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Catch Him If You Can

Christian McCaffrey is a thrilling player who satisfies nearly every Heisman requirement. There’s just one problem: Voters barely watch his games.

There are a multitude of candidates for the most obnoxious viral sensation in recent college football history, but let us focus our attention, for now, on the one I like to call "The Guy Behind The Guy." In case you didn’t catch it the first time around, I am referring to the clip of the Mardi Gras–beaded and ball-capped bro preening behind Christian McCaffrey during the Stanford running back’s 2016 Rose Bowl postgame interview, the (apparent) venture capital dude who consistently interrupted McCaffrey’s platitudinous replies with a stream of hashtag-ready catchphrases:

McCaffrey had just accounted for a Rose Bowl–record 368 all-purpose yards in Stanford’s 45–16 blowout of Iowa on New Year’s Day. It was one of the few times last season that he had the opportunity to perform before a captive prime-time audience east of the Rocky Mountains, and it was the first game he’d played since finishing second in Heisman Trophy voting to his more workmanlike SEC counterpart, Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Was McCaffrey pissed off about finishing second after shattering Barry Sanders’s nearly 30-year-old record for all-purpose yardage in a single season, winding up with 3,864 total yards, or 8.9 per touch? Of course he was. Was he going to admit as much on national television? Of course he wasn’t. Which is where our grating Silicon Valley protagonist, The Guy Behind The Guy, came into play, serving as McCaffrey’s id so much so that even McCaffrey couldn’t suppress a laugh by the end.

"Heisman!" The Guy Behind The Guy shouted repeatedly. "Heisman!"

Some eight months later, I am standing on a practice field on the Stanford campus, asking McCaffrey multiple questions about the Heisman Trophy, and it is clear he has no interest in answering any of them. And I can’t blame him for this. There is no good way to answer these questions just as there was no good way to shut up The Guy Behind The Guy, and McCaffrey is intelligent and savvy enough to recognize that, which is why he answers with a stream of clichés about his teammates and about the larger goals of the Stanford program.

"I’m not focused on the Heisman at all, that was so long ago," McCaffrey tells me. "Like I said, man, the farthest thing on my mind is the Heisman."

Heisman Trophy voting is something McCaffrey cannot control, and McCaffrey’s coach, David Shaw, is the kind of measured individual who repeatedly counsels his team to focus on only the things they can control. It is not a stretch to declare that the Heisman is the most blatantly political award in sports, dictated by regional bias and positional bias and media horse-race polls as much as by pure talent alone. There is absolutely no reason for the Heisman to be at the forefront of McCaffrey’s mind, or anyone else’s mind at Stanford, because it really isn’t something they can control.

And in the end, what McCaffrey does this year might not matter as much as whether the right people actually see what he does.

In many ways, McCaffrey is as well-positioned as anyone to win the Heisman: He was the subject of long cover profiles in both Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine; his highlights, rushing and receiving and returning alike, are thrilling as hell and replete with "Heisman moments;" he plays on a potential national championship contender; he is eminently likable; he is a "good story," a religious kid who’s the son of a former NFL wide receiver; and his numbers should be prodigious again. He satisfies nearly all the "Heismandments" laid out by Heisman pundit Chris Huston.

But there are also a couple of crucial reasons to be skeptical of McCaffrey’s chances of actually winning the Heisman. And here is the first: He plays in the wrong time zone.

Perhaps you might hear this and say to yourself, What difference could it possibly make, in this era when every game is televised nationally? Did playing late at night prevent Steph Curry from winning two straight MVPs in the same market where McCaffrey plays? You might point out that though no West Coast player won the Heisman from 1982 to 2001, four Pac-12 players have won it since.

But here is the thing: The Heisman, having no real criteria for selection, is still a regional award, just as college football as a whole still clings to its regional conference–based roots. Nearly every consequential game is on a Saturday, and so people tend to watch and vote for what’s in front of them, which means anyone on the East Coast or in the South with a Heisman ballot might only spend a few of those Saturdays opting to watch McCaffrey play in a late Pac-12 game, and those people might view him with a jaundiced eye anyway if they don’t consider the best teams in the Pac-12 to be the same caliber as the best teams in the SEC or ACC. (That wasn’t nearly as much of an issue when those three Pete Carroll–era USC players won in the 2000s, and it wasn’t the case when Marcus Mariota won it at Oregon, because both programs had established themselves as top-tier national contenders.)

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Getty Images

"If I watch a close game or a big game of yours and you don’t stand out at all, then you can be on my ballot but not on the top line," one East Coast Heisman voter told me. "So the Northwestern game (last season) eliminated him from my top line."

The Northwestern game was Stanford’s first contest last year, a stunning 16–6 road loss that would wind up eliminating the Cardinals from playoff contention. McCaffrey carried only 12 times for 66 yards in that game, and fumbled once. (The East Coast Heisman voter I spoke to also said that, of McCaffrey’s games, he only watched the Northwestern defeat and the Pac-12 title game live before voting. He did say that he DVR’d a few others, but it wasn’t enough: He didn’t even include McCaffrey in his top three, choosing Florida State’s Dalvin Cook as his runner-up instead, behind Henry and ahead of Navy’s Keenan Reynolds.) Is that single game a fair reason to eliminate McCaffrey? This is the thing about the Heisman: Every reason is a fair reason, if you justify it properly. "What’s wrong with waiting for a large body of work before making conclusions?" asks CBS Sports national college football writer Jon Solomon, essentially contradicting the criteria of the Heisman voter I spoke to.

