For the ACC, 2015 was the year of being close. As most everyone knows by now, Clemson took Alabama to the very end in the College Football Playoff National Championship game before falling to the Tide.
When it came to the Heisman Trophy, the ACC had another almost. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was invited to the Heisman ceremony as a finalist. He ended up finishing third behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, although Watson received 148 first-place votes.
Watson returns this fall to contend again and he’s joined by another legitimate contender and some other stars eager to join in the chase. Here is a list of the ACC’s top 10 Heisman candidates.
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
The reigning ACC Player of the Year became the first in FBS history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in the same season. But the stats only tell so much. It was clear going back to 2014 the impact Watson had on the Tigers. When he played during his freshman season, the Tigers moved the ball at will. When he was out, the offense was often stagnant. Also, Watson outplayed Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, another Heisman contender, in last year’s Orange Bowl and had much success against Alabama’s vaunted defense in the national title game. Watson is one of the nation’s top bets to win the Heisman in 2016.
2. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
And Cook is not far behind. Florida State was 69th in the nation in rushing offense with 168 yards per game. The junior from Miami was fifth individually with 141 yards per game. For the season, Cook ran for 1,691 of the Seminoles’ 2,187 yards on the ground or 77.3 percent. This is even more impressive considering that injuries forced Cook to miss one full game and forced him out of a couple others early. Along with Watson, Cook is likely to be a Heisman finalist come December.
3. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
The numbers were solid in 2015 and the Miami signal-caller limited mistakes by only throwing five interceptions. Now, the very talented thrower has a new head coach with a system known for developing quarterbacks, hopefully leading to more explosive plays for the Hurricanes. Kaaya also has two skilled running backs that can take some pressure off his shoulders. However, Miami’s line – which was woeful in 2015 – must improve and receivers must develop to help out veteran Stacy Coley. On top of everything, Kaaya’s a Miami quarterback and that in and of itself draws attention.
4. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
With 227 yards passing and 226 more rushing against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl, Jackson put together a pretty strong audition tape for his own Heisman campaign. Though he is not viewed as the idea fit to run Bobby Petrino’s system, the Louisville head coach knows enough about offense to be able to utilize Jackson’s talents in the right way.
5. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
The Charlotte product lived up to the hype as a sophomore, rushing for 1,463 yards and 17 scores last fall. With quarterback Marquise Williams gone and four of his blockers returning, Hood may be asked to do even more this fall.
6. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
No one even knows if Conner will start over ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison. But if Conner can get back to his 2014 form, he will be right in the hunt. And no one has a better Heisman backstory than Pitt’s cancer survivor.
7. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
When mentioning Clemson Heisman contenders, only one name comes to mind. But the hard-running Gallman piled up 1,527 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground as a redshirt sophomore and with opponents focused on Watson, he should have another big year running behind Clemson’s great offensive line.
8. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech
He did not have a very good 2015 and the Yellow Jackets were a miserable 3-9. But should Georgia Tech rebound, Thomas will be right in the middle of the action. He has the potential to throw for more than 2,000 yards while also rushing for more than 1,000.
9. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh
Classifying Whitehead as a safety really isn’t fair. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi not only moves him all around the defense, he gives him touches on offense as well. Whitehead led the team in tackles as a freshman and will assume more of a leadership role this season.
10. Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse
Dungey, who had a nice freshman season, had his dreams come true when the Orange hired Dino Babers as their new head coach. While at Bowling Green, Babers orchestrated an offense that finished fifth in the nation in passing with 367 yards per game. Dungey should have some impressive numbers… except perhaps in the win column.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.