The Heisman Trophy ballot is never easy.
Some years, it’s easier than others to vote for three of college football’s most outstanding players.
And some years, like this one, picking a winner actually is fairly easy.
But the Heisman Trophy Trust requires voters to fill out all three blanks on the ballot.
And this year, my 20th as a voter and fifth as Oklahoma’s state Heisman representative, that was tougher than ever.
Let’s start up front.
After watching football all season, then choosing 29 outstanding candidates to evaluate for my ballot, then paring that group down to eight, and then a final five, I ultimately voted for Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson as the 82nd Heisman Trophy winner.
Jackson ended up winning this year’s trophy, announced on Saturday night from New York City. He is Louisville’s first Heisman winner. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson finished second, and Oklahoma’s high-wire tandem of Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook took third and fourth. Michigan defender Jabrill Peppers was fifth.
Jackson (526) had twice as many first-place votes as Watson (269) and won comfortably, 2,144 points to 1,525 (three points for first, two for second, one for third). Mayfield got 26 first-place votes and had 361 points, while Westbrook got seven first-place votes and 209 points, one point ahead of Peppers.
Examining Jackson’s season closely and comparing it with other worthy candidates, I found Jackson to be the most outstanding player in college football this season. No doubt he finished with a bit of a thud, losing his last two games and throwing three interceptions in the finale against a middling opponent (and rival) like Kentucky.
But over the course of the season, Jackson made more outstanding plays than anybody else.
HOW WE VOTED
Franchise hosts and contributors account for seven Heisman Trophy votes. Five of those voters agreed to reveal their vote here. Here’s what The Franchise’s Heisman voters’ ballots looked like:
- John Hoover: 1, Lamar Jackson. 2, J.T. Barrett. 3. Baker Mayfield.
- Lauren Rew: 1. Deshaun Watson. 2, Lamar Jackson. 3, Jalen Hurts.
- Dylan Buckingham: 1, Lamar Jackson. 2, Deshaun Watson. 3, Dede Westbrook.
- Guerin Emig: 1, Lamar Jackson. 2, Baker Mayfield. 3. James Conner.
- Eric Bailey: 1, Lamar Jackson. 2, Baker Mayfield. 3. Deshaun Watson.
Jackson isn’t very accurate. He completed just 57.6 percent of his throws, which ranked 81st in the nation this season. But his raw passing statistics alone — 3,390 yards (12th), 30 touchdowns (11th), only nine interceptions — are enough to get him noticed operating a high-scoring offense for a team that finished 9-3.
But then consider Jackson’s rushing statistics — 1,538 yards (eighth) and 21 touchdowns (fourth) — and try to remember he’s a quarterback, and it’s literally like he’s two players instead of one.
Two spectacular players, who accounted for 308 points this season, second in the nation (behind Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes).
Jackson was an easy choice for me.
Where my ballot really became difficult is trying to decide for spots two and three between Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, Washington quarterback Jake Browning, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, USC defensive back/kick returner Adoree’ Jackson, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and OU wideout Dede Westbrook.
All deserved a trip to New York. All are amazing players.
The Heisman Trophy Trust leaves it up to each voter to determine what “most outstanding” means. This year, there were 870 media voters, plus 58 living former winners (57 now, with the death last week of 1994 winner Rashaan Salaam of Colorado). The number of media voters don’t change from year to year. They are divided up into six regions (145 each) to account for any regional bias, but this isn’t the Electoral College. Each vote counts as one vote, regardless of region. One additional fan vote makes for 929 total votes.
Oklahoma’s media contingent consists of 22 voters. There are also five living former winners: Steve Owens, Billy Sims, Barry Sanders, Jason White and Sam Bradford.
Since the Trust leaves it up to each voter to decide what constitutes “most outstanding,” I have my own criteria, some or all which many other voters probably use.
- Winning means a lot to me. Sorry, D’Onta Foreman. You did all you could carrying Texas this season, but your 5-7 Longhorns couldn’t carry you to a spot on my ballot.
- Productivity means a lot to me. Sorry, Jabrill Peppers, but six tackles a game, one interception and 751 all-purpose yards was not enough to produce a spot on my ballot.
- Consistency means a lot to me. Sorry, Jonathan Allen, but five consecutive games in the middle of the season without a quarterback sack leaves a blank spot on my ballot.
- The quality of one’s opponents means a lot to me. Sorry, Donnel Pumphrey, you may well break Ron Dayne’s career rushing record and be the next Marshall Faulk, but putting up big numbers against five run defenses that ranked 117th or lower (out of 128) doesn’t get you on my ballot.
- Standing out in big games, rivalry games or championship game means a lot to me. Not a lot to be sorry about this year, actually.
- And NFL potential means absolutely nothing to me.
So, on to the rest.
Browning was a strong contender. His 42 passing TDs (second in the nation), 3,280 passing yards (21st) and 276 points accounted for (third) pushed Washington to its first Pac-12 championship since 2000 and its first College Football Playoff appearance. Also, he only threw seven interceptions in 353 attempts. Ultimately, however, facing six pass defenses ranked 100th or lower and performing poorly against two of the better ones (USC and Colorado) hurt him.
