Christian McCaffrey's Case for the Heisman Trophy Is Strong

Why the Stanford running back is likely the least seen but most worthy Heisman finalist.

In a 1988 Los Angeles Times story, Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders remarked, “Happiness does not come from football awards.”

That may be true for many players, even great players. But a single annual recognition -- the Heisman Trophy -- does guarantee college football immortality.

That is what will be in store for one of the three Heisman finalists heading to New York this weekend. Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey are all vying for the sport’s top individual honor.

McCaffrey called the opportunity “a dream of mine since I was a little kid.” But according to the prognosticators, he will need some very late momentum among voters to capture the hardware.

Henry, the Tide’s bulldozing back with surprising speed, is the clear frontrunner according to oddsmakers. Bovada lists Henry as a 1-to-13 favorite, with McCaffrey at 6-to-1 odds.

The story since November 6 is that the award is Henry’s to lose. That day, the Tide running back put on a memorable performance, overshadowing LSU’s Leonard Fournette by rolling up 210 yards and 3 touchdowns in primetime. Henry added three exclamation points to the end of his Heisman statement by averaging 221.3 yards on 37.3 carries against Mississippi State, Auburn, and Florida.

Although he led the nation in rushing yards, Henry has certainly not been the most efficient ball carrier. His yards per rushing attempt average of 5.9 yards ranks him just 55th in the nation, and Henry had only one game against an opponent where he topped 6 yards per carry.

In terms of explosiveness, ability to find the end zone (he led the country in touchdowns) and sheer volume of yards against quality run defenses, though, Henry‘s case is compelling. It helps that casual fans, pundits, and voters all had ample opportunity to watch Henry run over, around, and through opposing defenses all season long, given the Tide’s television-friendly schedule.

The point here is not to diminish what Henry has done. There no doubt that he is Heisman-worthy. It is merely to state that another Heisman contender in McCaffrey deserves more than the rudimentary boxscore analysis and lip service from voters.

Best You Haven’t Seen

McCaffrey backers are quick to cite one of the most staggering statistics in modern college football history: 3,496 all-purpose yards. That is McCaffrey's season total following his 461 yards against USC in the Pac-12 title game. The regular season total eclipsed the 28-year-old record set by the father of his Stanford backfield running mate, Barry Sanders Jr., by more than 200 yards.

And it’s 1,000-plus more yards than Tyler Ervin of San Jose State, who finished second in the nation in the category this season.

Even if all-purpose yards is not a perfect statistic, it does provide a basis for an apples-to-apples comparison to other past Heisman winners. Consider that no player in the history of college football averaged more than McCaffrey’s 8.3 yards per touch, and he bested Reggie Bush and Ricky Williams and their Heisman-year averages by more than 50 all-purpose yards per game.

McCaffrey’s versatility -- he is the only player in the FBS to lead his team in yards rushing and receiving -- helped lead a turnaround for Stanford’s anemic 2014 offense. According the numberFire’s ratings, Stanford was the eighth most efficient offense in the nation this year. Football Outsiders’ S&P+ system ranks Stanford’s offense 7th, up dramatically from 2014 when the Cardinal ranked 45th in offensive efficiency.

McCaffrey’s body of work, whether viewed live, on DVR, or just via the boxscore, cannot be denied. Nor can his one-of-a-kind ability to impact the game in a bevy of ways. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, college football resident statistics maven, summed McCaffrey’s resume up this way:

"Christian McCaffrey is one of the most unique weapons in recent memory. His rushing line (5.8 yards per carry, 46 percent of carries gaining at least five yards, only 4.6 highlight yards per opportunity) suggests a 220-pound efficiency back. His receiving line (No. 3 target for Stanford, 13.4 yards per catch, 84 percent catch rate) suggests an all-conference tight end. His return stats (29 yards per kick return) suggest a 180-pound lightning bolt."

Pro Football Focus
was even more bullish on McCaffrey, rating him as the best player in college football because of his work rushing, receiving, and even passing.

As Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly put it, McCaffrey is a game-wrecker.

What to Expect

McCaffrey’s low touchdown total of 13 will be difficult for many voters to ignore. But, ultimately, McCaffrey will likely be the victim of his schedule far more than any opposing defense. Of Stanford’s 13 games, the Cardinal appeared in primetime just 3 times and played after 10 p.m. Eastern in 7 of its games.

That made the Pac-12 title game a coming out party of sorts for McCaffrey. Prior to last Saturday, McCaffrey was a distant third in Heisman odds at 12-to-1 odds, and just a week before that, he was a 50-to-1 longshot. For most of the year, McCaffrey was closer to a dynamic, must-watch outsider lauded by football junkies than a true Heisman contender embraced by the masses.

Henry is well-positioned to become just the sixth running back since 1995 (if you include the win by USC’s Reggie Bush that was later vacated) to win the award. But McCaffrey will be the Heisman choice of many fans as we head toward Saturday night’s ceremony, even if the hype hits at this late hour. One can only imagine the considerable outflowing of support had more of America actually been awake during his games.

What observers would have seen is that McCaffrey is proving to be a once-in-a-generation kind of offensive talent. He may not need the Trophy for immortality. The numbers certainly make the case.