In 1985 Bo Jackson won the Heisman Trophy by rushing for 1,657 yards and 15 touchdowns. Twenty-four years later, no SEC running back has won the award again. Not Emmitt Smith, not Darren McFadden, not Knowshon Moreno, not Jamal Lewis, not Fred Taylor, not Garrison Hearst not Terrell Davis -- okay, he wasn't that good in college. None of them. And it's not like there hasn't been an awful lot of talented player, by my review of first-round draft picks, the SEC has had 15 running backs taken in the first round since Bo Jackson won the Heisman.
For over a generation, Jackson has stood alone. But now, in the absence of any overwhelming favorite, Alabama running back Mark Ingram seems to be atop many Heisman lists. Is it justified? How do his numbers stack up compared to past winners? And what do those past winners at running back -- there have only been seven since Bo Jackson in 1985 -- tell us about the current state of college football. Proceed, fearless reader.
Barry Sanders' 1988 season is the gold standard for college football rushers. In fact, it may be the gold standard for college football players period. In that year Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards in just 11 games. He had 37 regular season touchdowns. (All stats are pre-bowls, since the Heisman is handed out in advance of bowl season.) But you don't need to hear it from me. Go look at his game stats from that season. In four of the 11 regular season games he went over 300 yards. Four times. He averaged 238.9 yards per game.
I think we can safely call this the greatest season for a running back in the history of college football. Not surprisingly, Sanders won the Heisman Trophy.
Next came Rashaan Salaam at Colorado in 1994. Salaam broke the elusive 2,000-yard plane and scored 21 touchdowns. The next season, 1995, Eddie Georgia notched 1,927 yards rushing, 24 touchdowns, and an average of 152.2 yards per game. In 1998 Ricky Williams broke 2,000 yards and finished the regular season with 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns. In 1999 Ron Dayne went for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns en route to the award. Finally, for the only time for a running back this decade, Reggie Bush won the Heisman in 2005 with 1,658 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Bush also had 383 receiving yards.
What does all of this tell us? In the past two decades, you have to put up huge numbers to be considered for the Heisman Trophy as a running back. That's because the Heisman has become a quarterback's trophy. Indeed, every winner this decade has played quarterback except for Bush. Four of the past seven winners have soared over 2,000 yards rushing, Eddie George and Ron Dayne came tantalizingly close. And Reggie Bush ascended the Heisman plateau on the strength of his running, receiving, and punt returning prowess.
Now the question remains, does Mark Ingram have what it takes to chalk up the first Heisman Trophy for Alabama? I've already cast my lot with Boise State's Kellen Moore, but Ingram's candidacy is an intriguing one. Let's go pro and con.
1. Pro: Ingram is averaging 6.7 yards per carry which is tops among major college backs. It's also better than the per carry averages that Bo Jackson, Darren McFadden, Cadillac Williams, Jamal Lewis, and other SEC tailback luminaries have put together in their best campaigns.
For whatever reason, Ingram doesn't have a reputation as a breakaway back. but his per carry average is better than just about everyone in major college football. In fact, the only two BCS backs that have a higher per carry average among the nation's top 100 rushers are Oregon's LaMichael James and Florida's Jeff Demps.
2. Con: Presently Mark Ingram has 1, 297 yards rushing, 225 yards receiving, and he has 13 total touchdowns. That's good for fifth in the nation in rushing.
While those stats are impressive, it's important to note that Jackson, Sanders, Salaam, George, and Dayne will all finish with more yards than Ingram even though Ingram will gain two extra games on those men--the additional 12th game added to the schedule as well as the SEC championship game. Statistically, if he wins, Ingram is likely to have the lowest rushing average per game than every Heisman Trophy winning running back since Archie Griffin ran for 1,357 yards in 1975.
3. Pro: Ingram has played against rugged SEC defenses, five of which are presently ranked in the top 25 of the nation's defenses. Three of the backs that are ranked above him in total yardage, play outside the BCS at Fresno State, UTEP, and Temple.
4. Con: Stanford running back Toby Gerhart is the only BCS back with more yards than Ingram, and he's also scored 19 rushing touchdowns to Ingram's 10.
Given that Gerhart has recently led Stanford to back-to-back top 10 wins, why isn't Gerhart considered the Heisman favorite if a running back is to be selected?
5. Pro: The only quarterback that can justifiably be selected over Ingram or Gerhart is Boise State's Kellen Moore.
Given the relatively mediocre seasons, at least relative to their past standards, of Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow, both of these men should be eliminated from Heisman contention. Meaning that effectively, this should be a three-horse race, Moore, Gerhart, or Ingram down the stretch.
6. Con: If Mark Ingram played for a team that wasn't ranked in the top five in the country, he would not be a major candidate.
Consider, last season Georgia's Moreno rushed for 1,400 yards, 16 touchdowns, and caught 33 passes for 392 yards.
No one even mentioned him as a Heisman candidate. Isn't Ingram being hyped solely because Alabama is having a good season and there is such a weak field of contenders?
7. Pro: Alabama plays Chattanooga this weekend and Ingram could roll up 200 yards pretty easily if Nick Saban elects to keep him in the game.
Following this game, Alabama has the national stage to themselves for a Friday game at Auburn. As if that weren't enough, the SEC Championship game has a shot at becoming the most highly watched college football game, in terms of viewers, in CBS history.
So Ingram has a better opportunity for a strong close than any other Heisman contender not named Tim Tebow.
8. Con: Mark Ingram is in the same voting region as Tim Tebow.
How much will he be hurt by those who reflexively vote for Tebow and cut into his support base? Does someone like Gerhart have a geographic advantage when it comes to support?
9. Pro: Ingram has performed the best against SEC opponents and has not, thus far, padded his stats against weaker competition.
In fact, in the two easiest games on Alabama's schedule, FIU and North Texas, Ingram carried the ball just 25 times for 142 yards. His best running has come in conference.
10. Con: Ingram, a sophomore back, has come out of nowhere this season and his numbers aren't overwhelming.
There's nothing eye-catching about what Ingram has done. He won't come near breaking 2,000 yards, there's no singular play that anyone can point to, yet, that defines his candidacy. He's a hard-working, grueling, runner. Typically those types of runners aren't rewarded.
Plus, he hasn't built up a profile with the Heisman voters, he's come out of nowhere. That relative anonymity works against him when it comes to garnering a national award. I'd wager that one month ago, prior to the South Carolina performance, most voters didn't even have Ingram on their radar screens.
11. Pro: Being a sophomore doesn't matter anymore.
Remember two years ago when the debate was about whether or not a sophomore could win the Heisman? Tebow won the award after much hand-ringing. Raise your hand if you've even heard a single person mention the fact that Ingram is a sophomore when they analyze his candidacy this fall.
12. Con: Auburn can ruin Ingram's chances at the award.
Ingram has a chance to become Alabama's own Bo Jackson. Something that, I'd imagine, won't sit very well with Auburn's Ben Tate or the War Eagles. Can you imagine how raucous Jordan-Hare will be in two weeks when Ingram comes to town seeking to buttress his campaign?
Would you put it past Auburn to stack the line and absolutely refuse to allow Ingram to run the football against them?
I wouldn't at all.
Especially when you consider that keeping Ingram from winning the Heisman by stuffing him on the Friday after Thanksgiving may be the only victory that Auburn can grab in this game.
There is still an awful lot of football left to be played, but right now, Mark Ingram has the national stage to himself.
To Bo or not to Bo, that is the question.