Adoree’ Jackson got a long look. One of the most dynamic players in the nation gained 1,100 all-purpose yards as a defensive back and kick returner, including 291 yards and three touchdowns against Notre Dame. He also was among the nation’s leaders in passes defensed. But it’s hard for a situational player and a defensive back to have the kind of down-after-down impact on a game that a quarterback or running back can have.
Westbrook made my next-to-last cut. Easily the best wide receiver in the country this season and absolutely deserving of the Biletnikoff Award, Westbrook was as dynamic a deep threat as major college football has seen in decades. He averaged nearly 49 yards per touchdown catch and had seven catches 50 yards or more. He scored 16 touchdowns, had 1,465 receiving yards and had 12 offensive TDs of at least 40 yards, the most by an FBS player since at least 1996. But here’s why receivers don’t win the Heisman: Westbrook’s 74 receptions amount to only 6.2 offensive touches per game. On an offense that averaged 74 snaps per game, 6.2 touches per game just isn’t Heisman worthy.
My final cut came down to Barrett, Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Mayfield and Watson — all quarterbacks. So yes, great quarterbacking means a lot to me.
I won’t go deep into statistics here because after a while it all starts to sound the same. But I will try to offer some clarity.
- Jackson’s passing numbers came against pass defenses that averaged a ranking of 73.7. Not great, but hardly near the bottom. And his unbelievable running numbers came against run defenses that averaged a ranking of 49.6, including three top-10 run defenses. That’s pretty incredible. And while he did throw three picks against Kentucky, he also hung 171 rushing yards and four total touchdowns on the Wildcats. Could’ve been better, yes, but still was pretty great.
- Hurts’ numbers at Alabama were fantastic. He rushed for 1,013 yards (841 net). His team didn’t lose. He’s playing for a national championship. Ultimately, however, I decided that any of my other finalists could have done the exact same or even more on a roster as talent-rich as Bama’s.
- Watson is a Heisman finalist for the second year in a row, and deservedly so. He’s led Clemson to back-to-back playoff appearances with great passing (3,914 yards, 37 TDs) and good running 529 yards, 6 TDs). But his 15 interceptions dropped him big-time in my consistency metric. Only two FBS quarterbacks this season threw more picks.
- Mayfield’s last nine games were the best in college football. Nobody throws a better deep ball. His passing efficiency of 197.8 not only leads the nation and likely will set an OU record, he’s on track to break the all-time NCAA record. His completion percentage (71.2) leads the nation, too. But Mayfield was less than special against the two best teams he faced, Houston and Ohio State, and OU lost both. He was exquisite against the Big 12 Conference — whose teams rank 55th, 62nd, 74th, 84th, 95th, 98th, 103rd, 111th and 125th in the nation against the pass — and his amazing efficiency rating (a complex formulate that is heavily weighted by the yards-per-attempt metric), was largely a product of Westbrook’s breakaway speed, though it’s also significant that six other OU receivers caught passes of 40 yards or more this year — all from Mayfield.
- Barrett didn’t have typical Heisman eye-popping numbers, but threw only four interceptions all year and was remarkably consistent playing in America’s best conference. He did add four 100-yard rushing games, played OK in Ohio State’s only loss (271 total yards, one touchdown, no turnovers) and made key late plays (one hotly disputed) to beat Michigan. Barrett ranked only 35th nationally in total offense and 21st in points accounted for (24 TD passes, nine TD runs).
Of that group, I picked Jackson as my winner. Hurts was my first elimination of the final five. That left Barrett, Mayfield and Watson for my final two slots.
Which was better? Barrett’s consistency? Or Mayfield’s marvels? Barrett did beat Mayfield in Norman with four TD passes. That counts.
Which was worse? Watson’s 15 interceptions or Mayfield’s two losses?
Which was more worthy? Watson’s wins over Louisville, Florida State and Virginia Tech, or Barrett’s wins over Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Michigan?
Which was more damning? Watson’s performance in a loss to Pitt, Barrett’s performance in a loss to Penn State, or Mayfield’s performances in losses to Houston and Ohio State?
Mayfield and Watson won conference championships. Watson and Barrett are in the playoff.
After splitting every hair I could find between the three, here’s what I finally decided.
- Barrett’s relatively modest productivity and consistent winning came against pass defenses that averaged a ranking of 58th in the nation. That’s not bad.
- Mayfield’s outrageous record-setting success came against pass defenses that averaged a ranking of 78th in the nation. That’s not bad.
- Watson’s 15 interceptions came against pass defenses that averaged a ranking of 70th in the nation. That’s not good. At all.
My bottom line: it wasn’t easy to leave Watson off my ballot. He’s definitely one of the most outstanding players in college football. And it wasn’t easy to reward Mayfield for slicing up the fifth-best conference (one could argue the sixth) and some of the worst pass defenses in the country. But how much do I penalize him for his opponents’ lack of ability?
After three months watching football and 6 ½ hours crunching the numbers, here’s who made my final ballot:
1, Lamar Jackson. 2, J.T. Barrett. 3, Baker Mayfield.
Congratulations to all of college football’s outstanding players.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.