Each year, the Heisman Trophy is awarded to the top overall athlete in college football. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be, as lately it’s just been given to the top quarterback playing for a team in the playoffs. Dating back to 2000, 17 of the last 20 recipients of the award have been quarterbacks. The other three winners were all running backs on teams that either won the national championship, or finished as runner up.
So, with all of that in mind, do any Nittany Lions have a realistic chance at winning (or at least contending for) the Heisman in 2020? Let’s take a look at some prime candidates.
Sean Clifford, Quarterback
Well, let’s start with the most obvious choice. When 85% of the winners the last two decades have been quarterbacks, it helps to be, y’know, a quarterback. Can Sean Clifford compete for the Heisman?
Well, sure, anyone can compete for the award, but to me he’d have to have a pretty amazing turnaround to win the award. While Clifford was solid in his first year as a starter, the passing game specifically left a lot to be desired in 2019. On the season, Sean attempted 319 passes, completing 189 of them, for a completion percentage of 59.2%. He threw for 2,654 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. He was also a factor on the ground, rushing 116 times for 402 yards, and 5 touchdowns. All told, he accounted for 3,056 yards of offense, and 28 touchdowns.
How do his totals match up to some recent QB winners? Let’s look at the last four to win it:
- 2019 - Joe Burrow, LSU: 77.6% completion percentage, 5,208 passing yards, 55 TDs, 6 INTs, 310 rushing yards, 4 TDs
- 2018 - Kyler Murray, Oklahoma: 69.0% (nice) completion percentage, 4,361 passing yards, 42 TDs, 7 INTs, 1,001 rushing yards, 12 TDs
- 2017 - Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 70.5% completion percentage, 4,627 passing yards, 43 TDs, 6 INTs, 311 rushing yards, 5 TDs, 2 receiving yards, 1 TD
- 2016 - Lamar Jackson, Louisville: 56.2% completion percentage, 3,543 passing yards, 30 TDs, 9 INTs, 1,571 rushing yards, 21 TDs
If I were to average out all of those numbers, the average Heisman-winning QB would have stats something like this: 68% completion percentage, 4,400 passing yards, 43 TDs, 7 INTs, 800 rushing yards, 11 TDs.
Basically, for Clifford to get to New York, he’ll need to bump up his completion percentage considerably, add over 1,000 more passing yards, double his passing TDs, double his rushing yards, and double his rushing TDs. With a new offensive coordinator, is that possible? Sure, but probable? Ehhh. I expect Clifford to be better in 2020, but I don’t know that he’ll reach those lofty numbers.
Chance to win Heisman: 5%
Journey Brown, RB
The only other position to win a Heisman in the last 20 years (23 actually) was running back. Journey Brown took over the starting RB position for the Lions this year, and put together a very solid season. As the clear #1 heading into 2020, what would Journey need to do to hoist the trophy? His stats this year were 129 rushes for 890 yards, 6.9 yards per carry, and 12 touchdowns, to go with 15 receptions for 134 yards, and 1 TD. How do the last three RBs to win the award look?
- 2015 - Derrick Henry, Alabama: 5.6 YPC, 2,219 rushing yards, 28 TDs, 91 receiving yards, 0 TDs
- 2009 - Mark Ingram, Alabama: 6.1 YPC, 1,658 rushing yards, 17 TDs, 334 receiving yards, 3 TDs
- 2005 - Reggie Bush, USC: 8.7 YPC, 1,740 rushing yards, 16 TDs, 478 receiving yards, 2 TDs
Averaging those three out, the average Heisman-winning RB would have stats something like: 6.8 YPC, 1,870 rushing yards, 20 TDs, 300 receiving yards, 2 TDs.
So for Journey to get the call to head to NYC, he’d need to continue his YPC, double his rushing yards, nearly double his rushing TDs, double his receiving yards, and add one more receiving TD.
If Franklin and Co. didn’t (rightly) believe in rotating running backs, it’s certainly possible that Brown could come close to those stats. The other RBs this year added in 951 rushing yards, 13 TDs, and 187 receiving yards (though no receiving TDs). Combined, those stats would be right in line with a Heisman-winning RB. But there’s no way Franklin will abandon all of the other stud running backs just to boost Journey’s stats - again, as he shouldn’t. And for that reason, I don’t think Journey has much of a chance at the Heisman.
Chance to win Heisman: 1%
Micah Parsons, LB
Let’s get this out of the way right now - winning the Heisman as a defender is virtually impossible. In the 81 years that the award has been handed out, only Charles Woodson CB/PR won the award as a primarily defensive player in 1997. Even then, he dabbled as a wide receiver and punt returner, adding 231 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs, 15 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD, 283 punt return yards and 1 return TD to his defensive stats.
Basically, it is a looooong shot that Parsons will win the Heisman, just from history alone. But let’s take a look anyway! Micah’s stats this year were 109 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 5 pass breakups, and 4 forced fumbles. I decided to add in the monster that was Chase Young this past season, as he at least earned an invitation to New York as a defensive player.
- 1997 - Charles Woodson, Michigan: 44 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 9 pass breakups, 8 interceptions
- 2019 - Chase Young, Ohio State: 46 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 6 forced fumbles, one blocked kick
I won’t bother averaging Woodson and Young, since it’s very clear that Woodson was helped in large part by his offensive/return game, and that in general his stats weren’t what won him the Heisman. But for Micah to get an invitation to New York next year, he essentially needs to turn in another 100+ tackle year, add another 5 TFLs, double or triple his sacks, and see if he can maybe add a few splash plays on special teams.
Can he do all of that? Frankly, I think the biggest challenge may be the sacks. As a linebacker, he just won’t be sent on pressure as much as if he were a defensive end. Personally, I think if Parsons just continues the upward trend we’ve seen from 2018 to 2019, and carries that into 2020, he’ll at least get the invitation to the Big Apple. After that, who knows?
Chance to win the Heisman: 15%
So there you have it. Could any of the above players win the Heisman? Sure. Are any of them really likely to? No, not really. Whether it’s because of skillset and offensive system, or sharing a crowded backfield, or historical bias against defensive players, none of the big three at Penn State would be tabbed as likely to win the Heisman.
But, I could see all three at least being in the discussion heading into late November, and if the Lions are a contender to make the playoffs, that only bolsters their chances. We shall see!