Lamar Jackson on a true Heisman pace early on
The top national story is Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has started the season with an incredible 18 total touchdowns (10 rushing, eight passing) in three games while ranking second in the nation in rushing yards. He sits at No. 2 in our overall rankings due to some inconsistency as a passer, but his 91.9 rushing grade is the best in the nation by a wide margin. Perhaps not even captured with any number is just how much stress he puts on opposing defenses, often breaking the foundational elements on which defenses are built.
The first two weeks of the season saw Jackson dominate Charlotte and Syracuse, both times invoking the question, “what will he do against a good defense?”
Hello Week 3.
A showdown was set for high noon with the No. 2 Florida State, by far the best defense Jackson has faced to this point. It didn’t matter. The Seminoles were overmatched by Louisville’s offense, as Jackson’s ability to hit the edge as a runner or pull to pass kept their edge defenders and linebackers confused all afternoon. Even when Florida State played it correctly, Jackson’s burst and speed break the normal rules of football and he’s able to hit the hole and still create big plays. While he does miss his fair share of passes, Jackson’s run ability opens up the field for the passing game and that’s why he’s thrown for more than 300 yards per game on top of his elite running ability.
Through three weeks, Jackson has few peers when it comes to the Heisman Trophy race, and while we’ve crowned many September Heismans through the years who never made it to New York in December, it’s hard to see anyone slowing Jackson down this season.
That said, let’s take a look at how his hot start compares to the last two Heisman Trophy winners in Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry.
Jackson and Mariota both ranked second after three weeks
Mariota’s 2014 season got off to great start and like Jackson, he sat at No. 2 in our Power-5 quarterback rankings in the early going. Also like Jackson, Mariota posted his numbers against subpar competition in South Dakota and Wyoming, but also showed well against a strong Michigan State team. Jackson dwarfs all competition when it comes to the touchdown numbers, and his total of 18 trumps Mariota’s 11 through three games (eight passing, three rushing). Mariota was more of a pass-first quarterback and he continued his hot start all the way through the season and into the national championship game. It wasn’t pure dominance for Mariota along the way, as he played below his usual standards in a couple of games, but for the most part, it was a wire-to-wire Heisman season.
Jackson off to a much better start than Henry
On the other side of the coin is Derrick Henry, who ranked only 59th in the nation among running backs at this time last season. The numbers were still strong as he had 366 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns, so the stats had him in line with a Heisman run, but a lot of the production came behind strong work by the Alabama offensive line. While many attribute Henry’s strong season solely to the Alabama line, that wasn’t the case throughout the year and his grade increased as he started to do more work independent of the line while creating yards on his own. Henry built his Heisman campaign behind workhorse efforts down the stretch, often carrying Alabama’s offense and putting the hammer down in the fourth quarter. At this point last season, LSU’s Leonard Fournette was collecting his September Heisman Trophy and while the argument can certainly be made that he had the better year than Henry, Henry’s true value wasn’t felt in Tuscaloosa until the stretch run. By that token, Jackson is well ahead of Henry’s position a year ago as he’s already established himself as the most dominant player on his offense and to this point, in the nation.
It all comes down to the big game — and wins — for Jackson. Wins are overrated when discussing the very best football player in America, but as long as the voters think they matter, win-loss record will have a huge impact on the Heisman race. The circled dates in the calendar are Oct. 1 against Clemson and Nov. 17 at Houston. Clemson was the favorite in the ACC coming into the season and that should be Louisville’s biggest test of the season. That’s not to take away anything from Houston, who disposed of Oklahoma in Week 1 and will be pointing to the Louisville game as their biggest game. Even with a few average statistical games along the way, Jackson has enough touchdowns in the piggy bank that he already has the voters’ attention — it’s now about leading his team to victory in the biggest games of the season.