The Case For and Against Each Heisman Finalist
Stanford running back Bryce Love, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson—the reigning Heisman Trophy winner—will be dressed to the nines Saturday night in New York City in anxious anticipation of the unveiling of the 2017 Heisman recipient.
Mayfield has been the runaway favorite for the past month or so, but there's a case to be made both for and against each of these three finalists.
Love was the best big-chunk runner in recent history, but he didn't even lead the nation in rushing yards.
Jackson's numbers were even better than they were in his trophy-winning 2016 season, but Louisville lost four games and was never as nationally relevant as it was last year.
And Mayfield had the most efficient year by a quarterback in college football history, but was he really any better than when he failed to win the Heisman in each of the past two seasons?
By the time you finish reading this, you may well be convinced all three stars are equally deserving and undeserving of the sport's highest honor.
The Case for Bryce Love
Has there ever been a more explosive college running back than Bryce Love?
There certainly hasn't been anyone close to him in the 2010s.
Per CFB Stats, Love had 23 carries go for at least 30 yards and 12 carries that went for at least 50. This year, no other player did better than 15 or eight, respectively. And the only player in the past seven years to come anywhere close was Melvin Gordon's 21 and 10 in 2014.
But Gordon—who finished second in the Heisman voting that year—carried the ball 106 more times than Love, and he "only" averaged 7.5 yards per carry. Also, 6.1 percent of his carries went for at least 30 yards, compared to 9.7 percent for Love.
At 8.3 yards per carry and 1,973 rushing yards, Love is the only player dating to at least 2000 who averaged at least eight yards per touch while receiving enough touches to rush for 1,773 yards or more, per Sports Reference.
Perhaps the best argument in Love's favor, though, is what happened when he wasn't at 100 percent.
He missed Stanford's game against Oregon State with an ankle injury, and he wasn't back to full strength for the following week against Washington State. As a result, the Cardinal darn near lost to a Beavers team that didn't beat a single FBS opponent this season, and Stanford did lose to the Cougars because it had just 198 yards of total offense—its worst performance since September 2008.
Without Love, Stanford would have been a disaster. With him, the Cardinal made it to the Pac-12 championship and fell just three points shy of playing in a New Year's Six bowl.
The Case Against Bryce Love
As explosive as he may be, Love didn't lead the nation in rushing yards. He finished 54 yards behind San Diego State's Rashaad Penny. Love also didn't return a single punt or kickoff for Stanford, and he only made six catches for 33 yards.
Meanwhile, Penny led the nation in all-purpose yards by more than 500. Even though he plays in an inferior conference, there's a strong case to be made that Penny—not Love—was the best running back this year.
Love also came nowhere close to leading the nation in rushing touchdowns. He's 12 behind Florida Atlantic's Devin Singletary (29) and in a five-way tie for seventh place.
Two years ago, Derrick Henry won the Heisman despite finishing more than 1,500 all-purpose yards behind Christian McCaffrey. But at least Henry led the nation in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns while playing for a 14-1 national champion.
Love had a historic first five weeks of the season, and he would've been the runaway favorite for the Heisman had he kept that up all year. Instead, his numbers since the beginning of October weren't nearly as impressive. And instead of a national champion, he plays for a four-loss team that didn't even get selected for a New Year's Six bowl.
Moreover, Love has the luxury of playing in a system that always seems to produce a running back with big numbers. Just in the past five years, Stanford's Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and Christian McCaffrey (twice) rushed for at least 1,500 yards in a season and finished in the top 10 in the nation in rushing yards.
So, how much of it is Love's awesomeness, and how much of it is just an outstanding offensive line and blocking scheme that has proved capable of making good running backs look great?
Aside from the previously mentioned 30-yard and 50-yard chunk plays, nothing about Love screams "best in the country this year."
The Case for Lamar Jackson
After he won the Heisman in 2016, Lamar Jackson has been even more impressive in 2017.
Though he still has more than his fair share of brutal overthrows, Jackson is markedly better as a pocket passer. His completion percentage has improved from 56.2 to 60.4, he's averaging 290.8 passing yards per game as opposed to 272.5 last year and his touchdown-to-interception ratio spiked from 3.3 to 4.2. As a result, his quarterback rating increased from 148.8 to 151.5.
Jackson improved as a rusher, too. He's averaging 6.9 yards per carry after accounting for 6.0 yards per rush in 2016. Even though he's using his legs less often this year, his per-game average (120.3 vs. 120.8) is almost unchanged.
What hasn't been mentioned nearly enough is that he has done this despite losing all three of his top receivers from last year.
James Quick, Cole Hikutini and Jamari Staples combined for 54.3 percent of Louisville's receiving yards and 52.8 percent of its receptions in 2016 before graduating, but the transition to Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins has been seamless.
The Cardinals also lost starting running back Brandon Radcliff to graduation and ended up giving the most carries (aside from Jackson's) to quarterback-turned-wide receiver-turned-running back Reggie Bonnafon. But you wouldn't have any idea from Jackson's numbers that the offense around him was effectively starting from scratch.
Moreover, Jackson bounced back beautifully from his end-of-year swoon in 2016. Compared to what he was doing in September last year, his final four games were terrible, leading to the notion that he either ran out of gas or that opposing coaches finally found a way to slow him down. But it's clear from his numbers this year that no defense has figured him out and he's still the most unstoppable player in the country.
The Case Against Lamar Jackson
There are only two reasons Jackson won't win the Heisman, and both are pretty stupid.
