What was your reaction to this post title? Shock? Awe? Perhaps you’re just overwhelmed. Well, if so, you’re feeling a lot like the defenses that have come up against Josh Adams and the Irish Offensive Line this season. Don’t worry though, you’re about to be joined by a greater and greater number of folks around the country. You see, whether the nation, Vegas, or Heisman voters are even aware of it yet, Josh Adams (and Notre Dame) hold the Heisman in their hands.
In a season that’s gained more momentum with each passing week, Josh Adams’ Heisman candidacy is finally up to full speed, and there’s no one left to stop it but himself. No, Vegas doesn’t have him favored. In fact, at present it still has Saquon Barkley as the overwhelming favorite, but Adams continues to creep up the odds, and that’s just fine. This is not a sprint…although if it were, I’m not betting on anyone catching Josh. There’s a part of me that feels bad for writing this, but it’s mainly out of respect for Adams’ humble, team first nature. I’m sure he’d hate to read this because it’s not his style. Fortunately, I’m just a dumb Internet dude and can say whatever I feel. So, let me explain…
As recently as two weeks ago, I was not aboard the Josh Adams Heisman hype train. It wasn’t that I didn’t think he was deserving of some mention, but the truth is he had his “worst” two games versus the team’s stiffest tests to date. The 19 carry, 53 yard, 0 TD performance versus UGA was enough for me to slow down on any possible Heisman talk. Not when Bryce Love was gaining the nickname “The Human First Down” for his 10+ yards/carry average and Saquon Barkley was still doing plenty to get his name mentioned in every highlight package. And then some college football things started happening.
October 21, 2017:
Stanford had its scheduled bye week. No Bryce Love to share yards per carry gushing with. Saquon Barkley, who’s been the favorite most of the way so far, put up a pretty awesome game in Penn State’s drubbing of Michigan. Barkley ran for 108 yards on 15 carries (7.2 ypc) with 2 TD’s. He added 3 receptions for 53 yards and another touchdown. Putting up 150+ yards from scrimmage with 3 touchdowns is good, right? We all agree with that?
Josh Adams took it a step farther. In the Irish’s nationally televised tilt with Southern Cal, Adams exploded for 191 yards on 19 carries (10 ypc) with 3 touchdowns en route to a 49-14 whoopin’ of a Top 15 team. While no one will mistake USC’s defense for UGA’s, it was still a dominating performance and cast Adams as a lead actor in the larger narrative announcing Notre Dame’s presence in the national conversation. There are a lot of different ways I could try to illustrate how drastic the USC game changed ND and by extension Adam’s place, but anecdotally consider this: Prior to the USC game, ESPN did not include Adams on its “Heisman Watch” list. Following the game, Adams appeared at number 4 behind only Barkley, Love, and Baker Mayfield.
It was going to take more than one game for Adams to establish himself, but this was a monumentally important game for any legitimate Heisman campaign. Had Adams failed to score or failed to eclipse 100 yards, I’d have declared his campaign dead. Not enough time versus enough quality competition left to make up the distance. These votes, these awards are incredibly fickle. But this game was just that pivotal.
October 28 2017:
Bryce Love was forced to sit out for a second straight week. This time due to injury. For a West Coast candidate, being out of game action for that long is more than just a slight disadvantage. Love is incredibly fun to watch. However, it’s proven difficult to actually watch him! That matters. East Coast bias is a real thing. I’m not here to change the culture, just react to where it presently stands. It didn’t help that Stanford played on a Thursday night and struggled to get passed a woeful Oregon State team that’s already working with an interim coach. I’ve seen some argue that Stanford struggling in Love’s absence in a perverse way proves just how important he is, and I don’t doubt that. I just doubt there’s a Heisman voter who really cares about what absence means for a team already carrying two losses.
Meanwhile, Saquon Barkley would endure an up and down battle in Columbus, OH. The rushing line wasn’t great – just 44 yards on 21 carries with 1 touchdown. He was able to add a kick return for a touchdown, and in a vacuum, Barkley’s 2 TD performance with over 100 all purpose yards is still better than Adams’ performance in a loss. However, two things matter more: First, the loss comes later in the season, and that’s important. Except for the biggest of match-ups, September is generally not the time where the nation has crystalized its focus on what players and teams to watch. Notre Dame/Georgia was a big week 2 match-up, but at the time, no one understood just how important a match-up it might have ended up being. Both the Irish and the Bulldogs were coming off of disappointing (to say the least) 2016 campaigns. The week two match-up was viewed more of a barometer of who might be on the upswing than an actual battle between two of the nation’s elite. For that reason, Adams’ lackluster performance was largely ignored. By contrast, the Penn State/Ohio State game was #2 versus #6 on the eve of November and the first College Football Playoff Committee rankings being released. Barkley’s “down” performance in a loss will be remembered more than Adams’ September 9th showing. Particularly if anyone looks just at the rushing line.
