Going into the fall, two of the nation’s top Heisman Trophy contenders are ACC rivals. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson was a finalist for the award last year and although Dalvin Cook did not earn a trip to New York, the Florida State running back garnered enough votes to finish seventh despite battling injuries for much of the season.
The question now is, which Atlantic Division star has the Heisman advantage entering the 2016 season? Here is a tale of the tape to show the advantages held by each heavyweight.
Watson: 6-foot-2, 210 pounds
Cook: 5-foot-11, 206 pounds
Both players are obviously in great shape and their sizes are really irrelevant. But you can’t have a title fight without a weigh-in.
Watson: 2015 Stats - 67.8 percent completion rate, 4,104 yards passing, 35 passing TDs, 14INTs, 1,105 yards rushing, 5.4 ypc, 13 rushing TDs
Cook: 2015 Stats - 1,691 yards rushing, 7.4 ypc, 19 rushing TDs, 24 receptions, 244 yards receiving, TD
Cook’s numbers were very impressive, especially considering he missed a game and a half because of injuries. Also, he was running behind a young offensive line and the Seminoles struggled throwing the ball downfield, allowing opposing defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage.
Watson became the first player in FBS history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in the same season. That the Clemson quarterback can pile up big numbers in both categories will give him the stats edge.
Watson: at Auburn, Louisville, at Florida State
Cook: vs. Ole Miss, at Louisville, North Carolina, at Miami, Clemson, Florida
Part of getting the voters’ attention is performing well in big games. Watson will have an opportunity in a marquee game in week one against Auburn, takes on Louisville, and has the clash in Tallahassee.
But Cook is the clear winner in this category. Like Jameis Winston in 2013, Cook gets to open the season on Labor Day evening and the Ole Miss team the Seminoles are set to face in Orlando, Fla., this year is ranked much higher than the Pitt squad that Winston torched in his first game. Along with the game against Clemson on Oct. 29, an impressive showing in the matchup with rival Florida to close the regular season would give Cook a big push in the Heisman race.
Performance in Head-to-Head Game
All the other marquee matchups are nice, but how each player fares in their teams’ personal battle is the most important aspect of the Heisman race with respect to the schedule. Last season, Watson had a big game against Florida State, throwing for 297 yards and a score while rushing for 107 more in the Tigers’ win. Cook certainly did his part for the Seminoles, finishing with 194 yards and a touchdown, though he was largely held in check as Clemson surged ahead in the second half.
This year both teams return key players on the defense that could provide challenges for Watson and Cook. The game is in Tallahassee and the pass-rushing exploits of Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat may make Watson a bit uncomfortable. Though it’s impossible to forecast the result of a game that will be played in three months...
Advantage: Cook, slightly
This can be a double-edged sword. If you have too much talent on offense, touches and numbers could get gobbled up by other players. At the same time, a team needs to have balance to prevent opposing defenses from keying in on their Heisman contender.
Florida State has four starters returning along its offensive line as well as receivers that can make plays. There will be a position battle at quarterback and the Seminoles will need to get production at that spot if Cook has any hope of winning the stiff-armed trophy. Also, FSU should have a disruptive defense that can get Cook and the offense the ball back in good situations.
As a quarterback, Watson will touch the ball on every play. Running back Wayne Gallman will get his carries for sure, but Watson is the man that runs the offense and with Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, Hunter Renfrow and Jordan Leggett to throw to, he will have multiple options.
During his freshman season, Watson suffered a broken finger and a torn ACL. Last season he stayed healthy and that was the main ingredient in the Tigers’ run to the national championship game.
On the other side, Cook was hampered by hamstring and ankle issues for a good portion of 2015. His production was still great, but it was probably the difference between an invite to the Heisman presentation and his eventual seventh-place finish.
Moreover, the Florida State junior had shoulder surgery that forced him to miss a portion of this spring’s workouts. In a race this close, any time a contender spends on the bench is a detriment. The injury concerns are much greater with Cook.
This is one area where both players really excel. The national championship game against Alabama was filled with one Watson highlight-reel play after another. His escapability combined with the electric talents of the others in the Clemson offense make every snap a potential touchdown.
The same is true when Cook touches the ball. He had five touchdown runs of more than 50 yards, with four of those going for more than 70 yards. Included in those was a 94-yard TD jaunt against Wake Forest where he utilized both his power and speed.
Both guys are big plays waiting to happen and can create memorable Heisman moments, so...
Both Watson and Cook are on the short list when it comes to discussing the top Heisman Trophy contenders, regardless of conference affiliation. Barring injury, most would expect both to be finalists for the award this season.
Cook has incredible talent and will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills, beginning in week one. While there are other fine players on the Florida State offense, Cook is the guy that the Seminoles will lean on and last year he proved that he could handle the pressure that comes with being the team’s top option.
But by the nature of the quarterback position, especially in the way Clemson runs its offense, Watson will be heard from all season long. He will again put up eye-popping numbers and even if Clemson drops the game at Florida State, the Tigers should remain in contention to return to the College Football Playoff contention until the end.
Therefore, the choice is...
Winner: Deshaun Watson
— 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.