The Heisman Trophy is a single-season award. It is promoted as an honor for the most outstanding college football player in one year. And only in that one year.
Yet, only in ideology.
College football has a stronger rollover policy than a cell-phone carrier. Preseason rankings are the barometer by which all victories are measured. That initial valuation is influenced partly by teams’ success in the previous season.
The Heisman race operates by the same bias of proven performance. That is why Clemson University quarterback Deshaun Watson will open the season with a head start.
Watson did enough to earn the award last year. He amassed 3,512 passing yards, 887 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns through his first 13 games. Watson finished third in Heisman votes behind Alabama running back Derrick Henry and Stanford slash Christian McCaffrey.
After the award presentation, Watson padded his performance with 332 yards of total offense and two touchdowns in the College Football Playoff Orange Bowl Semifinal against Oklahoma.
Any doubters that remained were certainly convinced in Watson’s final showcase, the CFP National Championship Game. He stood valiantly against the titans Alabama calls a defensive front.
Watson did not shy away from the pass rush or the stage. He passed for 405 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He battled through 67 snaps and tallied 478 yards of total offense, more than Alabama allowed to any team through its previous 11 games.
He was as accurate as he had been all season. He was as fluid on runs. He was as sharp on decisions. He was as tough as he had been against Notre Dame, Florida State, Syracuse and Louisville. But because it was Alabama. Because it was the National Championship Game, Watson’s brilliance has an afterglow.
His stats could not push him ahead of Henry’s consistent dominance or McCaffery’s all-purpose onslaughts in last year’s Heisman vote. But he earned national respect in that finale. Thus, he will open the season with national attention.
That prestige informs widespread opinion about Watson’s standing among elite players and shapes the standard by which this season will be assessed. Watson could post an identical stat line and win the Heisman easily, perhaps even without the boost of a conference championship game. If he falters slightly, his season could be skewed as a disappointment.
Although Watson made it look effortless, duplicating last season will not be easy. Road games at Auburn, Georgia Tech and Florida State will present challenges Watson did not encounter during visits to Louisville, Miami, North Carolina State and South Carolina last year.
Few preseason Heisman frontrunners preserve their perch. Injuries derailed the campaigns of Texas Christian quarterback Trevone Boykin and Georgia running back Nick Chubb last season. The Alabama defense sapped momentum from Louisiana State running back Leonard Fournette. Players with less hype can emerge with more touchdowns.
Although Henry has moved on to the National Football League, McCaffery, Fournette and Chubb will return for another Heisman run. Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perrine and Baker Mayfield and former Clemson quarterback Chad Kelly, now the starter at Ole Miss, are also among the top contenders to impede Watson’s pursuit.
Yet, few of those competitors have the advantage of universal admiration. Watson is propelled by his past marvels. His body of work gives him the upper hand, but he must hold on tight through the season if he ever wants that upper hand to hold the Heisman.