Among the more fun developments of the 2017 college football season has been the prominence of running backs. College football never exactly commoditized the position to the extent of the NFL, wherein the early part of the 21st Century running backs were treated as wholly expendable.
Still, college running backs weren’t celebrated as a whole since the turn of the millennium the way they had been in my childhood. I grew up following the exploits of Marshall Faulk, Rashaan Salaam, Ki-Jana Carter, Ricky Williams, Troy Davis, Ron Dayne, Warrick Dunn, Trung Canidate, LaDainian Tomlinson; these players were the sport’s biggest stars.
The shift in focus to a more passing-oriented game elevated the prominence of quarterbacks; implementation of zone-read schemes further underscored the stardom of quarterbacks. Since 2000, 14 quarterbacks won the Heisman and just three running backs. Four running backs won from 1994 through 1999.
This season’s Heisman race, current led by Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, demonstrates a shift in styles. As offenses have had to adjust to prolific passing attacks, the role of an explosive, powerful ball-carrier is now more valuable. Four of the top eight in this week’s Heisman Top 10 play running back.
Others Receiving Votes
- Navy QB Zach Abey
- NC State DL Bradley Chubb
- Georgia RB Nick Chubb
- West Virginia QB Will Grier
- TCU QB Kenny Hill
- Iowa State LB Joel Lanning
- Penn State QB Trace McSorley
- UCLA QB Josh Rosen
- Oklahoma State WR James Washington
10. ALABAMA DB MINKAH FITZPATRICK
You know, I’m actually sorta mystified that throughout this run of excellence under Nick Saban, Alabama has never had a defensive player seriously contend for the Heisman. I personally thought Terrence Cody deserved the pub given to 2009 winner Mark Ingram, and C.J. Mosley was far more deserving of the Gold Watch invitation that went to A.J. McCarron.
Alas, defensive players go unheralded in the Heisman chase — even those representing the best defensive team in college football.
Minkah Fitzpatrick just might buck the trend. He has well-rounded defensive stats: 28 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, a forced fumble. Add his special teams play, which includes a blocked kick and a 39-yard kickoff return (on a game-winning onside kick recovery, no less), and it’s a solid resume. He may not get much higher than No. 10 in the countdown, but his inclusion is refreshing.
9. ALABAMA QB JALEN HURTS
I suspect Jalen Hurts’ Heisman candidacy continues to improve, simply be winning a war of attrition. If Saquon Barkley doesn’t have a wholly spectacular performance, for example, there’s much social media hand-wringing that can influence voters.
As the primary offensive weapon and de facto face of the best team in the nation, however, Hurts need not necessarily be spectacular to climb into the Heisman race. I refer again to A.J. McCarron.
Of course, there’s considerable difference between Hurts and McCarron. Hurts is the leader ball-carrier on a roster filled with four-and-five-star running backs. His most unspectacular performance of the season, last week at Texas A&M, still yielded a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown.
8. WISCONSIN RB JONATHAN TAYLOR
From off the radar to ahead of two Alabama candidates; that’s quite the jump for Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.
Everything I wrote above about running backs? You can scrap that when referencing the Badgers. Running back remains the central focus of the Wisconsin football approach, evident in three Badger backs making it to New York in the past 18 years.
Could Jonathan Taylor be poised to join Ron Dayne, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon? With 767 rushing yards and nine touchdowns through just five games, he’s on the right course.
7. OKLAHOMA STATE QB MASON RUDOLPH
The bye week dinged Mason Rudolph considerably with this week, though I have my own theory as to why the Cowboys quarterback — once as high as No. 2 in this weekly aggregation of media sentiment — has plummeted in recent weeks.
Oklahoma State’s one week feels more like two, after the Cowboys played their Sept. 30 game on FOX against Texas Tech. The lasting impression of Rudolph may well be the Sept. 23 loss to TCU, in which he completed just 53.7 percent of his pass attempts and threw two interceptions.
6. LOUISVILLE QB LAMAR JACKSON
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner looked quite good last Thursday against NC State, all things considered. Louisville’s offensive line is still a major deficiency, as it was a year ago when Jackson struggled down the stretch. Jackson was afforded little time to operate against NC State’s stellar defensive line — a line so good, Bradley Chubb actually appears in the Others Receiving Votes after racking up two tackles for loss and a sack last week.
Jackson could return to the forefront of the conversation, with Clemson and NC State out of the way and damage already done. But he’ll need more support to replicate the magic of 2016’s first half.
5. WASHINGTON STATE QB LUKE FALK
It’s fascinating that Mike Leach is renowned for his prolific passing offenses, yet has never had a serious contender for the Heisman Trophy. Graham Harrell was kinda sorta maybe in the discussion, but wide receiver Michael Crabtree was more at the center of the conversation that season.
This Washington State looks every week more like the best team Leach has coached since that 2008 Texas Tech bunch, and Luke Falk seems to be reaping the benefits. He’s thrown for exactly 2,000 yards and has an incredible 19 touchdowns against just two interceptions.
4. SAN DIEGO STATE RB RASHAAD PENNY
So when you discuss the Heisman, a vague concept to which voters and reporters will refer is the “Heisman Moment.” What that entails varies from person-to-person. For me, a highlight-reel moment that elicits audible “ooohs” qualifies.
Rashaad Penny provided that last Saturday against UNLV.
Penny also exemplified the qualities the Heisman Trust champions in a recipient when, in his ESPN post-game interview, he eschewed talk of the award to instead celebrate UNLV for its courage in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings.
“Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about the Heisman,” Penny said. “It don’t matter to me. But I’ve got family in North Las Vegas, and seeing what they went through, that hurt me as well…Everybody should do the same thing. It’s America. I’ve got so much respect for Vegas.”
Penny, who leads the nation in all-purpose yards, rushed for 170 last week. He’s 6-for-6 on 100-plus-yard games, and goes for seven straight in a high-profile matchup with Boise State.
3. OKLAHOMA QB BAKER MAYFIELD
The first really ground-shaking upset of the 2017 season rocked Oklahoma from the ranks of the undefeated. Despite the home loss to Iowa State, Baker Mayfield did not lose considerable ground in the Heisman chase.
Mayfield has yet to throw an interception with 15 passing touchdowns, and against Iowa State he scored his first rushing touchdown of the season.
2. STANFORD RB BRYCE LOVE
2015 Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey broke hallowed records on his way to…runner-up in the Heisman race. Perhaps Bryce Love can accomplish what eluded his former teammate, if he’s to continue on his own historic pace.
The nation’s leading rusher (1,240 yards, 206.7 yards per game) went for 152 and a touchdown against Utah. That was his worst statistical performance of the season, for context on just how outstanding he’s been.
Should Love continue at this rate, he’ll finish the regular season with 2,500 yards.
1. PENN STATE RB SAQUON BARKLEY
Saquon Barkley hasn’t rushed for 100 yards in either of his last two games; but when you return a kickoff for a touchdown, as he did against Indiana, and account for two scores like he did against Northwestern, it’s a moot point.
Barkley has firmly established himself as the player to beat in this Heisman race at the midway point. Competition tightens dramatically, with matchups against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State still to come. That’s a three-pack that could either make or break Saquon Barkley’s Heisman hopes.