Before the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner is named Saturday night, many of college football's other awards will be handed out Thursday night, continuing a week of individual awards ceremonies between the end of the regular season and the bowl games.
In that spirit, Sports on Earth has already named three All-America team and an All-Freshman team. Now, it's time to name more award winners, covering the best individual performers of the season and two runners-up for each category.
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford. McCaffrey set the FBS single-season record for all-purpose yards, breaking the record set by Barry Sanders in 1988. Yes, he did this in 13 games compared to 11 for Sanders, and yes, he benefits from all the kick returns he has had. But look at it differently: Even with the extra games on modern schedules, nobody else touched Sanders' mark in the last 27 years. McCaffrey was also one of the best kick returners in the country this year, averaging 28.9 yards per return.
But this honor is labeled "offensive" player of the year, and McCaffrey does not need the all-purpose/special-teams stats to make his case. He leads the nation in yards from scrimmage, averaging 183.6 yards per game. Twelve of his 13 opponents have been from Power Five conferences (plus Notre Dame), with the Cardinal playing one of the nation's most difficult schedules. He's one of the best running backs in the country, with 319 carries for 1,847 yards and eight TDs, and he's the best receiver out of the backfield, with 41 catches for 540 yards and four TDs. McCaffrey's emergence has helped make Stanford a formidable offense after last year's downturn, and he's been one of the most dangerous players in the country with the ball in his hands, no matter how he gets it.
2. Deshaun Watson, Clemson. Watson entered the season with perhaps the highest upside of any quarterback in the country, and he has delivered. He's done it despite dealing with a revamped offensive line and despite coming off a torn ACL last year. While Watson had some hiccups early in the season, he has gotten better and better, leading the Tigers to an ACC title, a 13-0 record and a playoff bid with efficient running and passing. He's a gifted and poised pure passer who throws a beautiful deep ball, and he has completed 69.5 percent for 3,512 yards with 30 TDs and 11 INTs. He's grown increasingly confident as a runner too, with 163 carries for 887 yards and 11 TDs -- including more than 100 yards in four of the last five games. Watson consistently comes through with big plays in key situations, and his value to Clemson makes him a worthy candidate for any national award that he's up for.
3. Derrick Henry, Alabama. With much of Alabama's 2014 production lost, Henry became the foundation of Lane Kiffin's offense. Not surprisingly, he has thrived. He handles a ridiculous workload, and few backs are capable of thriving like he does as games go on and defenses wear down. It's never fun to tackle Henry; it's definitely not fun for defenses to tackle him when they're inevitably tired. Henry has 339 carries for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns, and he has been at his best against top competition. In nine SEC games, he averaged 180 rushing yards per game. He also put up 147 yards on only 13 carries in the opener against a stingy Wisconsin defense. Alabama wins with defense first this season, but Henry has carried the offense to the playoff.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame. Smith jumps off the screen anytime you watch Notre Dame. There is no more explosive linebacker in the country, as Smith brings quick-twitch athleticism and burst to the position. Although he has only one sack, it allows him to be disruptive when trying to crash into the backfield. He also has only sack partially because he is so valuable in pass coverage. He's instinctive and fast, making him a tremendous weapon. Offenses can usually draw mismatches with faster backs and receivers against linebackers, but hat's not the case with Smith. He can line up anywhere, and he can make plays against just about anyone. He has 113 tackles, nine tackles for loss, five pass breakups and a forced fumble for an improved defense, and he's been dominant in the second half of the season, with 14 tackles against USC and 15 tackles in a game against Stanford in which Notre Dame contained Christian McCaffrey.
Jaylon Smith is a freak. https://t.co/mXTV511Y3d— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) November 24, 2015
2. Carl Nassib, Penn State. Nassib is a former walk-on who didn't start a game until his fifth year on campus and missed almost all of the final two games with an injury. And yet he still has become a coveted NFL prospect who leads the nation in sacks (15 ½) and forced fumbles (six) and is second in tackles for loss (19 ½). He also had 46 tackles and an interception. Playing alongside the outstanding tackle duo of Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel helped, but Nassib earned his huge numbers, becoming a force at defensive end as a 6-foot-7, 272-pound monster. Along the way, he surprised just about everyone, including his former coach, Bill O'Brien.
3. Joey Bosa, Ohio State. It's easy to be distracted by the fact that Bosa dropped from 13 ½ sacks to just five in his junior year. Don't let that take away from Bosa's impact on the game this season. He may not have always finished plays for Ohio State, but he frequently played a starring role in causing failed plays, through his combination of raw power and athleticism and technical prowess as a defensive end. He's disruptive off the edge when rushing the passer, and he's also a savvy player against the run. Defenses double- and triple-team him, and they run away from him. He impacts entire game plans, and thus his value goes far beyond sack numbers. Besides, he still does have 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble for a defense that did live up to expectations, ranking fourth in yards per play and second in points allowed.
