By MARK KNUDSON
The saying in baseball goes, “You can’t win the pennant in April, but you can lose it.” When it comes to college football’s Heisman Trophy, there’s a similar adage: You can’t win the award prior to Halloween, but you can most certainly lose it. That’s once again proving to be the case in 2016. As is the case most seasons, there are a lot of pre-season favorites for this year’s Heisman that will be watching the awards ceremony on TV this December.
Bring a pre-season favorite has almost become a handicap now, with expectations set so high they’re virtually impossible for any player to meet. Consider the case of former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (otherwise known today as the train wreck “Johnny Football.”) As a redshirt freshman in 2012 he burst onto the college football scene, rolling up huge offensive numbers passing and running and leading the Aggies to an upset of Alabama and a New Year’s Day bowl. He became the first freshman to capture the Heisman.
Manziel would attempt to become only the second repeat winner in Heisman history in 2013. Going in as the favorite, he actually posted BETTER passing stats as a sophomore, throwing for 11 more touchdowns and 400 more yards while improving his passer rating by nearly 18 percentage points. While Johnny Football set a new school passing record against Alabama that season, the Aggies were not able to pull off another upset and the season was viewed as something of a disappointment. Manziel finished a distant fifth in the voting.
Make no mistake; the Heisman Trophy is in many ways a team award. If your team is not among the nation’s best, or doesn’t quite meet expectations, your Heisman candidacy suffers. So for many reasons, including team play, injuries and the perception that perhaps expectations are not being met, here are some of the college football players who will NOT be picking up this season’s most prestigious individual honor come December.
It’s been a difficult start for Stanford and LSU, effectively killing the candidacy of a pair of standout running backs who were both pre-season favorites. Christian McCaffrey should have won the award last season when his accomplishments towered over the rest of the players in college football, including eventual winner Derrick Henry from Alabama. But this year’s Stanford team is not as good as last season’s. With defenses keying on him and injuries limiting his playing time, the nation’s best all-purpose back isn’t matching last season’s numbers and won’t be going back to NYC. Same holds true for the other pre-season favorite, LSU’s Lenard Fournette. The Tigers struggled early and lost two games, leading to the firing of head coach Les Miles. Like McCaffrey, Fournette has missed four games to date, and while he was spectacular in a record setting performance against Ole’ Miss, it’s too little too late. Same holds true for another one of last season’s outstanding runners, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. Injuries have been a bugaboo for him as well.
Another standout running back who’s having a big season and won’t be among the top vote getters is San Diego State’s Donnell Pumphrey. He’s a spectacular runner playing in a forgotten conference after many voters have gone to bed. McCaffrey was crippled by the “west coast effect” last season and he played in the Power Five. Another key factor for many Heisman voters is a player’s production in really important games. San Diego State will simply not participate in any games that are seen as being nationally important this season. Pumphrey will put up great stats and perhaps join Marshall Faulk and Ronnie Hillman as Aztec alums to do big things on Sundays. But he’s not winning the Heisman.
The west coach effect will also sink the candidacy of Washington quarterback Jake Browning. He’s put up glistening passing stats through half the season, but there are just too many great QB’s ahead of him in this race. Browning doesn’t have any “you gotta see this play!” individual moments that voters are drawn to. Going into the season, voters had heard of Houston quarterback Greg Ward and he was in the mix early. His stock took an uptick when the Cougars scored that opening week upset of Oklahoma. But an injury, followed by losses to Navy and SMU erased him. And while he puts up great passing stats and reminds many people of Brett Favre, OU’s Baker Mayfield won’t win it either after the Sooner stumbled out of the gate.
Like Browning, there’s another QB in the picture with a very bright future who is already on the outskirts of the Heisman race – Alabama freshman Jalen Hurts. Hurts is breaking the mold of mediocre, “game manager” Crimson Tide signal callers. He’s a dynamic playmaker, a rare dual threat player that Nick Saban has unleashed. And while he won’t win the award this season, because he plays for ‘Bama he will probably be the pre-season favorite in 2017.
So by process of elimination, the field has already been narrowed. Dual threat QB’s Deshaun Watson of Clemson and J.T. Barrett of Ohio State, along with Michigan’s do-everything linebacker/running back/kick returner Jabrill Peppers each have a strong chance to make the trip to New York for the ceremony. They will very likely get to watch a player who wasn’t on any pre-season Heisman lists, Louisville’s amazing dual threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, take home the trophy. But it’s not over yet.