Matt's Heisman Ballot: Why Mariota Was the Clear Choice, and Who Else Came Close

First off, congratulations to Oregon's Marcus Mariota. Even if he wasn't on the top of every ballot, I can't imagine anyone in the country is particularly outraged by the selection.

Really, for the fourth year in a row, the suspense level for the announcement was fairly low. Far more interesting was the debate about who deserved an invitation to the ceremony in the first place.

Everyone has their own criteria for who goes on their ballot, and since I'm lucky enough to have a vote, here are my main questions: Was a player consistent? What did they do against better competition or in bigger games? What was their overall level of competition? I also, admittedly, am a stat geek.

If I can sort through that, the thinking from there is simple: The award isn't for those who've had a good, or even great, season. You could make arguments for dozens of players if that's your criteria. No, the award is for those who've had the best season. Sure, your quarterback has a great season, but did someone else have a better one? There seemed to me to be three clear “bests” at their position in 2014.

In the end, Amari Cooper, Melvin Gordon III, and Marcus Mariota were clearly the best at their respective positions. Considering there are more than 900 Heisman votes spread evenly around the country, the fact that they were the only three to get an invite speaks directly to their positional dominance this season. All that was left was to decide was where to put them.

My ballot:

1. Marcus Mariota - QB, Oregon. Most figured Mariota had it won prior to last week's championship games.  Mariota spent that Friday night erasing all doubt. His stunning performance in a 51-13 Pac-12 Championship win over #7 Arizona was his final “Heisman Moment” -- as if he needed one. Mariota threw for 313 yards, and accounted for five total touchdowns in the game, and proved once and for all he's far more than just a “running quarterback” (admit it, east coast voters -- that was the first time many of you saw Mariota play this year). Mariota's 4,442 yards of total offense and 53 total touchdowns were tops in the nation. In a conference known (especially lately) for high scores and offensive prowess, Mariota put together the best the league has ever seen in those categories. It also doesn't hurt that his team is in the first College Football Playoff - the 2-seed, but regarded by some as the favorite to win it all.

Why 1st? Mariota never had a bad game. He really never even had an average game. When he completed a season low 58.6% of his passes against Utah, he still threw three touchdowns, ran for 114 yards and a rushing score, and didn't turn the ball over.

Bonus stat: Mariota was so consistently good this season, that his lowest single-game quarterback rating (150.9 vs. Stanford) would still rank 18th in the country among qualified QBs.  To repeat: His worst game this season was still better than the average game for 103 quarterbacks who had enough attempts to qualify.

2. Melvin Gordon III - RB, Wisconsin  Ahead of the week's championship games, the trophy wasn't Gordon's to lose, but it certainly could have still been his to take. Unfortunately, his 76-yard, 2.9 yard-per-carry performance against Ohio State was the voting body's lasting memory of a remarkable season by the Badger runningback. Gordon finished the first 13 games of his season with a Big Ten record 2,336 yards - exactly 300 more yards than the guy who finished 2nd this year.  He eclipsed the 200 yard mark five different times this season, and famously broke the NCAA single-game record with a 408 yard rushing performance against Nebraska (a record that stood for only a week, but we'll forgive him for that).

Why 2nd?: Explained above. Gordon came up small in the Big Ten title game, and most have forgotten, he rushed for 38 yards (with a season-low 2.2 yards-per-carry average) against Western Illinois in week two. He had a historically good overall season, but a couple of blemishes look a whole lot worse compared to the guy that finished ahead of him.

Bonus stat: If Gordon rushes for
164 yards against Auburn in the Outback bowl, he'd become just the third RB in NCAA history to reach 2,500 in a single season. If you're hoping for even more, he's 292 yards short of Barry Sanders' NCAA record of 2,628 (Sanders hit the mark in just 11 games, but for what it's worth, Gordon's yards-per-carry average is higher than Sanders' in his record-breaking, Heisman-winning 1988 season).

3. Amari Cooper - WR, Alabama. Cooper led the nation in receptions (115), yards (1,656), and finished 2nd in TDs (14). And it can't be ignored: He did this with Alabama, the program that has sent four runningbacks to the NFL since 2009 - two of them in the first round of the draft. When Cooper arrived, Alabama ranked 12th in rushing and 62nd in passing.  They now rank 28th in rushing, and 15th in passing. He has led the Crimson Tide to a complete philosophical shift. And remember how I like players coming up big in big spots? Late in the season against Auburn, in a game the Tide needed to get to the SEC title game, Cooper caught 13 passes for 224 yards and 3 TDs.  He followed that up with a 12-catch, 83 yard performance against Missouri in the SEC Championship.

