I have spent a LOT of time thinking about the Heisman Trophy since the markets opened this offseason and have opinions on just about every possible candidate you can think of. I’ve generally been low on the chances Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson wins the award this year, but two different very smart bettors, The Tailgate Tent in an episode of The Deep Dive and Locky Lockerson on his daily show, stumped for Henderson. I don’t have too much pride to ignore smart people I don’t agree with so I bet a little on Henderson at 40-1 to win the coveted award.
My thoughts on Henderson are part of a broader thought that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for a while now: is the era of Heisman Trophy winning running backs over forever and what would it take for a running back to win the award in today’s college football?
The Heisman Used To Be a Running Back Award
Running backs used to dominate the Heisman Trophy, with a back winning it 17 times from 1976 to 1999. The numbers dipped in the 90s, but four running backs won it that decade. Only three running backs have won the award since: Reggie Bush, Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry. Since Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey finished first and second in the voting in 2015, the only running back to finish higher than fifth in the voting was Bryce Love who finished second in 2017. That year Love ran for 1,973 yards in the regular season, but he finished a distant second in Heisman voting to Baker Mayfield who received 732 first-place votes, while Love received just 75.
Over the past 10 seasons, the only running backs to finish in the top three in Heisman voting went to either Alabama, Stanford or Wisconsin. Alabama didn’t run an aggressive, pass-oriented offense until 2018. It seems like hell will freeze over before Stanford and Wisconsin join them in doing so. The running back with the most votes in 2021 was Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker. Walker had a phenomenal year last year rushing for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns for a surprising Spartans team that went 10-2. Walker was actually the betting favorite for a couple of weeks, but the Spartans lost to Purdue and then two weeks later got wiped off the face of the earth by Ohio State and Walker ended up finishing sixth in the Heisman voting.
The 2022 Heisman Contenders
There are five running backs with odds lower than 100-1 to win the Heisman Trophy at FanDuel Sportsbook right now: TreVeyon Henderson (+4000), Bjian Robinson (+4000), Jamyr Gibbs (+5000), Braelon Allen (+6000) and Devon Achane (+8000). Henderson and Gibbs are the only two who likely have any real shot of winning the Heisman. All three Heisman Trophy winning running backs in the 21st century played for or won a National Championship the year they won the Heisman. Robinson (Texas) and Allen (Wisconsin) aren’t very likely to make the Playoff, Achane (Texas A&M) plays on the best team of those three backs, but it’s also hard to imagine a scenario where the Aggies make the Playoff.
The Two Running Backs Who Could Win The Heisman
I’m still not high on Henderson or Gibbs actually winning the award, though. Henderson is more of a name for sharp College Football fans than the casual at home fan. He had a very nice Freshman year rushing for over 1,200 yards, but I think the Ohio State skill position player who is more of a known commodity is Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Smith-Njigba had 95 catches and 1,606 yards and left an impression on people catching 15 balls for 347 yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State’s Rose Bowl win over Utah. I’m not particularly high on Smith-Njigba winning the Heisman either because last year he certainly benefited from defenses having to account for Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson and this year it’s impossible to imagine defenses not doubling Smith-Njigba consistently and making other receivers make plays.
The point remains, that Henderson is probably the third most-known commodity on the Buckeyes offense. It’s also hard for me to imagine a scenario where Ohio State is in the Playoff and it isn’t because CJ Stroud also put up insane numbers. Henderson can be flat out awesome, but if Stroud is also awesome, he’s likely going to be the first Ohio State player to win the Heisman since Troy Smith in 2006.
As for Gibbs’ chances, it seems unlikely that Nick Saban went and got the best running back in the transfer portal to come to Tuscaloosa if the plan wasn’t to try and run the ball more effectively than the Tide did in 2021 and Gibbs is a talented player, but it also seems unlikely Alabama is going to ascend to the heights they’re expected to if Bryce Young isn’t also great again. Young threw for 1,700 more yards last year than Jake Coker did in 2015, the year Derrick Henry won the Heisman. The likeliest scenario for Alabama seems like voters prefer neither Young nor Gibbs and with Will Anderson also on the team potentially to take votes away from the offensive players at Alabama, it’s going to take a lot for Gibbs to win the Heisman.
The Running Backs Who Probably Can’t Win The Heisman
A 2,336 yard, 26 touchdown season helped Melvin Gordon finish second, but lose in a landslide to Marcus Mariota in 2014. Gordon’s odds got down to +250 (to Mariota’s -700) in the final week of the regular season, but a 59-0 shellacking against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game slammed the door shut on Gordon’s already dwindling Heisman chances. Allen had a breakout freshman season tallying 1,200 yards so he’s going to have to add a significant output to his stats to even be in the conversation. Bijan Robinson is the best running back in college football, but Texas’ realistic ceiling is probably nine wins and even if Texas were to get to double-digit wins in the regular season, the praise for that would probably go to new quarterback Quinn Ewers. As for Achane, it’s going to be hard for anyone on Alabama’s schedule to get serious Heisman consideration unless they beat the Tide and after what happened in College Station last year and the offseason tiff between Saban and Jimbo Fisher, do you really want to back the Aggies in Tuscaloosa this year?
College Football Is a Passing Sport
Aggressive passing offenses used to be considered gimmicks or dismissed as something only Big 12 teams did at the Power Five level and would never win championships with that kind of offense. The Alabama-Clemson title games signaled a seismic shift in College Football. Nick Saban realized that Alabama had to modernize what they did on offense to continue to win at a high level. LSU followed suit, hiring Joe Brady as the passing game coordinator and Joe Burrow set the sport on fire in 2019 before Alabama managed to possibly top that greatness in 2020. The pass-first offense is here to stay at the highest levels of College Football and it’s going to make it harder for running backs to win the Heisman Trophy.
A running back won the Heisman Trophy every year from 1973 to 1983. Are we going to see 11 running backs win the Heisman Trophy in the rest of our lifetimes?
(Photo Credit: Emilee Chin/Getty Images)