Many of the Heisman previews I’ve read in years past have analogized the finalists to contestants in a beauty contest. Often times the winner is the player who looks the prettiest (usually a quarterback) rather than the player who actually is the most “outstanding” (a much more objective standard.) That’s why, for the purposes of this preview, I’ve decided to liken the players involved to horses in a race as opposed to individuals in a pageant. Why? Because horse racing is (I think at least) a far more appropriate representation of the type of effort that creates a Heisman winner. To wit, winning a horserace requires far more than just having a thoroughbred. Successful horseracing involves melding several critical components together: the horse, a jockey, and a trainer. None of these individual components could exist without leaning heavily on the others and, as such, developing a certain level of trust becomes necessary for growth.
Just like the old cliché that calls football “the ultimate team sport”, so too then, is winning an award. No individual football player can possibly succeed without the help of his team and, much like horseracing, it’s very important when gauging a player’s individual excellence, to also evaluate the support they’ve had around them throughout the season. Do they win BECAUSE of their team, or IN SPITE of them? Is the offense tailored to fit their skills or did they have to adapt to it? The answers to these questions I believe are critical in determining just how “outstanding” an individual player is. So, without further ado (and in no particular order), here are your 2011 Finalists.
The Lead Horse: Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Baylor (9-3)
Season Statistics: |3,998 Yards Passing|36 Passing TD’s|6 Int’s|72.4% Completion Percentage|644 Rushing Yards|9 Rushing TD’s.
- Jockey: Kendall Wright, WR
- Trainer: Art Briles
In a somewhat surprising result (although maybe not so much if you consider that his most recent impressions are a pair of stunning performances against Oklahoma and Texas in back to back weeks), Robert Griffin III is widely considered to be the odds-on favorite to win the award this season. After being picked to finish 6th in the preseason Big-12 Poll, Griffin’s Baylor team finished a surprising 9-3, with losses to Kansas State, Texas A&M (at the time ranked #23) and Oklahoma State (at the time ranked #4), and wins over Oklahoma (then #5) and Texas (then #22). Griffin is the only one of the Heisman Finalists whose team will not be playing in a BCS Bowl in January (they will be meeting Washington in the Alamo Bowl on December 29.)
A dual-threat quarterback (he was ranked #1 in the nation as a 110-meter hurdler in high school), Griffin followed Briles from Houston to Baylor and flourished under his tutelage. A huge part of Griffin’s appeal is the fact that he is leading a school not generally considered to be a traditional football powerhouse, into mainstream prominence. In addition to that, he’s likely playing with more All-Academic Big-12 athletes (10 for Baylor including Griffin III) then with All-Conference athletes. So while there is something to be said for Kendall Wright (a 5-10 190 lb junior receiver for the Bears), it was Griffin’s ability to extend plays and move around in the pocket that has allowed his receivers to get open and make plays. Oh, and he also throws just about the prettiest deep ball you will ever see at any level of football.
The Work Horse: Montee Ball, Running Back, Wisconsin (11-2)
Season Statistics: |1,759 Yards Rushing|32 Rushing TD’s|20 Receptions|255 Receiving Yards|6 Receiving TD’s.
- Jockey: Russell Wilson, QB
- Trainer: Bret Bielema
In terms of pure statistical success, there is no denying Montee Ball’s qualifications. Behind Ball and Quarterback Russell Wilson, the Badgers achieved an 11-2 record with their only losses coming at Michigan State (then ranked #13, and later avenged in the Big-10 Championship Game) and at Ohio State. Ball’s 38 total touchdowns are just one shy of Barry Sanders’ all time mark of 39 (with one more game, the Rose Bowl against Oregon, to try to tie or break this number.)
A fairly diminutive back at 5-11, 210 lbs, Ball’s impressive combination of speed, power and elusiveness has left opponents grasping at air for much of the season. Add to that mix dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson, and opposing defenses were hard pressed all year to decide whom to focus their efforts on. One noticeable difference in Ball between this season and last is his improvement in terms of running maturity and patience. When he began his career at Wisconsin, he was a small bruising back (think Jacquizz Rodgers). Realizing that this style would wear on his body, Ball appeared to adjust himself to avoid direct contact. So, while still delivering the occasional crushing blow, Ball also began to shift his body so as not to absorb the same huge collisions he did as a freshman and even as a sophomore. This has led to greater productivity (as evidenced by his huge statistical year this season) and likely to greater career longevity.
