Mark Ingram and the Heisman: What's Wrong With Him Winning It?

Daniel McGowinCorrespondent IDecember 14, 2009

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 12:  Running back Mark Ingram #22 of the Alabama Crimson talks to the media during a press conference after being named the 75th Heisman Trophy winner at the Marriott Marquis on December 12, 2009 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

On Saturday, Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram won the 2009 Heisman Trophy for college football’s “most outstanding player.”  And there were many story lines from the award ceremony:

Alabama’s First Heisman

Closest Heisman Vote Ever

The Votes Got it Wrong

The Heisman is Hijacked

Huh?  For all of the positive story lines that could have been pulled from this, including the fact that Ingram was the third straight sophomore to win the award, there was much debate over whether or not Ingram was worthy of the Heisman. 

Many questioned his merit and dismissed his win as just another slap in the face of the award’s history and or regional bias.

Well, let’s be clear.  The Heisman trophy is overrated.  It has been for many years. 

Since 2000, only two Heisman winners have been on teams not playing for the BCS title—Carson Palmer in 2002 and Tim Tebow in 2007.  In other words, the trophy is typically for the best player on one of the best two teams.

Compared to the previous 10-year span (1990-99), only two played in the “title” game—Gino Torretta in 1992 and Charlie Ward in 1993.  Even if you add when Michigan and 1997 winner Charles Woodson split the title, that is still only three during that span. 

Furthermore, three winners were not even on conference winners and 1990 winner Ty Detmer and BYU finished 17th thanks to a Holiday Bowl beatdown at the hands of Texas A&M.

Thus, the trophy has become a glorified pat on the back for the top teams.  But, in all honesty, it really always has been, even going back Joe Bellino, Dick Kazmaier, and Glenn Davis.  So, there should be no surprise of the recent trend to narrow it down even further.

Nevertheless, the criticism has rained down, although it is no fault of Mark Ingram.  Some have gone as far as claim he is “overrated.”  But that is a bit over-the-top, as he still rushed for over 1,500 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry.  That is hardly “overrated.”

Really, the Heisman comes down to three players, or should have—Mark Ingram, Toby Gerhart, and Ndamukong Suh.  But, in fairness, I will look at all five finalists.

Tim Tebow (QB, Florida) .  Tebow was doomed by his own success.  In 2007, he threw for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns.  He added 23 rushing TDs on 895 rushing yards.  While his 2009 rushing numbers were similar to 2007, his passing yards and passing TDs have all declined.  In other words, he failed to live up to the bar that he set in 2007.  It is still a solid season.  But not enough.

Colt McCoy (QB, Texas). He averaged 270 yards per game while completing 70 percent of his passes.  But he struggled against the two best pass defenses in the Big 12 and understandably so.  And he has played against pass defenses that are among the bottom in the FBS.  To be fair, the Big 12 is replete with some of the top passing offenses in the FBS, thus, injuring the Big 12’s overall pass defense stats (a point that I will return to later).

Ndamukong Suh (DT, Nebraska). Suh has 82 tackles on the season, which ties him for 147th.  That is hardly impressive.  Well, until you take into account Suh’s position.  In terms of tackles (according to stats from ESPN.com), Suh has the most tackles not just among defensive tackles but among all defensive linemen—Virginia’s nose tackle Nate Collins is the next closest lineman with 76 tackles!  He also has 12 sacks on the season, 10 passes batted down, 24 QB hurries, three blocked kicks, one forced fumble, one interception, and a partridge in a pear tree.

His high tackle numbers are impressive for a defensive tackle.  His lowest tackles performance (3) was against Kansas, which I cannot fully explain, but the next two lowest—four tackles in both the Oklahoma and Texas Tech games—are understandable.  Overall, he was consistent throughout the year.

Suh’s sack numbers were spotty, but even without the four sack performance in the Big 12 title game, eight sacks is a solid season.  He was already on the radar, but that performance in Dallas is what really propelled him into the discussion.

In the end, he had two things working against him. 

First, his position is not flashy enough to shift the bias away from offensive players.  It is a shame, but it is a fact that offense receives more attention, although even there it is certain positions over others.  For example, while Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young won the 2006 Offensive Rookie of the Year, there were some (including myself) who thought that San Diego Chargers offensive tackle Marcus McNeill was more deserving.  Young was “flashier” and his stats more accessible, so he won.

Second, while some were impressed with his dominating performance in the Big 12 title game, they still likely took it more as an aberration compared to the rest of the season.  Again, some of the bias against the position comes into play, and people forget how often he was double-teamed.

In the end, Suh was just as deserving of the award as Ingram based on his body of work.

Toby Gerhart (RB, Stanford). All Gerhart did was lead all Division-1 (FBS and FCS) in total rushing yards (1,736) and rushing touchdowns (26).  He topped 100 yards in 10 of Stanford’s 12 games, 150 yards four times, and 200 or more in three games.  He scored at least one touchdown in all but one game and scored two or more in nine games.

Gerhart’s numbers came against some of the top run defenses in the country.  But that number needs to be criticized.  While the Pac-10 does carry some of the top rushing defenses in the country, it should be noted that the Pac-10 tends to have fewer run-first teams.  Teams tend to be either more balanced or pass-first.

