Why Lamar Jackson is still the Heisman Trophy front-runner

Despite a loss to Clemson in Week 5, Steve Palazzolo explains why the award is still Jackson's to lose.

| 9 months ago
(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Why Lamar Jackson is still the Heisman Trophy front-runner

The annual discussion about what the Heisman Trophy is supposed to mean will soon be upon us. Is it simply the best player in the nation? Is it the most valuable player in the nation? Is it the best player from the best team in the nation?

The many Heisman voters have their own criteria for what makes a good Heisman candidate, but no matter any personal opinions on the true meaning of the award, one thing was clear after watching Clemson defeat Louisville 42-36: Louisville QB Lamar Jackson is still the Heisman front-runner.

Yes, many voters are immediately drawn to team record and may even dock Jackson for Louisville picking up their first loss of the season. The natural inclination would be to hail the winning quarterback on the other side, Deshaun Watson, as the new leader in the clubhouse, or perhaps Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and his gaudy statistics as a new leading contender. Forget the wins and losses for a moment, however, as Jackson has still been the nation’s most dynamic player through five weeks of the season.

Taking nothing away from Watson — who I do believe will be back in the discussion by year’s end — but he’s been inconsistent with his accuracy all season and was not sharp against Louisville despite the five touchdowns in the boxscore. His three interceptions were no accident as he put far too many passes in harm’s way, and while he showed the ability to bounce back from mistakes and lead the late comeback, Jackson was the better player on the field in Death Valley.

But this is more about what Jackson has done rather than what Watson has not done. Against the best defense he’s played to this point, Jackson was contained for much of the night, but he still managed to rush for 178 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries, including 103 yards on 20 carries in the designed run game. He upped his rushing grade to 94.1 on the season — by far the best mark among quarterbacks — and while he leaves a few too many throws on the table at this point in his career, Jackson’s big-play rushing ability is still the nation’s top trump card.


Even in a game where it felt like Clemson was doing everything right defensively, Jackson led his team to 36 points, including a 26-0 run early in the second half before Clemson made their late-game comeback to pull it off. While Clemson’s offense is filled with versatile playmakers capable of creating yards after the catch or making plays on the ball down the field, Louisville’s offense started and ended with Jackson’s ability to create as both a runner and as a passer. As he ducked and dodged eight Clemson defenders on the night and his thin frame took a pounding against a physical defense, it was clear that Louisville goes as Jackson goes. Despite falling short at the end, it was clear that Jackson was the best player on the field and that was echoed when Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware called him “the best player he’s ever played against” after the game.

Jackson is also the best player in the nation through five weeks of play. He’s now accounted for 28 touchdowns on the young season, an even 14 on the ground and 14 through the air, and losing to a top-five team on the road should do nothing to discount his season’s performance. Team record seems to have creeped into the voters’ minds far too often when it comes to the Heisman in recent years, so there may be some who immediately vault Watson to the top of the list. As of now, that would be a mistake.

Watson should be there in the end, but it would take a late-season run as he did a year ago when he ranked as our top quarterback from Week 9 through the end of the season. There are a few players on the fringe — North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky is making a strong case of his own as one of the nation’s most efficient passers, Ohio State RB/WR Curtis Samuel has been their best all-around player, and even Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett (top-graded edge rusher in the nation) should get consideration as he carries the mantle for defensive candidates.

But this is still Jackson’s trophy to lose and a one in the loss column has done nothing to detract from how well he’s played so far in 2016.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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