Back in December 2009, a running back from Alabama, a running back from Stanford and a quarterback from a then-13-0 team went to Times Square as Heisman finalists. It would become the closest race in Heisman history, with just 28 votes separating the top two and 159 separating first and third place.
Flash forward to December 2015, and a running back from Alabama, a running back from Stanford and a quarterback from a 13-0 team are in Times Square as Heisman finalists. And just like 2009, this race is expected to be one of the closest in recent memory.
Of course, the original cast from 2009 – Alabama’s Mark Ingram, Stanford’s Toby Gerhart and Texas’ Colt McCoy – are long gone from the college ranks, along with fellow finalists Ndamukong Suh and Tim Tebow. The 2015 reboot features Crimson Tide tailback Derrick Henry, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Deshaun Watson of the unbeaten Clemson Tigers.
Any one of the three finalists has a legitimate case at the 2015 Heisman Trophy, and they all know it.
“This was a very talented year,” said McCaffrey, who added that he could think of “at least 10” players who deserved to be named Heisman finalists.
Of course, Henry hopes that this year’s ballot plays out just like 2009, when Ingram edged out Gerhart for the Heisman. Henry broke Herschel Walker’s 34-year-old SEC record of 1,986 rushing yards and tied Tebow and Tre Mason’s SEC record for rushing touchdowns with 23. He had four games of 200 or more rushing yards, including three in a four-game stretch from October to November, and scored at least one touchdown in each game.
Henry did all of that on an NCAA-best 339 carries, which normally would wear down any other running back. Not Henry, though.
“People make a big deal about all of these carries,” said Henry, a junior. “I want the ball. I want to make plays. So it’s not really a big deal to me.”
As impressive as Henry’s record-setting year may be, he’s not the only finalist to make history this season. McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ 27-year-old NCAA record for all-purpose yards with 3,496 (though McCaffrey did play in two more games than Sanders). The versatile sophomore had his biggest moment on the Cardinal’s biggest stage, racking up 461 yards (207 rushing yards, 105 receiving yards, 149 return yards) and three touchdowns (one passing, one rushing, one receiving) in the Pac-12 title game against USC.
“Any individual effort is a team statistic,” said McCaffrey, who is the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey. “I’m just lucky to be around a bunch of guys that make my job easy.”
And in a bit of a fun twist, one of McCaffrey’s backfield mates is Sanders’ son, Barry Sanders Jr. What did the younger Sanders have to say about his teammate breaking his dad’s record?
“He just came up and said congratulations,” McCaffrey said.
Then there’s Watson. The sophomore was the driving force behind Clemson’s 13-0 season and a key reason why the Tigers were able to earn the top seed in the College Football Playoff. The dual-threat accounted for 41 total touchdowns and is the only player this season to throw for more than 3,500 yards and run for more than 800.
Saturday will have some additional meaning for Watson. He had surgery on Dec. 12 of last year to repair a torn ACL. Now he has the chance to become the school’s first Heisman winner.
Not that that affected his preseason Heisman hopes.
“I thought I could [be in New York] before the season,” Watson said. “I just knew that if I could control what I control and take it one game at a time, I would eventually be here. And now I’m sitting here.”