Coach of the Year
1. Dabo Swinney, Clemson. Swinney has done an exceptional job as CEO of Clemson football. He had never been a coordinator when he was promoted from wide receivers coach to head coach, but he has thrived in the role, hiring capable assistants, delegating properly, improving the Tigers' recruiting and finally helping a sleeping giant reach its potential. This year, Clemson lost its entire offensive line, had some other early injury problems and had to move on without offensive coordinator Chad Morris (now SMU head coach), and the Tigers are 13-0 with the top seed in the College Football Playoff. Four years ago, Clemson won the ACC but lost the Orange Bowl to West Virginia 70-33. Swinney hired Brent Venables from Oklahoma to fix the defense -- which he has done, and then some -- and since then the Tigers have gone 45-7. They took back the ACC from Florida State this year, and regardless of what happens in the playoff, they've become one of the best programs in college football.
2. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa. Ferentz has struggled with mediocrity and his reputation for conservatism ever since signing a massive contract extension at the beginning of the 2010 season. Finally, Ferentz has moved beyond those conversations, turning the Hawkeyes into a team that went 12-0 in the regular season and came within a play or two of winning the Big Ten and earning a playoff bid. Ferentz took home his fourth Big Ten coach of the year award this year, but things had clearly gotten stagnant over the first half of his new contract. This year, Iowa has been a well-coached team that has avoided mistakes, played well at the line of scrimmage and put together one of the best seasons in school history, with a No. 5 ranking and a Rose Bowl bid.
3. Nick Saban, Alabama. This spot could go to a number of deserving candidates. It could go to Brian Kelly for surviving a ton of injuries to go 10-2 at Notre Dame. It could be Jim Harbaugh or Jim McElwain for exceeding expectations in their first years rebuilding national powers. It could be Tom Herman for taking Houston to the Peach Bowl in his first season as a head coach. It could be Bob Stoops for revamping Oklahoma and leading the Sooners to the playoff. But coach of the year awards often strangely avoid honoring the actual best coaches, in favor of those who exceeded preseason expectations. Saban has been the best coach in the country for most of the last decade, and this year he oversaw an Alabama team that has one of the best defenses in recent history and is in the playoff despite losing so many key pieces from last year's offense. Just because we've seen this before doesn't mean it's not impressive.
Offensive Freshman of the Year
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State. The Nittany Lions struggled on offense for much of the season, as Christian Hackenberg was sacked 39 times, with the line struggling and the offense as a whole struggling to find a rhythm. And yet Barkley was a revelation, revitalizing the Penn State running game with impressive lateral agility, burst and power, shaking defenders and breaking tackles. He barely played in the opener and missed two and a half games with an ankle injury, but he still ran for 1,007 yards and seven touchdowns on 165 carries and caught 15 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown. He carried the offense at times and was a regular bright spot, even rushing for 198 yards against Ohio State. He was the most dangerous freshman running back in the country, and that was despite a problematic offensive line.
2. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M. Kevin Sumlin has recruited plenty of talented receivers to Texas A&M, but Kirk instantly became the best player on the offense this season. The speedy 5-foot-11, 200-pound true freshman caught 70 passes for 925 yards and six touchdowns, and he also returned two punts for touchdowns. His production trailed off in the second half of the season as the Aggies went through turmoil at quarterback, but he'll be one of the top returning wide receivers in college football next season, poised for big things once the QB situation settles down.
3. Josh Rosen, UCLA. It's hard for any true freshman quaterback to experience consistent success, and Rosen was no different. While he went to UCLA as the most polished quarterback in the class of 2015 and was clearly ready to play, the season was filled with up-and-down play and occasional poor decisions. Again, that was to be expected. Overall, though, Rosen showed off flashes of brilliance, with a very high ceiling that could end with him being an early draft pick in two years, should he continue on this trajectory. He completed 59.5 percent for 3,350 yards with 20 TDs and nine INTs.
Defensive Freshman of the Year
1. Derwin James, Florida State. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound James could probably play linebacker with little problem, but he's already starring for the Seminoles as a safety. One of the top recruits in the country, James has quickly lived up to the hype, racking up 77 tackles (second on the team) with 7 ½ tackles, 3 ½ sacks, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He's physical enough to play in the box and athletic enough to excel in coverage, bringing versatility to the position that will make him one of the nation's best defenders over the next few years.
2. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan. Peppers' initial attempt at a freshman season was cut short by an injury in 2014, so he became a redshirt freshman this year. He could be a star running back or defensive back, and he quickly began doing it all for Jim Harbaugh. Listed as Michigan's starting strong safety, Peppers can do whatever the Wolverines need. He has 45 tackles, 5 ½ tackles for loss and 10 pass breakups. He has eight catches and two rushing TDs on offense. And he averages 11.4 yards per punt return. He's a great all-around playmaker who will inevitably try to elicit Charles Woodson comparisons.
