LSU running back Leonard Fournette’s monster day on Saturday—228 yards against Auburn—put his team squarely in the middle of the discussion for best team in the SEC and contender for the College Football Playoff and vaulted himself into the front tier of Heisman Trophy contenders. If the vote had to be held today, I don’t see how anyone other than Fournette could be the choice.
Of course we don’t vote today and we’ve seen more than a few mid-September frontrunners disappear quickly, but what I find most intriguing about this year’s Heisman race is that this could be the return of the running back. The last time a back—or anyone who wasn’t a quarterback—won the Heisman was in 2009, Alabama’s Mark Ingram. Reggie Bush, the 2005 winner, is the only other running back in the 21st century to win.
It wasn’t always this way and you don’t have to turn back the clock to some bygone era to find running backs atop the Heisman vote. The five-year stretch from 1995-99 saw three backs, Eddie Georgie (Ohio State), Ricky Williams (Texas) and Ron Dayne (Wisconsin) win, along with a defensive back/wide receiver/punt returner extraordinaire in Charles Woodson (Michigan). But when you look at this year’s class, the running backs are prominent.
Let’s start with Fournette himself. In addition to the 228 yards in a high-profile game against a fellow SEC West contender, the LSU back also rolled up 159 yards against Mississippi State. Those are LSU’s only two games, with an opener against McNeese State postponed. So Fournette’s already got big games on a showcase stage, and he’s also got some stat-padding cupcake opportunities in front of him. Like his team, Fournette is in good position to be in control of the race when LSU visits Alabama on November 7.
There’s plenty of other good candidates, and we don’t have to leave the SEC to find them…
*Nick Chubb from Georgia was the leader on the ESPN Heisman Watch List that was out prior to this week’s games. Chubb has 468 yards in three games, including 159 in Saturday’s demolition of South Carolina. Could Georgia and LSU end up meeting in the SEC Championship Game with a conference title, Playoff berth and Heisman Trophy all on the line?
*Derrick Henry and Alabama will have something to say about all that in spite of Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss. Henry, both fast and physical has gone for 100-plus against both the Rebels and in the season opener against Wisconsin. And like his team, he’ll have opportunities to play himself back onto the map.
Let’s move out to the Pac-12 where two more candidates are lying in wait…
*Paul Perkins put UCLA on his back Saturday night against BYU, rushing for 219 yards to help the Bruins escape with 24-23 win. Perkins isn’t on the front tier of contenders right now, and his season got off to a slow start with 59 yards against Virginia. But if UCLA is going to do what some of us think they can—which is win the conference and reach the Playoff—then it will happen because of the physical offense that Jim Mora Jr. has brought to Westwood and that means a big year for Perkins.
*Last year Oregon produced the latest quarterback to win the Heisman with Marcus Mariota. Could the Ducks send a running back to the podium in New York City this December? Enter Royce Freeman. He hasn’t posted Heisman-type numbers yet, but big games are ahead. It’s also apparent that Oregon will need to rely the running game this year if they’re going to win the Pac-12 so that means opportunities for Freeman.
Looking around to the ACC and its football cousin in South Bend, we find two more potential challengers…
*Dalvin Cook is a shifty little back that emerged late last season at Florida State and the sophomore is second in the nation in rushing. Cook missed a big early opportunity in a Friday night ESPN game at Boston College when he only mustered 54 yards, but the biggest ACC games—notably a trip to Clemson—are still in front of him. Everett Golson is at quarterback and we learned last year when Golson was at Notre Dame that he needs the running game to avoid a flood of turnovers. That means give the ball to Cook.
*Speaking of Notre Dame, C.J. Prosise wasn’t even the starter on September 5 against Texas. Tarean Folston went down for the year and Prosise has taken full advantage of his opportunity. Prosise is fifth in the country in rush yardage, going for over 150 against Virginia and Georgia Tech. With another former second-stringer, DeShone Kizer, now starting at quarterback, Prosise will undoubtedly be asked to help keep the pressure off.
That’s a good class of running backs, with Fournette as the clear leader, Chubb a strong second and Perkins and Henry the best of the challengers. Just as important from a Heisman perspective is that no quarterbacks have really emerged.
A lot of early hype went to Perkins’ teammate, Josh Rosen at UCLA, but he played poorly against BYU and needed Perkins to bail him out. TCU’s Trevone Boykin, an early favorite, didn’t impress against Minnesota on Opening Night. Both he and Big 12 rival Seth Russell at Baylor will get their own chances to emerge before this is over.
We also can’t forget that someone not being talked about right now will end up winning the award. At this point in 2012, no one had heard of Johnny Manziel. The year before it was RG3 making a late run. Cal’s Jared Goff is one marquee moment away from having people look at his stat-sheet stuffing numbers.
All that’s possible, but right now it’s the running backs, for once, leading the way. And no one is better than the sophomore in Baton Rouge.