There was a time when the Heisman Trophy could’ve been considered a running back’s award. From 1973-83, some of the greatest college football players of all-time took home the trophy after toting the rock all year long.
However, there’s been a shift towards quarterbacks since what many consider to be a new data point for modern-day play. In 1992, the 85 scholarship limit was introduced, the SEC put on the first-ever FBS conference championship game and the Bowl Coalition began. Since then, 18 signal-callers have won the award. However, if any other position consistently made a case to stiff-arm those under center out of the way, appropriately enough, it was the running backs.
Over that same span, seven backs have taken home the Bronze Beauty of New York. The gap between running backs winning the award is usually pretty large. Two Alabama Crimson Tide ball carriers are the most recent to win, but it was six years before Derrick Henry raised the statue high after Mark Ingram did.
Why will 2018 mark the shortest gap between two players at the position winning since Texas’ Ricky Williams won in 1998 followed by Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne in '99? Here’s why:
First, let’s have a look at who Vegas (specifically Bovada) thinks has the best odds of winning regardless of position*:
RB Bryce Love (Stanford) +700
QB Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) +750
RB Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin) +900
QB Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State) +1100
QB Will Grier (West Virginia) +1400
QB Khalil Tate (Arizona) +1400
QB Jake Fromm (Georgia) +1500
QB Trace McSorley (Penn State) +1500
RB J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State) +1800
QB Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) +2000
*odds as of 8/18/18
If Sin City is to believed, while the two most likely running back picks are near the front of the line, only 30 percent of the early front-runners play at that spot with the rest being the Heisman’s favorite modern-day position. That said, Vegas has helped us get an idea of when a running back was going to take home the award in the past.
In 2015, Alabama’s Derrick Henry won with 65.7 percent of the vote. Of the top 10 odds-getters that Bovada offered for preseason Heisman Trophy voting that year, six were running backs.
Reggie Bush may have had to vacate his official claim in 2005, but he was one of only three picks in that year’s best bets. Like this year, the top three odds-getters featured two running backs in Bush and Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson.
There is one major flaw with this list, though: Trevor Lawrence currently appears to be slated for the No. 2 spot on Clemson’s depth chart behind Kelly Bryant. However, it stands to reason that whoever ends up starting for the Tigers could conceivably enter the conversation considering it’d be no shock if Clemson is in the hunt for a national championship again. For the sake of argument, let’s move forward assuming that Vegas makes that adjustment.
To finely tune our microscope, I enlisted the help of CFBMatrix’s Dave Bartoo and his mind-boggling amount of statistics. His analytics help athletic directors and head coaches make hires, so you can understand why he’s looked to for a quick assist.
Naturally, the winner is going to need quality talent and coaching around him. Here’s how those 10 players’ teams rank among the top 40 nationally when looking at Bartoo’s composite recruiting ranking over the past four years:
Love (Stanford) – 27th
Tagovailoa (Alabama) – 1st
Taylor (Wisconsin) – 36th
Haskins (Ohio State) – 2nd
Grier (West Virginia) – N/A
Tate (Arizona) – N/A
Fromm (Georgia) – 4th
McSorley (Penn State) – 13th
Dobbins (Ohio State) – 2nd
Kelly/Lawrence (Clemson) – 10th
To get an idea of the level of play-calling these guys will have, Bartoo told me a bit about his rankings for the coaches that will be guiding their talent. While he won’t share his secret sauce’s recipe with just anyone – I’ll refer you back to what I said about hiring decisions – he did give me the same rankings he’d offer me if I were sitting at the head desk of Wossamotta U’s football program.
The metric is simple: Does a team’s play-caller hit a B-grade or above?
Love (Stanford) – Yes
Tagovailoa (Alabama) – N/A (No current grade because of a new offensive coordinator)
Taylor (Wisconsin) – Yes
Haskins (Ohio State) – Yes
Grier (West Virginia) – No
Tate (Arizona) – No
Fromm (Georgia) – No
McSorley (Penn State) – N/A (No current grade, same reason as Tagovailoa)
Dobbins (Ohio State) – Yes
Kelly/Lawrence (Clemson) – Yes
Of course, the Heisman Trophy winner will play for a Top 25 team. If we look at Vegas’ projections for win totals this season, we can get an idea of whether or not the aforementioned teams have a shot at finishing ranked.
