In tight Heisman race, stats justify the vote

Trent Richardson faced some tough defenses, but on average the opposition was pretty, well, average.
(Getty Images)

I’ve voted for the Heisman for about 20 years and still have no idea of the best way to pick the most outstanding player in college football.

It’s a personal decision, as much gut feel as cold science. The criteria you use one year might be different from what you use the next. Personal stats, team success, level of competition, memorable moments … they’re all part of the recipe, but the measurements change from December to December.

This year is one of the toughest votes yet. There are five finalists for the Heisman – an unusually large number, indicative of the wide-open nature of the race for the most prestigious individual award in sports.

Compelling arguments can be made for any of the five – plus two or three guys who won’t be in New York on Saturday.

Wisconsin running back Montee Ball is a touchdown-scoring machine on the verge of breaking Barry Sanders’ single-season record of 39. Alabama running back Trent Richardson battered some excellent defenses without benefit of a high-powered passing game that kept the opposition from keying on him. LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu easily was the nation’s most impactful player per touch of the football, in addition to leading a dominant defense in tackles. Quarterbacks Andrew Luck of Stanford and Robert Griffin III of Baylor have lifted traditionally mediocre programs to great heights while producing sensational individual statistics.

USC’s Matt Barkley, Houston’s Case Keenum and Boise State’s Kellen Moore would hardly bring shame upon the stiff-arm statue if they were present and won it.

So you won’t hear me getting too worked up about who does or doesn’t win this year’s Heisman.

[Highlights: Montee Ball | Robert Griffin | Andrew Luck | Tyrann Mathieu | Trent Richardson]

Before finalizing my ballot Monday, I scrubbed the numbers on five players: the four offensive finalists, plus Barkley. Then I added Mathieu to the mix independently, because his statistics are an apples-and-oranges comparison.

What came out surprised me somewhat, but supported my initial feeling as to who would get my vote.

Every finalist has impressive statistics. I wanted to know who those stats were compiled against – how good or bad were the defenses they played against?

And not just defenses in general. For running backs, it was important to see what kind of rush defenses they took on. For quarterbacks, how were the pass defenses?

Robert Griffin racked up big numbers, and if you think it was against a dozen cupcake secondaries you're mistaken.
(Getty Images)

The results showed that Griffin III, Richardson and Ball played against roughly equal defenses. Luck and Barkley played against slightly weaker defenses.

[Forde: Bowl season brings choice matchups, duds]

The average rank of the 11 FBS rushing defenses Richardson faced is 64th. The average rank of Ball’s 12 FBS rushing defenses faced is 68th.

The average pass efficiency defense ranking faced by Griffin III is 65th. For Barkley, it was 72nd; for Luck, 82nd.

Given the wide-open reputation of the Big 12, I didn’t expect Griffin III’s opposition to rank that highly. But Oklahoma State (eighth), Texas (14th) and Oklahoma (30th) are top-30 defenses in pass efficiency. Those helped offset the three bottom-10 pass defenses Griffin III faced in Rice (110th), Texas Tech (113th) and Kansas (118th). Leading the nation in pass efficiency, as Griffin III did, was not a statistical fluke built on exploiting a schedule full of third-rate secondaries.

Richardson and Ball both faced just two top-30 rush defenses. Richardson took on LSU (third) and Vanderbilt (27th), while Ball faced Michigan State (12th) twice.

Barkley faced only one top-30 pass defense in Utah (23rd). Luck didn’t face any.

[Video: Eddie George and Pat Forde break down Heisman voting]

Then it was time to apply the subjective framework. Who had the most memorable plays (i.e., “Heisman moments”)? Who did the most to lift their teams and programs?

Griffin III had bookend heroic performances, opening the season with one in a dramatic upset of TCU and then late in the season in a dramatic upset of Oklahoma. Mathieu had the most spectacular plays at the most visible times, returning punts for touchdowns while his team trailed against Arkansas on Nov. 25 and Georgia on Dec. 3.

Griffin III and Luck were the most transformational players, taking historically modest programs to rare heights. Baylor has won 16 games the past two seasons, something it hasn’t done since 1985-86. Luck has quarterbacked the Cardinal to a 23-2 record in 2010-11, something none of the many previous Stanford quarterback greats can even touch – and this season’s 11-1 mark was accomplished without previous coach Jim Harbaugh or much in the way of talent at wide receiver.

Rolling the objective and subjective together, the art and the science, what my gut told me and what the eye test told me, I sent in the ballot this way:

1. Robert Griffin III
2. Tyrann Mathieu
3. Andrew Luck

Feel free to disagree. But don’t begrudge whoever wins in one of the toughest Heisman votes ever.

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Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. Follow him on Twitter. Send Pat a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Dec 8, 2011