With every bit of his brute strength, his slashing moves and his 0-to-60 mph acceleration aimed toward the end zone, LSU tailback Leonard Fournette stated his case Saturday to be the Heisman Trophy favorite.
In his wake were all the other contenders and Rudy Ford, the big-talking Auburn defensive back who gave “matador defense” a new definition as Fournette churned for yet another touchdown. Polls early this week by ESPN, CBSSports.com and USA Today label Fournette as the overwhelming favorite. So do oddsmakers at Bovada, who Monday installed him as an 11-2 choice to capture the sport’s the biggest award (Georgia’s Nick Chubb is next at 15-2).
It’s deserving praise for Fournette. But a favorite’s role in the Heisman race, like fame itself, is fleeting. Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott, TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin and Alabama tailback Derrick Henry have also worn the front-runner’s yellow jersey, and it’s not October yet.
It’s 11 weeks from Saturday to Dec. 12, when the Heisman is awarded. Nearly the entire season. Virtually, in terms of what has already proven to be a mercurial Heisman race, it’s an eternity before Fournette can have his name called in New York. Maybe it’s part of the reason Fournette remains outwardly cool about being the hottest Heisman name.
“If I win it, I win it,” he said Tuesday amid a swarm of Heisman-related media questions. “But at the end of the day, I want to win a championship.”
I’ve been a Heisman voter since 1997. I’ve seen overwhelming favorites and nail biters and surprises, like Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. Here are some of the factors that have to go the Tiger tailback’s way for him to become LSU’s latter-day Billy Cannon:
1. Have a Heisman moment. You can still picture them, can’t you? Cannon’s Halloween night punt return against Ole Miss in 1959. Doug Flutie’s pass to Gerard Phelan against Miami in 1984. Cam Newton dragging LSU’s Patrick Peterson (and his Heisman hopes) into the end zone in 2010.
This is a popularity contest to a large degree, and voters need to have their imagination captured.
Fournette arguably had two Heisman moments in Saturday’s 45-21 demolition of Auburn, starting with his 40-yard run in which he plowed cornerback Blake Countess into the turf like the spring wheat. But if Fournette wins, he should give Auburn safety Tray Matthews a mention in his acceptance speech for trying to tackle him high and sliding off his back before he juked out cornerback Carlton Davis on a 29-yard touchdown run in the third. Give voters something they haven’t seen before and they won’t forget.
Of course, Fournette’s moment(s) came so early it might do him well to have another eye-popping play.
2. Stay healthy and keep winning. When Fournette came up limping after his 1-yard touchdown run late in the third (he again said Tuesday he was fine) it looked for a second as though his Heisman campaign would be scuttled before it began. It turned out to be only a bruise, but it was a shuddering reminder that the Heisman race is a marathon, and the successful candidate has to log the miles. Out of sight for a couple of weeks with an injury is out of mind to many voters. It also helps to play for a winning team. You don’t have to win the national title — only four of the past 15 Heisman winners have done so — but being the best player on the best team goes a long with much of the electorate.
3. Be versatile. One of the things that put Fournette on the Heisman radar this season was his performance in the Music City Bowl, where he rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns and had a 100-yard kickoff return against Notre Dame. But Fournette hasn’t returned a kick yet, Les Miles opting to conserve his role to offense, though he hasn’t ruled out a return at some point. Fournette was deployed deep on a kickoff late in the game, but that was as part of LSU’s hands team anticipating an onside kick. Fournette’s work in the Wildcat formation, which produced a leaping touchdown at Mississippi State, is a plus, however.
4. Silence the quarterbacks. Face it, the Heisman has become almost as exclusive a quarterback’s prize as the Davey O’Brien Award. Since 2000, the only non-quarterback to win was Saints and former Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009. Fournette has already gotten the cooperation of Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson and the surprisingly mudded quarterbacking mess at Ohio State, but he needs Boykin or Baylor’s Seth Russell or USC’s Cody Kessler to cap their campaigns at good but not great. Fournette can win a head-to-head battle among running backs.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.