Davey O'Brien Award winner and Heisman finalist Robert Griffin III
The College Football Awards were announced at a ceremony in Disney World Thursday night – with one notable exception.
The sport’s most coveted award, the Heisman Trophy, will be given to “the most outstanding player in college football” on Saturday night in New York City, at a ceremony televised on ESPN at 8 p.m.
Five finalists have been invited to make the trip: Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Alabama’s Trent Richardson, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, and LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu.
Here’s a look at what each did to earn a trip to NYC, and what his chances are of leaving with the trophy.
Andrew Luck – Luck, a Heisman runner-up in 2010, is this season’s Player of the Year after winning the prestigious Maxwell Award — but does he really deserve this year’s top awards? He’s a great quarterback, no question, and he did have a great year, on par with last season’s, but was he the most outstanding player in college football? Or just the most talked-about?
His stats are excellent: 3,170 yards, 70.0% completion rate, 35 TDs, 9 INTs. But they’re not the best in the nation among quarterbacks. (Luck just slid into the top 25 in passing yards, and he’s among the top ten in completion percentage.) He led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, but outside the conference, Griffin, Case Keenum, Kellen Moore, and Russell Wilson all ranked higher.
As one of the top returning players in the nation, Luck’s situation is the equivalent of the incumbent winning 70-some percent of elections — it has at least as much to do with name recognition than performance. While his strong season matched the expectations he faced as a returning Heisman-finalist and future No.1 draft pick, Luck wasn’t even the most outstanding quarterback this year, let alone the most outstanding player in college football.
Luck will get his due in April, as he absolutely should, but Saturday night should be someone else’s chance to shine (finally).
Trent Richardson - Like Luck, Richardson lived up to the high preseason expectations but didn’t necessarily dazzle. He ran for 1583 yards and 20 touchdowns, more than double his numbers from 2010, and he gained more than 100 yards in 9 of his 12 games.
Richardson won the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s top running back and, again like Luck, would be the second Heisman winner in school history.
He essentially carried the Crimson Tide offense all year, helping the team to an 11-1 record and a trip to the BCS title game for a rematch with LSU. In the first meeting, he had 169 total yards of offense, but was held to just 89 on the ground. It was the toughest test for him (and probably a tougher test than any other finalist faced) but he didn’t exactly wow college football’s largest television audience since 1989. Still, Richardson’s Heisman chances have only improved thanks to the media attention inherent in playing for a top SEC team on its way to the title game.
Montee Ball - Ball’s Heisman candidacy has been the exact opposite of Luck and Richardson’s. The Wisconsin Badger running back leads the nation in rushing yards with 1759, and he’s one Rose Bowl touchdown shy of catching Barry Sanders’ single-season record. His numbers are better than Richardson, yet compared to his Crimson Tide counterpart, Ball is relatively unknown.
He has a few strikes-that-should-not-really-be-strikes against him: Wisconsin’s in the Big Ten, not the SEC, so the defenses he’s faced haven’t been viewed in the same light (fair or not); the Badgers had two losses; Ball had to share (or try to steal) the spotlight with quarterback Russell Wilson; and the media lost interest when Wisconsin lost to Michigan State on a Hail Mary pass back in October (nevermind that they beat the Spartans in the rematch for the Big Ten title).
Ball’s having at least as good a year as Richardson, if not better (hello, single-season TD record), but he’s been doing it so far under the national radar that it’s almost a surprise, albeit a good one, that he made it to New York at all.
Tyrann Mathieu - The rare defensive Heisman finalist, the cornerback better known as Honey Badger took home the Chuck Bednarik Award for the best defensive player of the year. He was also named the SEC defensive player of the year, and his fans have already deemed him the best player in college football. He wears number 7, the same as LSU’s 2010 Bednarik winner Patrick Petersen, but Mathieu has already one-upped his predecessor by playing his way into the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
The Honey Badger is an exciting player to watch, flying all over the field, forcing fumbles, always in the action. Averaging 12.7 yards per punt return, he’s returned two for touchdowns in the last two games, a 92-yarder against Arkansas and a 62-yarder in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia, likely sealing up some Heisman votes.
It’s not common for defensive players to win the award, but it’s routine for the No. 1 ranked team to have a player in the running. The best player on the best team? Not a bad Heisman resume. One knock against him, though: Mathieu served a one-game suspension earlier this season for testing positive to synthetic marijuana. Heisman winners are expected to embody “excellence with integrity;” Mathieu might be one of the most talented, but the voters will have to decide how worthy he is to represent the esteemed Heisman fraternity.
Robert Griffin III - If I had a Heisman vote, it would go to RG3. His quarterback rating is the best in the nation (192.3), and no one averaged more yards per attempt than his 10.8. He’s sixth in passing yards with just shy of 4,000, and his ration of touchdowns to interceptions (36 TDs to 6 INTs) is better than Andrew Luck’s (and almost everyone else’s). He also had two games in which he ran for more than 100 yards.
As much as the Heisman votes are influenced by the teams on which one plays (there’s a reason Case Keenum, who set five NCAA career records this season, and Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in NCAA history, didn’t make the cut), the trophy is intended to be awarded based on individual performance. That’s RG3.
Would Baylor be on anyone’s radar right now if it wasn’t for him? Griffin III jumped out of the gate in week one — and brought the rest of the Bears with him — with a thrilling 50-48 upset over TCU in which he completed 21 of 27 passes for 359 yards and 5 touchdowns. Against Oklahoma, he threw for 479 yards and 4 touchdowns as the Bears upset the Sooners, 45-38, and in the season finale in front of a national TV audience, he was 15 of 22 for 320 yards and two touchdowns and an interception to lead Baylor to a rare big win over Texas, 48-24.
He’s already been awarded the Davey O’Brien Quarterback Award, beating out Luck, Keenum, and Moore. The honor bodes well for his Heisman hopes — over the past 10 years, when the Heisman Trophy went to a quarterback, it nearly always went to the Davey O’Brien winner. (The two exceptions: USC’s Carson Palmer, who beat out Brad Banks in ’02, and USC’s Matt Leinart, who prevented a Jason White repeat in ’04.)
Many times, worthy candidates don’t get the votes because they don’t play for a national title contender. Robert Griffin III is unique because he’s one of the most popular candidates even though he doesn’t play for one of the best teams in the nation. His play has been so consistently outstanding all year that it’s overshadowed typical biases to make the rest of the college football world take notice.
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