Love (Stanford) – 8
Tagovailoa (Alabama) – 11
Taylor (Wisconsin) – 10
Haskins (Ohio State) – 10.5
Grier (West Virginia) – 7
Tate (Arizona) – 7.5
Fromm (Georgia) – 10.5
McSorley (Penn State) – 9.5
Dobbins (Ohio State) – 10.5
Kelly/Lawrence (Clemson) – 11
In the College Football Playoff era, only two teams have finished in the final Top 25 rankings with fewer than nine wins (Auburn in 2014 and '16). If that metric holds, two of the three running backs on the 2018 board continue the Top 25 Heisman streak.
To add more fuel to that particular fire, we can get an idea of how stiff of a defensive challenge each contender faces as Bartoo also ranks how good every FBS defensive coordinator is. When we plug this information into the Heisman hopefuls’ schedule and average it out, the national ranking of each player’s average defensive coordinator difficulty looks like this:
Love (Stanford) – 23rd
Tagovailoa (Alabama) – 25th
Taylor (Wisconsin) – 14th
Haskins (Ohio State) – 12th
Grier (West Virginia) – 66th
Fromm (Georgia) – 13th
Tate (Arizona) – 62nd
McSorley (Penn State) – 15th
Dobbins (Ohio State) – 12th
Kelly/Lawrence (Clemson) – 74th
What do we take away from all of this? It’d be easy to tab Tagovailoa or Fromm as the winner considering both played in last year’s national championship game. If Clemson can get its ducks in a row, name an immediate starter at quarterback and the Tigers light the world on fire, either Kelly or Lawrence might be able to jump Haskins, Fromm and Grier.
Regardless of who starts game one, Clemson's QB has a top-40 recruiting class around them (top-10 at that), one of the nation’s better play-callers and will face extremely weak defenses throughout their schedule. Where Clemson’s quarterback situation likely knocks either player out of the running is while Kelly may start the season at No. 1, should he struggle or get hurt, the option of replacing him with Lawrence is very real.
Even with those two fighting for the opportunity to put up big numbers, the three running backs will be catalysts for their teams’ victories and all but one is on a team definitively favored to win their division. Washington likely takes the Pac-12 North, but doing so will prove challenging as they have to contend with Love's Stanford along with Oregon and Washington State. Of those three games, they'll only get the Cardinal at home. It's also important to remember that the Huskies have a ten game stretch without a bye.
On the other hand, all running backs have top play-callers and all play for teams that have recruited well, but they also have their work cut out for them when it comes to the caliber of their opposing defensive coordinators.
The remaining contender for quarterbacks is Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins. Using these metrics, he obviously has all of the same benefits that Dobbins does, so we have to refocus the microscope a bit and look at how recent Heisman voting has gone.
True freshmen and sophomore quarterbacks have won the award before, but they did so by specifically being what made their respective teams great. Where would Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Florida State and Louisville have been without Sam Bradford, Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston or Lamar Jackson during those seasons? These players created the success their programs enjoyed during the years they won the Heisman.
The 2018 Buckeyes, on the other hand, can survive what could be considered “only” an above-average year by Haskins. In the meantime, there’s no other SEC back on the board to challenge Dobbins by having to face what some Heisman voters may consider a more difficult conference schedule. As we’ve already discussed, Ohio State's schedule is certainly no cakewalk in terms of defensive coordinator capability.
Honestly, putting a preseason wager down on the eventual Heisman Trophy winner isn't the best idea unless you have money to burn. However, if you want to pick a position and are dead set on spending the $25 you got for your birthday, 2018 appears looks to be as good as any to favor a running back.
-- Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces), and keep up with the Quick N Dirty podcasts on his Patreon page.