At the LSU Board of Supervisors meeting Friday, the theme was putting the focus back on academics and taking it off of athletic controversies, the Les Miles saga having pre-empted such news as the hiring of LSU’s new provost, the No. 2 position on campus.
Leonard Fournette can relate.
Before Miles and his job status became a cause célèbre in November, virtually a national obsession for anyone who wrote or spoke or cared about college football, Fournette was that obsession. He became a happening, a cause, a phenomenon, one that burned brightly for half the season then got drowned out by all the Miles talk and the thundering cleats of Alabama tailback Derrick Henry, the likely Heisman Trophy winner.
After being the odds-on favorite to capture the most famous individual trophy in sports, Fournette didn’t even earn a seat on the front row for the Heisman ceremony. The finalists were cut off at three, and he wasn’t one of them based on how the voting shook out.
It’s a shame, but hardly a surprise. That’s the way the Heisman process works. It’s a popularity contest heavily weighted toward who has the best final month of the season, not the best opening or second act. Even if they invited four or five or six finalists to New York, there’s no guarantee Fournette would have been one of them. That’s how much his star faded during LSU’s star-crossed November slide.
Nonetheless, his season has still been remarkable. He still leads the NCAA FBS division in rushing yards per game (158.3). He still ranks third in rushing yards overall, behind only Henry (1,986) and fellow Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey of Stanford (1,847) — even though both of them have played in two more games than Fournette and have 68 and 48 more carries, respectively. If Henry doesn’t go wild in the College Football Playoff and Fournette does as expected, shredding Texas Tech’s tissue-paper rushing defense in the Texas Bowl, Fournette could well become the first NCAA rushing leader from the Southeastern Conference since John “Kayo” Dottley of Ole Miss in 1949.
Dottley, by the way, ran for the most yards that year to earn the NCAA rushing title — but since 1970, the NCAA has used yards per game to set the standard. In that regard, Fournette is still running out in front of the field.
But it’s more than cold numbers that tell the story of Fournette’s remarkable season. He became virtually a legend in microcosm, featured everywhere, from ESPN to the cover of Sports Illustrated (maybe the infamous SI cover jinx did him in) to even the Wall Street Journal. Everyone was lining up to chronicle the story of how his family survived Hurricane Katrina and the origins of “BUGA Nation” and the parents who didn’t want their son run over by Fournette in his playground ball days.
Fournette’s story transcended yards per carry and touchdowns. He became the subject of a national debate about whether the NFL rule prohibiting players turning pro after just two years in college was persecuting Fournette and his boundless talent. They talked of him sitting out next season — a possibility he doesn’t seem to have ever seriously considered — to protect his body for the pro football riches to come.
McCaffery is a true sophomore like Fournette. So is Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, the third Heisman finalist. No one is saying the NFL rule is unfair to them. No one is calling for them to sit out their junior seasons to protect their investment.
Maybe Henry or McCaffrey or Watson could sign a game jersey and create a bidding frenzy, but Fournette actually did it. Some decried his on-field speech after the South Carolina game as a grandstand play, but that’s a cynically myopic view. The truth is, however it came about, Fournette did auction his jersey to help raise $101,000 for South Carolina flood relief, AND he got the NCAA to bend its rule on such matters to allow him to do it.
What NCAA rules has Henry changed this season?
Fournette will earn his share of All-SEC and All-America honors, but for another run at the big prize, the Heisman, he’ll have to return next season and do it all over again. He’ll be one of the favorites going in, assuming Henry goes pro, though some say Fournette’s family will lobby Miles to cut back on his number of carries, so as to save his body for his money-making years.
Maybe next year will be THE year for Fournette. Maybe this time next December, it will be him hoisting the Heisman Trophy, flashing that megawatt smile.
But this year for him was remarkable in its own right, even if not by the ways football seasons are typically judged.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.