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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Monday, December 11, 2023
Jim Dayton

Heisman Watch: The Finalists

We have reached the end. The 80th annual Heisman Trophy will be awarded to one of three finalists Dec. 13—Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon or Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper.

I’ll do a recap of my series next week, but this is the 13th and final predictive edition of the Heisman Watch. Thank you for following along this season. You can check out the rest of my Heisman Watch stories here, but for now, let’s take a look at the finalists.

Marcus Mariota, Oregon QB

Mariota will win the Heisman and there’s not much room for debate. This is a quarterback-centric award, considering 12 of the past 13 non-vacated Heismans have gone to signal callers. And Mariota just put together one of the all-time great seasons by a collegiate quarterback.

Last week I noted that if Mariota reaches 40 touchdown passes on the year, he’d become just the fourth quarterback from a Power Five school to record 40 TD passes while totaling less than 10 interceptions. He currently has 38 touchdowns and an absurdly low two picks, and the Ducks have one, possibly two, games remaining.

Among the current three-man club, only Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford actually won the Heisman. Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell was dismissed as a system quarterback (accurate in Mike Leach’s offense) and West Virginia’s Geno Smith got out to a ridiculous 24-touchdown, zero-interception start through five games in 2008, before turning into, well, Geno Smith down the stretch and killing his Heisman momentum.

Despite how convenient it is to discredit any Oregon offensive player as a product of the team’s high-powered attack, that’s not true with Mariota. He has already set a number of school and conference records and is widely considered to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Obviously a player’s NFL draft stock shouldn’t determine the Heisman race (nor vice versa—plenty of Heisman winners do absolutely nothing in the pros), but having scouts’ approval indicates that Mariota isn’t just putting up wild Colt Brennan numbers. His production is backed up with legitimate talent.

Mariota boasts an excellent 10.2 yards per attempt and a 186.33 efficiency rating. Both of those marks lead the nation this year, and the passer rating is particularly eye-opening. It currently ranks fourth all-time behind Russell Wilson’s record of 191.78. Besides that, the separation between this season’s second-highest passer rating and the ninth highest is closer than the distance between Mariota and second place.

He can also hurt opponents with his legs. While he’s only ripped off one 100-yard rushing game, his 5.7 yards-per-carry average ranks eighth this year among quarterbacks (Tanner McEvoy is first, LOL). Mariota also has 14 rushing touchdowns, second among QBs.

Mariota is the beneficiary of team performance as well. The Ducks are 12-1, and their only loss came in early October against Arizona. Oregon just pummeled those same Wildcats last week in the Pac-12 Championship to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. Five of the past eight Heisman winners have played for the national championship, and Mariota has a chance to join them and make it six out of nine.

He has strong passing and rushing numbers, is historically good at the sport’s most premium position, plays for the No. 2 team in the nation and has a bright NFL future ahead of him. Marcus Mariota is a no-brainer.

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Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin RB

It was an absolute pleasure to cover Gordon’s amazing year. What he did was truly one of the greatest running back seasons in college football history. However, his Heisman resume has a few warts that ultimately derail his chances at surpassing Mariota.

Let’s start with the atrocity against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. The Badgers were manhandled by the Buckeyes on primetime national television, and Gordon was no exception. He gained just 76 yards on 26 carries for an average of less than three yards per rush. On a night where Gordon had to be spectacular to retain his Heisman hopes, he was nonexistent.

Whereas Mariota has the benefit of playing quarterback in an increasingly pass-friendly sport, Gordon’s position is devalued, at least in terms of actually winning this award. Like I said in Mariota’s blurb, 12 of the past 13 non-vacated (thanks, Reggie Bush) Heismans have gone to QBs.

Plus, it sure doesn’t help that Wisconsin is merely a good team, not a great one. Ten wins is nice and all, but when the Badgers got stomped 59-0 in their most nationally prominent game of the year, it really killed any glimmering notion of this being one of the best teams in the country. And for better or worse, team record does matter.

But now for the good stuff. Gordon had by far the best single-game performance by any player this season, a 408-yard, four-touchdown thrashing of Nebraska. Gordon devastated the Husker defense in a pivotal Big Ten West matchup. He had five runs of at least 40 yards and averaged 16.3 yards per rush. And he didn’t even play the fourth quarter! Add in the steadily falling snow, and it was a genuinely special game.

Gordon set the FBS record for rushing that day, only for it to be broken one week later by Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine. But the circumstances of Perine’s performance—against a pitiful Kansas team, more carries than Gordon, played in the fourth quarter—make it far less impressive.

