As the calendar turns from September to October and the college football season really kicks into high gear with conference play beginning in earnest, it’s time for two of everybody’s favorite things to happen: the early-season Heisman Trophy being handed out and a pointless debate that riles up fans from Sunday to Friday.
This year, the two are related because they converge on one player: LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
Following another nearly flawless performance against Syracuse in Week 4 in which Fournette rushed for 244 yards and two scores, the big sophomore is up to eight scores already this season—all against Power Five competition—and is averaging a ridiculous 8.6 yards per carry.
Naturally, these types of numbers have led to the Tigers star taking the early lead in the Heisman race.
Based on his hot start, there's good reason for that, and even those already holding the prestigious trophy have started to label Fournette as the front-runner for the Heisman.
"He's better than I was," former Georgia star and 1982 Heisman winner Herschel Walker told TMZ earlier this week.
That’s high and deserving praise based on what Fournette has accomplished so far this season. The fact that he’s being labeled the guy in college football at this point has, however, spawned a pointless debate that has filled up sports talk radio and set social media on fire with hot takes galore.
As noted by NFL.com's Chase Goodbread, there's a notion going around that Fournette, a sophomore, should sit out his junior season in 2016 in order to save himself for the 2017 NFL draft. Even his head coach is not buying the talk.
"To me, there's a lot of people out there stirring the pot," LSU’s Les Miles said during his weekly radio show on Wednesday night, according to ESPN.com. "Just, let's make controversy. Why not? OK? I can't imagine that Leonard would be sitting anywhere inactive for a fall. I just can't possibly imagine it."
My first reaction to this topic was similar to Miles’ opinion: This is simply debate for debate’s sake after a somewhat slow week. My second thought was along the lines of "not again."
We went through the positives and negatives of this a few years ago when South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney was coming off a phenomenal sophomore season and being dragged into the same debate over sitting out in order to save himself for the NFL.
The debate is foolish for a number of factors and, quite simply, it’s pointless.
Until a young player actually decides to sit out for a year, we’re all just talking about hypotheticals. Secondly, until the NFL actually changes its rules to allow players less than three years out of high school to enter the draft, we’re all just rambling on about something that can’t and won’t happen.
It was the case with Clowney and it is the same case with Fournette. It was the case before those two, too.
Now would also be a good time to remind those who have forgotten that we’ve had experience with terrific college players sitting out a season before (including a running back), and things simply haven’t worked out for them. We shouldn’t expect anything different if Fournette were to do the same.
Remember, back in 2003 after he was suspended by Ohio State, Maurice Clarett took to the courts in order to get himself to be declared eligible for the NFL draft after just two seasons.
After the initial ruling came down in his favor, Clarett was later stuck in no-man’s land when an appeals court overturned the decision and left the running back unable to play in college (he hired an agent) or the NFL.
It was one of the greater what-ifs in college football. What would have happened had Clarett kept his head on straight and returned to Columbus after a sensational freshman year that was capped off with a surprise national title over one of the best teams ever assembled?
Heck, what would have happened if the diminutive back would have been eligible for the draft and made his way through the NFL despite being years younger than his fellow wide-eyed rookies?
We’ll never know, of course. Clarett was surprisingly drafted in the third round in 2005 but never played a down in the league. USC wide receiver Mike Williams, who followed a similar path in declaring himself eligible for the draft after his sophomore season, was taken in the top 10 in 2005 but failed to amount to much at the next level.
Each may have had the opportunity to trade in their skills for a paycheck, but it didn’t seem to work out long-term for either.
Those were two fantastic college football players who had a season taken away from them in the sport where everybody enjoyed watching them play at the highest level.
Fournette can do whatever he pleases after this year—and it’s crazy we’re talking about this subject only four games into 2015—and it can be his decision.
We adults, fans, pundits and coaches shouldn’t lecture him on what to do and what not to do, but for completely selfish reasons, it sure would be a shame to not be able to see Fournette play next year.
We simply get too little time with star players as the college game stands. Whether it be injuries, early draft entries or the simple fact that waves of replacements land at colleges across the country each February, one’s shelf life in college football is simply not all that long.
"It's a bad idea to talk about leaving early, just wait and your time will come,” Walker added in his interview with TMZ. Amen.
Stop the silly debate about sitting out for the NFL and take a moment to enjoy generational talents like Fournette, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Cal’s Jared Goff, USC’s Adoree’ Jackson and others. Before you know it, we’ll only be able to see them in a different jersey on Sundays—and in a far different version of the sport of football to boot.
More to the point, even with somebody who looks 35 years old like Fournette, there’s a reasoning behind that three-year rule the NFL has to prevent early entries into the draft: Players simply aren’t ready physically and mentally.
Rookies in the NFL struggle for many reasons, and part of it is because they have to adjust to a much more complex job. The other part is the physical pounding they are taking from older players over a much longer season. At a position like running back, that is magnified even more than at another spot like quarterback.
So I’ll say it again: Stop the silly debate over Fournette sitting out in 2016. In fact, forget all about it because it is such a moot point.
Soak in those runs where he punishes teams between the tackles and finds the end zone from over 50 yards away. Enjoy the tailback who is deservedly in the running for the award handed out to the most outstanding player in college football.
More than anything, keep an eye out to see if he can single-handedly will a one-dimensional offense to a division and possibly an SEC Championship.
College football should be glad to have the opportunity to see Fournette in an LSU jersey this season and next, even if that might not be the case for opponents on the Tigers' schedule.
You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.