When Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk declared, “I’m going to win the Heisman” this year, it caught the attention of college football fans, but there was one problem: Running backs are becoming afterthoughts in the annual Heisman Trophy discussion.
Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne gave running backs back-to-back Heisman wins in 1998 and 1999, but since the turn of the century, only two running backs have won it — Reggie Bush in 2005 and Mark Ingram in 2009. Bush’s Heisman has since been rescinded because of NCAA violations at USC.
Last year, when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman, Kenjon Barber was the top running back among voters, and he finished ninth.
This year, on ESPN.com’s latest “Heisman Watch,” the top five candidates are all quarterbacks — Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Manziel, Bryce Petty and A.J. McCarron.
Entering Thursday’s showdown with Oklahoma, Seastrunk wasn’t even the best Heisman candidate on Baylor’s team. That was Petty, who led the nation in passing efficiency (219.0), and averaged 350.4 passing yards per game.
In this age of warp-speed offenses, the running back numbers simply aren’t as eye-popping as the quarterbacks’. Last year, Manziel averaged 109 yards rushing per game, to go along with his 285 yards per game passing average.
No quarterback put up those kind of total offense numbers when Dayne won his Heisman in 1999. Purdue quarterback Drew Brees led the nation in total offense that year with 4,086 yards — 1,030 fewer than Manziel had last year.
Dayne was the classic workhorse running back, averaging 28 carries and 170 rushing yards per game.
This year, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey leads the nation with 153.1 rushing yards per game. He averages 27 carries per game, so he’s a workhorse. But many of the other top running backs just don’t touch the ball as much. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon are two of the elite running backs in the Big Ten. Abdullah averages 19.6 carries per game, and Gordon averages 15.5.
Seastrunk, a transfer from Oregon, remains an extremely potent threat. Entering Thursday, he was averaging 9.1 yards per carry and had rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 of 11 games dating to last season. But Baylor’s games have been so lopsided this year, he often finds himself sitting after halftime, leaving him with just 13.7 carries per game.
The highlights of Seastrunk’s 11 touchdown runs have been lost in the endless loop of touchdown passes from Oregon’s Mariota (20), Florida State’s Winston (24) and Manziel (26).
Those three are the consensus Heisman favorites this year. Barring a sudden turn of events, it looks like a quarterback will claim the Heisman for the 12th time in 14 years.
It wasn’t always like this. The Heisman has been handed out since 1935, and 34 of the first 49 winners were running backs, including the Gophers’ Bruce Smith in 1941.
Voters are asked to select college football’s “most outstanding player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” The trophy itself is a bronze statue of former New York University running back Ed Smith.
The award went to a running back every year from 1972 to 1983. Remembering the winners during that span — Johnny Rogers, John Cappelletti, Archie Griffin (twice), Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Billy Sims, Charles White, George Rogers, Marcus Allen, Hershel Walker and Mike Rozier — it’s hard not to think of the Heisman as a running back’s award.
Now it seems like an award for the game’s most potent quarterback. This isn’t bad. It’s just different.
Big Ten Short Takes
• Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio improved to 5-1 against Michigan last week, all but eliminating the Wolverines from the Legends Division race. Saturday, the Wolverines will try to spoil Nebraska’s chances, as the Cornhuskers visit Ann Arbor, where Michigan is 19-0 under Brady Hoke.
If Nebraska wins, it sets up a key showdown against Michigan State next week in Lincoln.
• Wisconsin will have an interesting two weeks before visiting Minnesota on Nov. 23. Saturday, the Badgers play host to BYU, which is 6-2 with wins over Texas, Houston and Boise State. Indiana visits Wisconsin next weekend, while the Gophers get a bye week to prepare for their archrival.
Ohio State has pretty much wrapped up the Leaders Division race, but Wisconsin still has an outside chance at a BCS berth if it finishes 10-2.
• Northwestern is beaten up physically and mentally from a five-game losing streak. It started with a close call against Ohio State followed by a 35-6 loss to Wisconsin. Then came a three-point loss to the Gophers, an overtime loss at Iowa and last week’s defeat at Nebraska on a last-second Hail Mary. Northwestern feels fortunate to have a bye this week, as 13 players would be unavailable because of injuries.
Big Ten Power Poll
1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0): Buckeyes get a bye after outscoring Penn State and Purdue by a combined score of 119-14.
2. Wisconsin (6-2, 4-1): Badgers fans hope to see Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis at full health against BYU.
3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0): Teammates Shilique Calhoun and Denicos Allen share the Big Ten lead with 11 tackles for a loss.
4. Michigan (6-2, 2-2): It’s time for some serious soul searching in Ann Arbor after that 29-6 loss to Michigan State.
5. Gophers (7-2, 3-2): David Cobb ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 803 rushing yards this season.
6. Nebraska (6-2, 3-1): Chicago native Jordan Westercamp broke Northwestern’s heart with his Hail Mary reception.
7. Penn State (5-3, 2-2): Outscored 107-38 in past two road games at Indiana and Ohio State. Now, on to Minnesota.
8. Iowa (5-4, 2-3): The Hawkeyes can clinch a bowl berth Saturday with a win at Purdue.
9. Indiana (3-5, 1-3): With a bowl game likely out of reach, it’ll be interesting to see how this team finishes.
10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5): One consolation for Wildcats fans: Pat Fitzgerald is no longer viewed as a red-hot job candidate.
11. Illinois (3-5, 0-4): The Illini still can reach a bowl game with wins over Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern.
12. Purdue (1-7, 0-4): The Boilermakers looked completely overmatched in a 56-0 loss to Ohio State.