In broader terms, Gordon has already posted the fourth-highest single season rushing total of all time with 2,336 yards. While his chances of surpassing Barry Sanders’ official record of 2,628 are slim, I suppose we can’t rule it out based on what he’s done this season.

While Gordon would need 293 rushing yards against Auburn to break Sanders’ record, he could still theoretically do that. He’s already posted five games of at least 200 yards, including that 408-yard spectacle in November.

If you’ve read through all this and still believe Gordon has a chance at the Heisman, no matter how small that may be, I’ll leave you with his numbers in comparison to other recent Heisman-winning running backs:

• Melvin Gordon, 2014: 2,336 yards, 26 rushing touchdowns, 7.6 yards per carry

• Mark Ingram, 2009: 1,658 yards, 17 rushing touchdowns, 6.1 yards per carry

• Reggie Bush, 2005 (vacated): 1,740 yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 8.7 yards per carry

• Ron Dayne, 1999: 2,034 yards, 20 rushing touchdowns, 6.0 yards per carry

• Ricky Williams, 1998: 2,124 yards, 27 rushing touchdowns, 5.9 yards per carry

• Eddie George, 1995: 1,927 yards, 24 rushing touchdowns, 5.9 yards per carry

Incredible context, huh? Any other year and this would have been Gordon’s award, hands down.

Amari Cooper, Alabama WR

All year long, I kept Cooper near the bottom of my rankings or sometimes didn’t rank him at all. I looked at his numbers compared to other talented wide receivers this season, noted the positional bias working against him and dismissed his Heisman chances.

I was actually hoping to see him named a finalist, to give me a chance to go back and really examine his Heisman case in-depth. I wanted to go over my justifications for not buying into Cooper’s Heisman hype and see if they had any merit.

While positional bias works against Gordon, it hurts Cooper even more. Wide receivers have won the Heisman just three other times: Desmond Howard in 1991, Tim Brown in 1987 and Johnny Rodgers in 1972. Rodgers is a unique case—he virtually split his career between running back and receiver. Whatever, we’ll count him. But look at these stat splits:

• Amari Cooper, 2014: 115 receptions, 1,656 yards, 14 touchdowns

• Desmond Howard, 1991: 62 receptions, 985 yards, 19 touchdowns

• Tim Brown, 1987: 39 receptions, 846 yards, three touchdowns

• Johnny Rodgers, 1972: 58 receptions, 1,013 yards, nine touchdowns

How the hell did Tim Brown win a Heisman? Anyway, those numbers clearly show that Cooper has a historically strong case for becoming the fourth wide receiver to ever win.

But the game has changed substantially. Passing has become so heavily emphasized that it has inflated statistics for both quarterbacks and wide receivers. So while Cooper may be lightyears ahead of the three former winners, his numbers don’t necessarily stack up in comparison to 21st century players.

Cooper’s 1,656 yards currently rank 25th all-time on the single-season leaderboard. Among the players ahead of him, only six placed in the Top 10 of final Heisman voting: Larry Fitzgerald (second in 2003), Marqise Lee (fourth in 2012), Howard Twilley (second in 1965—yeah, I don’t know either), Justin Blackmon (fifth in 2010), Randy Moss (fourth in 1997) and Michael Crabtree (fifth in 2008).

Cooper’s 14 receiving touchdowns? Nowhere close to the single-season record of 27. His 115 receptions are well off the record of 155. True, many of the players above him were in gimmick offenses, but I hesitate to say his numbers alone are historically prominent.

Now Cooper did lead the nation this year in receptions and receiving yards. And that’s really impressive considering he missed practically all of the cupcake matchup with Western Carolina because of injury. Had he not hurt his knee, he could have teed off and racked up more numbers.

The biggest case for Cooper winning the Heisman is how integral he was to Alabama’s offense. He accounted for more than 40 percent of the team’s receiving numbers. The Tide had a steady quarterback in Blake Sims and two talented runners in Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon, but Cooper was the dynamo behind it all.

You could make a case that the Crimson Tide aren’t ranked No. 1 in the nation without a threat like Cooper. It’s a legitimate argument.

But Mariota and Gordon were the focal points of their offenses too. Cooper is a human highlight reel, but objectively speaking, his case is simply not as strong as Mariota’s or Gordon’s.

If you couldn’t tell already, personally I’d rank Mariota first, Gordon second and Cooper third. While it seems like a foregone conclusion that Mariota will win, the race for second place is up for grabs. The Heisman ceremony kicks off at 7 p.m. Saturday and will be televised on ESPN.

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