For example, Pac-10 defenses face on average 33.78 rushes per game while yielding 4.1 yards per carry.  Those same defenses face 32.8 passes (19.4 completions) per game and give up 226.78 yards in the air.

For comparison, SEC defenses face 36.55 rushes per game and give up 3.86 yards per carry.  Conversely, SEC teams see 29.03 passes per game (15.66 completions) and yield 185.3 yards per game.

What does this mean?  While the Pac-10 does have some of the top rushing defenses in terms of yards per game, a deeper look at those numbers show that those stats are inflated due to the offensive philosophies of the teams faced.  On average, Pac-10 teams face fewer runs per game than the SEC, but give up more yards per carry.

In other words, numbers do lie when not taken into context.  Still, this is not to say that Gerhart could not run on SEC defenses because that would be a fallacious statement.  Gerhart is still a stud running back and performed consistently throughout the season.

So, like Suh, Gerhart is just as deserving of the Heisman as Ingram.

Mark Ingram (RB, Alabama). Take the above analysis of rushing defenses and apply it here.  Comparatively, Ingram ran against teams that are more designed to stop the run and tend to face the run much more.  Yet, he still produced.

While Ingram has far fewer total yards than Gerhart and a lower yards per game number than his Stanford counterpart, the Alabama running back still had more yards per carry.  In fact, he averaged over five yards per carry in 10 of his 13 games (Gerhart only topped that average five times).

And, Ingram added 30 catches for 322 yards.  Add it up and Ingram had 1,864 total yards while Gerhart just edges him with 1,885 total yards.  If you want to look at a complete player, Ingram appears to do more than Gerhart.

Furthermore, Ingram faced more competition in the backfield than Gerhart.  Trent Richardson took 126 carries for the Tide for 642 yards and six touchdowns (Roy Upchurch took another 49 for 290 yards).  Gerhart’s backup, freshman Stepfan Taylor, took far fewer carries away (55) for 298 yards and two touchdowns.  In fact, Stanford QB Andrew Luck was the team’s second leading rusher!

Considering that, Ingram had fewer chances to do what he did and, yet, still produced.

The knock against Ingram was that he did not show up against Auburn and that his numbers were not as consistent as Gerhart’s stats.  Plus, the fact that Richardson could be “plugged in” and run just as well as Ingram means that Mark’s numbers are more a product of his team and the offense than the sophomore himself.

However, that diminishes what he has accomplished.  After all, Richardson was a highly touted recruit, and I am sure if I was running the ball I would not get anywhere. 

Ingram is still a solid running back.

So, Ingram is just as deserving of the Heisman as Gerhart or Suh.  Or McCoy or even Tebow.  And thus, it was a tossup.

Nevertheless, the criticism exist.  But it is unwarranted.

My Bleacher Report colleague Bryan Kelly argues that the vote was based on the SEC bias and that the award was “hijacked.”  Well, maybe the only way an SEC player could win the award was to hijack it.

Ingram became only the second SEC winner this decade, and third in the past 20 years!  In total, the SEC has nine Heisman trophies—George Rogers’ 1980 award does not count as South Carolina was not a member of the SEC at the time. 

While tedious, here is the breakdown of BCS Heisman winners by conference.  Note the Big 12 is included for teams that won it as members of the Southwest Conference or Big 8, as well as the Big 12:

  • Big 10: 14 times
  • Big 12: 13 times (four as Big 12 teams; seven as Big 8 teams; two as Southwest Conference teams)*
  • Pac-10: 10 times
  • SEC: nine times
  • ACC: twice
  • Big East: once

It should be noted that the Pac-10 is carried by Southern California (7), with Oregon State, Stanford, and UCLA each with one Heisman winner. 

Historically, the Midwest has dominated the award, but over the past decade, the award has been fairly evenly dispersed: three winners each from the West coast, Southwest and Southeast, and one winner from the Midwest.

But, given the lack of SEC winners over the last 20 years, it hardly seems like the long-held belief that the SEC is the best conference has translated in Heisman winners.

The other criticism is that Gerhart had the most rushing yards, and so, he should have won.  When has the player with the most yards (at his position) won the award?  Answer: Chris Weinke!

Total yards is not everything.  I mean, where was Case Keenum?  Or Dan LeFevour?  Or Damaris Johnson?  Or, if you need a player who is a “top team,” where was Mardy Gilyard?

And where was Ryan Matthews, who led the country in rushing yards per game (151.3)?

Point is, being tops in a statistical category is not the only measure of a player.  Some argued that C.J. Spiller is just as deserving as anyone, and he was not a leader in any statistical category other than kickoff returns for TD (tied with four).

In a season when there really was no clear-cut number one team all season, it was fitting that there was never a clear-cut Heisman front runner.  And the closeness of the final vote only speaks to the fact that it could have gone either way.

The Heisman voters might not have “gotten it right” by picking Ingram.  But it is hard to say that they “got it wrong” either.

* - TCU, SMU and Houston had Heisman winners as Southwest Conference winners.

This article originally appeared on Uncle Popov's Drunken Sports Rant on December 14, 2009.


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