Deshaun Watson emerged as the best quarterback in the country last season, leading Clemson to an ACC title, an Orange Bowl victory and putting on an impressive — if eventually losing — performance against Alabama in the national championship game. His reward (among others) was a third-place finish in the Heisman balloting.
This year, Watson returns to lead a Clemson offense that is jam-packed with top-tier talent. He loses Charone Peake, but he gets back a healthy Mike Williams. Jordan Leggett, Artavis Scott, Wayne Gallman, Hunter Renfrow and a host of other weapons are back, too. Watson will have a full, healthy offseason to prepare.
And so the narrative will be easy to sell: Deshaun Watson, 2016 Heisman favorite.
But is that narrative also realistic?
Turns out that building Heisman momentum the year after a top-five finish is actually pretty tough for a quarterback. Since 2000, only three QBs have increased their vote total the year after finishing in the top five: Ken Dorsey, Brady Quinn and Andrew Luck. Of that group, only Quinn improved his standing (going from fourth in 2005 to third in 2006), but his stats were actually down across the board.
There are lots of reasons for this. For one, the list of quarterbacks returning to school after a top-five Heisman year is relatively slim. Many head for the pros or graduate. Secondly, even if a star QB returns, he often loses a few key weapons. And perhaps most significantly, the Heisman has power. It ratchets up the outside pressures, pulling a player’s attention in other directions while focusing the competition’s attention squarely on him.
And so we get cases like Jameis Winston two years ago. Winston returned from a Heisman-winning campaign with his offensive line intact, top weapons such as Rashad Greene, Nick O’Leary and Karlos Williams surrounding him and a rookie tailback named Dalvin Cook at his disposal. Expectations for a repeat performance were high, but that success didn’t exactly materialize. He was good, but he wasn’t Heisman good.
Same for Tim Tebow’s final two years. Same for Johnny Manziel’s follow-up campaign. Same for Matt Leinart, Braxton Miller, Chase Daniel, Colt McCoy — it’s a long list of top-five finishers who, in the eyes of voters, took a step back a year later.
The funny thing, however, is that the stats don’t entirely back up that narrative, either, because there’s another aspect of the Heisman that is harder to quantify: Perception.
A huge year changes perceptions, particularly among quarterbacks. When a wuarterback emerges for a huge season (such as Watson last season, Trevone Boykin in 2014, Winston in 2013, Manziel in 2012…) it’s easy for voters to fall in love. But then the expectations change, and even a repeat performance the following year isn’t enough to satisfy them.
Since 2004, 16 quarterbacks who finished among the top five vote-getters in Heisman balloting returned the next season. Watson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield are the two most recent. Sam Bradford and J.T. Barrett are included, too, but injuries (Bradford) and a unique position battle (Barrett) kept them from building a full portfolio in their follow-up campaigns. Of the 12 others, however, only Quinn and Andrew Luck improve their vote totals, but none took a significant step back statistically.
As a group, we saw about a 4 percent decline in Adjusted QBR and total yards per game and a small uptick in completion percentage. Six of the 12 increased their yards-per-pass from their top-five Heisman year. By those four metrics, Boykin and Manziel, in particular, had far better seasons in their follow-up seasons. But it’s tough to meet Heisman expectations even if the numbers suggest you had a terrific season.
In fact, Marcus Mariota’s 2014 campaign marks one of the rare seasons in recent years in which one of the preseason favorites to win the award actually took home the hardware. Can Watson follow in Mariota’s footsteps and manage to exceed already enormous expectations in 2016?
The stage is certainly set for him, but that’s probably part of the problem. He can be exceptional, but the standard might be even higher than that. For Clemson’s purposes, however, a 2016 campaign in which Watson posts the same stat line he did in 2015 would be nothing to complain about, and history suggests that’s the most likely outcome.