Whether you are a Louisville fan or a Clemson fan, or just a college football fan, it is worth taking a step back to truly appreciate this moment.
Only once before has the ACC had two finalists in New York in the same year: In 2013, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston won, while Boston College running back Andre Williams finished fourth.
Never before has the ACC had two players finish 1-2 in Heisman voting.
So, yes, this is a big moment for the players and their schools. But it is also a big moment for the ACC, giving the league some well-deserved bragging rights after so many lean years when it was difficult to come up with even one worthy Heisman contender, let alone two.
As football programs have gotten better, recruiting has gotten better and coaching hires have gotten better, so, too, have the players in the conference. The successes have not been contained to just one school, either. The recent finalists have represented four programs.
When the season started, though, nobody envisioned it would unfold in quite this way. Not even Jackson, who was entering his first year as the full-time starter. “I really didn’t even think about any awards,” Jackson said over the weekend in Orlando, where he picked up his ACC Player of the Year award.
Watson had the name, reputation, expectations and "Heisman favorite" scrawled next to his name. He was the one chosen to repeat as ACC Player of the Year in preseason polling among media members in July, picking up 164 out of 191 votes. Jackson got two.
But Clemson started off with some closer-than-expected games, and Watson did not put up the dazzling numbers many had come to expect. By Week 3, he admitted he needed to have more fun on the field and apologized for bringing negative energy to the team. Jackson, meanwhile, captivated the country with one touchdown binge after another and one highlight reel play after another – from the ‘Lamar Leap’ to making Florida State look like Ferris State in a 63-20 win.
Their matchup in early October showed off their natural talent and ability, and cemented them as the best 1-2 quarterback punch in the entire country. Watson got his team out to a 28-10 lead; Jackson brought his team back to take a 36-28 lead midway through the fourth quarter; Watson helped his team re-take the lead with 3:14 left; Jackson then marched his team 72 yards down the field, seeming to take the momentum right back. But on fourth down, the Cards came up 1 yard short.
Watson ended with 397 total yards and five touchdowns; Jackson ended with 457 yards and three total touchdowns. Both ended as bona fide Heisman contenders, playing in the same division in the same conference. That game stands as a testament to them both.
So whom to choose? ACC voters overwhelmingly pick Jackson as Offensive Player off the Year and overall Player of the Year. Jackson ranks No. 2 on the latest ESPN CFB Rank; Watson is No. 11. But there is no wrong answer when posed the question: “If you could take one quarterback to lead your team, would it be Watson or Jackson?”
Watson has the experience, leadership and record, his know-how on the field the best in the ACC. His completion percentage is better (ninth in the nation), and so is his ability in the passing game. Watson is the more polished quarterback without question. “Best player in the country and it ain’t close,” Dabo Swinney said, naturally stumping for the quarterback who brought him two straight ACC titles.
But Jackson has attributes rarely seen in quarterbacks: he can throw the ball 90 yards, but he can also cover 90 yards in 4.3-second speed. He can accelerate through holes without hesitation, and gets faster as he keeps running down the field. His balance is unique, and allows him to leap over defenders, pull out spin moves and evade defenders with little effort. There is a reason just about everybody calls him a “freak” athlete – Watson included.
Watson had the record-breaking season one year ago. This year, Jackson had it, topping the total touchdowns mark Watson set in 2015 with 51 in 12 games. Jackson only played in six full games all season, and finished second in the country in total offense, averaging 410.7 yards per game.
Though Watson did not run as much, he was right with Jackson every step of the way. Jackson ended with 4,928 total yards; Watson had 4,443. Jackson had 51 touchdowns responsible for; Watson had 43 (more than he had last year through 13 games). The two rank in the Top 12 in six different statistical categories. Only once before have two quarterbacks topped 40 touchdowns in the ACC in the same season. Never before in the ACC have two quarterbacks gone over 4,400 yards of offense in the same season.
“I think we both did a great job leading our teams,” Jackson said. “Both of us stepped up when it was time to. We’re great competitors, I can see from seeing him play and from my play.”
Jackson remains the Heisman favorite, but Watson finished the season stronger. One, or both, could end their Saturday in disappointment. Their performances this season were anything but, and that should ultimately be celebrated. Especially in a league that finally is starting to get the hang of this Heisman thing.