Take Our PollThis season in college football, was supposed to be the year of the quarterback, but instead it has become the year of the superstar running back, starring Stanford’s Bryce Love and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
Love is a truly special talent. He likely represents Stanford’s best chance to win the Heisman Trophy for the first time since Jim Plunkett took home the hardware in 1971, nearly 50 years ago. Head coach David Shaw will play a significant role in his bid to win the coveted award.
Love, who won’t get his next chance to shine until Thursday night at Oregon State, was named to the mid-season AP All-American team this week. Shaw stopped by on KNBR-680 with us and said he saw this success coming for his junior running back.
“I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen this year, his first year as the starter, or next year, but we’ve been watching this guy for two years on our field and he’s so explosive, he’s so fast,” Shaw said. “We anticipated him doing some special things … he’s learned so much patience. He’s a mature football player. He breaks tackles and makes big plays.”
At the halfway mark of the college football regular season, we have seen a shift in the race for the Heisman. Love overtook Barkley this week as the favorite in Las Vegas to win the award.
The Westgate Superbook currently has Love listed as a 7-5 favorite with Barkley the clear second choice at 8-5. When the season began the Heisman favorites were all quarterbacks: USC’s Sam Darnold (5-1), Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (7-1), last year’s winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville (8-1) and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph (15-1).
Darnold entered the year with tremendous buzz, but interceptions have been his undoing. He has thrown at least one interception in every game, and has nine so far. He was also badly outplayed by Washington State’s Luke Falk in a head-to-head matchup.
Mayfield has been extremely impressive thus far, completing 74.6% of his passes with 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also led his Sooners to an upset win over Ohio State in Columbus. But he stumbled badly last week by losing to Iowa State at home in Norman.
Jackson has continued to post video game numbers, but his Louisville defense is challenged and that hurts his Heisman chances. Rudolph has been very productive in 2017, throwing for an average of 394 yards per game with 16 touchdown passes, five rushing touchdowns and only four interceptions. But he may split the votes in his region with his own teammate, senior wide receiver James Washington, who leads the team with 882 yards receiving and six touchdowns.
Three other quarterbacks who may vault themselves back into the Heisman discussion are Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Washington State’s Luke Falk and UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
Barrett has thrown for 1,351 yards and 18 touchdowns in his past five games, and has impressive season totals of 21 touchdowns and only one interception. He likely needs wins over both Michigan and Penn State to be a serious contender.
Falk, a former walk-on, has an impressive statistical resume with the nation’s fifth-best completion percentage (71.8%). Falk also leads the nation with 19 touchdowns but his five-interception performance last week in Berkeley won’t help his case. Rosen leads the nation in passing yards (2,135) and may have the most impressive arm talent in the country, but the Bruins’ losses to Memphis, Stanford and Arizona have likely dimmed his hopes.
Defensive players are rarely in the running for the Heisman. Charles Woodson is the only true defensive player to take home the award, and Woodson also excelled as a kick returner and occasionally was used as a wide receiver. If a defensive player emerges this year it could be University of Houston’s sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a former five-star recruit. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Oliver is a beast inside, and in 2016 he became the first freshman to win the Bill Willis Award, given annually to the nation’s top defensive lineman. Oliver totaled 60 tackles and five sacks last season. Oliver has followed up last season with 27 tackles and two forced fumbles thus far in 2017, despite facing a steady diet of double teams.
While Love’s chances appear good, Stanford is used to losing out in the Heisman race. In the past eight years, Stanford players were runner-up in the voting four times: Toby Gerhart in 2009, Andrew Luck in 2010 and ’11, and Christian McCaffrey in 2015. The Gerhart loss to Alabama’s running back Mark Ingram was a bitter moment for Stanford fans because the 28-point difference in the voting was the smallest margin in the 82-year history of the award.
Many consider Barkley the favorite to win this year’s award. Barkley, a virtual lock to be a top 10 draft pick in next April’s NFL Draft, leads the nation in all-purpose yards, averaging 217 per game. Penn State is 6-0 and ranked second in the AP Poll, and if Barkley can muster a huge effort versus Ohio State, that will vault him ahead of the field.
He is a all-around talent who excels as a receiver (4.8 receptions per game), and on special teams (averages 32.1 yards on kick returns), but his road to the Heisman promises to get rocky with an upcoming schedule that features Michigan. Ohio State, and Michigan State, three defenses that allow less than three yards per carry.
While Barkley is widely considered to be the best all-around player in college football, Love’s resume is possibly even more impressive. Love has 1,387 yards, most in the nation and 11 shy of double Barkley’s total. Barkley’s rushing average (108.2 yards per game) ranks 18th nationally, well behind Love’s nation best (198.1 yards per game).
Love’s total is nearly 30 yards more per game than the player in second place, Navy’s Zach Abey. Love’s greatest trait is his 4.3 speed. He hits a crease in the defense and he’s gone. He has nine carries of at least 50 yards, more than anyone for an entire season since Melvin Gordon in 2014. He’s averaging over 10.2 yards-per-carry on 135 carries, which is simply astounding.
Love has had nine straight 100-yard rushing games, and his 33 rushes of 10-plus yards is the most in the country. He has surprising power in his 5-foot-10, 196-pound frame and his 564 yards after contact would rank him seventh nationally in rushing yardage. Love has compiled these numbers while regularly facing seven- or eight-man boxes. Add in the fact that Love had a 4.5 GPA in high school, is a human biology major and would like to some day become a doctor, and you quickly realize this is one special kid.
Stanford launched a website BryceLove20.com on Tuesday to help promote Love’s Heisman bid, and Shaw described it as just “a first step” in the school’s campaign. In the past Stanford’s Heisman candidates have been hurt in part by late kickoffs. Love dominated the Oregon Ducks defense last Saturday night, but the game kicked off at 11 p.m.
in the Eastern time zone, so many of the Heisman voters never saw it. While late start times hurt Love’s Heisman chances, the national media is beginning to hone in on his incredible talent. ESPN’s College Game Day did a feature on Love last week.
Shaw has the power to help Love’s Heisman bid. He has stated in the past that he won’t sacrifice the production of his team or risk ruining his team’s unity to put one player’s goals ahead of his team’s goals. Shaw bristled when I suggested that some have argued that he could have done more to aid past Stanford Heisman bids.
“First of all, sorry to be so crass, but that’s all crap,” Shaw said. “No one did more than we did for both Andrew Luck and for Christian McCaffrey as far as websites, the communicating with the media, with doing all of the things that we did.
“I mean doggone it, Christian broke the unbreakable Barry Sanders record,” Shaw added. “No one ever thought that thing would ever be broken. And there are so many other factors, that you can’t account for. The Heisman voting, if you could put a pin on exactly what it is, it would be great. But you can’t because there are so many voters from all over the place and most of the people vote for their region, so it’s region versus region, it’s people in the media, it’s all the other random people that have votes. It’s hard to sway those people, so you do what you can. You try to win football games. You give the ball to your best player and let them go out there and do things. And after the fact to try to figure out who won and how they won or why somebody else didn’t win. It’s just impossible.”
Love’s bid for the Heisman will likely come down to health. He carried the ball just once in the second half last Saturday against Oregon, due to a minor ankle injury. I’ll make this prediction: if Love can stay on the field, he will win his Heisman. How appropriate is that? A future doctor who will win the Heisman Trophy if he can just stay healthy.
Larry Krueger appears weekdays from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on KNBR-680 AM with Gary Radnich and also hosts the 49ers pre- and post-game shows on KNBR.