That Northwestern loss is one of the primary reasons McCaffrey and his teammates are cautious not to speculate about much of anything beyond Friday night’s season-opener against Kansas State: If they lose at home to a team picked to finish eighth in the Big 12, none of this Heisman forecasting might mean much of anything by Week 2 of the regular season.

But since it is the purpose of stories like this one to speculate on the possibilities, let us imagine that McCaffrey accounts for 200 yards against Kansas State, a game that kicks off at 6 p.m. Pacific Time — how many Heisman voters will be awake for it? How many of them will delve beyond the numbers themselves? This is already one of the most intriguing Heisman races in recent years, in large part because while it appeared before last season that running backs had essentially ceded all the Heisman ground to quarterbacks — Henry was the first running back to win the award since 2009 — there are at least three rushers who seem positioned to potentially win it this season. And two of them — Florida State’s Cook and LSU’s Leonard Fournette — are situated in the South, the most passionate college football region in America. Both of those backs could be playing on national contenders, and both of them will be playing in high-profile slots more often than McCaffrey does.

McCaffrey will have opportunities to showcase himself: an 8 p.m. ET home game against USC on ABC on September 17, a 7:30 p.m. ET game at Notre Dame on NBC on October 15 (as legendary Heisman hype-troll Beano Cook once said, the best way to win a Heisman is to play for Notre Dame or beat Notre Dame), a November 12 game at Oregon that could wind up in prime time — but who knows whether those glimpses will be enough? And what if even one of those games proves to be a failure, like the Northwestern loss last year?

"Honestly, being a Southeast guy, I have family who want to stay up and watch our games, because they have a vested interest in Stanford football, and at times I get calls from them and they say they had to watch the highlights because they couldn’t stay up late enough," says McCaffrey’s running backs coach, Lance Taylor, who played at Alabama. "Is it real, the time-change thing? Yes. That’s not a myth. But we’re going to play the games when we’re slated to play them. Everybody else can worry about the what-ifs."

Since I am among that group of "everybody else," here is another what-if: What if McCaffrey plays for a program that isn’t yet built to win a Heisman Trophy?

Again, this sounds ridiculous on the surface, given that four times since 2009, Stanford players (including McCaffrey, Toby Gerhart, and Andrew Luck twice) have finished as runners-up for the Heisman. You might ask, What’s the difference between second and first? And if I may indulge in a healthy dose of skepticism for a moment, perhaps the difference between second and first is the perception of Stanford football as a whole. It’s a different kind of program in many ways, and advertises itself as such; Shaw, Stanford’s head coach, took some heat this spring after saying that Stanford recruits different kids than the majority of the country due to the school’s lofty academic standards. That’s the kind of thing that could alienate voters from other regions or programs, who might view it as snobbery (even if it’s true); beyond that, there is the issue of Shaw’s conservative style of play — two backs in the backfield, downhill running, stingy defense — which is going to draw direct comparisons to SEC programs like Alabama.

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Getty Images

"It depends on what region you’re from," Taylor says. "The guys I played with at Alabama, or my family members — I’ll get calls from them that say, ‘I don’t really watch the Pac-12, or I really don’t watch many teams on the West Coast, but I love how you guys play football. You guys are old-school, smashmouth, insert any adjective you’d like to insert here.’"

Maybe that’s a positive for McCaffrey, but it might only be a positive if Stanford actually wins the Pac-12 and makes the four-team College Football Playoff. Anything short of that — even a 10–2 regular season like last year’s that leaves them just short of the playoff — and people might presume that Stanford is a second-tier old-school smashmouth program that is perhaps worthy of yet another second-place Heisman finisher, but not an actual winner. There’s a reason, until Mariota won the trophy for Oregon in 2014, USC had produced seven of the nine West Coast Heisman winners since 1962; there’s a reason the only running backs to win the Heisman in the 21st century have played at either Alabama or USC. Overarching reputation still matters, even if it might matter less than it used to.

"I certainly can’t speak for everyone and I haven’t asked anybody, but I think media in the East and South increasingly have more respect for Stanford," says Solomon, who spent some time working at The Birmingham News in Alabama before joining CBS (and gave up his Heisman ballot long ago in part because of the hypocrisy surrounding the award). "It’s a legitimate program. Now, is the football team as nationally known as USC or Oregon? No. Would it help if McCaffrey faced an SEC defense and had a really good game? Sure. I’ve been saying for years there needs to be more Pac-12 vs. SEC games. There’s no bowl game pairing the two conferences, and that’s a shame."

What would be the one bowl that could potentially pair the two conferences? A playoff game. By then, the Heisman already will have been awarded, but if McCaffrey can lead his team to a playoff bid before the vote becomes final, it may dispel those perceptions that Stanford is an Alabama-esque program without the same overarching talent level that helped carry Henry to the Heisman last season. And I’d like to say it’s way too early to even speculate on such things — in an ideal world, there would be no Heisman horse race this early, just as there would be no presidential horse race two years out from the actual election — but this is the way things work. It is my job to ask these questions, and it is the job of players like McCaffrey and coaches like Shaw to attempt not to think about them at all.

"I refer to Christian as the Associated Press player of the year," Shaw says, only half-jokingly. "We talk about the awards that we win, not the awards that we don’t win."

And so I ask him — also half-jokingly — whether the word "Heisman" is forbidden to even utter on campus.

"You can say it," Shaw says as he walks away. "I just might not respond to it."

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