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Alabama Football: Outside Linebacker Will Anderson Jr. Having A Season for the Ages

Will Anderson Jr., Alabama Crimson Tide Football

Anderson has spent all season in opposing teams' backfields and is a big reason why Alabama is just one win shy of winning back-to-back national championships

Suggest the greatest season in college football history is Barry Sanders' 1988 at Oklahoma State, you are unlikely to face much pushback. But the second arguably happened that same year, from a player who wasn't even a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Not receiving an invite to New York City for the presentation of college football's most prestigious individual award is one thing the late Alabama legend Derrick Thomas and current Crimson Tide Will Anderson Jr. have in common.

Thomas' exclusion in 1988 at least comes with some explanation: His dominant, 27-sack season predated official recording of sacks by 12 years.

Present-day voters have no such excuse for not bringing Anderson to Manhattan. Anderson ended the regular season with 15.5 sacks, an impressive total in its own right though not necessarily Heisman-caliber.

Combined with his tackles for a loss — depending on source, Anderson either already broke Jason Babin's single-season record of 32 by the end of the SEC Championship Game, or did so in the Cotton Bowl win over Cincinnati — he made a statistical case for the best season by a pass rusher in the 21st century. Maybe the best since Thomas in 1988.

And that was all before having two more games to rack up more numbers in the College Football Playoff. A strong showing against Cincinnati in the national semifinal with an additional two sacks has Anderson at 17.5 on the year, ranked among the top producers since official record-keeping began.

Sacks

1. Terrell Suggs, Arizona State; 22 in 2002 

2. Elvis Dumervil, Louisville; 20 in 2005 

3. Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington: 19 in 2014 

4. Nate Orchard, Utah: 18.5 in 2014

5t. Will Anderson Jr. and Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech 2018: 17.5 

Thomas' almost-mythic 27-sack season may never be replicated. As for Suggs' 22, it's unlikely Anderson matches it — but not impossible. He does have a four-sack game to his credit this season against Mississippi State.

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Continuing on his streak of eight consecutive games with at least one sack in Monday's national title tilt with Georgia will put Anderson's 2021 total ahead of Thomas' 18 in 1987.

Tackles for a loss records come with more discrepancies than sacks, but Alabama's official stat book has Anderson at 34.5 — 2.5 more than Babin's official NCAA record at Western Michigan in 2003.

Sports Reference has Anderson at 31, which is just one shy of the record. Given he's recorded multiple TFL in each of the last eight games, it's a safe assumption to project Anderson closing the 2021 campaign with the record by every source's data.

All that might have seemingly made Anderson an easy choice for Heisman consideration. Then again, neither Suggs in 2002, nor George Selvie in 2007, Scooby Wright in 2014 — none of those in the top five for sacks or TFL in a single season — got the call to New York, either.

"I had conversations with my high school coach," Anderson said during Monday's National Championship Game media availability. "He was telling me that your body is your engine, and I'm a car, and the only thing you need to get going is that engine. And anything else that comes with it, any accolades, anything else, that's just to make you look nice. As long as your engine is going in your car you're fine."

In that vein, Anderson analogized his Bronko Nagurski Award to a set of flashy rims for the tires. Awards look cool, but do nothing to drive performance.

Such add-ons are more for quarterbacks, the sports cars of football; like Anderson's teammate and 2021 Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young.

"Will is more like a dually truck," said Tide running back Brian Robinson Jr. "He's one of them guys who can get real dirty, get himself up and get ready to do what he did all over again. That's what you use those big dually trucks for, off-road type of stuff."

It's as true for Anderson in 2021 as it was for Thomas in 1988, or for a different kind of DT for whom Anderson patterns his game. While the Alabama star plays linebacker what Georgia head coach Kirby Smart called, "a position that ties the front to the back," — he cited a defensive tackle as an inspiration.

"I love watching Aaron Donald, the way he uses his hand," Anderson said. "He's very violent and athletic and can get through blocks and shed blocks really well. I like watching his game, even though he's more an interior guy. The way he moves and works his hand, I try to copy that with my game."

Before embarking on arguably the best NFL career for a defensive lineman since Reggie White, Donald was a problem on Pittsburgh's defensive front. Donald wasn't a finalist for the Heisman in 2013 — but he should have been.

But that he wasn't does nothing to detract from the imprint Donald left in 2013 any more than it does Thomas' 1988 or Will Anderson's 2021.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break.