SEC Unbiased: Is Lamar Jackson better than Cam Newton was in college?

Lamar Jackson is taking college football by storm and is the clear Heisman front-runner. But can Jackson continue producing at such an historic level, and he is on track to be better than Cam Newton?

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton looks towards the field against the Ravens on Aug. 11, 2016. Image obtained via creativecommons.org. No changes made.

You can call me an idiot for eternity, if you want.

During the offseason, I hopped onto the Florida State bandwagon and didn’t hold back, predicting the Seminoles as the eventual national champions and dubbing them college football’s next dynasty.

After their impressive comeback victory over Ole Miss during the season opener, I felt confident in Jimbo’s bunch. Freshman quarterback Deondre Francois displayed poise reminiscent of a recent Heisman-winning Seminole quarterback. The defense — led by versatile safety Derwin James — showcased a level of athleticism and aggressiveness in the second half against the Rebels that was downright beautiful to watch.

I predicted Florida State would beat Louisville 56-14. My score prediction wasn’t too far off, ironically. I clearly meant to pick the Cardinals. I made a pair of classic mistakes everyone is guilty of at least once in their lives: confusing Florida with Kentucky and confusing the Seminole people with a bird.

In all seriousness, I didn’t give enough respect to Louisville, especially quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is undoubtedly the front-runner for the Heisman trophy after another mesmerizing performance. If he continues his current pace, no other player in the country has a prayer of catching him. In fact, Jackson might be the only player worth inviting to New York at this point.

Through three games (and 10 quarters of playing time) Jackson has amassed 1,377 yards of offense and 18 total touchdowns. He scored eight touchdowns in the first half of Louisville’s 70-14 win over Charlotte. Scoring eight touchdowns in a half is absurd, regardless of the opponent. If you moved all the game sliders up in a game of NCAA Football, you’d still be hard-pressed to match that production. Against Syracuse, Jackson gained more yards in three plays than Vanderbilt did during the entire 2015 season (this is only metaphorically factual).

But Jackso n’s true shining moment came against Florida State on Saturday. Although the Seminoles were missing their star safety James, what Jackson and the Cardinal offense did to one of the nation’s (former) premier defenses was downright nasty.

Motorcycles and morality aside, Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino deserves his props as an offensive mastermind. He not only understands Jackson’s strengths and limitations, but unlike certain offensive minds in the SEC (I won’t name Mike DeBord’s name here), Petrino maximizes his quarterback’s strengths by putting him in situations where his freakish athleticism can shine.

On Jackson’s 47-yard, highlight-reel touchdown run against Florida State, Petrino made a slight (but) ingenious adjustment that put his quarterback in a position to succeed.

“I thought their defensive ends were doing a good job on one phase of our option runs where they were holding the point and then coming back out on him and mixing it up, so we decided to change a little bit and do a guy running across. He could either give it to Traveon or [keep] it. The defensive end widened, he made a great read and hit it full speed,” Petrino said after the win.

However, Jackson also deserves credit for thriving in Petrino’s system. As a freshman in 2015, Jackson scored 23 touchdowns and put up 2,800 yards of offense in 12 games. Just three games into his sophomore season, he’s nearly matched last season’s touchdown total and is on pace to destroy his yardage total from a season ago. No matter how effective a system is, a quarterback doesn’t simply grow at such an exponential rate without self-discipline.

This level of production has Jackson flying in uncharted air. Air that us peasants dare not to breathe. Air that Taylor Swift now soars in with Bob Dylan after writing, recording and releasing “Blank Space.” Air that Antonio Brown now soars in with Miley Cyrus after twerking on Monday Night Football. Air that Lamar Jackson could potentially soar in by season’s end with some of college football’s greatest quarterbacks after putting up show-stopping numbers and dazzling Heisman moments.

The greatest single-season performance of all-time is up for debate between a couple of SEC quarterbacks: Tim Tebow in 2007, Cam Newton in 2010 and Johnny Manziel in 2012. Is it ludicrous to consider that Jackson might have a greater single-season performance than the likes of those college football legends? Brian Williams might lie, but numbers don’t.

Comparing each quarterback’s season statistics after their first three games, Jackson has the most touchdowns scored (18), with Tebow placing second (13), Manziel third (12) and Newton fourth (nine). The order remains the same when ranking yardage output, with Jackson (1,377) sitting comfortably ahead of Tebow (1,027), Manziel (903) and Newton (834).

When examining the levels of competition faced, only Jackson can claim he faced a team ranked in the top-10 during the first three games. And all he did against that top-10 opponent was complete 13-of-20 passes for 216 yards and a score while rushing for 146 yards and four scores in a 63-20 annihilation. His performances against Charlotte and Syracuse won’t excite the SEC crowd, but let’s not forget that Tebow faced Western Kentucky and Troy while Newton squared off against Arkansas State. Johnny Manziel ran circles around SMU and South Carolina State.

Jackson also holds another significant advantage — an early Heisman moment. Newton’s Heisman moments didn’t come until the Tigers were in the beef of their conference schedule. Manziel was slowly approaching the Heisman radar before becoming a national darling with his performance against Alabama. Jackson already has a signature performance, but with matchups against Clemson and Houston looming, his resumé has the potential to be as impressive as any.

But because the ACC isn’t the SEC, let’s be skeptical. Is Jackson just this season’s version of Geno Smith? In 2012, Smith scorched the first five defenses he played, throwing 24 touchdowns to zero interceptions, including a ridiculous 656-yard, eight-touchdown performance against Baylor in a 70-63 victory. His West Virginia Mountaineers sat pretty in the top 10. Smith was a lock to win the Heisman, until he wasn’t. West Virginia began playing teams who fielded defenses — albeit of the Big 12 variety— and his Heisman candidacy went up in flames.

Tebow eventually led Florida to a 9-4 record in 2007 and scored 55 total touchdowns. Manziel led Texas A&M to an 11-2 record in 2012 and scored 46 total touchdowns, becoming the first freshman to ever capture the Heisman. Newton led Auburn to a 14-0 record and National Championship while scoring 50 total touchdowns in 2010.

Jackson is on pace to gain nearly 6,000 yards of offense, score 78 touchdowns and his Louisville Cardinals appear as formidable as any team in the country. Will he finish with those statistics? Probably not. Will Louisville make it to the College Football Playoff? Who knows. But my eyes tell me that Jackson displays the leadership of Newton, the competitiveness of Tebow and the escapability of Manziel.

Mark my words, Jackson will continue to soar and have the greatest single-season a college quarterback has ever had.

Then again, I did say the Seminoles would beat the Cardinals 56-14. So maybe nobody should ever listen to me.

Edited by Nathan Odom

Featured image courtesy of Keith Allison

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