Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville: 2,522 yards, 22 touchdowns, 996 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns
Jackson continued his path to New York in Louisville’s 32-25 escape against Virginia on Saturday. Jackson threw four touchdowns, including the game-winner with 12 seconds left in the game. Despite Jackson’s air raid, he did not rush for a touchdown. It was the first game since Nov. 14, 2015 that Jackson didn’t score via rush. Ironically, the last team to hold Jackson to zero rushing touchdowns was Virginia. Jackson is light-years ahead of the rest of the pack, and his chances look outstanding with four games remaining in the regular season. The next roadblock for Jackson is Boston College. The two square off Saturday.
Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Clemson: 2,328 yards, 22 touchdowns
Watson and the Tigers found a way, once again, to win a close game. Watson marched Clemson down the field late in the fourth quarter and threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett with 2:06 remaining. Watson then connected with Mike Williams for a two-point conversion and the Tigers took a 37-34 lead. FSU didn’t answer, and Clemson won its fifth one-score game of the year. Watson’s Heisman campaign is lacking something it had in 2015: rushing stats. Watson has rushed for only one touchdown. In 2015, he rushed for 12 touchdowns. Watson is still in striking distance of Jackson, but he, like everyone else, needs Jackson to stop his insane pace. Watson’s next game is Saturday against Syracuse.
Jake Browning, quarterback, Washington: 1,895 yards, 28 touchdowns
Browning and the Huskies faced their toughest test of the year. They passed their test against Utah, though. Washington won 31-24 over the Utes thanks to a Dante Pettis 58-yard punt return touchdown. Browning threw two touchdowns on 186 yards. He connected with John Ross on both touchdowns. It was Browning’s worst game of the year, but if a two-touchdown game is the worst game of the year, then Browning is having a great year. I see Browning and Watson as equals. Watson has a slight edge because he plays in a slightly tougher conference, but Browning might pull in a lot of West-Coast votes. Browning’s next chance to show off is Saturday against California.
Jabrill Peppers, linebacker, Michigan: 44 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 131 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns, 257 punt return yards, one punt return touchdown
His position says linebacker, but Peppers plays everywhere. He is a mainstay in the Wolverines’ defense, but he also makes appearances in Michigan’s backfield. In Michigan’s 32-23 victory over Michigan State, Peppers put Michigan on the board with a 3-yard rushing touchdown. That was just the start of his day. He also got a clutch sack with 1:46 left in the game. Peppers clinched the game for Michigan when he scooped up a fumble on an MSU two-point conversion and returned it to put the Wolverines up nine. Let me be clear, he is far behind the top three, but he has a chance to catch up with more performances like the one he put up Saturday. Peppers’ next chance to move up is Saturday against Maryland.
Donnel Pumphrey, running back, San Diego State: 1,469 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns
Pumphrey did not score a touchdown in SDSU’s 40-13 drubbing of Utah State. It was the first time he was kept out of the end zone since Dec. 5, 2015. Despite not scoring, Pumphrey ran for 223 yards. Pumphrey did not have a run longer than 44 yards, but he average seven yards per carry, so he was running the ball consistently well. Pumphrey has been a workhorse for the Aztecs. He’s carried the ball 223 times and caught 20 passes out of the backfield. Like Peppers, Pumphrey is behind the lead pack of three. He needs two things to happen to catch up: to perform twice as good as he is now and his body to hold together. Pumphrey’s next game is Saturday against Hawaii.
Oklahoma State’s top candidate
Mason Rudolph, quarterback: 2,532 yards, 17 touchdowns
Rudolph had his most efficient game of the year in the Cowboys’ 37-20 upset against West Virginia on Saturday. He completed 72.2 percent of his passes and threw no interceptions for the fourth straight game. He duplicated his performance against Texas, in terms of scoring. The Cowboys’ signal caller threw three touchdowns and rushed for another score. Rudolph’s rushing touchdown was the first score of the second half and swung the momentum OSU’s way. After two WVU scores, Rudolph threw a touchdown to Chris Lacy with 5:15 remaining, putting the Cowboys up 14 and sealing the deal. Rudolph has had steady production, but he needs a massive Lamar Jackson slide to catch up. Rudolph and the Cowboys travel to Manhattan, Kansas, on Saturday.