After the first week of college football, two running backs staked their claim as rightful preseason all-Americans: Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah. Both were pegged in the uppermost tier of Doak Walker Award candidates, and both very literally looked as though they were running away from any competition last Saturday.
Gurley might not be able to buy himself a drink yet, but he has no problem running you over. In his season opener against No. 16 Clemson, Gurley rushed for 198 yards on 15 attempts–good for a videogame-like 13.2 yards per carry–and scored three touchdowns on the ground plus a 100-yard kickoff return for good measure.
Abdullah, the nation’s top returning rusher, set a career best with 232 rushing yards on 21 attempts (11 yards per carry), and a touchdown. Though he played little in the fourth quarter, he was the catalyst for Nebraska’s 784 total yards: A modern-day Big Ten record.
They aren’t tops on the individual leader boards after the first week, but regarding preliminary hype and performance in their first 2014 opportunities, they’re the top two running backs in college football.
But how much can you really predict after one week concerning the Doak Walker Award? Well, not much.
The remarkable first-week outputs certainly didn’t hurt Abdullah and Gurley’s chances for the award, but there’s very little correlation between Week 1 success and likelihood to win.
Since 2002 every Doak Walker winner has had one constant: They played in at least 12 games. Only LaMichael James (2010) and Cedric Benson (2004) played in fewer than 13 games during the season they won, and posted such astronomical numbers that it didn’t even matter.
Last season, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and Washington’s Bishop Sankey (the two Doak Walker finalists who didn’t win the award) posted more rushing yards and touchdowns in their opening weeks than Boston College’s Andre Williams.
UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin and Oregon’s Kenjon Barner (2012 Doak Walker finalists) had more touchdowns on a better rush yards per attempt average than Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, yet neither took home the hardware at season’s end.
Alabama’s 2011 workhorse, Trent Richardson, rushed for a measly 37 yards in the season opener of his award-winning year. It was the lowest first week rush yardage total of any player to win the award in more than 14 years.
It isn’t perfect science, but there are very few parallels that can be drawn from first week success to the Doak Walker award.
There are clearly candidates for this year’s Doak Walker Award other than Gurley and Abdullah. Every running back in college football “could” win it. That, in addition to a history of Week 1 success having very little correlation with likelihood to win the award, is precisely why Gurley and Abdullah should stay hungry and—more importantly—healthy the rest of the way.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal’s The Daily Fix, Chicago Tribune’s RedEye Chicago, Rivals, Bleacher Report, Denver Post Sports, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio, the ESPN TrueHoop Network, Swish Analytics and The Cauldron. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).