When the third-ranked Louisville Cardinals travel to South Carolina this weekend to take on the fifth-ranked Clemson Tigers, the game will be billed as a potential ACC Atlantic Division decider. It should be billed as a potential Heisman Trophy decider.
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson enter as two of the three frontrunners for the coveted award, alongside Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
The resumés of both Watson and Jackson speak for themselves. Watson carried Clemson to a berth in the college football playoff championship game last season, throwing for over 4000 yards and 35 touchdowns while running for another 1105 and 12 touchdowns. Though his 2016 season has not gotten off to the quickest of starts, he entered the year as most people’s Heisman favorite when the season kicked off.
The Tigers are undefeated; they’re ranked fifth in the nation, and many believe they’re going to exorcise 2015’s demons by winning the championship this year. Watson is the heartbeat of the team; any success they’ll have will come from him. Since struggling in Clemson’s 19-13 victory over Auburn on the season’s first day, Watson has shown marked improvement, and looked terrific during last weekend’s 26-7 victory over Georgia Tech.
The fact that Watson is no longer considered the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy is due in small part to his slow start to the season. In large part, it is due to the sterling play of Jackson.
Lamar Jackson is at the highest caliber of football players in college football this year. The Louisville Cardinals sophomore quarterback has thrown for over 1300 yards and 13 touchdowns while running for another 500-plus and 12 more touchdowns. By himself, he has accounted for 25 touchdowns and more than 1,800 yards of total offense through just four games.
That is no typo. Every week, Jackson has made college football sit up and take notice. From the season’s opening game against Charlotte when he scored eight total touchdowns in the first half to his four rushing scores against Syracuse the next week, and from his five touchdown performance in Louisville’s 63-20 beatdown of then-second ranked Florida State to his seven touchdowns against Marshall this past weekend, Jackson has been everywhere.
He has produced gif-worthy moments, hilarious tweets—including one from Michael Vick, who said that Jackson is far better than he was in college—and a never-ending supply of Bleacher Report headlines. The hype has been justified. And, it could grow even greater after Saturday evening’s titanic clash against Clemson, who boast their own Heisman hopeful in quarterback Deshaun Watson.
After their demolition of Florida State, Louisville skyrocketed up the college football polls. Currently, they sit third in the Associated Press poll and fourth in the USA Today/coaches poll. The team they travel to face is ranked fifth by the Associated Press and third by the coaches. Without a doubt, this is the most highly anticipated clash of the college football season to date.
College GameDay has eschewed the Big Ten showdown between eighth-ranked Wisconsin and fourth-ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor in favor of Death Valley. It is the primetime game on ABC. The eyes of the college football world will be on Louisville-Clemson; and the eyes of the college football world will be on the match-up between Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson.
In any season, there is one definitive moment when a Heisman Trophy is won. For Cam Newton, it was a 49-yard run through the entirety of the LSU defense. For Johnny Manziel, it was fumbling the ball before recovering and firing into the end zone for a touchdown at Alabama. For Robert Griffin III, it was evading the Oklahoma pass rush and rifling back across his body for a last minute touchdown.
Arguably, Jackson has already had his. In terms of raw athleticism, it will be quite difficult to beat his 47-yard scamper through the Florida State defense. However, that run extended Louisville’s lead to 56-10 early in the fourth quarter; the game had long been over. If he has a game-changing moment on Saturday night, the stakes should be much higher.
No one, from journalists to gamblers, wants to call a winner heading into this game. According to the bookies, Clemson enters the game as the favorites by one point due to their home field advantage, and this one has all the makings of a toss-up. It should be a great game to watch, and has every chance of not only deciding the fate of the ACC Atlantic but the Heisman Trophy as well.