One way or the other, the SEC was going to have a circus involved in the Heisman Trophy race this year. It's hard to remember, after the months of Johnny Manzielapalooza and the long slog of a season, but there was a 50-50 chance that the circus would come out of Columbia instead of College Station.
After the Hit -- one of the most beautifully violent moments on the football field in some time -- and everything that surrounded it, Jadeveon Clowney entered the 2013 season with the kind of preseason Heisman buzz that primarily defensive players almost never get. And then things got out of hand. The over-under on Clowney's sack total was set at 18.5 by one book, a number that even some gaming observers thought was absurd. And that was just among those who pondered the possibility of actually playing his last season before he became eligible for the NFL Draft.
Because there were those who didn't want him to. Yes, a select number of media members and NFL scouts floated the idea that maybe Clowney shouldn't play college football. In fact, one even took a paternalistic tone towards Clowney in arguing that he was, essentially, either dumb or naive for deciding to play.
But as the season approached, particularly at events like SEC Media Days, it looked like the focus would return to and remain on the Hit. And maybe it pushed expectations for the coming season far beyond where they should have been. Clowney had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 2012, but that was his first season playing full-time (he was largely restricted in 2011 to passing downs). And now, there was the focus that was brought to him by a budding Heisman campaign. Offensive coordinators who didn't take Clowney seriously in 2013 would be setting their own chairs ablaze.
Still, there were off-the-field distractions. Steve Spurrier had a miscommunication with Clowney and some of his other stars. Clowney became a peripheral figure on the Manziel memorabilia mess.
If Clowney or his fans hoped that the actual games would provide some solace or badly-needed context, they were in for a bit of a surprise. The defensive end's play became almost as big a distraction as his off-the-field presence already was. His first performance was sluggish enough that is spawned a spate of stories about Clowney's conditioning. And his stat line was damaged by game plans that were designed around Clowney, dashing his Heisman hopes. (Clowney's linemate, Kelcy Quarles, saw his numbers tick up in 2013.)
Given all that, what do we make of Clowney's 2013 season? There's no denying that he took some plays off throughout the year; we all saw it. And while there's no question that the preseason expectations were unreasonable, other players have drawn the kind of attention Clowney did without seeing their numbers dip quite as much as his did. Ndamukong Suh actually had more sacks and tackles for loss in his final season at Nebraska than he had a year earlier.
Even in some of the games when he appeared to be taking a break at times, Clowney had moments of the brilliance that reminded us why we looked forward to watching him so much. We'll get one last chance to see him in action, in next month's Capital One Bowl. It's a good thing there are no distractions out there that could once again take the focus off of Clowney's talents on the field.