The last time we saw Sam Darnold, he out-dueled Penn State in a phenomenal Rose Bowl performance, launching an offseason of praise and NFL Draft talk. The last time we saw Jake Browning, he went through the same type of struggles that most quarterbacks face against Alabama, launching a slightly under-the-radar offseason that began with shoulder surgery.
Darnold's arm and Josh Rosen's mouth have stolen most of the Pac-12 quarterbacking headlines entering the 2017 college football season, but while we debate which Los Angeles quarterback has the brighter NFL future, let's not forget the Pac-12 player who made the best push for the Heisman Trophy last year. That's Browning, who spent a significant chunk of 2016 as the best alternative to Lamar Jackson in the race for college football's most prestigious individual award.
It's a performance that Browning is capable of duplicating, and then some.
Through nine games of 2016, Browning had an absurd passer rating of 202.8, completing 67.7 percent of his passes for 2,273 yards, 34 touchdowns and three interceptions, as the Huskies boasted a perfect 9-0 record. Then Browning completed only 47.2 percent of his passes with two picks in a head-to-head duel with Darnold, and that loss effectively ended his campaign. The next week, Browning injured his shoulder against Arizona State, and while he torched Washington State in the Apple Cup, he had rough performances in the Pac-12 title win over Colorado (9 of 24, 118 yards) and the playoff semifinal loss to Alabama (20 of 38, 150 yards). Soon afterward, Browning underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder.
Ultimately, Browning's numbers settled at a passer rating of 167.5 (seventh nationally), a completion percentage of 62.1 percent, 3,430 yards, 43 TDs and nine INTs, still fantastic production that earned him Pac-12 offensive player of the year honors. Washington made the playoff, but even in a wide-open race for second behind Jackson in the Heisman vote, Browning finished sixth and just missed the finalist cut, despite being close behind No. 4 Dede Westbrook and No. 5 Jabrill Peppers. Both of them had excellent seasons, but that Browning was behind either was a mistake, and it was also familiar territory for Washington, which has historically been forgotten in Heisman races.
Despite ending up only sixth, Browning had the best Heisman finish of any Washington offensive player ever. The Huskies' only top-five finisher was defensive lineman Steve Emtman, who came in fourth in 1991. Otherwise, Washington's top-10 Heisman vote-getters are Marques Tuiasosopo (eighth, 2000), Napoleon Kaufman (ninth, 1994), Greg Lewis (seventh, 1990), Don Heinrich (ninth, 1952) and Hugh McElhenny (eighth, 1951). Washington owns a national championship and 12 AP top-10 finishes, but it joins Arizona as the only two Pac-12 teams to never have an offensive player in the top five of the Heisman vote.
The current Pac-12 teams have a total of 12 Heisman Trophy winners and 50 top-five finishes. Predictably, USC has seven of the 12 wins, and USC and Stanford have combined for 25 of the 50 top-five seasons.
Entering his junior season, Browning is fighting history with his Heisman push, and he also has other key factors potentially standing in his way:
1. Washington's schedule. Last year, Washington didn't play the strongest schedule, either, with Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State in nonconference play. But Browning had an early opportunity on a big stage to turn heads, as he led Washington to a 44-6 win over Stanford on Sept. 30. The next week, he had eight total TDs in a long-awaited blowout win over rival Oregon, and a Heisman campaign was launched.
This year, neither the Oregon nor Stanford game will happen until November. The nonconference schedule is just as bad -- Rutgers, Montana, Fresno State -- and the Huskies' first four Pac-12 opponents are Colorado (which won't be as strong this year), Oregon State, California and Arizona State. Barring a surprise, Washington will not have played a ranked opponent heading out of its Oct. 21 off week That means Browning will have a lot of work to do late in the season, when he fell off last year. The Huskies finish with UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington State, then could play USC in the Pac-12 title game.
With a few exceptions -- particularly last year -- Heismans are won in November, not September, so it's possible for Browning to mount a campaign if Washington strings together big wins down the stretch to set the stage for a duel with Darnold for the conference title and maybe a playoff spot. But while Washington has renewed attention devoted to it with preseason top-10 rankings, it's likely to be flying a bit under the national radar the first eight weeks of the season, without a marquee game beyond the Sept. 23 rematch of last year's Pac-12 championship at Colorado.
2. The presence of Sam Darnold. Darnold is just about everyone's first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback entering the season. Darnold is the consensus preseason Heisman favorite. Darnold is viewed as a much better draft prospect than Browning (as is Rosen). Most preseason rankings favor USC over Washington. And, well, Darnold plays for USC. USC players have won seven Heismans, tied for the most with Notre Dame and Ohio State. The Trojans even won three in four years from 2002-05 thanks to Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. Being an NFL prospect quarterback at USC who is coming off a breakthrough Rose Bowl season is a perfect way to vault straight to the top of a Heisman race.
Browning would almost certainly need to lead Washington to another Pac-12 championship to finish in the top five, and to do so he'd likely have to beat Darnold and USC. In the history of the Heisman, only five times have multiple teams from the Pac-12 (and various older versions of the league) placed a player in the top five of the Heisman vote in the same season: 1953 (Paul Cameron, Bob Garrett), 1967 (Gary Beban, O.J. Simpson), 1975 (Chuck Muncie, Ricky Bell), 1988 (Rodney Peete, Troy Aikman) and 2010 (Andrew Luck, LaMichael James).
We're only three years removed from Marcus Mariota proving that a Pacific Northwest QB can win the Heisman, but it's a bit more difficult for Browning when there's a Darnold at USC, not to mention a Rosen at UCLA, not to mention a career 10,000-yard passer in Washington State's Luke Falk, too.
3. A lack of rushing production. Jameis Winston and Sam Bradford showed in the past 10 years that quarterbacks don't need to pile up rushing stats to win the Heisman. Winston had only 219 rushing yards in 2013, and Bradford had 47 yards in 2008. Still, they were prolific passers leading historically dominant offenses that played for the national championship. Cam Newton and Marcus Mariota were also dual-threats on teams that played for titles.
For quarterbacks who didn't play for titles, rushing production has pushed them over the top in the Heisman race: Lamar Jackson, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III and Tim Tebow. In other words, Browning isn't going to mount a realistic Heisman campaign unless Washington is back in the playoff, because even if he's highly efficient, his statistics are unlikely to be otherworldly, after he had a Bradford-like 45 rushing yards last year.
There are ample reasons -- throw the loss of playmaking wideout John Ross -- why Browning is viewed merely as a contender rather than a frontrunner entering the 2017 season, despite last year's midseason campaign. Don't, however, dismiss his chances.
After all, Browning's fantastic 2016 came in merely his sophomore season, with a supporting cast that was still young in many areas, including then-sophomore tailback Myles Gaskin and sophomore left tackle Trey Adams. All three are now juniors, and they're joined by returning impact players like senior center Coleman Shelton, senior wideout Dante Pettis, junior wideout Chico McClatcher and senior No. 2 tailback Lavon Coleman. They're playing in a Chris Petersen offense, which can typically be relied on to be efficient, as he coached Kellen Moore to three straight top-10 Heisman finishes at Boise State from 2009-11, including No. 4 in 2010, when he was a finalist.
Browning faces an uphill battle, but while both Darnold and USC are deservingly getting a ton of attention as national contenders, don't sleep on the chances of Washington in the Pac-12 or Browning in the Heisman race.
Browning may not have the NFL buzz of Darnold and Rosen, but with a healthy shoulder, a great coaching staff and a roster capable of making another push for a playoff bid, he's poised to make another run at a host of college honors.