Why 3rd?: It's inherently tougher for a wide receiver to change a game than it is for, say, a QB or RB. Fair or not, fewer touches means less of an impact. And while Cooper finished with a flurry, he was relatively absent (2 catches, 22 yards) in a game in which he was sorely needed - a 14-13 comeback win over Arkansas (See my previous comments about consistency).

Bonus stat: Cooper is the first wide receiver to be named a Heisman finalist since Larry Fitzgerald in 2003. A WR hasn't won the award since Desmond Howard did it in 1991.

Honorable Mention:

JT Barrett - QB, Ohio State. I really wanted to put Barrett third on my official ballot, even with the season-ending injury he suffered against Michigan. It's easy to forget at this point that Barrett was thrown to the wolves, replacing another guy who many thought would have made the trip to New York. Those wolves feasted -- only once -- but it was a bad one.  Barrett's 9-for-29 day (31% completion) to
go with three interceptions versus Virginia Tech in week two was killer (the Hokies needed a win on the last day of the season to become bowl eligible).  As mentioned above, Marcus Mariota just didn't have a day like that. Not even close.  Still, Barrett recovered nicely, with some Heisman-esque post-VA Tech numbers: 182-270 (67.4%), 2,389 yds, 31 TDs, and 6 INTs, and a 175.2 QB rating. The only problem: Mariota was still better -- in each category -- in the same span.

Jay Ajayi - RB, Boise State. Remember those nights, after a long day of watching football, you're flipping through the channels at midnight (I'm writing from the central time zone), and that big bright blue field that popped up on your screen? There was something special going on in Boise. Granted, I covered that program for a few years, so I made it a point to pay attention, but Ajayi's name is one of those that you will hear a lot more from March to May than you did from September to December. According to research from my good friend -- an
d stat hound -- Jay Tust at KTVB in Boise, Ajayi is just the second player in the last 40 years to amass 1,600+ rushing yards and 500+ receiving yards in a season. He was also responsible for 29 total touchdowns, tied for tops in the nation (with Melvin Gordon) and more than 16 entire teams could get all season. Ajayi came up huge in wins over Boise State's toughest Mountain West opponents, Colorado State and Utah State, running for a combined 448 yards and seven touchdowns. The knock on Ajayi, though, is just that: Colorado State and Utah State were his best league opponents. The Mountain West - Mountain Division ranks 11th in Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings -- sitting between “1A Independents” and the Missouri Valley Conference (the MWC's other division ranks 16th). That ranking, mind you, is much higher thanks to the Fiesta Bowl-bound Broncos - the one team Ajayi didn't have to face. Hopefully his NFL paychecks will soothe the fire that burns under Bronco Nation for this snub (I do miss you, Boise!).

Tevin Coleman - RB, Indiana. Coleman did all he could to earn recognition this season. Only 24 runningbacks in NCAA history have ever run for more than 2,000 yards in a season, and Coleman's one of them. He also fits into my “big game performances” category. Against his best three opponents (Ohio State, Michigan State, and Missouri), Coleman averaged 164 yards rushing, and scored 4 touchdowns. He also passed the 200 yard mark four times this season, with his top performance coming in a 307 yard effort against Penn State. He just did all of this in the wrong year.  Coleman finished 2nd in the nation in rushing, 300 yards behind the aforementioned Melvin Gordon. And while I'm not one to get too wrapped up in team records, the gap between the Hoosiers and almost everyone else was too large to ignore. Even in October and November, people in and around Bloomington were saying it would be a “travesty” if Coleman didn't get a NYC invite. The real travesty was the fact that the Hoosiers finished 4-8, and 1-7 in the Big Ten. Indiana finished 91st in total defense, and 106th in time of possession.  Imagine Coleman's season if his defense could have given him and his offense some more time.

Trevone Boykin - QB, TCU. Boykin deserves mention because of his overall numbers, and what his Horned Frogs accomplished this season. He ranked 7th in passing yards (3,779) and 9th in pass TDs (30). He also finished with 642 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns, while leading TCU into the College Football Playoff… conversation (perhaps more inexplicable than TCU being ranked higher than Baylor was the fact that TCU fell three spots -- and out of the top 4 -- after winning by 52, but I digress). The knock against Boykin: His performance was directly tied to the level of competition. His best game was a remarkable one -- 433 yards, 7 TDs, and a 208.9 passer rating -- but it came against Texas Tech, a program that ranked 122nd out of 125 in total defense. Meanwhile, his worst QB ratings of the year came against West Virginia (90.8), Baylor (103.0), Minnesota (115.8), and Oklahoma (135.0).

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