There are a couple of Heisman candidates in the ACC this season, but the most realistic possibility might not be who you’re thinking.
Sure, Deshaun Watson is the nation’s most talented quarterback. He’s the only player in FBS history to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 1,000 in the same season. He’s 18-2 as a starter; one of those losses was in last year’s national championship game, while the other came in 2014 after Watson tore his ACL early at Georgia Tech.
Come December, Watson may very well find himself at the Heisman ceremony in New York for the second year in a row. He also might end up watching Florida State running back Dalvin Cook accept the award.
College football as a whole is loaded at the running back position. There’s Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Pittsburgh’s James Conner and New Mexico State’s Larry Rose III. The list goes on.
But Cook might be the best of the bunch.
He’s already coming off the best season a Florida State running back has ever had. His 1,691 rushing yards as a sophomore shattered the single-season school record previously held by Warrick Dunn (1,242). His 1,935 all-purpose yards were also the most in a season for a Seminole. As a threat both running and catching the ball, he found the end zone 20 times.
There’s reason to believe he could be even better this fall.
Cook dealt with hamstring issues for most of last season. He left a game at Wake Forest after only two carries — but not before picking up 94 yards and a score on the ground — and missed the entirety of FSU’s Halloween matchup against Syracuse. (That could have been a career day, given that the Orange were No. 94 in the country in yards per play allowed.)
The Miami native didn’t get a ton of help from his offensive line, either. The Seminoles were inexperienced up front, and defenders were often in the backfield before Cook could get a full head of steam.
When he was given even a bit of room, though, he was a big play waiting to happen.
Cook averaged 7.38 yards per carry. That’s nearly a yard per rush more than Fournette (6.51) and over a yard and a half more than Heisman winner Derrick Henry (5.62).
Four of Florida State’s starters on the offensive line from last year are back. That group includes junior tackle Roderick Johnson, who won the 2015 Jacobs Blocking Trophy, awarded annually to the ACC’s best blocker. The return of those players bodes well for Cook, who should have an easier time finding holes running behind a more experienced line.
Perhaps the most influential factor in Cook’s candidacy will be how he performs on Oct. 29. That’s when Florida State will host Watson and Clemson. Not only will the winner of that contest determine who has the head-to-head advantage in Heisman voting, but it could also decide which player will be playing in the ACC Championship Game. The winner of Clemson-Florida State has gone on to win the league title each of the last five years.
Outside of that meeting, Cook will have other opportunities to polish his résumé. Miami, North Carolina and Syracuse, which were all awful against the run last fall, are on the Seminoles’ schedule. If the offensive line improves and Cook stays healthy, don’t be surprised if the junior is striking a familiar pose at the end of this season.