The final Heisman breakdown: Analyzing Cooper, Gordon and Mariota
Each week of the college football season NCAA.com will take a look at the most impressive individual performances. Some weeks it may be one player who stands head and shoulders above everyone else. This week, we're breaking down the Heisman candidates one last time.
A long time ago, I decided I wanted this column to tell the stories wrapped in any worthwhile Heisman chase: the characters, the side acts, the politics, the moments, all of it. As much as a Heisman campaign resembles a political race, I found too often that talk surrounding the Heisman echoed that of a presidential election, with its numbers and polls and press conferences and coverage.
“Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon saw his stock rise Saturday following a particularly strong showing in Nebraska. But will it be enough to sway swing voters and catch Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota? Tune in tonight at 8.”
Or at least that’s how it started sounding to me. It’s like we all decided what constituted candidates as worthy for the Heisman, ranking them 1-2-3 or labeling one frontrunner over the other, without needing to explain why. For example, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott was Heisman frontrunner during a solid five-to-six week stretch and almost no one disagreed. I’m not blaming anyone, I’m guilty of it, too. But like a majority of political races, Heisman races can become a little predictable.
Which I guess is my way of explaining why no one should be surprised by the Heisman finalists announced Monday. Marcus Mariota, Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper were the only three true candidates left who continued to ascend or maintain an elite output when the season hit its final stretch. Guys like Prescott or Tevin Coleman or Trevone Boykin sort of faded away, each for a variety of different reasons. They didn’t devolve into bad players or anything; they just weren’t ‘Heisman’ athletes anymore.
Anyway, with the votes cast, I figured I’d recap each candidate’s story for the season and make a case for and against each. One last time.
Amari Cooper, Alabama wide receiver
Story: Cooper came into the season with attention and hype surrounding but not directed at him. T.J. Yeldon was tabbed as Alabama’s Heisman candidate while a QB battle ostensibly brewed between veteran Blake Sims and touted FSU transfer Jacob Coker. Instead, Yeldon split carries with Derrick Henry and Sims became starter, a role that was directed at delivering the ball to Cooper as much as possible. Throughout the season, Cooper evolved into Alabama’s reliable star, rising to each moment when his team needed him most.
Case for: Established himself as college football’s definitive best wide receiver, a position typically difficult to accomplish that. Cooper did so by playing at an absurd consistency level while providing big play after big play. Without him, Alabama would’ve surely lost against Auburn as Cooper accounted for over two-thirds of the Crimson Tide passing offense. That’s a game capable only by a ‘Heisman.’
Case Against: Every player on this list is the definitive best at his position, so that doesn’t hold as much weight as it normally might. Cooper also accounts for the lowest production of total offense among the finalists. Impacting a major portion of a football game constantly is hard for wide receivers, which explains why it’s nearly insurmountable for a player solely playing WR to win the Heisman. Like those before him, it hurt Cooper.
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin running back
Story: Similar to Cooper, Gordon wasn’t considered a top Heisman candidate at season’s beginning. Both could be found in the nine and ten spot of most Heisman preseason watchlists (or not at all, like they were on mine … which, reminder that we all make mistakes). For a while, Gordon was overshadowed by Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah as far as running backs go. Then Wisconsin and Nebraska squared off and Gordon made Abdullah look barely average by comparison. Gordon remained ol’ steady throughout the season, only rushing under 100 yards twice: facing Ohio State in the Big Ten championship and (mysteriously) against Western Illinois.
Case For: Gordon’s a running monster: He leads all rushers in yards, touchdowns and yards per game and sits only second in attempts. He’s 15th overall in rush average but it’s forgivable because of how many times he runs the ball. It’s still incomprehensible that Gordon broke 400 yards and the then-single-game rush record in three quarters. Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine broke it the next week in four, but an asterisk is unnecessary, just give Gordon his own line in the records.
Case Against: As exemplary as Gordon’s individual performance has been, he hasn’t impacted his team’s success as much as a ‘Heisman’ should. Gordon came up short against LSU and Ohio State (although the former was more on coach Gary Andersen than Gordon). Then, the Buckeyes squashed Gordon and the Badgers and it wasn’t pretty. Influence is the only thing Gordon didn’t have this season.
Marcus Mariota, Oregon quarterback
Story: Since the beginning, Mariota has been considered a Heisman frontrunner after losing out on the award last season due to injury. Temporarily it appeared like he might barely miss clutching the trophy again with the rise of Dak and an early loss to Arizona, but eventually he snatched the throne and hasn’t looked back. He's established himself as Oregon’s premier leader and identity, reinforcing the notion he was the Ducks' essential cog. Mariota has played with a lethal efficiency not quite seen before on the way to leading Oregon to a Pac-12 championship and the playoffs.
Case For: Mariota’s degree of accuracy and intelligence makes it almost not fair. He’s No. 2 in total offense per play at 9.1 behind only New Mexico’s Jhurell Pressley, who’s at 9.5 (although Mariota accounted for 375 more plays than Pressley). Over the course of the season, Mariota has distanced himself as the best all-around player at football’s most important position. He’s No. 1 in passing TDs and pass yards per attempt, and near the top in most significant passing statistical categories.
Case Against: Oddly, it’s the same argument said about last year’s winner, Jameis Winston. Mariota hasn’t really been challenged multiple times during the season. He performed well against Michigan State, but when his team needed a clutch drive, Mariota fumbled away a loss at home vs. Arizona. He did exact revenge, but it’s a slight working against Mariota.
Heisman final top 3
For the last time in the race, we’re going to rank the top 3 remaining candidates in descending order with a quick explanation of why a player is ranked where he is. These rankings are fluid and (mostly) made for fun.
1) Marcus Mariota -- As a senior, Mariota has seemingly eliminated any weaknesses, dulling the rough edges of his game so smooth, it’s terrifying. College quarterbacks shouldn’t be able to so effortlessly rack up yards like this. Following Gordon’s non-threatening B1G championship performance, Mariota poses alone.
2) Melvin Gordon -- His final game was disappointing only because we know what Gordon can do. Accruing 79 yards last week might place him outside Barry Sanders’ single-season record (2,628) as Gordon sits at 2,336 yards total. But well rested for a bowl game, Gordon might have one last moment left.
3) Amari Cooper -- I wish I had legitimate reason to rank Cooper higher. He’s been college football’s most exciting player in the closing stretch, but it’s not enough. The difference between Cooper and the other two: Without Mariota and Gordon, Oregon and Wisconsin’s offenses might implode into inferiority without them. Alabama just wouldn’t be as good without Coops.
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