The second, and larger, point has to do with Penn State”s November schedule and current place within the playoff picture. Saquon Barkley’s next two games are noon starts, and he’ll finish the season versus Nebraska and Maryland. Barring Ohio State losing twice down the stretch, Saquon Barkley is out of primetime, big game opportunities to make an impression on Heisman voters. As attention ratchets up on the most important teams and players, it’s possible Barkley will be nothing more than a box score for the entire month of November.
Josh Adams also did his part. 202 yards on a career high 27 carries in the Irish’ s second straight dominant win over a Top 15 opponent. It was enough to be named the Walter Camp Offensive Player of the Week. It was enough to finally get the national pundits and talking heads to start mentioning his name in the conversation, and that’s all he needed to do at this juncture. November is all about Josh and the Irish.
What History Tells Us:
Since 1992, only one non-quarterback/runningback has lifted the Heisman Trophy – Charles Woodson in 1997. Since Woodson’s win, there have been 18 winners. 14 quarterbacks and 4 runningbacks. Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne won the award in back to back years in 1998 and 1999. Both were seniors who in many respects received the Heisman as a career achievement award as Williams and Dayne both finished all time careers with 2,000 yard rushing campaigns. That leaves us only two runningback data points to consider. Mark Ingram’s 2009 win and Derrick Henry’s 2015 win.
Mark Ingram, 2009: Ingram was helped out by a weaker than normal quarterback showing. Colt McCoy (3rd), Tim Tebow (5th), and Kellen Moore (7th) were the leading vote getters at the usual front runner position. The battle was really between Ingram and Stanford’s Toby Gerhart. From a statistical perspective, Gerhart was the better player. Carrying a massive workload, Gerhart led the nation in yards with 1,871. Ingram finished fourth with 1,658. Gerhart’s 28 rushing TD’s were also a national best and well ahead of Ingram’s 17. The problem for Gerhart’s campaign was that the Cardinal finished just 8-4 in the regular season. Meanwhile, Ingram and the Crimson Tide would win a National Title finishing 14-0. It was more important to be the best player on the best team than it was to be the most prolific runner on a lesser team and brand. Keep that in mind.
Derrick Henry, 2015: Henry’s the only example we have of a runningback winner in the Playoff Era. Henry set an SEC rushing record with 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns. His yards, touchdowns, and carries were all the most by a Heisman-winning back since Ricky Williams’ 1998 campaign. The closest competition was Christian McCaffrey. Stanford stumbled out of the gate losing their opener to Northwestern 6-16. They would spend the majority of the season scrapping and clawing their way back into national relevance from that surprising defeat. By November 14, Stanford had climbed as high as 7th and at least had their name back in the playoff conversation. A 36-38 loss to Oregon that night doomed the Cardinal’s playoff hopes. It’s probably unlikely McCaffrey could have overtaken Henry even with a playoff run because of the difference in touchdowns, but even with consecutive wins over then #4 Notre Dame and then #24 USC to close out the season, McCaffrey could not catch Henry. Alabama again won the national title.
Quarterbacks Rule the Day:
There’s more margin for error at the quarterback position. Being on a national title contender is important, but not mandatory. Lamar Jackson’s absurd 51 touchdown performance was enough to overcome inconsistent team results including back-to-back losses leading up to the vote. Same was true for both Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Robert Griffin in 2011 who used dual threat capabilities to post 40+ touchdown seasons at the time of Heisman voting. Lamar Jackson will probably have touchdown and rushing numbers virtually the same as he did at the time of voting last year. But Louisville’s already got 4 losses, and there is no way the voters will allow for a two-time winner in that scenario. Particularly because there are enough other players having strong seasons. Will Grier currently leads the nation in touchdowns at 28, but he’s not going to win. From the Heisman’s favored position, there’s Baker Mayfield and J.T. Barrett and not a lot else.
