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Toward a Better Heisman

Who are the best college football players not named Lamar Jackson?

(Getty Images/Elias Stein)
(Getty Images/Elias Stein)

The Heisman Trophy has been awarded, and, surprise: It went to the guy we expected to win it. Lamar Jackson was so inevitable that the ceremony was the least viewed since 2001.

Jackson may have been the best player in college football this season, but more importantly, he fit the definition of what Heisman voters think a Heisman winner should be: Basically, “a really good quarterback on a pretty good team.”

But college football is bigger and more beautiful than that definition. With more than 100 teams and more than 12,000 players, there are so many more ways to be interesting than the Heisman and position-specific awards allow for. So, here are some new awards to honor the players who made college football the most fun this year.

The “Player I Liked Watching the Most” Award: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech

A tiny little devil appears to a sophomore in high school. The kid loves playing quarterback, but his coaches have moved him to safety because he’s athletic, and he’s thinking about quitting the sport.

“I can make you the best quarterback in college football,” the devil says. “Just sign right here.”

Mahomes threw for 5,052 yards this season. The guy who finished in second place, former Texas Tech QB Davis Webb, threw for 4,295 yards at Cal. The difference between Mahomes’s season and the next-best would be the second-tallest building in the world.

That devil surely got Mahomes to Texas Tech, fertile ground for ridiculous QB numbers. Three of the top 10 passing yardage seasons of all time are by Red Raider quarterbacks. Mahomes’s season puts him 12th, a few spots ahead of his head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, who threw for 5,017 yards in 2002. Don’t scoff at his numbers and call him a system QB, either. Watch him and see that he’s different from other Air Raid QBs. He has a spectacular arm and he can move: With 50-plus dropbacks per game — Texas Tech gave up 30 sacks this year — he still gained 285 yards rushing and scored 12 touchdowns this year. By comparison, Kingsbury had minus-166 yards rushing in his career.

The devil’s catch? Mahomes plays at Texas Tech. NFL scouts don’t like that. And for all the points Kingsbury’s teams score, they allow just as many. Mahomes threw for 540 yards and five touchdowns, and ran for a sixth against Arizona State; he lost 68–55. He threw for a college-football-record-tying 734 yards and accounted for seven touchdowns against Oklahoma, and lost 66–59. Despite Mahomes’s numbers, the team went 5–7.

With no running game and a defense capable of giving up 70 points every week, Texas Tech asked Mahomes to do the impossible. He’s so damn talented that the team pulled it off sometimes.

The “Most Interesting Player” Award: Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

Maybe you’re a nonbeliever in the hagiography of high schoolers that is college football recruiting. You acknowledge that some players are better than others and you don’t trust the services that tell us which ones are the good ones. Look at all the unheralded players who get drafted into the NFL! The scouts get so much wrong!

Except, they get so much more right. There is plentiful data to show that teams that get higher proportions of blue-chip recruits perform better than teams with lower proportions. And while some randos do slip through the cracks, blue-chip prospects are about 1,000 percent more likely to be first-round draft picks. (That’s not a made-up number. It’s literally 1,000 percent!)

Oliver was a thought experiment in the importance of recruiting rankings. By choosing to play for Tom Herman at Houston, he became just the sixth five-star recruit to pick a non-power-conference school, and the first since 2008. As a true freshman, he showed the sea change a single ridiculously talented football player can provide to a program, even at a non-glamorous spot like defensive tackle.

In his first season, and despite playing in a minor conference, Oliver helped blow up two teams’ College Football Playoff résumés. He had two sacks against Oklahoma in his very first college game, and provided two of the 11 sacks against Heisman winner Jackson in a win over Louisville. And the damage he does is bigger than just his sack count: He’s a tactical demolitionist right in the middle of an opponent’s offense.

Herman ditched Houston for Texas. But that won’t make Oliver less of a destructive force for anybody lined up across from him.

The “He Can’t Actually Be Human, Can He?” Award: John Ross, WR, Washington

Ross is the college football player I least believe to be human. I just don’t see how he could be better at catching, running, and evading tacklers than any other wide receiver I watched in college football this year.

Show me a player who’s one of those things — the fastest WR or the one with the best hands — and I’ll say, “OK, I can understand that.” Show me all of them in one guy, and I’m skeptical. He shouldn’t be good at all of those things.

It’s a testament to Ross that we briefly talked about Washington QB Jake Browning as a potential Heisman finalist. This TD was credited to Browning:

It was a throwaway well over Ross’s head. He snagged it with one hand, made his defender miss, and scored a TD. Great play by Browning.

This TD was credited to Browning too:

Ross beat his man, but the underthrown ball forced him to slow down enough that he ended up in traffic, forcing him to evade six would-be tacklers en route to a score. Great play by Browning.

The “He Hurt the Most People” Award: Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama

When watching Alabama, it’s easy to lose sight of the incredible individual players. How do we decide which mechanism is truly the most effective part of Nick Saban’s killing machine? I say it’s rotating knife no. 4, but the flamethrower that sets the bodies on fire is pretty useful too.

Allen broke that mold for me. He reminds me of a killer whale. Sure, he’s big, but he’s still sleek, aerodynamic, and incredibly powerful — the closest thing nature has invented to a torpedo.

He was the best player on the best team in college football. That normally wins you the Heisman, but defense is confusing.

The “He Hurt the Most People’s Feelings” Award: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Here’s what I wrote about Barkley in November.

In the same article, I also wrote that “as long as the Nittany Lions are stuck in a sardine can with two of the top three coaches in college football, it will take something special to make the conference championship game — let alone win it.” Well … uh … I guess it did take something special!

The “Greatest Innovator” Award: Brian O’Neill, OL, Pittsburgh

Is O’Neill, Pitt’s starting right tackle, a good lineman? I’m sure he is. Smarter people than me seem to think so, and Pitt’s offensive line helped the team go 8–4 with wins over two of the top five teams in football.

But I’d be lying if I said he’s on this list because I understand the intricacies of his blocking performances. He’s on here because he’s an offensive lineman who scored two touchdowns.

I voted for O’Neill for SB Nation’s Piesman Trophy, an award given to linemen for doing non-linemen things, and the converted tight end won Friday. What swayed my vote is that both of these plays were specifically designed for O’Neill. I firmly believe that a designed play for an offensive lineman is a useful football strategy: These guys are faster than you think and incredibly hard to bring down, and the opponent isn’t really expecting them to get the ball. Watch O’Neill rumbling down the sideline and diving into the end zone and tell me I’m wrong.

The “Please Allow for Some Unabashed Homerism” Award: Austin Carr, WR, Northwestern

I’m a Northwestern fan, and rooting for a mediocre team is generally not that exciting. This season’s team was especially unexciting: The Wildcats started off the year with a one-point loss to Western Michigan (kinda understandable in retrospect) and a two-point loss to Illinois State (oh, wait, what), and finished 6–6. But sophomore QB Clayton Thorson ended up tying the school’s single-season touchdown record with 21. Is that because he’s great?

Not really! I routinely cringe while watching him throw. But he gets to play with Carr, who finished the regular season with 84 receptions, 12 touchdowns, and 1,196 yards. No other Wildcat had more than 37, four, or 421, respectively. He’s preposterously sure-handed, and even though he was essentially Northwestern’s only receiving threat, he somehow routinely found himself large swaths of space.

A one-time walk-on once noted for only his piano playing, Carr ended up a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award. He wasn’t the best receiver in football, but he was the primary source of joy from watching my favorite team.