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Heisman race features plenty of the unexpected

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How we arrived at the Heisman finalists (2:50)

Joe Tessitore examines the Heisman Trophy race and breaks down the key weeks that led to Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Jabrill Peppers, Deshaun Watson and Dede Westbrook being named finalists for the Heisman. (2:50)

The Heisman race seldom unfolds the way we expect in the preseason. Back in July, the running backs dominated the conversation. Could Leonard Fournette win it? Maybe Christian McCaffrey would make a return trip to the ceremony in New York and take home the trophy this time. Perhaps it was Dalvin Cook's time.

As it turns out, only one player is set for a second trip to NYC for the Heisman Trophy presentation on Saturday: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, one of the preseason favorites. It is no surprise to see Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield make it, either, considering he finished fourth last year.

But the other three finalists? Entering this season:

  • Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had seven career starts.

  • Oklahoma receiver Dede Westbrook had one career 100-yard game.

  • Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers had to learn an entirely new position and scheme. Oh, and he plays defense, a disqualifier most years.

So imagine the wide range of reactions when their names were announced as Heisman finalists earlier this week. Watson expected to hear his name, but he had a special appreciation for making it two years in a row.

Mayfield expected to hear his name, too. Jackson did not even watch the show, finding out later from a school official that he became the first player in Louisville history to become a Heisman finalist. “I was pumped about it,” Jackson said.

Westbrook watched from his house.

“When they said my name, my mouth just dropped,” Westbrook said. “A few OU SoonerVision people were over at my house recording me, and when they walked in I was like, ‘I don’t know why you guys are here. I don’t think I stand a chance.' For them to announce my name the way that they did, it was pretty impressive.”

Peppers also got the news over the phone. “I was shocked. Still shocked,” Peppers said. “I couldn’t put it into words. I think I just screamed.”

All five have proved themselves worthy as finalists. But only one has dominated the discussion since September. That would be Jackson, who opened with eight touchdowns against Charlotte, and then added 610 total yards, five touchdowns and the now famous “Lamar leap” in a nationally televised Friday night game against Syracuse.

After that? Over 360 combined yards and five touchdowns against Florida State. It became hard to ignore what Jackson was doing with his arm and his legs. Mayfield, one time zone away and far removed from any ACC games, said, “I don’t know how you can miss him. He’s on every single ESPN highlight. He’s a very special player.”

Jackson’s domination in September led to one big discussion point: Could the September Heisman "winner" hold on to the end? After all, several players in recent memory had started September on a tear, only to fizzle as the year went on.

Jackson had one big game after another, overshadowing what just about everybody else was doing. That includes Watson, the reigning ACC Player of the Year. The two squared off on Oct. 1. Watson had 397 total yards and five touchdowns in Clemson's 42-36 win; Jackson had 457 yards and three total touchdowns. Both ended the game as legitimate Heisman contenders.

At this point, Fournette was hurt, while McCaffrey and Cook were on teams that got off to slow starts. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was just starting its Big 12 win streak, with Westbrook and Mayfield leading the way. As both put up one big game after another, Oklahoma began touting them as Westbrook/Mayfield for Heisman.

Westbrook ended up with two 200-yard games and six 100-yard games to close the season. Mayfield closed with 29 touchdown passes in his final eight games.

“It says a lot [that] the two of us get to go together,” Mayfield said. “We’ve put in a lot of time and work together so it seems like it’s starting to pay off. We have one more to go, but to have the recognition for him and us together is pretty special.”

Still, Jackson had a commanding lead through mid-November. Then Louisville dropped its last two games and Jackson struggled against Houston. How big would the door open for Watson, Mayfield and Westbrook? Peppers impressed voters, too, with his versatility: He played 15 different positions and a whopping 933 snaps for the Wolverines. The breakdown of his plays: 53 on offense, 726 on defense and 124 on special teams.

He is just the eighth defensive player to be named a Heisman finalist, starring in a hybrid linebacker/defensive back role under first-year defensive coordinator Don Brown.

“I just tried to take it upon myself to be better than I was last year,” Peppers said. “I missed a lot of tackles last year. I tried to make bigger plays when I had the ball in my hands. Last year, I felt like I was an ‘almost’ kinda guy. Almost scored on a punt, almost did this, almost did that. I tried to capitalize on the opportunities I had. The acquisition of Coach Brown definitely helped. He put me in a new position where I could thrive.”

All five players thrived all season long, adding a blend of the expected and unexpected. That’s usually the way the Heisman goes.