Breaking Down the Heisman Race
The 2011 college football season has definitely been one to remember.
The SEC may get both teams in the BCS championship game(and a third team into the BCS if Georgia beats LSU this weekend), upstart Houston has replaced Boise State as the top mid-major, recruiting scandals rocked Ohio State and Miami and Joe Paterno’s legacy at Penn State will be forever tarnished by his alleged non-response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Add in Urban Meyer agreeing to coach the Buckeyes, the great year in Palo Alto and the weekend that saw No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 4 Oregon and No. 5 Oklahoma all lose, and you have one heck of a year.
While there are still championships to be determined in the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC, ACC, MAC and Conference USA, many college football fans have already shifted their focus to the race for the Heisman Trophy. It is one of the more bizarre awards in American sports, and is often given as a reward for team success rather than individual brilliance. Still, there are examples of fine individual performances making up for a less than elite team, such as Tim Tebow’s video game numbers earning him the award in 2007, despite the Gators finishing 8-5.
But for every Tebow, there are dozens of Eric Crouches and Jason Whites. This year’s Heisman field offers us a few players that have a little bit of both qualities. So here are the Heisman candidates, in order of where they stack up right now, along with their “Heisman Stereotype.” I have also included some past Heisman winners to give you some examples of past greats that have won the award fulfilling each of these stereotypes. This does not take position into account. For instance, the best comparison for Andrew Luck is Hershel Walker, though Luck is a quarterback and Walker was a running back.
1. Trent Richardson: Alabama-Running Back “The stud QB/RB on a team playing for the title.”
Past Winner Comparisons- Cam Newton, Mark Ingram
While Richardson is pegged as a guy on this list because of his team’s dominance, he also offers eye-popping numbers in the toughest conference in football. Richardson averages over six yards a carry, and has accumulated nearly 2,000 total yards to go with 23 touchdowns. He fits the mold of past winner, and former teammate, Mark Ingram, but Richardson is actually having an even better year statistically.
Pros: Obviously the fact that his team is in line for a trip to the title game and his huge numbers are important, but Richardson also saved his best for last. In a game that is sure to be fresh in voters’ minds, Richardson ran wild against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, piling up 208 total yards and a touchdown against a stingy Auburn defense. Consistency is also big, as Richardson has rushed for over 100 yards in nine of Alabama’s 12 games.
Cons: While he has run well against several solid defenses(Florida, Penn State, Arkansas and Auburn) Richardson came up small in the biggest game of the year against LSU. To be fair, the Tigers boast the top rush defense in the SEC, and he still managed 89 yards, but 3.9 yards per carry, while not terrible, is not what you’re looking for. At the end of the day this appears to be a pretty small blemish, but most winners of the award have their “Heisman moment” in their team’s biggest game.
2. Andrew Luck: Stanford- Quarterback “The guy we all thought would win it before the year started and he hasn’t done anything to screw it up.”
Past Winner Comparisons: Gino Torreta, Herschel Walker
Don’t let the title fool you, Luck has been great this year. The Cardinal quarterback has taken a physical offense whose passing game was built around multiple tight end formations and made them look explosive. He is college football’s Tom Brady in this regard. While his numbers aren’t as gaudy as some other QB’s, they are nothing to sneeze at either. Luck has thrown for 35 touchdowns to only nine interceptions, and has led the Cardinal to their second consecutive 11-1 regular season.
Pros: He is certainly a likeable candidate playing for a team that is easy to root for. Also, never underestimate the fact that he came into the year with incredible hype and that most pro scouts are hailing him as the NFL’s next great quarterback. As I said, the numbers are also good, and he has led Stanford to another highly successful season, which gives him a good mix of statistics and winning. And, when you put on the tape of this guy, he really just looks the part of a Heisman quarterback. Oh, and he calls his own plays, sometimes, so there’s a cute novelty factor for you too.
