In case you've been living under a rock, Christian McCaffrey is pretty great at football. Heisman great, in fact. But has he done enough to overcome the suffocating legend of the SEC? The script is eerily similar -- haven't we heard this before?
Remember that guy Toby Gerhart? He was Heisman great too, but ended up losing to an Alabama running back (Mark Ingram) in the closest vote in Heisman history back in 2009. And we might be writing the same story again this year, just subbing in Tide running back Derrick Henry for Ingram and McCaffrey for Gerhart, if Stanford wins out.
At the moment, Henry is the Heisman 'front-runner,' says everyone ever apparently. But can McCaffrey hang with Henry and hoist the trophy in New York?
Statistically, Henry and McCaffrey have been almost identical. Henry has rushed for 1526 yards on 6.1 yards per carry, and McCaffrey has scampered for 1546 on 5.9 yards per attempt. Henry does hold a significant edge in touchdowns (21 to 7), which can be explained by Shaw's almost exclusive use of Remound Wright in goal line situations.
However, despite similar rushing numbers, McCaffrey's jack-of-all-trades, master of all style pushes him ahead of Henry. McCaffrey is a dynamic player, catching 34 catches for 416 yards and three scores, while also racking up 813 kickoff return yards. On the flip side, Henry has just 97 yards receiving.
McCaffrey brings a lot more to the table than just running alone, putting him on the cusp of breaking a vaunted record: Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season high water mark of 3,250 all-purpose yards in 1988, when he won the Heisman. McCaffrey needs just 444 yards in his remaining three games, and probably will break it by the time voters have to vote, which would be a huge boon to his campaign.
As a complete player, McCaffrey arguably adds more value on the field than Henry, and thus means more to his team than Henry. It would be tough to stomach a Stanford team without McCaffrey -- arguably an average Pac-12 team. The same can't be said about a Henry-less 'Bama squad.
Voters always look for a so-called "Heisman moment." Henry's breakout performance to lead Alabama to a blowout of then second-ranked LSU will certainly stick in many minds, while McCaffrey's huge game against UCLA on national TV on a Thursday night will just have to do. A big moment against Notre Dame in primetime would certainly be nice, though. We all know he's got quite a few big moments in him.
As for the so-called "eye test," both backs actually run very similarly. Both have quick, bouncing lateral movement, run as smooth as butter, and are deceptively powerful.
But will it matter? As we saw with Toby Gerhart, who was by far the better player than Ingram (who wasn't even the most valuable player on his own team!), the numbers might not matter as much as you'd think.
First of all, most voters never get exposed to McCaffrey because they're asleep -- most of his games start at 10:30 EST. Simply watching highlights or reading about him just isn't the same as watching him live -- you don't get an authentic McCaffrey experience. As Gerhart did, McCaffrey would likely dominate the Western voting bloc, but would falter in the East Coast and to a lesser degree, the Mid-West.
Another reason McCaffrey would suffer outside of the West Coast: the SEC automatically gets the benefit of the doubt. The conference is unanimously hailed as the best in the nation, even though the Pac-12 has a legitimate case for being the deepest, although not necessarily the best, league.
Oh yeah, and there's that whole thing where they only play eight conference games, but that's for another day. For example, this season, LSU didn't beat anyone of substance (but didn't lose either) and were suddenly the #2 team in the nation. Now they're 7-3 and have lost three straight, including to the likes of Arkansas and Ole Miss. For right or for wrong, voters drink SEC (and East Coast) Kool-Aid as they did with Ingram, which will certainly take away from McCaffrey's sparkling resumé.
But the SEC love isn't without some truth in this case -- Henry's opponents have been much more stout against the run this season, an average of 45th in the nation as compared to 73rd for McCaffrey. Henry's rushing feats might be more impressive on paper because of this.
Also, as we've seen in recent years with Andrew Luck losing out to Robert Griffin III (oh, how the tide has turned), the Heisman winner usually is the one that can generate the most hype, not necessarily the most value or eye-popping stat sheet. RG3 was a captivating, electric player, unlike the more even-keel Luck and ESPN gobbled him up. Even though Luck was more valuable, RG3's flair won him the trophy. Stats don't necessarily matter as much as who gets the most hype -- like fans, voters aren't immune to the hype train. McCaffrey gets little hype, and it certainly doesn't help his cause that Stanford doesn't promote McCaffrey all that much. The website is nice, but it's the least they could do.
And this is all only if Stanford wins out -- a loss to Notre Dame or would sink McCaffrey's hopes against Henry. At the moment, Henry also plays for the team with much better playoff credentials, which would just boost his campaign.
Realistically, for all these reasons I can't see McCaffrey winning in New York, but it wouldn't be for lack of qualification, rather for lack of impartial exposure. Quite simply, McCaffrey just plays in the wrong place to win a Heisman. But being the team-first player that he is, I'm sure he'd rather take a Rose Bowl win over a Heisman, right?!