For all practical purposes, the modern college football climate demands that the Heisman award go to the best or favorite quarterback in the country. So matter who is invited to New York—this year it's Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, and Alabama wideout Amari Cooper—it's pretty much a consensus that the quarterback is going to win. And with Mariota being the only quarterback in attendance, you can make a good guess how that's going to turn out. But that doesn't mean that's how it should.
Gordon had a terrific season (2036 yards and 26 TDs), but having been stuffed by Ohio State in the Big 10 championship games (just 76 yards) he has about as much chance now as a right guard from Columbia. A better case could be made for Amari Cooper, who CBS's Gary Danielson called "the best football player in the country" during the Alabama-Missouri SEC championship game. Against brutal double coverage in every game and a much tougher schedule than either Mariota or Gordon faced (more on that in a minute), Cooper caught a ridiculous 115 passes for 1656 yards and 14 TDs. In the second half of the season, against four tough opponents (LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn and Missouri) he caught 41 passes for 478 yards and 5 TDs.
Quite simply, Amari Cooper has had the greatest season of any wide receiver in recent memory; if that doesn't earn him the Heisman Trophy, what we're pretty much saying is that a wide receiver simply isn't going to win.
Oddly, despite the dizzying amount of statistical analysis that accompanies almost every major sporting event these days, strength of schedule doesn't seem to carry much weight when rating college football teams, and especially college football players. by my reckoning, Jeff Sagarin of USA Today does the best job of rating teams and, most importantly, evaluating how tough their opponents were.
Last year, Jameis Winston was the runaway winner of the Heisman while playing for a FSU team that, according to Sagarin, played only the 63rd toughest scheduled in the country and faced just a single team (Clemson, No. 16) whose schedule was among the 40 toughest in the country.
Something similar can be said about the opposition this year's favorite, Mariota, faced this year. The Ducks played just one team in Sagarin's top ten — Michigan State (No 10) — and just one more in his top 20, UCLA (No. 17), and just one more in his top 25, Stanford (No. 22).
If you are one of those people who thinks that quarterbacks should rightfully have first consideration in Heisman voting, there's a QB out there who played against much stronger teams that Marcus Mariota did—and Alabama's Blake Sims wasn't invited to New York. All Sims has done is lead his team to the same 12-1 record as Mariota. But he's done it in the rock-ribbed Southeastern Conference West instead of the relatively soft Pacific 12 North.
Much has been made of how tough the SEC West has been this year, but the simplest way to make the point is this: all seven of the SEC West teams are in Sagarin's top twenty – Alabama (1), Ole Miss (4), Miss State (6), Auburn (9), LSU (11), Arkansas (13), and Texas A&M (20). Here's another yardstick: of the 24 games lost by those seven teams, 20 were to each other.
Yet Sims' name was never mentioned as a contender for the Heisman. Most candidates surface in the first couple of weeks of the season and gain momentum as the season goes on. Going into the Mississippi State-Alabama game on November 15, the clear favorite was MissState's superb QB Dak Prescott. After the Crimson Tide beat the Bulldogs 25-21, Prescott was out and Marcus Mariota, who had been piling up fantastic numbers for the Ducks all season, became the media favorite. No one thought of Blake Sims.
Here's a comparison of their numbers after 11 games:
As the numbers show, as a passer Sims was Prescott's equal or superior in just about every way, with a slight edge in the very important yards/pass category and a big edge in TD-to-Int rate. Dak ran the ball much more than Blake did (991 yards to 357), but Sims ran it just about as well (averaging the same 5.2 yards/try as Prescott), and Sims had clutch runs in all of Alabama's big wins. Yet when Sims knocked Prescott out of the Heisman race by beating the Bulldogs, he did not move into contention.
Sims began the season as one of two QBs fighting for the starting job at Alabama, and many who had watched the Crimson Tide in preseason scrimmages were surprised that he started on opening day against West Virginia ahead of Florida State transfer Jake Coker. He proved himself all year.
Let's see how Sims and Mariota finished the season:
Mariota had more yards rushing (669 to 321).
I'm not denying that Mariota's stats are more impressive, but are they so much better than Sims' numbers that the question of which teams they were compiled against isirrelevant?
Sims played against three teams—Ole Miss (Sagarin's No. 4), MissState (6), and Auburn (9)—all of whom rated better than the best team Oregon faced, Michigan State (10), and played three teams—LSU (11), Arkansas (13), and Missouri (16) better than Oregon's second toughest opponent, UCLA (17).
Sagarin's schedule toughness rates Alabama's schedule as 4th toughest in the country. Numers 1,2 and 3—Auburn, Arkansas and LSU—had tougher schedules only by virtue of playing Alabama. Oregon's schedule is ranked at just 33rd toughest.
The phrase "body of work" has become popular this college football season when discussing national championship and Heisman Trophy contenders, so I'll use it here: Blake Sims' body of work has been more outstanding than any other quarterback in the country, including Marcus Mariota, who will win the Heisman Trophy in a landslide.
Oregon is heavily favored to beat Florida State on Jan 1 in the Rose Bowl, as Alabama is to beat Ohio State later that day in the Sugar Bowl, so it's likely that Mariota and Sims will face off in the national championship game on Jan 12. Sims has been denied a shot at the trophy by the Heisman Trust, but with luck he will get a chance to make his case as the outstanding college football player in the country.
In the interest of full disclosure, Allen Barra is the author of The Last Coach, A Life of Paul Bear Bryant. His most recent book is Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Age. Follow him on Twitter here.