Sports Reference Blog

Breaking Down the Heisman Trophy Candidates

Posted by Jonah Gardner on September 2, 2016

There have been 33 grueling Saturdays since the Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Clemson Tigers in Glendale to claim the 2015 College Football Championship, each emptier than the last. Going to the movies? Hanging out with friends and family? Leaving the house? No thanks.

Fortunately, our nightmare has come to an end and the 2016 college football season finally kicks off this weekend! Technically, it already kicked off last weekend, if you are a fan of the California Golden Bears, Hawaii Warriors, or games played 5,000 miles away from either of those campuses. And while there are a number of juicy storylines to follow, from Nick Saban's quest for his 5th title to Jim Harbaugh's attempt to follow-up his excellent debut season with the Michigan Wolverines, one of the most interesting ones is the race for this year's Heisman Trophy.

With last year's winner, Derrick Henry, plying his trade with the Tennessee Titans alongside 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, this year's race is wide open. There are a number of candidates who put together excellent seasons in 2015 and look poised to make a run for the trophy this year. So, let's break down some of this year's biggest contenders, and see why they might or might not be able to claim the most coveted award in college football.

Leonard Fournette, LSU Tigers

Let's start with the man who, through seven games, seemed like a reasonable bet to win the trophy in 2015. When Fournette is clicking, there's no one like him in the country. Last season, he had seven games with 150 rushing yards; that's not just the most in a season since 2000, it already makes him tied for 9th most career 150-yard games in that span. While Fournette tapered off a bit towards the middle of the season, he finished with perhaps his best game, a 212-yard, 4-TD domination of the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the 2015 Texas Bowl.

However, there's one huge warning sign for Fournette's Heisman hopes, and it's shaped like Nick Saban. Against Alabama last year, Fournette put up just 31 yards on 19 rushing attempts, for a ghastly 1.9 yards per attempt in a game that pretty much single-handedly deflated any shot Fournette had at the trophy. With another 'Bama matchup looming, a major question for Fournette is if he can find a way to power through Saban's vaunted defense.

The good news is that he may not have to; a player can survive a game like that and still win the Heisman. In the 2009 Iron Bowl, Mark Ingram had a nearly identical game, gaining 30 yards on 16 carries, and he still won the 2009 Heisman Award. Reggie Bush and Derrick Henry both had 50 yard games in their Heisman years.

The key is bouncing back with a strong performance. Both Ingram and Henry followed up their worst games of the year with 100+ yard performances that quieted the doubters. Fournette, on the other hand, followed the 'Bama game with another sub-100 yard performance against the Arkansas Razorbacks and followed that game with his second-worst yards per carry of the season.

In fact, the strong performance against Texas Tech covers up questions over whether or not the SEC kind of figured out how to stop Fournette. In his final four conference games of the year, Fournette averaged just 4.1 yards per attempt, well below his transcendent 7.7 y/a in the first half of the season, let alone the 5.6 y/a pace set by Henry when he won last year.

If Fournette wants to claim the trophy, he'll need to put last year's slow finish behind him and reassert himself as college football's most electrifying rusher.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State Seminoles

Cook, who finished one spot behind Fournette in the 2015 Heisman voting, had the opposite trajectory, doing a lot of his best work later in the season before finishing with an underwhelming performance in the 2015 Peach Bowl.

The key for Cook will be finding consistency. He had four games last year with 180 rushing yards or more, but also three where he didn't break 90. His 266-yard performance against the South Florida Bulls was the sixth biggest yardage game of the year, but only two players who had 15 or more carries in a bowl game had fewer yards than Cook had against the Houston Cougars.

Finding that consistency will be even trickier given that Jimbo Fisher has a new QB to develop. The buzz on Deondre Francois has gotten deafening, especially considering that the last time Fisher started a redshirt freshman at QB, the Seminoles won the College Football Championship.

Having a star at QB means fewer carries for Cook. In 2014, with Jameis Winston at the helm, Florida State averaged 36.9 pass attempts per game, versus 32.2 rushing attempts. In 2015, while the rushing attempts remained flat, the passes dropped by over 4.5 attempts per game. Even in 2013, Winston's freshman year, the team's featured back, Devonta Freeman, only got 170 carries (Cook had 229 in 2015). If Francois is the real deal, FSU's offense as a whole could return to the high-powered days of 2013, even as Cook's Heisman case suffers for it.

Deshaun Watson, Clemson Tigers

Cam Newton's favorite college football player has a leg up by virtue of the position he plays: Eight of the last ten Heisman winners have been QBs. In fact, since 2000, only one player who wasn't a QB or an Alabama RB has won the Heisman, and the NCAA would prefer it if you didn't remember that one.

