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Top Five ACC Heisman Contenders

By Matt Osborne
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Examining the five players in the ACC with best chance to bring the conference a Heisman Trophy winner this fall.

No. 5 – QB Brad Kaaya, Miami

As was to be expected, Kaaya’s true freshman season in Coral Gables was filled with its share of ups and downs. The good news for fans of the Hurricanes, though, is there were significantly more ups than downs for a player who displayed the potential to develop into an elite signal caller. He finished the 2014 campaign ranked first in the conference in passing touchdowns (26) and second in passing yards (3,198). Kaaya also demonstrated an increased ability to protect the football coming down the stretch of the season, as only three of his 12 interceptions came during the second half of the year. With a talented complement of receivers at his flanks, Kaaya should have no trouble finding targets to which to throw in 2015. That bevy of talent, combined with a significant increase in experience and football intelligence, should lend itself to Kaaya putting up huge numbers in the follow-up to an exceptional freshman performance.

No. 4 – RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State

It took some time for Cook to firmly establish himself as the Seminoles’ top option at running back as a true freshman. Once he was able to separate himself from the competition, however, he showed that he was already one of the most dynamic runners in all of college football. His first 100-yard rushing performance would not come until the sixth game of the season, but he would go on to eclipse 100 yards in four more contests, including the final three of the season. Cook finished the 2014 season with 1,008 yards, good for fifth in the ACC. Heading into 2015 without former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in the backfield, it seems like a safe assumption that Cook will be a more instrumental part of Florida State’s offensive game plan as a sophomore. Possessing the talent to take any carry the distance, an increase in opportunities to touch the football will naturally result in better statistical production and an impressive highlight reel at the end of the year.

No. 3 – QB Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech

Though he plays the quarterback position, Thomas finished his first season as Georgia Tech’s full-time starter under center as the ACC’s fourth-leading rusher, registering 1,086 yards on the ground. Thomas is one of the fastest players in all of college football, and he is an electric playmaker once he breaks free into the open field. He has also showcased an ability to make plays consistently with his arm, as he tossed an impressive 18 touchdowns playing in Paul Johnson’s spread option attack in 2014. A relative unknown in national college football circles heading into last fall, Thomas has since established himself as one of college football’s most exciting individual players. With the Yellow Jackets losing every starting skill player on offense other than Thomas, he will be asked to carry even more of the offensive load in 2015. It may be tough to envision a player in Georgia Tech’s offense putting up big enough statistics to be considered for the Heisman, but if anybody is going to do it, it will be Thomas.

No. 2 – RB James Conner, Pittsburgh

Conner led the ACC in rushing as a sophomore, churning out 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns in one of the finest individual performances of the 2014 season. Tipping the scales at 250 pounds, Conner is an absolute nightmare for defenders to attempt to tackle. While he does possess enough speed to make plays in the open field, he undoubtedly makes his living picking up the tough yardage between the tackles. Gang tackling is a top priority when facing Conner and the Pittsburgh rushing attack. The primary factor that kept Conner out of legitimate Heisman consideration last season was the fact that the Panthers with a 6-7 record. There is little doubt that Conner will once again put up huge numbers in what very likely will be his final collegiate campaign. It still remains to be seen, however, if Pittsburgh will be able to win enough football games to generate some positive publicity for Conner on a national scale.

No. 1 – QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson

It may seem a little strange to put a player who did not finish in the top ten in passing yards in the ACC last fall as the preseason favorite to bring the conference another Heisman Trophy winner, but, simply put, Watson is just that talented. Splitting time with veteran Cole Stoudt early last season, Watson used a series of impressive performances to earn the starting position just four games into his true freshman campaign. In his first career start, Watson torched the North Carolina defense for 435 yards and a school-record six touchdown passes. He continued to dazzle when on the gridiron, but his season was cut short due to a string of unfortunate injuries. Expected to be at 100 percent health heading into this fall, Watson is even better prepared to post huge numbers in Clemson’s high-powered offense. And considering the fact that he will be working with arguably the most talented collection of receivers in the nation, there is seems to be little doubt that Watson will cash in on the opportunity in front of him.

Matt Osborne - Matt Osborne currently serves as the director of recruiting and lead editor for Southern Pigskin. His work has been published in a number of national publications, including USA Today. Although he loves all levels of football, Matt's number one joy in his life is his relationship with Jesus Christ. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattOsborne200. For media requests, please email Matt at