It’s a win-and-advance week throughout college football. That sentiment applies to Virginia Tech (ACC Coastal), Michigan (Big Ten East), Wisconsin (Big Ten West), Colorado (Pac-12 South) and both Washington and Washington State (Pac-12 North) when it comes to division titles in power conferences.
It might even apply to Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the presumed front-runner for the Heisman Trophy from virtually the first day of the season to now even after last week’s forgettable performance against Houston.
But here’s something a bit more definitive: His chances will take a major hit if the Cardinals (9-2) take another tumble on Saturday when they play host to Kentucky (6-5).
As much as the Heisman is supposed to be an individual award, it’s more often than not about rewarding the best player on a highly ranked team. Sometimes, the best player in the country really is on the best team. And sometimes, as it seemed a couple times in the late 1990s, the Heisman can function as a lifetime achievement award.
But the best way to secure a stiff-arming statue is to play for a relevant team at the national level. Let’s take a look at the last 25 Heisman winners and where their respective teams were ranked at the end of the regular season in the Associated Press poll.
Heisman winners, 1991-2015
|Played for No. 1 team||9||36.0|
|Played for top 5 team||21||84.0|
|Played for top 10 team||23||92.0|
Put another away, there were more than twice as many Heisman winners in the last quarter-century from the No. 1 team heading into the bowls than there were winners from teams outside the top five. That group includes Ricky Williams (1998, when Texas was ranked 20th), Tim Tebow (2007, Florida was No. 9), Robert Griffin III (2011, Baylor was No. 15) and Johnny Manziel (2012, Texas A&M was No. 10).
Now, back to Jackson. Louisville sits at No. 11, just outside the boundary for most of the last generation of winners. There’s no arguing his numbers — 1,367 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing, 3,109 yards, 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions passing. If the Cardinals win Saturday, they’ll almost certainly slide back into the top 10 (if not this week, then next when the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State loser is inevitably dropped a few spots).
There is one issue the works against the data: If not Jackson, then who? Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers (currently on a top-five team) and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (currently on a top-10 team) join Jackson as finalists for the Maxwell Award. If No. 1 Alabama is going to find a Heisman finalist off its roster, it will probably be defensive lineman Jonathan Allen.
But if Louisville sputters and, say, Peppers has a monster game against Ohio State … you never know.
But just as it’s seemed like since September, the Heisman is probably Jackson’s — and Louisville’s — to lose.
MARCH OF THE 5-7 TEAMS
Three teams went 5-7 last season and made it into bowl games anyway thanks to a shortage of eligible programs. Minnesota, Nebraska and San Jose State were selected because of their Academic Progress Rate score and all went on to claim bowl victories.
The republic survived this particular calamity and three schools got to take home trophies celebrating sub-.500 seasons. Life went on.
It’s probably the new normal in college football. With 80 bowl slots and 128 teams, a gaudy 62.5 percent of the FBS will play in the postseason. And there’s a good chance more than three of them will be below .500 this year.
There are 65 bowl-eligible teams entering Thursday’s play, with 15 open spots left for 17 remaining teams that have yet to clinch either a .500 record or a losing season. Some of those teams stand a decent chance to handle business this weekend, like Arizona State (against Arizona), Indiana (against Purdue) and Northwestern (against Illinois). But it’s improbable that 15 of them will.
So that will open the door for a few more 5-7 teams to extend their seasons. The next logical step in this process is to pair two 5-7 teams together. Don’t laugh. It might just happen sooner than anyone would expect.
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
- No. 5 Washington at No. 23 Washington State (Friday, 3:30 p.m., Fox): The Apple Cup winner claims the Pac-12 North, but only Washington (10-1, 7-1) has a realistic chance of earning a playoff berth.
- Toledo at No. 21 Western Michigan (Friday, 5 p.m., ESPN2): A New Year’s Six berth goes to the highest ranked Group of Five conference champion in the playoff committee’s final top 25. Western Michigan (11-0, 7-0) won’t win the Mid-American Conference if it doesn’t beat Toledo to seal a division title. Ergo, the significance of this game.
- No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State (Saturday, noon, ABC): It’s the most mutually meaningful game in this series since the clash of the unbeatens at the end of the 2006 season. The Buckeyes (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) have owned this rivalry of late, winning 10 of 11, but a victory alone won’t get them into the Big Ten title game. Ohio State also needs a Penn State loss to play for a conference crown, while Michigan (10-1, 7-1) would hold a tiebreaker over the Nittany Lions.
- No. 13 Auburn at No. 1 Alabama (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): The Crimson Tide (11-0, 7-0 SEC) was sloppy last week, which means Nick Saban probably made it a point to take a lot of the fun out of this holiday week … assuming he knew there was a holiday this week.
- South Carolina at No. 4 Clemson (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN): This Palmetto State clash once again has playoff implications for Clemson (10-1), which basically has to treat the Gamecocks like a round-of-16 opponent as it tries to pin down a national championship.