“Henry for Heisman! Henry for Heisman!”
We hear you, SEC. We do.
Alabama running back Derrick Henry has been described by many as the Heisman front-runner, and rightfully so. Over 1700 yards and 22 touchdowns against some of the best rushing defenses in the country that reside in the SEC is nothing to sniff at, especially when his team is #2 in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings and in full control of its destiny heading into Saturday afternoon’s conference championship.
However, as we have learned multiple times this season, it only takes one game to derail a player’s Heisman hopes, with LSU running back Leonard Fournette’s 31-yard dud of a performance against Alabama earlier in the year most notably coming to mind.
For Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, this means a chance at two awards on Saturday: An ACC Championship and a Heisman Trophy.
In reality, we should have seen this coming. In an injury plagued freshman campaign in 2014, Watson put up 14 touchdowns to only two interceptions, while throwing for nearly 1500 yards despite being hampered by knee issues for a good portion of the season. His ability to stay healthy for the remainder of his collegiate career became a question posed by many writers and bloggers across the country, myself included.
To sell him short because of injury issues was a mistake, especially considering that he played in a number of games last season at less that full health, which attests to his toughness more than his perceived fragility. He came into 2015 ready to make a statement with his play and prove that he was healthy once and for all, while debunking any claims to the contrary that may have lingered from the way that his freshman season ended.
Clearly, he has not disappointed.
Despite being seen by many across the football landscape as second-fiddle in the race for the most prestigious individual award in college football, Watson’s numbers have been as impressive as any player in the country. On his way to winning ACC Player of the Year, he has thrown for over 3,200 yards this season with 27 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions. What has been even more note-worthy for Watson is his rushing ability, as he has carried the ball for over 750 yards and nine touchdowns, while averaging 5.4 yards per attempt. Perhaps most importantly, is what he has done over the last three weeks of the regular season, where he has been unquestionably the hottest player in the country. Watson has absolutely dismantled his inferior opponents of Syracuse, Wake Forest, and South Carolina, as he has thrown for 990 yards and six touchdowns, while rushing for 293 yards and five touchdowns.
In today’s college football world, as I wrote in my column on Mark Richt, the “What have you done for me lately?” mentality of voters, coaches, and athletic departments alike, have driven forward conversations on awards, rankings, and coaching decisions. Because of this, saving your best for last and having a “Heisman moment” are the two biggest intangibles for winning the Heisman Trophy, whether the voters would like to admit it or not. Both are extremely subjective, but can be accounted for, to a degree, by objective stats that are compiled within a given time frame of the voters discretion.
As the #1 ranked Clemson Tigers (12-0) prepare for their match-up against #10 North Carolina (11-1), one cannot help but realize that this is Deshaun Watson’s moment. He will not only have a chance to win a conference championship and put his team in the College Football Playoff, but he will have one last opportunity to stake his claim for the Heisman before the ceremony in New York later this month. Nothing out of the ordinary will be needed for Watson to further make his case for the award, as another 300+ all-purpose yard performance with a couple of touchdowns en route to his school’s first ACC Title since the 2011 season will be more than enough to propel his trip to Radio City Music Hall.
By my own humble admission, it is Derrick Henry’s award to lose. However, he is going up against the nation’s seventh-ranked run defense, the Florida Gators, in the SEC Championship game this afternoon and the match-up will be likely wrapped up prior to Watson and the Tigers even taking the field in their game at 8:00 PM Eastern. Only time will tell if a vintage Watson performance will matter, as a big game by Henry will likely seal up the award for the Alabama running back.
In the end though, Watson will still have a case to make for the Heisman on one of college football’s biggest stages this evening. An ACC Championship and an opportunity to compete for a national championship will mean more to him than any of the individual accolades that could come along with it. But with the Heisman Trophy remaining a distinct possibility, the moment is a symbol of how far Watson has come from the question marks surrounding nearly every conversation about himself and his team entering the season.
It has been a long and arduous journey since he injured his knee in 2014, but the grind of recovery and preparation for this moment is what he has been working towards, not only since the injury, but in reality, for his entire life.
Only time will tell if he gets his storybook ending.
Enjoy the game tonight everyone, and thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @MikeMcDanielACC and check out InsideTheACC on Facebook and on Twitter @InsideTheACC. Also, check out our 2015 ACC Championship Game preview here.