What a shame it is that we reach this point and we have a worthy defending Heisman champion that likely won’t win the award again.
Louisville’s Lamar Jackson has put together a season that, in contrast to other Heisman winners that returned to college the following year, could be considered as good as his Heisman-winning campaign.
I pointed out in our College Football America Yearbook for 2017 that Jackson faced a serious uphill battle to win a second trophy mostly due to history. It’s only happened once (Archie Griffin, 1974-75) and even in Griffin’s case his numbers dipped a bit from 1974 to 1975. Other returning Heisman winners of recent memory have struggled to win the award again. For Jameis Winston, Tim Tebow and Mark Ingram, their post-Heisman seasons saw significant statistical drops. For Matt Leinart and Johnny Manziel, their numbers actually improved but both hit significant roadblocks. Leinart’s was Reggie Bush, his teammate. Manziel’s was, well, himself or, more to the point, the “Johnny Football” reputation that he cultivated.
So here we have Jackson. His passing yardage dropped from 2016 to 2017 by less than 60 yards. His rushing yardage dropped by a little less than 100 yards. His total touchdowns dropped by nine, but his completion percentage went up by four points, his quarterback rating went up by three points and his total points scored went down by just 24 points. And, like last year, Jackson led the nation in total offense with 411.0 yards per game.
That is not an insignificant resume when it comes to the Heisman, whether you’re a first-time finalist or a defending Heisman winner. That’s why he’s a finalist for the second straight year.
But Jackson is highly unlikely to win on Saturday night in New York City. That also holds for Stanford running back Bryce Love, who is second in the nation in rushing with 1,973 yards and 17 touchdowns. And that’s a season comparable to the season that won Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry recent Heisman trophies.
No, I expect Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield to win the prize come Saturday night. Mayfield, a previous finalist, has finished in the Top 4 in voting each of the past two years, including a third-place finish behind Jackson a year ago.
It’s hard to argue against Mayfield. He saved his best season for his senior year. His 4,340 passing yards and 41 touchdown passes are career highs. His five interceptions are a career low. His 203.8 pass efficiency rating is also the best of his career and betters his national record of 196.4 a year ago.
Plus, he has one thing that Jackson and Love don’t have — an invitation to the College Football Playoff. It isn’t a prerequisite — Jackson proved that last year — but it’s starting to become one. Take a look at Heisman winners dating back to 2007 and you’ll see that 50 percent of them played in the national championship game their Heisman season:
QB Sam Bradford (Oklahoma), 2008; RB Mark Ingram (Alabama), 2009; QB Cam Newton (Auburn), 2010; QB Jameis Winston (Florida State), 2013; RB Derrick Henry (Alabama), 2015.
Plus, if you go back and look at Griffin, he played his final two seasons at Ohio State with a team that won back-to-back Big Ten titles (sharing 1974 with Michigan), lost just one regular-season game in two seasons and was a national title contender both years. So, it was easy for Griffin to remain in the national spotlight.
As good as Jackson has been the past two seasons, his Cardinals lost four games each season and didn’t contend for their ACC divisional crown. It didn’t matter last year, but I think voters were looking for progress from Louisville as a team and didn’t see it (in other words, they probably wanted to see Jackson elevate that team). That may not be fair to Jackson, but that’s probably the truth.
As for Stanford, the Cardinal has lost seven games the past two seasons and while they did reach the Pac-12 title game this season, they did so with two conference losses in a weakened Pac-12 North. Love put together a great season. But that didn’t make that much of a difference in the team’s overall national title hopes.
Mayfield? Well, he’s led the Sooners to three Big 12 titles, two College Football Playoff berths and lost just five games in that three-year span.
Don’t agree? I get it. But this year the voters can elect a player that not only has the numbers to be considered the best player in the game, but also elect a player that has propelled his team into the national title conversation.
That is the potential for Mayfield’s postseason as he and the Sooners prepare for their national semifinal against Georgia. But, for now, he’ll be in New York City on Saturday night and I fully expect him to become the sixth Oklahoma Sooner player to win the Heisman Trophy.
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