CollegeFootballNews.com 20th Anniversary Top 20 Players
Who were the top 20 players since CFN started in 1998? No. 5 Deshaun Watson QB Clemson
CFN Era Top 20 Players: No. 5 Deshaun Watson, QB Clemson
CollegeFootballNews.com is turning 20 this season, so we’re looking back on the greatest players, games, coaches and more since we first kicked things off back in 1998.
For the Top 20 Players since CFN started, the rules are simple. Who made the biggest impact, who were the most important, and who were ones who generated the most buzz – for good and bad?
This isn’t necessarily a list of the most talented players – that’s what the NFL Draft is for. Who were the defining players of the last 20 years?
Also, nothing before 1998 counts.
Deshaun Watson, QB Clemson (2014-2016)
So soon after his career ended, it might seem a bit strange to put Deshaun Watson into the legendary status among the top players of the last 20 years, especially considering he didn’t win a Heisman.
But looking through a long lens, ten years from now, he’ll be remembered among the all-time greats.
He’s the one who gave it more than just the old college try in his first attempt to slay the dragon, and then got it done on the second shot with what will be remembered as one of the greatest national championship drives of all-time.
He was Vince Young in two national title games – Vince Young was Vince Young in one.
He was Jameis Winston in the final few minutes of a national championship – but without the baggage.
He was Johnny Manziel vs. Alabama – only his win came on the biggest of stages.
He was Michael Vick vs. Florida State in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, trying to fight through a superior power by being the best player on the field.
He was everything a big-time program wants in its star on the field, and compared to several quarterbacks on the top 20 list, off of it, too.
Where were the scandals? Where was the controversy? Where were the brushes with the law?
For an ultra-talented team led by a head coach in Dabo Swinney with more than enough charisma to go around, Watson turned out to be the perfect player for the right team at the right time.
The Hype & Potential
In 2014, flip a coin on who you liked more as the top quarterback prospect to come out – Watson, or Kyle Allen.
Allen ended up going to Texas A&M, and then transferred to Houston.
Jerrod Heard was a huge get for Texas, but he never quite made the offense his.
DeShone Kizer, Patrick Mahomes, and Brad Kaaya were also top prospects in the 2014 class – and so was Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, who might turn out to be the best pro on the lot – but Watson was Clemson’s big prize.
As talented as Watson was, could he really step in right away and replace Tajh Boyd, who finished his career with almost 12,000 passing yards, 107 touchdown passes and an ACC title?
Not right away, but eventually, he took over the starting job and was good – showing off his potential with a 435-yard, six touchdown day in a win over North Carolina – but he got beaten up.
While he toughed it out, he suffered an injured hand and a torn ACL. But he came back more than fine.
While Watson has always been listed at around 6-2 and 220 pounds – and the NFL types have him at 6-3 – nah. He’s built more like a punter, which put his durability in question after his problems as a freshman.
Forget about it.
Watson become a more dangerous runner as his sophomore season went on – carrying the ball 20 times or more in the final four games – and he almost always popped back up and kept on rolling no matter what kind of shots he took.
After his first season, he never missed another game.
Ultra-efficient, he ripped through good team after good team with deadly accuracy throughout the 2015 regular season.
He tore through a fantastic Boston College defense for 420 yards, ran for 197 yards in a big win over Florida State, and overcame a rocky performance to help the Tigers hold on against Notre Dame.
And when adversity struck, he always had an answer.
North Carolina gave Clemson a big run in the ACC Championship game, but Watson took over, throwing for three scores and running for two more.
In a war of attrition in the heat of the College Football Playoff semifinal vs. Oklahoma, he was ultra-slippery, coming up with 145 rushing yards on and a score in a blowout win to keep the perfect season going with a shot at the national title.
Alabama had the better, stronger, more talented team in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game, but Watson kept the game alive – and broke Crimson Tide investor hearts with a late scoring drive – throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns, while running for 73 yards in the classic 45-40 Bama victory.
Watson was brilliant, but Alabama won the national championship.
It was a different Watson at times throughout the 2016 season.
He didn’t run as much, but that was partially by design. If Clemson was going to win the national title, No. 4 had to be in one piece.
While he took off when he had to in the big games, he generally let the supporting cast do the work, serving as a conductor utilizing all the great talent around him.
Yeah, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson was fantastic against the Tigers, but Watson threw for 306 yards and five touchdowns – and won.
Yeah, NC State missed a kick that would’ve won the game, but Watson threw for 378 yards and two touchdowns with a rushing score in the thriller.
Yeah, Pitt did take the Tigers for only their second loss in their last 31 regular season games, but Watson threw for 580 yards and three touchdowns.
He threw for more yards, but with more picks, as he took more chances and fearlessly kept taking more shots down the field. And again, when he had to run, he did, pushing past Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship for 85 yards and two touchdowns.
Just two steps away from a title, he threw two interceptions against Ohio State, but he also ran for two touchdowns and let the defense do the rest in the blowout win. Now, he was back.
The team that was on a mission to get a rematch for the national title got exactly that. It was off to Tampa for Round Two with the Crimson Tide for the national championship.
January 9, 2017: Clemson vs. Alabama
Alabama had a better team than the one that took home the national title the year before.
The offense was more potent, it had a more dynamic quarterback in Jalen Hurts, the defense was better, and overall, the team was far sharper.
And that’s exactly how it looked for most of the first half as Alabama was up 14-0 and cruising.
Watson couldn’t get the offense moving, partly because he got rocked by an early tackle, and partly because the Crimson Tide defense was playing at another level.
But late in the first half, Watson was able to get the Tigers on the board with a long drive and a touchdown run – and the door was open.
Down 17-7 midway through the third, it became the Deshaun Watson show, locking in with crisp scoring drive after crisp scoring drive, answering every momentum swing with a big play of his own.
But Alabama had it.
Hurts struggled all game long, but that all went away as he weaved his way for a 30-yard touchdown run with just over two minutes to play for a 31-28 lead.
This was it. This was Watson’s chance at legendary status. With just over two minutes to play, all he had to do was find a way to pull off a score against the best defense in college football.
And then, Watson led Clemson to this …
In the biggest game and the biggest moment, Deshaun Watson was the dude, finishing with 420 yards and three scores – and no interceptions – and running for 43 yards and a touchdown.
No, he didn’t win the Heisman, but he finished second in 2016 – I voted for him, correctly – and was third in 2015.
Even though Lamar Jackson won the Heisman, Watson won the 2016 Johnny Unitas and won his second Davey O’Brien as the nation’s top quarterback.
In 2015, he was everyone’s All-American. That was Jackson in 2016, but Watson won the national championship.
CFN 20th Anniversary lists compiled by Rich Cirminiello, Pete Fiutak, Phil Harrison & Russ Mitchell