Watson was dominant last year and probably deserved a closer look from the Heisman voters than his solid third place finish indicated. How dominant was he? Since 2000, there have been 67 player seasons (including Watson's 2015) where a QB had 350 or more pass attempts and 150 or more rush attempts. Out of those, Watson was 9th in yards per combined attempt (7.47), one spot ahead of Tim Tebow's 2007 and two ahead of Cowboys wunderkind Dak Prescott's 2014. He also finished first in combined yards (5,214) and tied with Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel for 3rd in combined TDs (47).

Watson was good, but he can get even better. RG3 is a good model to point to. Griffin averaged 7.7 yards per attempt and completed 67% of his passes in 2010. The following year, he bumped those numbers to an eye-popping 10.7 y/a and 72% completion rate. While RG3 had two full seasons as a starter before 2011, as opposed to the one and a half Watson has going into this year, he only threw 729 passes in those seasons (plus an additional 69 in his sophomore year, pre-ACL injury). Watson had thrown 628, so he's not that far off from Griffin, in terms of game experience.

If Watson takes a leap as a passer, perhaps back to his 2014 form (10.7 yards per attempt and 12.1 adjusted yards per attempt), and continues his excellent rushing, it will be hard to deny him the trophy.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma Sooners

Given how often QBs win the Heisman, it's worth briefly looking at a couple of other contenders at the position. Mayfield was a superior passer to Watson, averaging a full yard per attempt more than the Clemson player and throwing more passing touchdowns and fewer interceptions. But Mayfield was also a lower usage QB, lagging nearly 100 pass attempts behind Watson.

At first glance, the bigger issue for Mayfield is his running. In 2015, no one had more carries, while averaging less than 3.0 y/a, than Mayfield. However, that's mainly due to the yards he lost from sacks, which get deducted from a player's rushing totals in college. If Oklahoma's O-Line can protect the QB, and if Mayfield can avoid taking as many sacks in 2016, he could push Watson for the award.

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State Buckeyes

It's finally Barrett's turn, as Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller have graduated, and perhaps the certainty around his status as starter will help his production. In 2014, Barrett was one of the best players in the nation, averaging almost 10.0 adjusted yards per pass attempt to go with 5.5 yards per carry. In 2015, he improved his running (5.9 y/a), but his passing plummeted (7.0 AY/A).

Then there's Urban Meyer's tendancy to shy away from the pass at Ohio State. The Buckeyes averaged under 30 passes per game in both 2014 and 2015 (and under 25 in 2015), and while the number of passes may go up with Ezekiel Elliott hanging out with Jerry Jones in Dallas, it's still going to be tough for Barrett to reach the raw production levels of Watson or Mayfield.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford Cardinal

Even given the difficulty of winning the Heisman if you aren't a QB or a Nick Saban RB, McCaffrey still looks like Watson's biggest challenger for the trophy. For one thing, McCaffrey already bested Watson in the voting once, finishing in second in 2015. For another, McCaffrey's game is somewhat reminiscent of Reggie Bush's.

Like Bush, McCaffrey is a talented pass-catcher. In fact, McCaffrey may be more skilled as a receiver than Bush, considering his 45 receptions and in 2015 were more than Bush had in any season, including his Heisman-winning one. McCaffrey is also averaging 14.5 yards per reception, well ahead of Bush's career mark of 13.7.

As a runner, McCaffrey isn't as explosive as Bush, but the list of people as explosive as prime Reggie Bush is a very short one. The difference is McCaffrey is a work horse; he had 337 carries in 2015, just six fewer than Bush had in his final two years combined.

That kind of workload is concerning to anyone who's ever read Football Outsiders or watched DeMarco Murray in 2015, but the record for high usage backs in college is more mixed. There are players like Adrian Peterson and Anthony Sherrell, who had workloads similar to McCaffrey and then battled injury or ineffectiveness for the rest of their college careers. But there's also cases like Ray Rice and Bobby Rainey, who followed up high workload seasons with another excellent performance (though it's worth noting both players had lower yards per attempt in their follow-up seasons).

If McCaffrey can repeat his 2015 form, the trophy will probably belong to him. But if he can't, there's several talented candidates ready to step up and take the prize.

One Response to “Breaking Down the Heisman Trophy Candidates”

  1. Checking in on the Heisman Trophy Race - SR Blog Says:

    […] to November, we thought it would be a good idea to revisit the Heisman Trophy race. Of course, we looked at the Heisman candidates before the season started, breaking down who had the best chance at the award with 100% accuracy. […]