The first is Louisville's 8-4 record.
Jackson did throw one interception in each of those four losses—two of which were returned for touchdowns—but is it his fault the Cardinals gave up an average of 43.3 points in those games? Heck, in the loss to Boston College, Jackson accounted for 512 yards and five touchdowns, leading Louisville to 42 points. But, for some reason, we're supposed to believe he's not the best player in the country because the Eagles rushed for 364 yards against the Cardinals' atrocious defense?
And if a quarterback's defense is cause for concern, shouldn't that be an issue that's also holding back Baker Mayfield from winning the award? The Oklahoma defense gave up 384.8 yards per game, 5.7 yards per play and 25.0 points per game. Louisville's numbers are 386.8, 5.6 and 27.1, respectively. And the comparison was even more unfavorable for the Sooners before they shut down TCU in the Big 12 championship.
Furthermore, if four losses were grounds for not winning the Heisman, why didn't it stop Jackson from winning last year?
That leads us to the second argument against Jackson, which is that he's already won the Heisman—an argument that makes even less sense than the first.
If what Jackson did last year was deemed to be the best performance in the nation (by a margin of 620 voting points over Deshaun Watson and 1,783 over Mayfield), why should he be penalized for being even better—particularly when Mayfield's numbers are only marginally better than they were last year?
For whatever reason, voters get bored and don't want to see the same guy win the award twice. It happened to Johnny Manziel. It happened to Jameis Winston, though he played much worse in the season after he won the Heisman. It seems destined to happen to Jackson.
There's an argument to be made, too, that Manziel played worse in the season after he won the Heisman. His team certainly got worse, as did Winston's. But Jackson has been better than he was when he won the award, and his team's success is right on par with last year. Yet, inexplicably, winning the 2016 Heisman is what will keep Jackson from winning it in 2017.
The Case for Baker Mayfield
Though 2017 Heisman voting technically only applies to this season, perhaps the best case for Baker Mayfield is just how ridiculously good he has been over the course of the past three seasons.
Mayfield finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 2015 and third last season, and it has almost become a foregone conclusion that he'll ascend to first this year.
In his career at Oklahoma, Mayfield has thrown for 12,005 yards, completing 70.0 percent of his pass attempts with 117 touchdowns against just 20 interceptions. His career quarterback rating of 190.7 is incomprehensible, because as great as Lamar Jackson has been over the past two seasons, he has only posted a rating of 190 or better in three of 25 games.
Of course, this year was the best of the bunch for Mayfield, who recorded a 203.8 rating.
Per Sports-Reference, his worst quarterback rating in any game this season was 167.1 against Texas Tech. Per CFBStats, there were only five other quarterbacks in the country who had an average rating better than Mayfield's worst rating.
Long story short: This dude is rewriting the book on efficiency.
Mayfield has thrown for multiple touchdowns in every game this season and is averaging 8.2 touchdowns per interception. He completed at least 63 percent of his pass attempts in all 13 games and also threw for at least 243 yards in each game—this despite frequently not needing to do anything in the fourth quarter because he led the Sooners to so much offense in the first two or three.
And like Jackson, Mayfield has done this without most of last year's top targets. Dede Westbrook had 1,524 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns last year. Joe Mixon and Geno Lewis were Nos. 2 and 3 on the list of receptions. But all three of those players left for the pros, and Mayfield was still incredible.
If any sort of tiebreaker is required—which doesn't seem likely—Mayfield plays for a one-loss team going to the College Football Playoff, while both Jackson and Bryce Love play on teams that lost four games. And Mayfield's two masterpieces came in Oklahoma's toughest games of the year: at Ohio State and at Oklahoma State.
The Case Against Baker Mayfield
The primary argument against Mayfield has been the stuff he does when he isn't playing.
It all started with his arrest for public intoxication in February, for which his punishment was 35 hours of community service and required participation in "alcohol education services." Taken alone, that wouldn't be worth noting. But combine it with his flag-planting at Ohio State, his "You forgot who daddy is" statement at Baylor and his crotch grabs at Kansas, and there have been a lot of questionable developments over the course of the last 10 months.
But since when have the Heisman voters cared one bit about a player being a little too braggadocious? Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston were every bit as cocky as Mayfield, if not more so, and those guys still took home a stiff-armed trophy.
The bigger question with Mayfield is: Was he really that much better than either of his previous two seasons?
Though he finished in the top four of the Heisman voting in both 2015 and 2016, he was nowhere close to winning it. He got 34 first-place votes in 2015 and just 26 in 2016. In each case, it was less than 10 percent of the first-place votes the winner received.
And Mayfield's numbers are remarkably similar:
- 2015: 68.1%, 3,700 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT, 173.3 rating; 405 rushing yards, 7 TD
- 2016: 70.9%, 3,965 yards, 40 TD, 8 INT, 196.4 rating; 177 rushing yards, 6 TD
- 2017: 71.0%, 4,340 yards, 41 TD, 5 INT, 203.8 rating; 310 rushing yards, 5 TD
Yes, this year's numbers were a little bit better than last year's, but so were Lamar Jackson's. So if Mayfield had won the award last year, are we to believe Jackson would have actually won it this year, just because of the silly aversion voters have to making someone a two-time Heisman winner?
With the exception of Deshaun Watson, Mayfield and Jackson were clearly the two best quarterbacks in college football over the last two seasons. It only seems fair they both end up with one Heisman.