There isn’t a more foolish thing to bet on in American sports than the Heisman Trophy (okay, maybe Little League baseball). The odds are almost always complete crap, and the winner almost always comes out of nowhere. seven of the last nine Heisman winners were not among the top 10 favorites to win the award in the preseason; only Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry were considered “contenders” entering their Heisman seasons.
Saquon Barkley entered 2017 among the short list of favorites; and his star has only burned brighter throughout the first month of the season. In five games, Barkley has accounted for 1218 all-purpose yards while leading Penn State to a perfect 5-0 record. His jaw-dropping runs in prime time at Iowa reminded us of the best running backs we’ve ever seen in college football. He genuinely looked like Reggie Bush juking and hurdling his way through the Hawkeyes’ defense.
One week later, he took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown against Indiana (below), and also threw a touchdown pass to add to his legend.
With one month down and two to go, Barkley is the Heisman favorite (according to Bovada) with +125 odds to win, and that’s insane.
There have been three running backs who have won the Heisman since 1999: Reggie Bush, Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry. All three of them have one very important thing in common: they all played in the national championship game. It is criminally difficult for running backs to hang around the chase for the Heisman all season long. Their best chance is to play for a team that wins all of its games AND plays in massive, season-defining games late in the season.
Bush’s final two regular season games in 2005 came against top-20 teams in Fresno State and UCLA. Bush ran for 294 and 260 yards in those games, respectively.
Ingram played in two colossal games during the final month of the 2009 season, against LSU and Florida, where he rushed for 257 yards and three touchdowns combined (not to mention 2009 was one of the weakest Heisman fields of all-time).
Want to know how many yards Derrick Henry rushed for in his final six FBS games of the 2015 regular season? Here they are: 236, 143, 210, 204, 271, 189. Henry was an unstoppable force on a team that steamrolled its way through the SEC en route to the national title.
If Saquon Barkley wants to win the Heisman Trophy in 2017, he’s going to have to not just beat, but dominate the two best teams on Penn State’s schedule: Michigan and Ohio State. The Nittany Lions welcome the Wolverines into State College in just over two weeks, then travel to Columbus seven days later. Not only will those games decide the Big Ten East race, Barkley’s fate will hang in the balance as well.
Michigan’s defense currently ranks 1st in the entire country against the run, both in yards per game (69.25) and yards per carry (2.2). Ohio State’s run defense is ranked 28th, but the Buckeyes boast at least four future first or second-round draft picks along the defensive line.
I’m not saying Barkley won’t pass both of those tests, but shouldn’t the odds of him shredding (or even just beating) both of those teams be greater than +125?
September Heismans are not a new phenomenon. Geno Smith always comes to mind when we think of the guys who took the world by storm in September only to fade into obscurity by season’s end. To be fair, Lamar Jackson took the race and literally ran away with it after about three weeks in 2016. But let’s not forget a recent cautionary tale in a very similar vein to Barkley: Leonard Fournette.
Fournette had all but won the Heisman after his 228-yard game against Auburn (who turned out to stink), and a 244-yard game at Syracuse.
Doesn’t that sort of remind you of Barkley carving up a decent-at-best Iowa team, then blowing up another marginal bowl team in Indiana?
Fournette was the talk of college football after one month in 2015, so much so that people wondered if he should flat-out quit college football because he belonged in the NFL. Lo and behold, Fournette’s first two games of November didn’t go quite so well when he faced much tougher defenses. He ran fo 31 yards against Alabama, and 91 against Arkansas in back-to-back weeks.
Fournette wasn’t even a finalist for the Heisman that year.
Barkley has been outstanding so far. He’s all but locked up his place as the top running back in next year’s NFL Draft. But his Heisman candidacy right now essentially rests on whipping up on a decent Iowa team on national TV, and a nice Twitter highlight against Indiana (he finished with 56 rushing yards on 20 carries against the Hoosiers, by the way).
At +125 to win the award, it’s burning money to bet on him now. He’ll almost certainly need to run the table to do so. If you really think that’s possible, why not just bet Penn State on the moneyline against Michigan and Ohio State? You’ll get far better value out of that if they win.
There’s a lot of football left to be played this season. Let’s enjoy watching Barkley as much as we can. But stop the Heisman hype until he beats the Big Boys.