A case can be made that reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is being overlooked nationally this season largely because his Louisville team is hovering just above .500 as it enters Saturday’s meeting with Virginia.
The Athletic’s David Ubben compellingly made the argument this week, rightfully bemoaning the Heisman electorate’s historical indifference to players on mediocre teams. One of his larger themes was that Jackson is even better this fall than last.
But there’s one problem with this point: Jackson hasn’t been quite as effective as he was through this point last year. His performance in September and October last year turned the race for the stiff-arming statue into a foregone conclusion even as Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson played brilliantly from the start of October onward (beginning with his duel with Jackson).
Louisville ended last season on a three-game losing streak, and Jackson struggled as his offensive line crumbled around him. His season statistics sagged from mind-blowing to merely otherworldly. But many voters probably had settled on Jackson even before the Cardinals lost to Houston and Kentucky to close out the regular season.
Jackson’s 2016 is a nearly impossible standard to maintain, given the silly stat lines he was posting and the opportunity for foes investing part of their offseason in finding new ways to scheme him. But there’s a clear difference between the Heisman year and this season after nine games.
Jackson through nine games, 2016 vs. 2017
|Comp.-Att.||Pass Yds.||TD-INT||Rush-Yds.||TD||Fum. lost|
That’s a yard less per pass attempt (9.63 to 8.61), nearly two fewer yards per completion (16.19 to 14.25) and almost a yard less per rush (7.29 to 6.31). Then there’s the touchdown responsibility decrease of 45 to 32, no small difference.
None of which is to say Jackson isn’t having an exceptional season. He’s still the best quarterback in the ACC, and on the shortlist for the best in the country. And, as Ubben notes, his technical play has improved. But Jackson’s nine-game start isn’t statistically better, though his dip isn’t nearly as noticeable as, say, the collapse of the Louisville defense.
As for this year’s Heisman voting? Even Jackson isn’t a great bet to overcome the voting bias toward good players on good teams (or its close cousin, the best-player-on-the-best-team vote) and return to New York as even a finalist.
As noted in this space last November, 36 percent of the Heisman winners from 1991 to 2015 were on the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll at the end of the regular season, 84 percent were on a top-five team and 92 percent were on a top-10 team.
The outliers were Robert Griffin III in 2011, when Baylor was No. 15, and Ricky Williams in 1998, when Texas was No. 20. Jackson beat the odds last year thanks to his sublime play early in the year, providing a cushion even as Louisville faded to No. 15 in the final regular season poll.
Given the tendencies of Heisman voters, Jackson probably wouldn’t have fended off Watson (or Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, the third-place finisher, for that matter) if he had been on a team that entered November at 5-4 last season. It certainly isn’t happening this year.
Nonetheless, he should be receiving more attention — or, more accurately, more appreciation — for his college career as what will likely be his final season at Louisville winds to a close.
The first of the 18 division titles at the Football Bowl Subdivision level was clinched Saturday when Georgia’s victory over South Carolina coupled with Kentucky’s loss to Mississippi gave the Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) an insurmountable lead in the SEC East.
Georgia could have a lot more company on conference championship weekend by the time Saturday’s games are over. It’s possible at least one team is locked into a league title game in four of the five power conferences with two weeks to go in the regular season. Among them:
- ACC Atlantic: Clemson (8-1, 6-1) can seal its third division title in a row with a victory over Florida State or an N.C. State loss at Boston College.
- ACC Coastal: The only team with any chance to chase down Miami (8-0, 6-0) is Virginia. If the Cavaliers (6-3, 3-2) fall to Louisville, Miami will clinch its first trip to the ACC title game.
- Big Ten West: The seemingly inevitable will finally happen this week if Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0) turns back Iowa. The Badgers need one victory in their last three games to head to the Big Ten title game for the fifth time in seven years.
- Pac-12 South: Thanks to its sweep of the Arizona schools the past two weeks, Southern California (8-2, 6-1) has the tiebreaker over the division’s other two remaining contenders. That makes this week’s visit to Colorado a win-and-in situation for the Trojans.
- SEC West: Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC) was the heavy favorite from the start. A Crimson Tide victory over Mississippi State coupled with an Auburn loss to Georgia would eliminate a division title as one of the prizes in the Iron Bowl in two weeks.
- Conference USA West: North Texas (6-3, 5-1) needs only a triumph at home over winless Texas-El Paso to seal its division title. Coach Seth Littrell — who took over a 1-11 program and went 5-8 in his first season last year — could be a sneaky-popular name when jobs start to open.
What’s Florida State’s 35-year bowl streak worth? Enough to reschedule a game against Louisiana-Monroe a couple months after it was canceled as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Sunshine State.
It’s easy to see both the Seminoles’ motivation for both playing the game Dec. 2 and the timing of the decision. Florida State (3-5, 3-4 ACC) hasn’t missed the postseason since 1981 and hasn’t suffered a losing season since 1976. Lose this week at Clemson — a likely outcome given the Seminoles’ struggles on offense — and a sub-. 500 record was assured without the rescheduled game. There’s some pride at play here.
Still, there’s value in three weeks of extra practice, even if Florida State is likely to make some in-house changes after the season. And with the rescheduled game, the Seminoles would have to defeat Delaware State, reeling Florida and Louisiana-Monroe to get to a bowl game. Not exactly a gauntlet.
As for the timing? Florida State couldn’t put a game on Dec. 2 until it was eliminated from ACC title contention (the league title game is that night), and it probably wasn’t going to think about doing it until it lost its fifth game (which happened Oct. 27). The Seminoles might get some mild ridicule for this late scramble, but the real problem was that it was even necessary in the first place.
Five games to watch
No. 9 Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1): The Huskies (8-1, 5-1) are likely the last playoff hope out of the Pacific-12 Conference, and this is their last true road game standing between them and a 12-1 record. But they also have the nation’s No. 1 total defense and the Cardinal (6-3, 5-2) has quarterback issues and an increasingly vulnerable defense.
No. 12 Michigan State at No. 13 Ohio State (Saturday, noon, Fox): The visiting Spartans (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) are playing for control of the division in November, just like everyone expected when they were written off after going 3-9 last year. The Buckeyes (7-2, 5-1) have never lost back-to-back regular season games under Urban Meyer, and QB J.T. Barrett will try to bounce back from a four-interception effort in an ugly loss at Iowa.
No. 1 Georgia at No. 10 Auburn (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): It’s the first time since 2004 and just the second time since 1983 that both the visiting Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0) and the Tigers (7-2, 5-1) enter this long-running rivalry game ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. Expect a classic, low-scoring SEC game as the conference’s elite finally begin to meet in 2017.
No. 3 Notre Dame at No. 7 Miami (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC): These teams met as unranked foes in October 2016. Notre Dame won — a highlight of its 4-8 season — and Miami hasn’t lost since. There are plenty of playoff implications as the Fighting Irish (8-1) head to South Florida to meet QB Malik Rosier and the Hurricanes (8-0).
No. 6 Texas Christian at No. 5 Oklahoma (Saturday, 8 p.m., Fox): The jumbled Big 12 is too tight at the top to allow for any clinching this week, but the winner of this showdown will depart as the outright conference leader and the only team in the league with a realistic shot at making a playoff run. Baker Mayfield and the Sooners (8-1, 5-1 Big 12) dropped 62 points on Oklahoma State last week, but scoring even half that on the Horned Frogs (8-1, 5-1) would be an accomplishment.
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