The Heisman Trophy will be handed out Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). In case you haven't heard, it's going to go to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Sure, there are other finalists in the race. Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper is there, as is Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. But the only real question at this point is the size of the margin for Mariota, who's 254-of-372 passing for 3,783 yards, 38 touchdowns and two (!) interceptions. If Cooper or Gordon win, it will be one of the biggest upsets in the history of the award.
I'll be honest: I can't be impartial about who I would vote for this year. I'm basically the honorary chairman of the Amari Cooper for Heisman Committee on Twitter. So I'll lay out the case for Cooper before Mariota's coronation.
First off, I'm not going to bash the other Heisman contenders. Most of this is because either of them would be more than acceptable as winners of the trophy. This is the rare year in which two Heisman-worthy players are going to get snubbed no matter who wins.
Part of it is because, quite frankly, I haven't seen as much of Mariota or Gordon as I would have liked to this year, and certainly not enough to criticize them. And the other part is that as a political reporter, I'm getting tired of seeing all the tricks of the political trade -- and often the worst tricks, at that -- imported into debates over awards and playoff berths.
The Case for Amari Cooper
The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.
It's worth nothing that there is nothing objective about that sentence, which comes from the Heisman Trust's mission statement. "Outstanding," "excellence" and "integrity" all carry some degree of subjectivity with them, and the latter part of the definition has all but been forgotten in the last several years.
But somewhere in the definition of outstanding and excellence should be the player with the most receptions in a single season in SEC history. Or only the second player in the annals of the conference to eclipse 1,600 receiving yards, and the third to have more than 1,500 yards. Or the player whose yards per game average for the season is third-most in conference history. That's Amari Cooper in 2014.
It's not just the SEC, though. Cooper leads the nation in receptions and yards, according to cfbstats.com. He's second to Rashard Higgins of Colorado State in yards per game.
In seven of Alabama's 13 games this year, Cooper had more than 100 yards receiving. In three of those games -- including the Tide's near-death experience against Auburn in the Iron Bowl -- Cooper had more than 200 yards. Only twice did he not have at least 80 receiving yards in a game, and one of those two games was when he was pulled as a precaution in the Western Carolina game.
What makes those numbers more astonishing is that everyone on the field knows that Cooper will get the ball more than any other receiver on the team. He accounts for 42.9 percent of Alabama's catches and 45.3 percent of the team's receiving yards. And he does is in just about every way imaginable -- short, underneath completions; long, explosive plays; and circus catches that he has no business coming down with.
Cooper has 37 receptions of 15 or more yards, according to cfbstats.com. He has 15 catches of at least 25 yards.
And now we plunge into the completely subjective: I have never seen anyone take over a game from the wide receiver position, at least not the way that Amari Cooper does. He can catch a 39-yard touchdown pass and a 75-yard touchdown pass in less than five minutes, cutting his team's deficit from 12 points to two against Auburn. And he can end the day with 224 receiving yards, the second time he's done that in five games, and set a new record in that category for the Iron Bowl.
That's rare. It's something different. I don't know how much the rarity of something should play into the Heisman Trophy, but if we're talking about an award that's supposed to go to the best player in the country, it ought to play into the equation at some point.
Why Amari Cooper Won't Win
All that said, there are several reasons Cooper won't win the Heisman this year. One of them is that Mariota was seen as a front-runner coming into the season and had a phenomenal year. Oftentimes, the hype of being a front-runner weighs down players who got on the watch lists, because the bar is set so impossibly high that it's hard to match. Mariota didn't really fall short.
And if that happens, the only player with a chance to overcome it is a front-runner who also had a phenomenal year. Though Cooper was on a lot of the watch lists this year, it would be hard to say he was more than a dark horse in the preseason.
But no matter what Cooper did and no matter what Mariota did, Cooper's Heisman bid was almost certainly over before it started. Why? Because of the position he plays. No wide receiver has won the Heisman since Desmond Howard became the second to do so in 1991, meaning that a defensive player has won the trophy more recently. With the scrubbing of Reggie Bush's name from the official list, Mark Ingram is the only non-quarterback to win the award since Ron Dayne in 1999.
Part of this says something about the era of football that we're in: High-powered spread offenses that give quarterbacks the opportunity to run and throw the ball (a lot) and put up gaudy numbers. That's not to say that quarterbacks who have won the award weren't worthy of it. It just means that they have a better opportunity to prove it. (Back when the college game was more run-heavy, running backs won the trophy 12 consecutive years from 1972-83.)
But it would be hard to look at the list of Heisman winners -- who all get a vote -- and not see that there is a ready-made constituency for quarterbacks and running backs that doesn't exist for other players. There are three surviving Heisman winners who weren't a quarterback, a running back or a fullback. Three. (And there's only one surviving fullback, Steve Owens.) The voting bloc comprised of Heisman winners isn't huge, but it's hard to ignore it.
The most decisive factor, though, is that fans and the media have elevated the quarterback above every other position on the field. I had a brief back and forth on Twitter on Monday with a Denver sports personality that wondered why Jameis Winston wasn't a finalist, given that the Florida State quarterback has "never lost a game." That ignores the fact that dozens of other players also won the game, and that Winston threw 17 interceptions this year -- six more than Bo Wallace, for comparison's sake.
He won all those games, though. How many times have you heard anyone talk about how many games Melvin Gordon "won" this season, or how many games Amari Cooper "won" this season? Those players had as much to do with their teams' success this season as their respective quarterbacks, and probably more. But they don't get credit for a team's wins.
Quarterbacks are overvalued in football, not because they are unimportant, but because we place their value so stratospherically high that no single player on the field could ever live up to that. This is not something that has helped Mariota all that much, because his underlying statistics have been superb, but it is undoubtedly something that helps explain the run of quarterbacks who have won the trophy -- look at all those games he won. All by himself.
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All of which is one of the reasons that I don't put as much stock in the Heisman Trophy as I once did. There are others -- the biggest of which is that you generally need not apply if your team is not in the hunt for the national championship late into the season, unless you've had some moment or set a record that forces the rest of the nation to take notice. If Gordon hadn't temporarily set the record for the most rushing yards in a game, I'm not sure he would have gotten his well-deserved ticket to the ceremony.
But a good bit of it is the seeming insistence by voters that the most outstanding player in the game can only come from one of two positions, and increasingly only from one. Marcus Mariota will win the trophy this weekend, and there's nothing wrong with that. At least Cooper got an invitation and a moment in the spotlight, which is really all the Heisman allows any wide receiver to dream about.