THE LAST TIME Deshaun Watson held a football in a game, he threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett with 12 seconds left in the national championship. The score gave the Tigers 40 points and capped a stellar night in Glendale, Ariz., for the sophomore quarterback: 478 yards of total offense and four TD tosses. But as the clock wound down, Watson frowned.
One of the most spectacular individual performances in a college football championship game had been booted into the footnotes by a shrewd coaching move. Earlier in the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 24--24, Alabama's Nick Saban called an onside kick, which worked perfectly and swung the momentum of what had been a back-and-forth game. Watson's team would lose 45--40, and he would derive zero satisfaction from his personal performance. He took solace in one thought: "You'll see us in Tampa next year."
To win this season's national championship in Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 9, Watson's Tigers and all the other title seekers must navigate a landscape loaded with star power. Often, a majority of college football's established names migrate to the NFL at season's end. The players who suited up in 2015, for instance, accounted for only 6.8% of the balloting points earned in the '14 Heisman Trophy vote.
The players who are coming back this year, meanwhile, accounted for 60.5% of last season's Heisman balloting points. Starting with two who made the trip to New York City last December—Watson and junior tailback Christian McCaffrey of Stanford—some of the biggest stars are returning for an encore, although more often than not because they were not yet eligible for the NFL draft. Now older, stronger and no doubt better, they are capable of lifting the season to a new high.
As we count down to Aug. 26, here are the 16 moments we can't wait to see in '16.
1 WHEN WATSON SHIMMIES out of the clutches of an opposing defender and rolls away, tiptoeing behind the line of scrimmage. Some defensive back will have convinced himself that no quarterback could possibly escape such a sure sack, and he'll stand bewildered as Watson's missile sails over his head and into the hands of a receiver running free.
2 WHEN MCCAFFREY TAKES a handoff, darts toward the line and pauses to analyze potential openings. The split second the Cardinal's blockers engage their assigned defenders, he'll choose a lane and stomp on the gas. No back in the nation goes from zero to end zone as quickly.
3 WHEN 6'1", 230-POUND LSU running back LEONARD FOURNETTE breaks through the line and stares down a linebacker. Unless that 'backer has friends nearby, the collision that follows will not be enjoyable. Take it from Florida's Jarrad Davis: "He's so mean with the ball in his hands. When I tackle, I'm not just tackling to put you on the ground, I'm tackling so you can feel me. When he runs the ball, it seems like he's doing the same thing. Just to see that on film and see that on TV is mind-blowing. You're sitting back and watching greatness."
4 WHEN FLORIDA STATE junior tailback Dalvin Cook—average 2015 touchdown run: 31.6 yards—decides five-yard gains are a waste of time and single-handedly guts a defense by darting past linemen, bursting through the arms of linebackers and stiff-arming DBs en route to the end zone.
5 WHEN AN OFFENSIVE tackle kick-slides to cut off the outside rusher and sees Michigan sophomore Jabrill Peppers rocketing toward the backfield. Before that tackle can ask, "Didn't they recruit him as a cornerback, and doesn't he also play tailback?" the Wolverines' jack-of-all-trades will have the quarterback on the ground.
6 WHEN USC JUNIOR cornerback Adoree' Jackson lines up at receiver and proves a player doesn't have to attend Michigan to handle the kind of workload that won Charles Woodson the 1997 Heisman.
7 WHEN OKLAHOMA JUNIOR quarterback BAKER MAYFIELD gets flushed from the pocket, reverses field and releases a touchdown pass before careening over the sideline.
8 WHEN ALABAMA LINEBACKER Tim Williams blasts out of his three-point stance. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams averaged a quarterback pressure for every 2.8 snaps he played in 2015. No one got to the QB more efficiently, and the 6'4", 230-pound Williams is due for a much bigger role as a senior.
9 WHEN J.T. BARRETT, now a junior and free of Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones, finally takes the field as the unquestioned starter at quarterback for Ohio State.
10 WHEN GOLDEN-ARMED UCLA sophomore QB Josh Rosen (page 60) shows the same moxie on the field that he showed last year when he installed a hot tub in his dorm room.
11 WHEN HOUSTON COACH Tom Herman (page 44) celebrates with Chamillionaire karaoke.
12 WHEN TEXAS A&M junior defensive end Myles Garrett dips around a tackle, explodes forward, then bull-rushes the tailback before dropping the opposing quarterback.
13 WHEN OLE MISS quarterback Chad Kelly catches an errant snap and, with two rushers tossing him down, throws up a prayer that bounces off a helmet and into the waiting hands of a receiver for a touchdown. (Hey, it worked against Alabama last year.)
14 WHEN JUNIOR DEFENSIVE end Derek Barnett, a sack machine, and senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs, a future rocket scientist (no, really, he majors in aerospace engineering), lead the Volunteers through the t at Neyland Stadium to kick off Tennessee's most anticipated season in more than a decade.
15 WHEN MICHIGAN STATE junior defensive tackle Malik McDowell reminds some poor ballcarrier of precisely how the Spartans have won two of the last three Big Ten titles.
16 WHEN PITTSBURGH SENIOR tailback James Conner, who practiced this spring despite the port in his chest to facilitate chemotherapy treatments, reaches the end zone for the first time since missing last season with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
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