LSU Sophomore running back Leonard Fournette seemed to have the Heisman Trophy so firm in his grasp, the only decision to really be made was which room in his house he would display the illustrious award. Then he got off the team bus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and the nation’s third best rush defense put that discussion on hold.
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Not only did his 2nd-ranked Tigers drop a 30-16 road loss to their SEC rival, and 4th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, but he was also held to just 31 yards on 19 carries and a lone touchdown. For a yard-gaining machine, who had rushed for over 150 yards in all seven of his previous games, that output was as equally shocking on his part as it was impressive on the defenses.
Fournette still averages more rushing yards per game than anyone in the country, and his numbers, even with that roadblock that he ran into at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, are still tremendous. Looking at the entire body of his work, I do not agree that he lost the Heisman this weekend. Some of the other running backs may have closed the gap in the race, but in my opinion, they are still on his heels.
The Heisman Trust Mission Statement reads, “The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard word”
With that said, the voters will review the stats from the season and cast their pick. Before the hand in their ballot, they will likely also jog their memory of the finalists to playback how these players performed in big moments and for that, it’s not Fornette’s body of work that could loose him the trophy, but rather the stat line he posted in possibly the biggest game in college football this season.
There are three running backs in the race right now, with Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliot joining Forest in the mix. There is also the nation’s #1 team Clemson, who should have quarterback DeShaun Watson in New York for the presentation as well, and unfortunately for these three ball carriers, the voters have tended to cast their ballots outside of the backfield in recent history.
The last five trophy winners were all quarterbacks and aside from Mark Ingram in 2009, and Reggie Bush who won the trophy in 2005 but soon vacated it for NCAA violations, no other running backs have won the award after Ron Dayne, all the way back in 1999. That is only three running backs in 16 seasons.
Speaking of Ingram, the year that he won the award he had 1,004 yards and 7 touchdowns through 8 games. Fournette has 379 more yards, and 9 more touchdowns at the same point in his season.
Now that LSU and Alabama each have one loss on the season, does that make Watson and Elliott the front runners since they are undefeated? Not exactly. Robert Griffin III won the award with three losses, Johnny Manziell with two and most recently, Marcus Marriota with one. A player doesn’t have to go undefeated to win the award, especially lately.
So if he has much better numbers than a previous Heisman winner, and history says his team doesn’t have to win every game, how can critics say he shouldn’t win the award? Well, because it goes back to the memory of playing well in a big game. I understand the idea of this notion, but again, history says this isn’t true either.
Manziel played three ranked teams in his award season. He lost two of the games. In the contest against Florida, he threw for just 173 yards and no touchdowns. Two months later against LSU he again didn’t score a touchdown, however he added 3 interceptions.
In Griffin’s award year, he lost three games in October, and two of them were by more than three touchdowns. Against a 3rd ranked Oklahoma State team, he threw two interceptions to just one touchdown.
So if Manziel and Griffin III can have bad games against their top competition, why are people erasing Fournette’s name from the ballet, when just a week ago they were chiseling his name on the trophy?
The problem may not be with Fournette, but rather the LSU Tigers as a whole. Ranked as the second-best team in the country going in, Les Miles’ team seemed very average against an aggressive Crimson Tide team on Saturday night. The offensive line couldn’t hold a block long enough for Fournette to even get back to the line of scrimmage, their passing game looked moderate, and their special teams were horrific. It would be one thing if Fournette had an off night, it’s another when the entire team can’t get anything going.
The good thing for the LSU running back is there are still three weeks remaining in the season, and the final two are against ranked teams. If he can turn out a trio of his 150-yard games, he can jump right back in front of the pack. If he can manage to gain those stats, he would have the same amount of rushing yards as Ron Dayne did the season he won the award. It’s worth noting that only 6 Heisman winners have more rushing yards than Dayne did.
Of course, Henry and Elliott have three games remaining as well.
While Henry has 23 more carries, yet 129 less yards than Fournette, what he has in his favor is an easier schedule ahead of him. In his final three contests he plays Mississippi State, Charleston Southern and Auburn. Auburn and Mississippi State have the 4th and 5th worst run defenses in the conference out of 14 teams. As for Charleston Southern, they have given up just 114 yards per game on the road, and they will travel to Alabama, but forgive me not believing that the likes of Gardner-Webb, Monmouth and Presbyterian strike fear in Nick Saban’s mind as solid rushing attacks held in check by Charleston Southern.
If big moments stand out for Heisman voters just as much as stats, then there may not be a bigger moment than what Henry did in the final drive against LSU, running the ball 10 times for 78 yards and eating up the final 9 minutes and 18 seconds. The only reason he didn’t score to end the drive was because they took a knee to end the game.
As for Elliott, he will finish up on the road against Illinois and Michigan, with a home contest against Michigan State in between. Both teams from Michigan are very good against the run, especially the Spartans who allow just 88.5 yards per game on the ground. Illinois is the worst team in the conference, allowing 240 yards per game. Elliott may strike rich against the Illini, but he will have to have big games against the other two teams to jump Henry and Fournette. Currently, he trails Henry by three scores and Fournette by 139 yards.
Watson, a true sophomore who is leading Clemson to a top rank and likely the ACC title will be in the finalist discussion as the top passer, especially after TCU’s Trevone Boykin threw four interceptions and no touchdowns this weekend against Oklahoma State. He doesn’t have the big name like the running backs, but he has solid numbers nonetheless. The problem for him is going to be that he isn’t even in the top 25 in passing yards.
The wildcard in the race could be Stanford’s wide receiver Christian McCaffrey who leads FBS with 244.3 all-purpose yards per game. This past weekend, he even passed for a touchdown.
It is likely to come down to the three running backs, and these last three games are as big as ever to the final vote. Sure Fournette may have stumbled this past weekend, but a good finish, against ranked conference opponents should get him right back in the lead.
Heisman trophy winners have great stats and great moments. I have a feeling we are going to see many of both in the next three weeks from Leonard Fournette.
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