Why the Heisman’s Josh’s to Win or Lose:
So, we’ve got a pretty compelling case that unless you’re a record setter, you must be in the National Title picture. Of the 5 Heisman hopefuls (Love, Barkley, Mayfield, Barrett, Adams), Josh and the Irish are the only one of these teams that control their fate to get into the playoffs. If Notre Dame runs the table to 11-1, they are a virtual lock to make it. Penn State could win out and not even make the Big 10 Championship. Oklahoma and Ohio State, even if they win out, will probably be competing with each other’s resume’s the entire way. There are scenarios, however unlikely, where they could both win out and still miss the playoffs. Neither Mayfield nor Barrett is on pace to put up to such gaudy numbers that they could overcome missing the playoffs and still be crowned the Heisman winner. Bryce Love and Stanford are already virtually done in the playoff world. If Josh and the Irish take care of business in Palo Alto, that would be at least loss #3 for Love and you’d have an Ingram/Gerhart déjà vu scenario. If the Irish win out and Josh Adams posts similar numbers to what he’s done to date, his season will look a lot like Mark Ingram’s 2009. He’ll be the most prominent player on a blue blood team that should get plenty of press in November. Speaking of press…
I’ve already discussed Saquon Barkley’s media/attention problems that November poses. By contrast, November sets up perfectly for Notre Dame. Their two “lesser” games will both get the benefit of being NBC national broadcasts. If Miami can take care of Virginia Tech this weekend (far from a given, but stick with me here), that would set up a November 11th showdown that would be a virtual lock to be an 8:00 PM primetime game and host of College Game Day (side note: I think it’s possible even if Miami losses that Game Day ends up in Miami. I think there’s a reason they selected Oklahoma/Oklahoma State this weekend over a less interesting but still marketable Virginia Tech/Miami game). Notre Dame finishes at Stanford, which should be publicized greatly, if for no other reason than it will feature a clash between Love and Adams. Four national television locks is a big advantage for the Heisman stretch run.
Baker Mayfield will get some air time too. The next two weekends feature match-ups with Oklahoma State and Mason Rudolph and then TCU. A game at Kansas on November 18 won’t get a lot of play, but the Nov. 25 clash with Will Grier and West Virginia could be interesting, and there’d still be the important Big 12 Championship Game.
If you ask me who might be the biggest threat from an attention perspective, it’s J.T. Barrett. Barrett’s passing yards won’t blow you away, but a 25-1 TD-to-Int ratio is pretty good. He’s still got games remaining versus both Michigan State and Michigan, but Fox has already announced both of those games as noon starts. The jewel Barrett has is a possible primetime showdown with an undefeated Wisconsin team on December 2nd. Barrett’s the guy just getting his name into the mix that actually worries me the most. Again, Heisman campaigns generally become about amplified noise and attention. There’s enough left for the Buckeye’s 17th year senior to still make a big move, and he is at the favored position.
All of that said, there’s something else to mention, and that’s the narrative. Barrett and Mayfield’s names have been around for a long while at this point…perhaps too long. The Ohio State or Oklahoma stories just aren’t all that interesting. Bryce Love’s awesome, but man, if Christian McCaffrey couldn’t break through the Heisman barrier, I’m not sure if Love can having already suffered 2 losses to USC and San Diego State.
That leaves Barkley and Adams. Saquon Barkley has been the media darling since the beginning of the season, and for very good reason: He is awesome. He’s a special talent that will be highly coveted at the next level as well. He’s a huge component of the resurgence of the Penn State brand, and the highlight reels are willing to look a little deeper to find a Barkley play to include. But Penn State’s in a bad situation to garner any real buzz in November, and I just can’t quite get over that.
Josh Adams is expected to be at the heart of another Notre Dame run. Fans of other teams can (understandably) complain, but the Notre Dame brand is still capable of generating as much buzz as any program in the country. There’s a reason that Manti Te’o managed to finish second in 2012. Part of it was the relative weakness of the offensive talent that year, but a larger component was the narrative and story that surrounded the Irish. Much like Te’o became the public face of the 2012 Irish story, Adams is being positioned to do the same with this 2017 version. Of the six teams that should feel best about their playoff chances (Alabama, Clemson, UGA, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Oklahoma), the first three all lack a real candidate. Jalen Hurts is a very good player. He’s not going to win the Heisman. Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State are all boring story lines. No one cares about their lead up to the playoffs because they’re so well established. Elevated expectations are fun for developing David v. Goliath plot lines, but they’re less helpful for creating Heisman narratives. Players become interchangeable pieces on well-oiled machines, and that hurts the story arc for selling any particular guy as exceedingly special. Only Georgia (no Heisman candidate) and Notre Dame have interesting story lines, but the Irish’s is the best. I’m sure some Dawg fans will disagree, but it won’t change which team is mentioned more prominently by national media outlets.
So long as the stat lines remain relatively close to one another, it’s the narrative and exposure that will matter more than the final numbers. The Heisman is there for Josh Adams and the Irish. They’ve just gotta keep on truckin’.