have played for the national title.
History is also on Watson’s side for another reason: he’s a quarterback. Thirteen of the past 14 Heisman winners have been quarterbacks. As the lone QB among the finalists, Watson’s position certainly gives him a boost. With the winning, the position and the great, albeit not eye-popping, numbers on his side, Watson has a heck of a case to win the award.
However, if we’re taking the player with the best balance between numbers and winning, Derrick Henry is the guy. The only knock on Henry’s candidacy is that he’s not a quarterback, but the other components of his resume are strong enough to overcome that. Henry’s Tide lost a game early in the season to Ole Miss, but will head to the playoff and that’s really the most important thing in regards to team success. Combine that with his record-breaking numbers, and Henry’s resume is the most complete, which figures to make him the slight favorite to come away with the hardware.
Yet, the unknown is what makes the anticipation for Saturday so great. All three of these guys could hear their name called and no one should be surprised. We very well could see one of the closest votes in Heisman Trophy history, and it sure is going to be fun to see how it all plays out.
My final top three:
1. Derrick Henry
2. Christian McCaffrey
3. Deshaun Watson