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The Heisman race came down to Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson, and voters got it right

Clemson’s star had a second Heisman-worthy season in a row, but this one happened during Lamar’s year.

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Heisman Ceremony Photo by Todd Van Emst - Pool/Getty Images

Lamar Jackson is a Heisman Trophy winner. Louisville’s true sophomore quarterback beat out Clemson junior Deshaun Watson and three others to win this year’s award. He just had a season for the ages and now has recognition worthy of it.

It was, the vote totals made clear, a two-man race. Jackson was the first tier, with 2,144 total voting points. Watson had 1,524. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield was third (361), while OU’s Dede Westbrook and Jabrill Peppers (209 and 208) were the fourth level. The debate effectively came down to the two ACC quarterbacks.

Watson, who was Bill Connelly’s choice for the Heisman last year, made a great case for himself again. He led No. 2 Clemson to the College Football Playoff, where the Tigers will meet Ohio State in a Fiesta Bowl semifinal on New Year’s Eve. He had lower ground numbers than he posted as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, because Clemson has lowered his rushing attempts, but still enough to add another dimension to his strong play. He’ll likely be a top-10 NFL draft pick and could leave school with a national championship.

Jackson’s numbers were better, and both play a position where numbers paint a vivid picture of overall performance. Jackson’s passing efficiency isn’t appreciably different than Watson’s, and both had about the same number of total turnovers.

Jackson’s extra 1,000 rushing yards sure are different, though. Jackson ran more efficiently (6.6 yards per rush to 4.1) and a lot more often (234 carries to 129) than Watson, even though Jackson took 38 sacks to Watson’s 11. Jackson confronted defenses with a level of danger even the excellent Watson didn’t match.

Beyond the raw stats, Pro Football Focus concluded Jackson’s been better overall, though 15th seems like too low a ranking for Watson:

It can be countered fairly that Watson has other numbers that matter more. Clemson beat Louisville head-to-head by a few inches on Oct. 1, when Watson threw three interceptions but also five touchdowns as Jackson arguably had the better individual game. Watson is 12-1 and in the Playoff. Jackson lost his last two starts and is in the Citrus Bowl. And Watson’s stats are even more impressive when you consider his upgrade in competition from 2015 to 2016.

But the Heisman isn’t a team award. Clemson is a better team than Louisville, as evidenced by the teams’ overall recruiting ratings and records in the years before these QBs took over (and moments like Jackson’s offensive line disappearing against Houston), and Clemson’s already been rewarded for that by winning the ACC. The Tigers’ superiority doesn’t mean Watson should get an advantage Jackson doesn’t have in vying for an individual honor: “most outstanding player” in college football.

(And if Jackson needs to be punished for his team losing to Houston and Kentucky, we should remember Watson lost to Pitt and nearly lost to Troy and NC State.)

Watson is amazing, and this isn’t to knock him. How could he have been more “outstanding” than Jackson? Jackson was setting our eyes on fire all year. His touchdown and yardage counts beat the likes of Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III and paralleled Tim Tebow in their best college years. He joined only Tebow and Cam Newton in the 30/20 touchdowns club. He had Heisman numbers and a Heisman moment. He checked every box.

“Outstanding” is a nebulous adjective. But whatever it means, hurdling defenders for touchdowns falls under it. Fifty-one touchdowns fall under it. Being the first player in FBS history to breach 3,300 passing and 1,500 rushing yards falls under it. Jackson’s brilliance was so comprehensive and so unique that it’s nearly impossible to make a good case anyone else was more “outstanding.”

Watson might have done the best pure quarterbacking job in the country. His Davey O’Brien Award win aligns with that view. Peppers might have been the best pure football athlete in the country, and Westbrook its most dangerous receiver. Mayfield was definitely its most efficient passer.

But nobody was as overwhelming in as many ways as Jackson, who got exactly the trophy he deserved.