Cons: While the numbers are good, they are not on par with the next two candidates, and he put them up in a Pac 12 that only features two solid defenses. I don’t want to punish Luck for throwing less, but even if you look at efficiency numbers like completion percentage, yards per attempt and QB rating, he is still far behind the next two quarterbacks on this list. Luck, like Richardson, also came up small in his team’s biggest game, throwing a pair of interceptions in Stanford’s 23-point home loss to Oregon. It should also be noted that, while Luck atoned for his sin in overtime, he did throw a pick-six to USC that allowed the Trojans to tie the game in the fourth quarter earlier this year.
3. Case Keenum: Houston- Quarterback “The small conference guy that puts up crazy numbers.”
Past Winner Comparisons: Andre Ware, Ty Detmer
Like Luck, the stereotype is a bit misleading, because Keenum has done his fair share of winning as well. He has the Cougars knocking on the BCS’ door at 12-0 with only a championship game against Southern Miss standing in their way. True, these numbers have come against Conference USA competition, but Keenum’s 73% completion rate and 43/3 touchdown to interception ratio are just too good to ignore.
Pros: The biggest pro I see for this guy, and I have yet to hear one analyst bring this up, is that Houston went 5-7 when he missed last season with a torn ACL. So we are seeing that Houston is not just the one talented team in a small conference, they are an average team in that conference with an exceptional quarterback. Oh, and for those voters that like to give out lifetime achievement awards, Keenum has you covered there too, as he owns every significant NCAA career passing record.
Cons: The obvious one is level of competition. Keenum has yet to face a top-flight defense this season, and probably won’t until after the award is presented. The other thing working against Keenum, as a result of the first con, is that he has no “Heisman moment.” In fact, most casual fans have never even seen him play due to Conference USA’s regional television contracts. Because of this, many voters may unfairly peg Keenum as merely a system quarterback.
4. Robert Griffin III: Baylor- Quarterback “The guy with great numbers against elite competition, but has a few losses and no conference title.”
Past Winner Comparisons: Tim Tebow, Ricky Williams
Griffin started the season quickly, lighting up a normally salty TCU defense. Three games into the season Griffin still had more touchdown passes(15) than incompletions(13). Though his team faded, mostly due to a horrific defense, Griffin played well throughout, and his efficiency numbers are actually better than Luck’s. All this coming in the nation’s second best conference.
Pros: As was said earlier, Griffin’s numbers are ridiculous, with a 34/5 touchdown to interception ratio. Even in losses to Kansas State and Texas A&M, Griffin was brilliant, completing over 72% of his passes and throwing for eight touchdowns and just two interceptions in those games. He also has a certifiable “Heisman moment,” coming when he beat then-No. 5 Oklahoma with a 34-yard touchdown pass in the game’s final seconds to cap off a 479-yard, four-touchdown night.
Cons: Uh, his team has three losses and, outside of Tim Tebow, that usually spells doom for a Heisman candidacy. If Baylor had any semblance of a defense(the Bears only held two opponents below 30 points all season, and one of them was 1AA Stephen F. Austin) Griffin would be the odds on favorite to win the award. Unfortunately, they do not. But this is not all on the defense, as Griffin’s one poor performance came in a huge game at Oklahoma State. Though he still completed 66% of his passes for 425 yards, Griffin threw two costly interceptions that allowed the game to get out of hand.
The Rest of the Field: Matt Barkley, Montee Ball, Kellen Moore, LaMichael James, Brandon Weeden
Each of these guys had decent Heisman hype at one point, but this year’s race is such a good one that it just couldn’t last. Barkley’s hype is actually at its highest coming off a monster six-touchdown performance against rival UCLA, but sanctions against the Trojans have hurt his case. Ball’s Wisconsin Badgers have two losses, but the Big Ten’s probable player of the year has run all over defenses like Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska and Penn State. Moore and James both fell victims to late season losses, and Weeden never really had the numbers or quality wins to be in the race. None of these guys has a shot at the award, but it will be interesting to see which one gets invited to New York for the presentation.