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Derrick Henry is awesome, but 3 other players deserve the Heisman more

The excellent Alabama back is favored over the other two finalists, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Clemson's Deshaun Watson, despite both of those and another at his own position being better.

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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.

All-purpose yardage is a silly statistic. Since kick return yards are involved, and since even a mediocre kick return gives you as many yards as an explosive rush, all-purpose yardage rewards you for fielding kickoffs and for your defense not being very good. You can rack up a lot of all-purpose yards in a blowout loss.

Still, when you're knocking a national record out of your teammate's father's hands, you're doing something magnificent. It took McCaffrey two extra games (and fewer touches!) to do it. But his explosion against USC in Saturday's Pac-12 title game win gave him 3,496 all-purpose yards for the season, more than the 3,250-yard record set by Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders, whose son is McCaffrey's backup, in 1988.

McCaffrey saved his biggest performance for Stanford's biggest game. He had rushes of 20, 23, and 50 yards. He caught passes of 28 and 67 yards. He had a 31-yard kick return and a 31-yard punt return. At the end of the Cardinal's 41-22 win, his 43 rushes, receptions, and returns had generated 461 all-purpose yards and two fourth-quarter scores.

Unfortunately, McCaffrey's exploits came during a crammed-together, prime-time slate. With Michigan State and Iowa in a Playoff play-in game and with Clemson fending off UNC to retain its grip on the No. 1 seed, Stanford-USC was the third-most important game. A Friday night showcase could have made McCaffrey the Heisman favorite.


In 2013, we were all psychics when it came to Derrick Henry. Alabama's blue-chip running back gave us a glimpse of what was to come, when he ran six times for 111 yards against Arkansas and eight times for 100 in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. With his recruiting profile and absurd-for-a-240-pounder explosiveness, it was clear that in 2015, when it was his turn to take over for T.J. Yeldon, he was going to go off.

Henry rushed for 990 yards as Yeldon's backup in 2014, helping to spell Yeldon and salt games away. But after just 207 carries in two seasons, it was time for Henry to shoulder the load. And my goodness, has he.

Alabama's offense hasn't been incredibly impressive. The Crimson Tide have had to adjust to turnover in the passing game. New starting quarterback Jake Coker had thrown almost as many passes for Florida State as Alabama heading into this season, and Bama's top three wideouts combined for 12 receptions for the Tide a year ago. As a result, Alabama ranks 27th in Off. S&P+ this fall, its worst since 2007, Nick Saban's first year.

But Bama has its best defense since 2011. It also has Henry. The offense has been slow to build leads, but once the Tide have an advantage, it's time to let Henry jackhammer away. The junior has averaged 26 carries and 153 yards per game, and he has saved his best work for the stretch. He rushed 38 times for 210 yards against LSU, 22 for 204 against Mississippi State, 46 for 271 against Auburn, and 44 for 189 against Florida. Saturday, he broke Herschel Walker's single-season SEC rushing record of 1,891 yards, and he'll cross 2,000 in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State.

It's funny how we rage against Saban whenever we have the opportunity. As Henry crossed 40 carries against Florida, some were angry that Saban was being downright criminal by letting Henry get tackled that many times. But in terms of intended touches (carries plus targets), Henry has had 57 fewer opportunities to carry the ball than McCaffrey has. Granted, he's more likely than McCaffrey to be inviting gang tackles near the line of scrimmage, but cries of "negligence!" only applies to certain coaches, it appears.

Out of the backfield, at least, Henry has shown more explosiveness than McCaffrey. He has averaged 5.5 highlight yards per opportunity to McCaffrey's 4.6, and with nearly the same efficiency (43.7 percent of carries gaining at least five yards). McCaffrey's versatility makes the two hard to compare. But in terms of pure running back prowess, Henry retains the edge, especially considering the defenses he's faced -- three opponents ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 11 (Florida, Wisconsin, and Georgia, against whom he rushed for 484 yards), and four more ranked in the top 30.


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A few weeks ago, Clemson pulled off maybe the most impressive span of games of any team in the country. The Tigers became the first team to move the ball on Boston College in a 34-17 win, embarrassed Miami by a 58-0 margin on the road, outlasted NC State on the road in a 56-41 shootout, then rode timely stops to a 23-13 win over a strong Florida State. The Tigers were tops in the Playoff rankings and the computer rankings, then threw it in cruise control.

While Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has pulled off his greatest coaching job yet in guiding the Tigers to the No. 6 ranking in Def. S&P+ despite massive offseason turnover and minimal depth, wear and tear took its toll. After allowing more than 4.3 yards per play just once in the first seven games, the Tigers allowed 5.7 or more five times in their last six. Some of these were excusable (5.7 vs. NC State, 6.1 to Florida State, 5.7 to UNC); others were not (5.9 to Syracuse, 5.9 to South Carolina).

But even as the defense faded and the run game began to bear less fruit (over the last four weeks of the regular season, Wayne Gallman averaged 4.8 yards per carry and missed time with an ankle injury), Clemson's run to the Playoff continued apace. The reason: Deshaun Watson.

In my 2015 Clemson preview, I said, "it's all about Watson."

With Watson, Clemson is a Tier 1 team in the ACC. Without Watson, Clemson might fall behind Florida State, Louisville, Virginia Tech, and Miami at least.

