The group of Heisman Trophy finalists that will convene in New York City this weekend is both large and largely unexpected.
With five finalists, we know that there is a wide dispersal of votes. There is a minimum of three Heisman finalists every year, and if the voting is tightly bunched beyond the top three they will add more to the invite list. Thus we have a diverse contingent, most of which nobody saw coming before the season.
There are three quarterbacks (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield). There also was a wide receiver (the Sooners’ Dede Westbrook) and a multipurpose player (Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers).
This was an unforeseen quintet in August. Watson and Mayfield entered 2016 on most Heisman lists, but not the rest of the final five.
There wasn’t much Jackson buzz outside the Louisville city limits then. Westbrook failed to make the 50-man preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver. Peppers had All-American hype, but not Heisman hype.
And where did the deep stable of running backs – Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Royce Freeman, etc. – all go?
The putative Year of the Running Back ends with nobody from that position heading to New York.
Even among the five who did punch their tickets, there is an aura of uncertainty.
It’s noteworthy that neither Westbrook nor Peppers are on teams involved in the national title chase. The last time a defensive player finished in the top five of the voting without his team playing in the BCS championship game or the College Football Playoff was 2009, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The last time a receiver was in the same situation was 2012, USC’s Marqise Lee.
Westbrook arguably was not the nation’s best wide receiver and Peppers arguably was neither the best multipurpose player nor the best defensive player. But they played for glam teams, and Peppers had the added benefit of racking up stats on offense and special teams.
Other questions: How did the eighth-ranked team in the country get 40 percent of the final five? How much do Watson’s 15 interceptions – tied for third-most in the country – diminish his body of work?
This entire Heisman campaign has lacked anyone to latch onto other than Jackson. Then his team suffered two huge upsets to close the season, he committed five turnovers in those games, and a walkover may have turned into something with at least a hint of suspense.
Despite that stumbling finish, it’s still hard to muster much enthusiasm for anyone other than Jackson.
I considered 10 candidates altogether: the five finalists plus Washington quarterback Jake Browning, Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, USC cornerback/receiver/returner Adoree’ Jackson, San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey and Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis.
Among quarterbacks, Mayfield had the highest pass-efficiency rating at 197.75. He was followed by Browning (176.51), Watson (153.98) and Jackson (153.33). But Mayfield also had the luxury of playing in the porous Big 12 Conference – that had to help.
Mayfield faced just two national top-50 defenses, and the Sooners lost both times. In those losses, his pass-efficiency rating was 60 points lower than in Oklahoma’s victories. The average rank of the defenses he faced in those 10 wins is 94th. It also was hard to tell where Mayfield’s talent stopped and Westbrook’s began – could either have gotten to New York without the other? Probably not.
Browning played the Nos. 125, 126 and 127 defenses in the 128-team FBS, plus one FCS team (Portland State). He faced just two top-50 defenses himself, with a loss to USC and a win over Colorado. In those two games he recorded his two lowest efficiency ratings, going a combined 26 for 60 for 377 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Watson and Jackson competed against tougher defenses statistically. Watson faced eight top-50 defenses, while Jackson encountered six. Against that competition, Jackson put up bigger numbers: more yards total offense per game (411 to 342), more yards per play (8.0 to 7.2) and more total touchdowns (51 to 43 despite playing one less game). Each QB had 616 plays either running or passing, with Watson committing three more total turnovers.
Watson also had the benefit of greater surrounding talent. Five Clemson offensive players were named to the All-ACC first team: running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and three offensive linemen. Jackson had no teammates on the All-ACC first team – he played behind a sketchy line and threw to oft-unreliable receivers.
Among the more non-traditional candidates – two multipurpose players, one straight defensive player, a Mountain West running back and a Mid-American wide receiver – the most compelling to me were Alabama’s Allen and USC’s Jackson.
Given their positions, quantifying their impact is trickier. That’s especially true for Allen, whose job on the ‘Bama defensive line is sometimes to simply inhale blockers and allow his teammates to make plays. But he was the best player on what was by far the best unit in the nation, wreaking havoc in the opponents’ backfield on a regular basis. Alabama’s defense would still be good without him, but it might not lead the nation in fewest rushing yards allowed, total yards allowed and points allowed.
Adoree’ Jackson’s statistical impact was greater than Peppers’. He had more all-purpose yards (1,117 to 751), averaged more yards per all-purpose touch (21.5 to 12.3), scored more touchdowns (five to four) and created more turnovers (four to two). But Peppers got more pub playing on a team that was undefeated until after Thanksgiving, while Jackson’s team started out 1-3.
Despite their accomplishments, Allen and Adoree’ Jackson will be watching from home Saturday, if they watch at all. The five who will gather nervously in New York is an unlikely group and in some ways an undistinguished group by Heisman Trophy standards. But somebody’s got to win the little stiff-armer, and it’s hard to see anyone but No. 8 from Louisville being that guy.