Because the Manning Award is the only college honor that takes bowl-game performance into consideration, the choice of sophomore Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was really easy.
Although the Tigers lost to Alabama in the College Football Championship championship on Monday, Watson was the transcendent star of the postseason, tearing up the Oklahoma and Alabama defenses as Clemson came oh-so-close to becoming the first 15-0 team in NCAA history.
He rushed for 145 yards in the Tigers’ comprehensive 37-17 victory against the Sooners in the semifinals. He threw for 405 yards and fourth touchdowns in the 45-40 loss to Alabama, exhibiting all the multi-dimensional skills during the playoffs that made Clemson unstoppable in the regular season.
In the process, he easily outdistanced the other finalists — Brandon Allen (Arkansas), Trevone Boykin (TCU), Connor Cook (Michigan State), Brandon Doughty (Western Kentucky), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Chad Kelly (Ole Miss), Paxton Lynch (Memphis), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Dak Prescott (Mississippi State), Keenan Reynolds (Navy) and Greg Ward Jr. (Houston).
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a winner that had such an outstanding postseason, especially a championship game,” said Archie Manning, who spent some time Thursday politicking for Watson to be a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux. “He came up a little bit short on the scoreboard, but I think it’s still the talk of the nation of his outstanding play last Monday night in Arizona.”
Watson was the top vote-getter among quarterbacks for the Heisman Trophy, finishing third behind running backs Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey, but the Manning Award has not always dovetailed with the Heisman results in its 12-year history. LSU’s JaMarcus Russell, Texas’ Colt McCoy and Florida’s Tim Tebow beat out the Heisman winners from 2006-08 (Troy Smith, Tebow and Sam Bradford, respectively).
Watson left no doubt. Still, he spent the last few days picking apart his performance against Alabama, saying he had watched the replay four or five times while dwelling on the one glaring mistake he made — a first-half interception.
“It was a forced ball,” he said. “I didn’t see the safety until the last second, but I’m just trying to improve my game some way and somehow and correct the mistakes I made in that game. No one’s perfect. I’ll try to learn from it and get better.”
He’ll do it at Clemson, and with almost everyone returning from the nation’s 11th-ranked offense, the possibilities appear limitless. Watson completed 68 percent of his passes for 4,104 yards and 35 touchdowns while rushing for 1,105 yards and 12 scores this year.
He wants to perform at an even higher level.
“We have a chance to be one of the best offenses ever in college football,” he said. “That’s our motivation, to be the best ever.”
They’ll almost certainly begin the season ranked No. 1, the same position they held entering the playoffs. Only this time, no one will question their legitimacy as many did before watching Watson and company in the playoffs.
“Everyone thought that Alabama was going to roll over us, but we went toe to toe with them until the last play” he said. “It came down to an onside kick. We have a lot of confidence in this program, and we’re going to come back stronger next year and try to finish the deal out.”
The Manning Award is sponsored by the Sugar Bowl. Watson will receive his award at a luncheon in New Orleans this spring.