3. Malik Jefferson, Texas. Jefferson dealt with injury problems late in the season and missed the Baylor game, but overall he lived up to substantial hype as a five-star recruit who enrolled early and quickly became a starter. He was second on the team with 61 tackles and added seven tackles for loss, 2 ½ sacks (two in the Oklahoma upset), three pass breakups and a fumble return for a touchdown. He'll be the leader of the Longhorns the next couple of years.
Assistant Coach of the Year
1. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma. Riley is only 32 years old, having made a rapid climb up the coaching ladder to the point where he was reportedly a candidate for the South Carolina head coaching job that went to Will Muschamp. A Mike Leach disciple at Texas Tech, Riley spent five years as offensive coordinator at East Carolina, leading prolific Pirates offenses, and he was hired last offseason to fix Oklahoma's erratic offense. He did just that, meshing well with quarterback Baker Mayfield to help lead the Sooners to the College Football Playoff. Mayfield ranks second in passer rating and just missed a Heisman ceremony initiation, while the Sooners are third in Football Outsiders' S&P+ offensive ratings and ninth in yards per play.
2. Brent Venables, Clemson. Venables has not only fixed the Clemson defense since coming over from Oklahoma in 2012, he's made it one of the best in college football. The Tigers may have had the best defense in the nation last year, and this year they had to replace Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett and many other key players. Yet the Tigers are ninth in yards per play allowed and sixth in Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings on defense, behind an excellent secondary and a defensive line that continues to be disruptive with Shaq Lawson becoming the headliner. Instead of rebuilding, Clemson reloaded to go 13-0.
3. Gene Chizik, North Carolina. We shouldn't overstate the improvement on defense, because the Tar Heels still ranked just 47th in yards per play and struggled to stop the run. But it is hard to overstate how bad the defense looked in 2014. Chizik, the former Auburn head coach, made a huge impact, with the Tar Heels jumping from 117th in defensive passer rating to 17th and 119th in points allowed to 35th. They gave up over 30 points nine times last year and four times this year. Chizik was never going to make this a shut-down unit in one year, but he helped spur enough improvement to allow the Tar Heels to go 11-2 and come close to an ACC title.
Offensive Lineman of the Year
1. Joshua Garnett, Stanford. It's hard for a running back to do enough to be a Heisman finalist without help from a great line. Christian McCaffrey has had exactly that, and Garnett has been the centerpiece. The senior left guard has made significant strides, bringing physicality and agility to the position to open holes for McCaffrey and help get the Cardinal offense moving after a rough 2014.
Look at 51 getting his work in https://t.co/eGv6Hb8ceH— Brian Floyd (@BrianMFloyd) October 25, 2015
2. Ryan Kelly, Alabama. The three-year starter has been more reliable than ever this season, helping to pave the way for Derrick Henry's Heisman campaign. According to Alabama, he also is not responsible for allowing a sack this season.
3. Jack Conklin, Michigan State. The former walk-on has thrived as a three-year starter, and while he had a few issues this year with injuries, he ultimately finished on a high note against Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa to help push the Spartans to the playoff. Connor Cook has rarely been sacked in his career, and Conklin is a significant reason why.
Group of Five Player of the Year
1. Tyler Matakevich, Temple. Defense pushed the Owls to a top-25 record and an AAC East Division title, and Matakevich has been the centerpiece. The four-year starter has never finished with under 100 tackles, and this season he has been at his best: 126 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, four sacks, five interceptions and pass breakups. The defense has been excellent all year, leading the first win over Penn State since 1941 and coming up just short of an upset against Notre Dame.
2. Matt Johnson, Bowling Green. Yes, quarterbacks almost always put up big numbers in offenses derived from Art Briles' system. That's the case for Johnson under Dino Babers at Bowling Green. But Johnson also shined in 2013 before Babers arrived, only to miss nearly the entire 2014 season with an injury. Upon returning, he proved to be a perfect match for Babers in each of their final seasons with the Falcons (Babers is the new Syracuse coach). Johnson has completed 68.8 percent for 4,700 yards with 43 touchdowns and eight picks for the MAC champions. He threw for 424 yards and two TDs vs. Tennessee, 491 yards and six TDs at Maryland, 443 yards and four TDs vs. Memphis and 402 yards and a TD at Purdue to open the season. While his numbers trailed off a bit down the stretch, nobody has thrown for more yards or accounted for more total TDs.
3. Paxton Lynch, Memphis. Lynch has played well enough to put him in position to be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft. The 6-foot-7 junior has completed 68.8 percent for 3,670 yards, 28 TDs and just three INTs, including 384 yards and three TDs to lead the upset win against Ole Miss. He also ended his regular season by throwing seven touchdowns in the first half of a 63-0 win over SMU.