Suddenly, the Heisman Trophy race may be, well, a race.
Lamar Jackson was the runaway leader in the battle for college football’s most prestigious award, but that was before his struggles in Louisville’s stunning loss to Houston last Thursday night. Jackson was sacked 11 times, and finished with 33 rushing yards on 25 carries (though not counting the negative sack yardage, it would have been 14 carries for 116 yards), fumbled in the red zone and threw for just 211 yards and a touchdown as Louisville fell out of College Football Playoff contention with a 36-10 loss.
“He had such a big lead after the game against Florida State and even the game against Clemson, and they’ve been playing lesser opponents and people hadn’t really paid much attention to them,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit told Newsday on Monday during a call to promote Allstate’s #StreitCred campaign. “And then they finally have that big stage after about six weeks, and obviously he and his team laid an egg.”
As a result, the race is relatively closer than it has been all season. But that doesn’t mean it’s tight by any means.
“I think to the voters it’s going to come down to, did Lamar Jackson have such a big lead that it doesn’t matter, or because he had that big stage and he lost a game in November, when you’re supposed to play your best football, are you going to open up the door for another player?” Herbstreit said.” My thing would be, for who? Who would be that guy? Who would be the guy that kind of came on?”
Herbstreit’s right. No player has established themselves this season as the de facto runner-up behind Jackson. For a while, it was Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has Clemson at 10-1 despite an offense that hasn’t lived up to high-flying expectations. Then it was Washington signal-caller Jake Browning, whose Heisman hopes ended after Washington’s upset loss to USC. For a while, it was Jabrill Peppers as people tried to figure out how to make sense of the Michigan star’s versatility.
Herbstreit mentioned a few other candidates who have been talked about as potential challengers to Jackson, but the ESPN analyst was able to point out flaws in each one.
Take Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield: “I just called their game last week -- he’s been having a huge year, but last week he didn’t even have to do anything as they built up a big lead,” Herbstreit said.
On USC freshman QB Sam Darnold — “He didn’t even really play in the first three weeks of the season. He’s out there, I don’t know how much people are talking about him.”
On Peppers — “He’s kind of a trendy name because he plays so many different positions, but I think that’s his angle, his hook is that he’s more of a story because he plays so many positions, not necessarily because of his stats.”
But, as Herbstreit’s College GameDay co-host Desmond Howard has said before: the Heisman race is “not only what you do, it’s when you do it.” These next two weeks could end up being pivotal to the Heisman race, especially if Jackson can’t get back on track.
Herbstreit has his eyes on two players who could force their way into the conversation with big games on Saturday. The first: Peppers, who plays at Ohio State in a rivalry game that will likely have major College Football Playoff implications.
“I think if Jabrill Peppers has a crazy game against Ohio State and returns a punt like Desmond Howard or Charles Woodson, can beat Ohio State, that kind of thing,” Herbstreit said. “I think it’d take that kind of performance to make people go, “Whoa! What about Jabrill Peppers?” Right now, like I said, most of his attention is for the fact that he plays nickel back, he plays outside linebacker, he plays corner, he returns punts, he returns kickoffs, he’ll line up at wildcat quarterback, he’ll line up at tailback, he’ll line up at slot receiver. That’s his hook. But with all that, he hasn’t produced a lot of moments, a lot of stats. And so he needs something. He needs a big play that affects the outcome of a game. If he does it against Ohio State, I think it could definitely help his cause.”
The other: Mayfield, who plays Oklahoma State in their annual “Bedlam” showdown and has the Sooners in the CFP discussion.
“It’s going to be a big game on a big stage for him, what if he goes crazy in that game? “ Herbstreit said. “There’s the possibility that he could also end up throwing his hat into the ring as well.”
In the end, it kept coming back to Jackson and the huge lead he has opened up through the first 11 weeks of the season.
“I just don’t know,” Herbstreit said. “If Lamar Jackson doesn’t win it, I don’t know who will win it. Maybe these next two weeks, maybe somebody will go crazy and give us reason to think that they all of a sudden have a shot. But as we sit here right now, I’ve got to think that even with a loss, Lamar Jackson is still the guy to beat.