Leonard Fournette is the biggest Heisman Trophy favorite this early in a season in, maybe, more than a decade.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Andy Staples, a Heisman voter and college football reporter for Sports Illustrated.
Quarterbacks have won the Heisman 13 of the past 14 years, including the past five. Each of those winners was a dual-threat athlete who put up gaudy numbers in an explosive spread system — the exact reason behind the QB takeover of the award.
The spread-leading, dual-threat quarterbacks have swept through college football over the past decade. They’ve set offensive records, hit scoring marks and dominated the Heisman Trophy like never before.
Before this recent run, tailbacks won 38 of the first 64 Heismans — a near 60 percent clip. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see that again, experts said.
“There’s been an offensive revolution,” said Dennis Dodd, CBSSports.com’s national college football reporter and an ex-Heisman voter. “The role of the running back has been marginalized.”
It all leads us to this: Despite what the oddsmakers say, Fournette and his outrageous numbers may fall short of claiming the Heisman because of those dual-threat quarterbacks in a game that has changed so much.
“It’s the spread revolution,” said Ralph Russo, another former longtime Heisman voter who covers college football for The Associated Press. “You have quarterbacks putting up these crazy numbers. To a certain degree, it’s because of the systems, but it’s also how talented they are. They can run and pass. If you’re a running back, it’s hard to match that.”
Fournette is trying darn hard.
He leads the nation in rushing by more than 200 yards — despite playing one fewer game than most. He became the quickest player in Southeastern Conference history to hit the 1,000-yard mark and joins just 11 others nationally to hit that mark in the first five games of a season.
He gets his toughest test Saturday against the 12th-ranked rushing defense in the land. No. 6 LSU (5-0, 3-0) and No. 8 Florida (6-0, 4-0) meet in just the sixth night game in Tiger Stadium pitting unbeaten top-10 teams. The implications of a win or loss are obvious: They involve championships.
Running back Heisman finalists since Mark Ingram won in 2009
Yards (FBS ranking)
QB Marcus Mariota
QB Jameis Winston
QB Robert Griffin III
QB Cam Newton
For Fournette, the implications are equally as gigantic, but on an individual level: They involve the Heisman Trophy.
“There’s somebody every year that we fall in love with in September,” Dodd said. “The good ones sustain it through the season.”
Fournette must perform against the best. That includes Florida and the three-headed monster that looms during the first three weeks in November: at Alabama, vs. Arkansas, at Ole Miss.
Heisman winners by position
TCU and Baylor are undefeated, top-five teams. Russell has thrown for 1,527 yards and 22 touchdowns and run for 178 yards and four scores. Boykin is throwing up video-game stats: 2,103 passing yards and 21 touchdowns with 366 rushing yards and four TDs.
“He’s developing into a Johnny Manziel with discipline,” Dodd said of Boykin.
“He could wrestle it away from Fournette at some point,” Russo said. “Boykin is going to have some crazy, crazy numbers. It’s tough for even a guy as good as Fournette to equal. The quarterback in these offenses is the most important player. It’s a quarterback-driven sport right now. (Fournette) is going to go against a guy who has 5,000 or 4,500 total yards.”
You don’t have to tell that to Melvin Gordon, the Wisconsin running back who last year ran for the second-most yards by a running back in NCAA history. His 2,587 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns weren’t enough to beat out one of those dual-threat quarterbacks.
Marcus Mariota had more than 4,400 yards of total offense at the time of the Heisman voting last year. He received 788 first-place votes. Gordon got 37.
“That’s the disadvantage Leonard has,” Staples said. “He can’t put up passing stats.”
Fournette, averaging 204 yards per game, is on pace to have a 2,200-yard, 11-game regular season, putting him about 300 yards shy of Gordon’s stats.
It’s not all about Fournette’s numbers, though: LSU’s win total and championship status is just as important. Mariota and Oregon advanced to the College Football Playoff at the time of the Heisman voting. Gordon and Wisconsin were 10-3, having lost to Ohio State 59-0 in the Big Ten title game. Gordon ran for 76 yards in that one.
Does LSU have to reach the CFP for Fournette to win the Heisman? No, but the combination of the Tigers missing the CFP and Boykin or Russell leading their teams to a CFP spot could mean no Heisman for LSU’s star from New Orleans.
“If you’re a player that doesn’t make it to the playoff, you have to be a pretty rare and outstanding player to win it,” Russo said.
Guys who have done that recently? Florida’s Tim Tebow and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. They have something in common: They’re dual-threat quarterbacks.
Still, some believe Fournette is in perfect position to win the award and that he is that rare, outstanding talent, a running back who might be able to overcome the gaudy numbers thrown up by quarterbacks like Boykin and Russell.
“It’s his to lose,” Dodd said. “I don’t think I’ve said that this early in a season. He is such a singular talent that he breaks down all of the barriers, all of the trends.”
The running quarterback, though, is a tough one to break. It’s only growing in popularity based on numbers in a CBSSports.com report.
Quarterback rushing yard averages have nearly doubled in the past decade, according to research compiled by SportSource Analytics. Quarterback yards per carry are up 53 percent: 1.83 in 2005 to 2.83 in 2014. Rushing yards gained by quarterbacks accounted for more than 15 percent of the national rushing yardage total last year. That’s up from 10.5 percent a decade ago.
Fournette said his focus continues to be forward — on the next opponent. It’s not Boykin or Russell he’s facing this week. It’s Florida — which, of course, will start dual-threat quarterback Treon Harris.
Leonard Fournette has…
- 119 carries this season and 42 of them have produced first downs (35.3 percent of his rushes)
- been tackled for a loss on a running play just seven times this season (in 119 attempts)
- been tackled for a loss on a running play just 14 times (in 306 career rushes)
- had 21 runs of 10 yards or more this season (he had 21 all last season)
- averaged more than nine yards a carry over his last seven games: 7.7 (A&M), 13.0 (N.D.), 5.7 (Miss. State), 12.0 (Auburn), 9.4 (Syracuse), 9.0 (E. Michigan), 7.9 (South Carolina)
- 306 carries for 2,056 yards (6.7 yards per attempt) and 22 TDs in his career
- runs of 40 yards or more in his 18 games (40, *40, 46, 48, *62, 71, *75, *87, *89)
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.