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Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy because Alabama's entire defense couldn't

It's easy to think of a player as being the best in the country if his team is ahead almost every time he touches the ball.

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

On November 7, LSU's Leonard Fournette was the Heisman favorite by better than even money.

He had big numbers (seven straight 150-yard games), highlights that stuck in your mind (topped by the pro wrestling moves he invented against Auburn), and personality (after beating the Gamecocks, he gave an on-field speech and auctioned his jersey to raise $101,000 for South Carolina flood relief).

Hours later, Alabama's Derrick Henry was the Heisman favorite. Henry cracked even money a week later, building a six-game streak of 140 yards against FBS teams. Fournette ended up not making the cut as a finalist.

One month later, Henry won the Heisman.

Henry has big numbers, leading the country in total rushing yardage with 1,986, breaking Herschel Walker's SEC record. But Fournette had 5.5 more rushing yards per game, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey had 304 more total from scrimmage, and Florida State's Dalvin Cook had two yards more per carry, so that's not exactly why he won.

Think about what the country saw when Henry overtook Fournette. The Alabama defense casually shutting down Fournette made Henry the favorite, in part because everyone was already watching. The country tuned in to see what Fournette would do and instead saw another back put up 210 yards.

Then the game ended, and Henry kept carrying.


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Alabama's defense pinned down so many teams that Henry outscored or tied seven of his team's opposing offenses, if we include extra points.

Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott did that four times. Cook and Fournette each did it three, McCaffrey just once. When faced with five similar running backs, I guess you vote for the guy whose impact most evidently came in service of wins*.

What happened against LSU happened in just about every Bama game anyone saw, outside of the Ole Miss loss. All the big plays on offense were being made by one guy in crimson.

In return, Henry's chain-moving helped keep Bama's defense off the field for more time than all but Stanford's, Western Michigan's, and Arkansas'.

Nick Saban's defense ranks No. 1 against both the run and pass in schedule- and tempo-adjusted S&P+, which not even his legendary 2011 defense pulled off. He has four All-SEC first-teamers (safety Eddie Jackson, linebacker Reggie Ragland and linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen), more than any team since 2009 Bama.

The run front led the country in yards allowed per game and per carry to Power 5 teams. It leveled up to add a pass rush, finishing No. 3 in sacks per game after typically ranking in the middle of the country. And that secondary we've been told to worry about? It contributed to an opposing passer rating of 101.72, No. 4 in the country and the Tide's best since 2011.

Despite the image left by Henry's 46 carries in the SEC Championship against Florida, other teams did rely on their Heisman weapons more.

With 37 percent of his team's touches (fourth behind McCaffrey, Fournette and Wyoming's Brian Hill) and 38 percent of its scrimmage yards (fifth behind those and San Jose State's Donnel Pumphrey), he was only one of the country's true workhorses. Lane Kiffin isn't the only coordinator who has his strongest truck carry this much.

The difference for voters might be that Henry's workloads were so visibly tied to comfortable victories. McCaffrey's busiest game, with 34 offensive touches, was a loss to Oregon.

Most Heisman winners have iconic plays. Henry doesn't, just entire games in which he was the mortician in charge of bleeding out his defense's victims. In 10 games against Power 5 bowl teams, he averaged 29.9 carries for 177 yards and 1.7 touchdowns.

Henry won the Heisman not because he gave Alabama a clutch moment, but because he was perfect for a team that needed so few of them.

You can argue Clemson's Deshaun Watson or Cook or McCaffrey deserves the award more, but the leader of a Playoff offense will never be a terrible pick. If we think of the award as honoring the most outstanding part of the country's most outstanding force, giving it to the Alabama defense's offensive finisher is reasonable.

*I don't have a vote and probably would've voted for McCaffrey.

* * *

Saban becomes the eighth head coach to have multiple Heisman winners at the same position at the same school.

  1. Notre Dame's Frank Leahy: Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack, Johnny Lattner, QBs
  2. USC's John McKay: Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson, HBs
  3. Ohio State's Woody Hayes: Howard Cassady, Archie Griffin and ... Griffin, HBs
  4. USC's John Robinson: Charles White and Marcus Allen, USC HBs
  5. Florida State's Bobby Bowden: Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, QBs
  6. USC's Pete Carroll: Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, USC QBs
  7. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops: Jason White and Sam Bradford, QBs
  8. Saban: Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, RBs

And with no foreseeable major decline for Bama's defense (coordinator Kirby Smart is gone to Georgia, but the Saban-conditioned Jeremy Pruitt returns to take over) or its favored style of offense, this could happen again. Take a look at the rising level of talent in the Tide backfield:

Class Top Bama RB signee/commit Composite ranking among RBs
2008 Mark Ingram, Michigan 25
2009 Trent Richardson, Florida 2
2010 Jalston Fowler, Alabama 20
2011 Dee Hart, Florida 8
2012 T.J. Yeldon, Alabama 5
2013 Derrick Henry, Florida 1
2014 Bo Scarbrough, Florida 3 (rated as ATH)
2015 Damien Harris, Kentucky 1
2016 B.J. Emmons, North Carolina 5
2017 Najee Harris, California 1

Life's not fair.