With Watson, the schedule sets up beautifully. Clemson faces three projected top-20 teams, but all three come to Death Valley, and while trips to Louisville, Miami, South Carolina, and perhaps NC State could be quite tricky, Clemson could be favored in every game. Without Watson, 6-6 is on the table.

The sophomore suffered a number of injuries in 2014, and the difference in Clemson's offensive quality when he was on and off the field was staggering. Was he injury-prone? Would he be able to stay on the field? And was he actually as good as his brief numbers suggested?

The answers: no, yes, and better. Watson averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt, combining extreme mobility (954 non-sack rushing yards) with an uncharacteristically low sack rate (2.8 percent) and a remarkable 70 percent completion rate. Star receiver Mike Williams was hurt in the first game of 2015, and with a receiving corps loaded with underclassmen (of the top six targets, four are freshmen and sophomores), Clemson ranks third in Passing S&P+. His passer rating of 159.6 is incredible, considering he is also Clemson's best runner.

Watson has mastered the art of efficiency in a way that a true sophomore isn't supposed to. He has been the best quarterback in the country.


During the 2015 regular season, 42 FBS players (41 running backs and Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds) rushed at least 200 times. Only one of these 42 ranked in the top six in both opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) and highlight yards per opportunity (the yards you gain past five yards, basically).

Opportunity Rate
1. Wendell Smallwood, WVU (51.1%)
2. Elijah Hood, UNC (46.6%)
3. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (46.4%)
4. Royce Freeman, Oregon (44.6%)
5. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State (44.3%)
6. Dalvin Cook, FSU (44.1%)
Highlight Yards Per Opp
1. Dalvin Cook, FSU (10.2)
2. Larry Rose III, NMSU (8.9)
3. Jeremy McNichols, Boise St. (8.5)
4. Sony Michel, Georgia (7.1)
5. Donnel Pumphrey, SDSU (6.8)
6. Jahad Thomas, Temple (6.8)

Henry was a nice mix of efficiency (43.7%) and explosiveness (5.5). So was LSU's Leonard Fournette (44.0%, 6.8).

But Cook was more efficient than both and was far and away the most explosive feature back in the country. He played through a hamstring injury for much of the season and still rushed for 1,658 yards, 7.9 per carry. After getting slowed by Boston College (No. 3 in Def. S&P+) early, he dominated all comers: 22 carries for 163 yards against Louisville (No. 22), 21 for 194 against Clemson (No. 6), 26 for 183 against Florida (No. 5). He was, on a per-carry basis, the best running back in the country.

The fact that he only managed 211 carries likely held him back in the voting, but his prowess is perhaps the biggest reason for not voting for Henry -- if you're not even the best at your position, should you win the Heisman?


Baker Mayfield has a reason to be a little frustrated that he isn't going to New York. Oklahoma's quarterback threw for nearly 3,400 yards with 35 scores to only five interceptions, and he scrambled for nearly 600 non-sack rushing yards. His lofty 179.9 passer rating was stunning considering his fun-and-gun style. Granted, Oklahoma's Passing S&P+ -- which is adjusted for quality of defense -- ranked 10th to Clemson's third, but if there was any other QB deserving of the Heisman shot Watson is getting, it's Mayfield.

That said, another quarterback has a what-if case.

In the last six games of the regular season, Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams completed 112 of 169 passes for 1,865 yards, 21 touchdowns, and four interceptions. Passer rating: a massive 195.2.

Projected over 14 games, that's a pace for 4,352 yards, 49 touchdowns, and just nine picks.

Over 15 games during his 2014 Heisman campaign, Marcus Mariota threw for 4,454 yards, 42 scores, and four picks.

Adams is more mistake-prone, and while his mobility translates in the backfield, he doesn't get downfield as much as Mariota did.

Adams broke his finger in the season-opener against Eastern Washington, an injury that limited him and kept him out of most of four games. And during the five games after his injury, the Ducks went 2-3, held back a little by QB struggles and a lot by shaky defense. But despite the defense, Oregon was 7-0 when Adams was full-strength or close to it. And a full-strength Adams might have had a chance to post Mariota-like numbers. That probably would have gotten him an invitation to New York.


Henry is the clear betting favorite. But if I had a vote, it might look like this:

  1. Watson
  2. McCaffrey
  3. Cook
  4. Henry
  5. Mayfield

Reynolds' proficiency in running Navy's system (which ranks 15th in Off. S&P+), plus his career rushing touchdowns record, deserves an argument. And with Texas Tech ranking first in Off. S&P+, Patrick Mahomes (4,283 passing yards, 42 touchdowns, 601 non-sack rushing yards) deserved more of a look than he got.

Receivers like TCU's Josh Doctson (pre-injury) and USC's JuJu Smith-Schuster put up better numbers than they get credit for.

And if defenders were capable of winning the Heisman (and since Ndamukong Suh did not in 2009, we know they're not), you could make a case for guys like Clemson's Shaq Lawson (22.5 tackles for loss).

But this is a running backs-and-quarterbacks award. Cook was more effective than Henry, which makes a case for Watson. Then again, advanced stats might favor McCaffrey.

Henry will probably win, and he's awesome. While there will be no Suh-like injustice, he's probably only the fourth-most deserving candidate.

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Photos via Getty and USA Today.

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