ACC Heisman Hopefuls

The Front Runners

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson

Watson had a near-perfect debut in 2015, posting 194 yards in the air and two touchdowns on 18-of-22 passing in Clemson’s 49-10 win over Wofford. The Tigers’ sophomore quarterback has arguably the best chance of any player in the ACC to win the Heisman, but he’ll need to stay healthy this season to stay in the hunt.

Despite an injury-plagued freshman season, Watson still passed for 1466 yards on 137 attempts. Even more impressive was his 14 to 2 TD/INT ratio, a stat that led to a remarkable 188.6 passer rating. The Clemson field general has the skill set to win the award, and the Tigers’ schedule increases his odds even more. Clemson’s three most difficult games, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and Florida State, will all be played in Death Valley. If Watson and company can escape those challenges unscathed, expect to see the sophomore’s name near the top of almost every Heisman ballot.

An Oct. 10 showdown with fellow Heisman-hopeful Justin Thomas and Georgia Tech could determine the conference's frontrunner for the award.

Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas

Thomas saw extremely limited action in Georgia Tech’s season opener and with good reason, as the Yellow Jackets raced out to a 34-0 first quarter lead en route to a 69-6 blowout of Alcorn State. The junior field general was 3-of-4 through the air for 54 yards and a score, and he also added Tech’s first rushing touchdown of the season.

Thomas is undoubtedly the most intriguing Heisman contender, simply because of the offense in which he plays. He won’t put up the passing numbers of the prototypical, Heisman-contending QB due to lack of overall chances, but his rushing prowess makes him one of the most electrifying players in the entire country.

The Yellow Jackets’ recent success has garnered Thomas major national attention, and if Tech makes a push towards the College Football Playoff, there’s no reason why the Jackets’ leader shouldn’t be considered for the nation’s most prestigious award.

Last season Thomas passed for 1719 yards and rushed for 1086 more, leading Tech to an Orange Bowl title. If he can add 100-200 yards in each category, Paul Johnson’s QB could be a Heisman frontrunner.

Florida State QB Everett Golson

Everett Golson’s first game in a Seminole uniform was a success, as the transfer QB lit up Texas State to the tune of 19-of-25 passing for 302 yards and four touchdowns. It took longer than expected for FSU to pull away, so Golson got a few more reps than his counterparts in Week 1. Even still, the performance was the perfect way for the Myrtle Beach, SC, native to get a potential Heisman campaign kicked off.

He was turnover-prone a season ago for Notre Dame, tossing 14 interceptions that were somewhat overshadowed by his 29 touchdowns and 143.6 passer rating. Florida State’s running game, headlined by Dalvin Cook, should afford Golson ample opportunity to hit on big plays down the field all season long, but he’ll need to avoid making mistakes if he wants to be mentioned in potential Heisman discussions.

The Seminoles have three more seemingly inevitable wins before the schedule ramps up in mid-October, so Golson is predicted to be near the top of the ACC in most passing categories after the season’s first month. Road contests against Georgia Tech and Clemson will be difficult, but there’s no reason Golson shouldn’t be mentioned in Heisman talks if he leads FSU past those two challenges.

The Sleepers

North Carolina QB Marquise Williams

Of all the ACC’s Heisman hopefuls, UNC quarterback Marquise Williams had the worst opening game. His 19-of-31 line for 232 yards wasn’t bad at all, but Williams threw three interceptions, including two in the red zone that ultimately cost the Tar Heels an extremely winnable game against rival South Carolina.

Even with the disappointing opening game, Williams is one of the more talented dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Last season, he passed for 3068 yards and threw 21 touchdown passes, adding 788 more rushing yards and 13 scores on the ground. It’s hard to imagine Williams getting much attention if the Tar Heels don’t perform well, and the opening game in Charlotte certainly doesn’t bode well for Larry Fedora and company, but a duplication of his 2014 stats would definitely warrant national praise.

Williams also threw just nine picks a season ago, which makes his three interceptions last Thursday night seem more like a fluke than something that will become a regular occurrence. The Heels senior leader might be a long shot to become a Heisman finalist, but he’s an electric playmaker who will win games for UNC with his feet and his arm. Williams is underrated on the national stage, but he’s simply one of the best the ACC has to offer.

NC State QB Jacoby Brissett

Jacoby Brissett looked sharp in NC State’s season-opening win over Troy, as he completed 21-of-23 passes for 196 yards and two scores. Like Marquise Williams, he’s a dual-threat playmaker who is a nightmare to formulate a game plan for. Brissett has displayed remarkable decision-making skills over the course of his career in Raleigh, a trait that has landed the senior quarterback a spot in the top tier of ACC field generals. Brissett threw just five interceptions a season ago to go along with his 22 touchdowns, and he continued the impressive trend by starting the 2015 campaign without a pick.

Brissett is, admittedly, a sleeper because the ACC has arguably the most talented group of quarterbacks in the entire country, but the West Palm Beach, FL, native can hold his own. Games against Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion, and South Alabama in the next three weeks should have Brissett among the conference leaders in passing entering October.

The entire country got a glimpse of his talent last season against Florida State, when he showcased his escapability on an improbable TD pass that gave NC State an early lead over the Noles. Don’t discount the Wolfpack star during his senior season. Brissett can flat-out play.

Miami QB Brad Kaaya

Brad Kaaya is a budding star in the ACC, and The U’s hopes of re-establishing national prominence in the next few years rest solely on the sophomore quarterback’s shoulders. Kaaya’s 12 interceptions in his rookie season weren’t great, but his 3,198 passing yards and 26 touchdowns showcased his bright future. After all, numbers like that during a freshman season aren’t easy to come by.

Kaaya wasn’t as accurate as some of his counterparts on this list during Miami’s season-opening win over Bethune-Cookman, as he completed just 16 of his 27 passes, but his 173 yards and two scores were respectable. An added year of experience should bode well for Kaaya in 2015, as he looks to further establish himself as the ACC’s QB of the future.

If you’re looking for an older, experience player then Miami’s quarterback probably isn’t for you. But if you want a young player with the potential to become one of the best quarterbacks in the country before his time in college is done, then Kaaya is your guy.

Injured Reserve

Pittsburgh RB James Conner

The Panthers’ All-American running back will miss the entire 2015 season after injuring his knee on Saturday against Youngstown State. He still managed 77 yards and two scores on just eight carries.

Pitt’s star would have definitely benefitted from an improving Panther passing attack, as the majority of his 2014 damage was done in spite of the fact that opposing defenses knew what was coming. The reigning ACC Player of the Year would have been a safe bet to approach 1,500 yards for a second consecutive season, if it were not for this injury. Get well soon, James!