The Dark Horse: Tyrann Mathieu, Cornerback, LSU (13-0)
Season Statistics: |71 Total Tackles|54 Solo Tackles|1.5 Sacks|2 Int’s|5 Forced Fumbles|4 Total Touchdowns
- Jockey: The Entire Defense
- Trainer: Les Miles
Mathieu was a surprise selection over USC QB Matt Barkley (yes I’m bitter), although not necessarily an altogether undeserving one. The “Honey Badger”, together with the rest of a legendary LSU defense, held opponents to an average of 10.5 points per game, good enough for second in the nation. That they did so while beating an incredible 8 ranked teams on their way to a potentially undefeated season (they still have one game remaining in the national championship against Alabama) makes their accomplishments as a unit that much more impressive.
Mathieu, however, probably more so than any other finalist, benefitted the most from the talent of his supporting cast. For example, if Coach Miles did not trust him to return punts, it’s likely that he does not make the trip to New York (in recent memory, the only defender to win the award was Charles Woodson, a defensive back for Michigan who also returned kicks.) Furthermore, if he didn’t have such a strong group of defensive players around him (including, in the secondary alone, Morris Claiborne and Eric Reid, two future first-round level talents), he would be far more hard pressed to make plays. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mathieu was suspended for LSU’s Oct. 22 game against Auburn for failing a drug test. No matter what the statistics say, getting suspended from any school, for any reason, should immediately bar you from postseason award consideration. Any truly outstanding player remains so both on and off the field.
The Crimson Horse: Trent Richardson, Running Back, Alabama (11-1)
Season Statistics: |1,583 Yards Rushing|20 Rushing TD’s|27 Receptions|327 Receiving Yards|3 Receiving TD’s.
- Jockey: Barrett Jones, OL
- Trainer: Nick Saban
Is it possible to have an invisible Heisman campaign? Maybe not totally, but Richardson came pretty close. Although he was a fairly well known entity leading into the season, Richardson’s great stats were overshadowed by some of the other players (and stories) that consumed college football over the course of this past season. A solid 5-11 224 lbs, Richardson runs with force and power, and remained steady and powerful all season long (leading them to wins in 11 of their 12 games with their one loss coming against LSU.)
Unfortunately for Richardson, he’s hurt by the fact Ball’s numbers are far superior to his own. He’s also hurt by the fact that even playing in an offense tailored to meet his skills as a player (one that is very run-heavy), he has still not been able to keep up statistically with Wisconsin and Ball (despite Alabama having a weaker schedule and a better offensive line, headed by all-world lineman Barrett Jones.)
The Lucky Horse: Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Stanford (11-1)
Season Statistics: |3,170 Yards Passing|35 Passing TD’s|9 Int’s|70% Completion Percentage|153 Rushing Yards|2 Rushing TD’s.
- Jockey: David DeCastro, OL
- Trainer: David Shaw
Luck began the season with a Heisman trophy case all but built in his house. The superlatives that got tossed around were almost unbelievable. “Best Pro Prospect in Decades”, “The Next Peyton Manning”, and my personal favorite, “If Luck started for the Miami Dolphins they’d be at least 7-5 right now.” Luck’s Stanford team went 11-1 (with one game remaining against Oklahoma State if the Fiesta Bowl), despite losing its head coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL
The main hurdle to Luck’s campaign is that his statistics, despite being gaudy, are still slightly worse than last year. He had more rushing yards, more total yards, less interceptions and a higher quarterback rating in 2010 as compared to this past season. And yet, people continue to heap praise on him. Why? Because despite losing Harbaugh to the 49ers, Luck has been able to continue his success, largely without a hitch. He reportedly calls as many as 90% of his own plays, and has single-handedly managed to inspire the “suck for Luck” slogans now running rampant across the NFL. He also has by far the weakest supporting cast (yes, even worse than Robert Griffin’s, although their respective numbers of academic All Americans will likely be close.) In fact, Luck’s Cardinal lacks a single legitimate pro prospect besides Lineman Dave DeCastro. Thus, Luck is undeniably similar to Peyton Manning in one particular way. With him they are a contender. Without him they’re middling at best.
The Lame Horse: Matt Barkley, Quarterback, USC (10-2)
No excuses now Matt. You were snubbed by the Heisman Selection Committee. Time to come back and lead your team to the promised land.
Who Should Win: Montee Ball. You cannot deny his statistical excellence or his importance to his team. What he has done this season has been nothing short of incredible. Unfortunately, because Wisconsin plays a plodding version of football and remains outside of the public eye (aka not in the SEC), he has not received the media attention he would have needed to get enough support to win.
Who Will Win: Robert Griffin III. Just about everyone nowadays is about “what have you done for me lately.” And, simply put, Griffin’s last two games have been the best of not just the final 5, but every player in the rest of the country.
The hour-long Heisman Trophy ceremony will air live this Saturday, December 10, 2011 at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square.
Harrison Goo is a contributor to CBS Local and the founder of the blog Sportsgooru.com. To contact him, email him at email@example.com follow him on twitter at @sportsgooru.