Here’s the problem, and it is a problem.
There are Heisman voters off in the football abyss who already made up their minds on South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney’s Heisman hopes. They made up their minds long before Clowney hunched over for the first time—the first of many—gasping for air in South Carolina’s dominating 27-10 win over North Carolina.
Their decisions were made well before Clowney finished opening night sackless and breathless, a rough start for those of us craving a breakup in the Heisman monotony.
For those looking for a reason to keep Clowney away from the New York City podium, they found ammo early without searching very hard.
One longtime voter just told me re Clowney winning Heisman: "He's toast." It's a tough world, this 24\7— Chris Dufresne (@DufresneLATimes) August 29, 2013
It wasn’t the dream opener for the nation’s most dominating force by any means.
He spent much of the game out of the game, coping with the overwhelming heat, keeping up with an offense that operates with an incredible tempo and recovering from a stomach virus, via Michael Haney of 107.5 The Game, that clearly played a role.
When he played, he was effective at times, despite never truly looking comfortable. It won’t show up on the stat sheet, but Clowney propelled his way through double teams and forced errant throws. He finished with three hurries and three tackles, and No. 7 had the UNC offense relying on screen pass after screen pass in an effort to limit the pass rush.
Late in the fourth quarter, UNC lineman Kiaro Holts was called for clipping when he dove at the side of Clowney’s knee after quarterback Bryn Renner’s pass had been thrown. It was a strange, unnecessary attempt, and an entire nation (and certainly an abundance of NFL scouts, probably starting with the Oakland Raiders') held its breath.
The end result was a win for South Carolina, the only thing that matters. Steve Spurrier’s group can now take a few extra days to prepare for Georgia with a massive trip to Athens on deck in Week 2.
But the buzz surrounding Clowney’s Heisman potential or perhaps lack thereof—yes, even after only 60 minutes—will be a story, which comes with the territory of being the best player in the game.
This is the cycle, and Clowney entered the season with the most Heisman buzz a defensive player has ever had by a significant margin.
Of course, let us not forget how this cycle played out last year.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith was a lock to win the Heisman after only four weeks in 2012. Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein held this lock honor for a month or so. The rest is, well, history.
The difference with Clowney is his position and the inability for many to understand the impact of an elite defensive lineman despite seeing a zero in the sack column. This is what Clowney—and all defensive players who will never field a kickoff or punt in their life—are up against.
Did he have his best game? Clearly not. Regardless of the stomach ailment, did he come in slightly out of shape? Probably. After all, when Clowney sat down after the game to answer questions from the media, he knew exactly what was coming, per the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Jadeveon Clowney walks in the interview room: "I'm ready for all of the questions about conditioning."— SHJ Sports (@HeraldJournal) August 30, 2013
Eliminating him from the Heisman conversation after four quarters of football—60 minutes in which he drastically altered the opponent’s game and helped limit a team that averaged nearly 500 yards of offense per game in 2012 to less than 300 yards—is, of course, foolish. But that won’t stop voters from doing it anyway.
They started doing this long before he took the field.
With Georgia on tap, however, Clowney can make a Heisman statement. If the Gamecocks go into Athens and win—and Clowney terrorizes an experienced offensive line—he will again become a Heisman favorite.
This is the ridiculous roller coaster ride that is the Heisman, and Week 1 is still in its infant stages. It is unrelenting and unfair—especially to those on the wrong side of the football. The deck is stacked against him, as it is with all defenders, but this is a long and winding road.
The most important zero at the moment, however, is the one in the loss column. If South Carolina can keep that up, no one will be able to keep Clowney out of the Heisman conversation, regardless of how hard one tries.