Two seasons. Two trips to New York. Two Heisman ceremonies. Zero trophies.
This is how Deshaun Watson’s collegiate career will end—at least, from an individual standpoint on a national level. Lamar Jackson’s standout campaign left Clemson’s quarterback off the top of the podium in back-to-back seasons. It’s hard not to feel bad about his fate as far as the Heisman goes.
Of course, part of me says that as a biased observer. I want Clemson to do well. Therefore, I want Deshaun Watson to do well. There’s no ambiguity whatsoever on that. I have a rooting interest.
But even an impartial observer would be hard-pressed not to feel disappointed that Watson never took home the ultimate piece of hardware. It seems like an injustice in many respects.
If we took a poll, we could easily conclude that Watson has been the best player in college football over the past two seasons. Even if we extended it to three, despite all the time he missed due to both being a freshman and being injured, the same claim probably still sticks. Since he stepped onto the field at Clemson, no one has been better in all of college football.
The Heisman is supposed to be about an individual season, but we’ve given them out for career achievements before. Just ask Ron Dayne, who broke the NCAA’s career rushing record and beat out Joe Hamilton for the Heisman by a wide margin. For anyone suggesting Jackson is the least deserving winner, I nominate Dayne instead.
Sometimes, it’s about stats on paper. Other times, it’s about how a player “looks” on the field. It can be about pie-in-the-sky attributes like “value” or “leadership” or any other immeasurable quality. Sometimes, we just give it to guys we like the best.
When I say “we”, of course, I mean sports society. After all, even if the media pushes a narrative, when ordinary people emphatically push back, it can be discredited. The talking heads gave Jackson the Heisman in late October, only to watch a couple of clunker performances ruin the neat story of the season and instead give Watson a chance to catch him.
Not enough people changed their votes, but it’s hardly a miscarriage of justice. Jackson had many attributes that people historically look for in Heisman candidates. He’s the most uniquely gifted quarterback in the country. Even Dabo Swinney called him the best player on multiple occasions before he started campaigning heavily for Watson in November. His quickie stat sheet made him seem better than he was after a little digging. His team came out of obscurity to join the playoff conversation because of his presence.
Watson had a fine year, too. He had plenty of positives and negatives, just like Jackson. It would be foolish to clown someone for voting for either player, especially considering history.
In the past 25 years, only three players have done what Watson set out to do—win a Heisman after finishing among the top three in the previous year’s voting. Maybe you’ve heard of them: Andrew Luck, Colt McCoy, and Darren McFadden. All three of them were beaten by multiple players, which brings us to another bit of history.
To many outside observers, it seemed like this season set up perfectly for Watson to win the Heisman. He was the highest finisher among returning players with a slew of skilled talent coming back around him. While that may have seemed logical, it would be going against the grain.
In that same 25-year span, only one player has finished inside the top three of the Heisman rankings: Danny Wuerffel, who went from third in 1995 to the top spot in 1996 as the quarterback at Florida. Based on recent trends, Watson’s fate this year was easier to predict than the conventional wisdom that had him ascending to the top prior to the start of the season.
The main frustration from fans really isn’t that Watson lost to Jackson this year, or that he lost to Derrick Henry in 2015. It’s that he didn’t win at least one, at some point, as the best player in the country over the span of two seasons.
It just doesn’t seem fair, and it’s really not. It also doesn’t diminish Watson’s value. He’s still the best player over two seasons, with or without a Heisman to prove it.