Last season, running back Bryce Love was on the tip of every tough headed into week seven. His 1,088 yards through five games put him in elite college company (Garrett Wolfe, Marcus Allen, Byron Hanspard) while also guiding him to every Heisman conversation in the country. Headed into week eight of the 2018 campaign, the story around both Love and the Stanford Cardinal is very different.
The Cardinal are trying to recover from two bad losses to Notre Dame and Utah, while Love has amassed a measly 327 rushing yards on a team that has managed a despicable 3.1 yards per attempt (ranking them 127th in the country).
Stanford has lost their identity, averaging seven less rushing attempts per game and almost half as many yards per attempt from 2017 to 2018. Love has also seemed to lose a bit of his identity, no longer the bell cow back that anchors the offense, consistently frustrated thanks to a weak offensive line and troubling scoring production from the Cardinal.
Is this the end of the road? Is the race already done for Love? What can he do to get back in it?
Impressive stats, carrying the sizable load of a highly ranked team’s production and big, primetime wins are all characteristics of a Heisman candidate. Already, most of these qualities exclude Love out of the running. Stanford has dropped out of the top 25, blew a primetime game against Notre Dame and lost a formula that featured Love’s strengths.
But last Saturday showed proof of one major thing: when depending on manly 19 to 21-year-olds, it is hard to bank on these teams every week (Alabama aside [with the fear of Nick Saban, all is possible]). Some upheaval and a winning streak could launch Stanford back into the ranked elite.
Before looking at what Love needs to do, let us look at the competition.
QB Tua Tagovailoa -150
QB Dwayne Haskins +300
QB Kyler Murray +300
QB Will Grier +1200
Only running back in contention: Jonathan Taylor +5000
Every year, quarterbacks dominate the Heisman race and more often than not, finish with the coveted trophy. It makes sense. They impact so much of the offense, and in college, quarterbacks lead faster offenses that battle fewer refined defenders, offering up more opportunity for yards and scores.
But this season, the competition is not even close. The best bet for a none quarterback contender is Taylor, who is seven spots down the list. The running backs are buried under signal callers like Grier, Trace McSorley and McKenzie Milton who have proven their metal with past season of success. In front of the those tested entities, three quarterbacks that lead their squads for the first time as season-long starters hold the top three spots.
The Heisman appears to be locked down by the new guns, with veteran stars waiting in the weeds to take advantage of any slip-ups.
The running back in the best spot to break through this deep crop of passers is on a ranked team (Wisconsin Badgers) and is on pace to beat last season’s tally of 1,977 yards.
His offense has been helping him average 158.3 yards per game through six contests, which ensure (short of injury) that his production continues through the season. Even if the Badgers stay ranked and continue to funnel their offense through Taylor, he will be trying to join the company of not only the best quarterbacks in the country; he will be fighting athletes on the best teams in the country. The ultimate advantage of Tagovailoa and Haskins is that the Alabama Crimson Tide and Ohio State Buckeyes boast the best top to bottom talent in the NCAA. Knocking them off is slated less towards difficult and more accurately described as impossible. This is the bar Love must try to reach.
But this is college football, where foolish ambition and wild hope can run free. Here is the unrealistic and fantastic route to Love dashing back into Heisman contention.
The Impossible Path
Realistically, Love will need to average around 180 to 200 yards per game if he wants to start jumping names on the Heisman list. He will also need touchdowns and lots of them.
Stanford comes out of the bye week to play Arizona State, before taking on Washington State, Washington, Oregon State, California and UCLA. Arizona State, California and UCLA all allow over 160 rushing yards per game on average. Oregon State surrenders 269.5. These are the teams Love has to hit his top gear against, padding the stat sheet against weak fronts.
The Washington duo will be tough on Love, both schools giving up under 150 yards on average and allowing less than four yards per attempt.
Scoring will be a big point of emphasis too for Love, playing three teams (Washington State, Oregon State and UCLA) that have allowed double-digit scores on the ground this season. Featuring Love in the red zone against such opponents will be huge as love attempts to make his case.
All of this is useless if they cannot get back to running the ball better as a team. During the bye week, I outlined some possible solutions for the Cardinal, the most significant point of emphasis: getting out of the pocket.
Stanford cannot trust their line to break through the middle with any consistency, also struggling between the guards and tackles. Pitching the ball outside and letting tight ends help seal the edge seems to be the best bet for Stanford’s running game, which is precisely where the Cardinal went against USC for Loves most successful outing of 2018.
The road will be tough, and not every opponent will readily give up yardage to Stanford’s ground game. But Love will clash with teams that do not have the athletes to slow him down. And against better competition, a diverse palate of outside running can free up the Cardinal. More red zone snaps, and finding the stride he hit last season, combined with an outside scheme could be the combination to unlock the Stanford back.
Yeah, it probably will not happen. But as of right now, both Washington squads are ranked, and there are plenty of games to rack up stats against some bad rosters. The formula to make a Heisman dark horse is there. Love and the Cardinal would need to pull a 180, upset two teams, and (literally) run the table of teams left. Other than that, not crazy at all.