Editor’s note: The next Heisman Trophy winner won’t be announced for another few months, but with the season nearly upon us, it’s never too early to examine this year’s top candidates.
Over the next week, SEC Country will conduct an in-depth analysis of five SEC Heisman contenders, highlighting flaws and strengths, before compiling an overall ranking of potential winners. These aren’t necessarily the players most likely to win the Heisman; they are the most interesting candidates.
Since the Heisman Trophy was first given out in 1935, you can almost count on one hand the number of times it was awarded to someone who didn’t play halfback or quarterback.
- Yale defensive end Larry Kelley (1936)
- Notre Dame defensive end Leon Hart (1949)
- Nebraska receiver/halfback Johnny Rodgers (1972)
- Notre Dame receiver Tim Brown (1987)
- Michigan receiver Desmond Howard (1991)
- Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson (1997)
So for an honor that has been bestowed upon 81 college players, there are just six outliers, four of whom got the Michigan/Notre Dame “boost” by playing for historically dominant programs. There has not been a Heisman winner to break the traditional mold in almost 20 years. Heck, only three running backs have won it since 2000.
Variety is not the name of the modern game. So it won’t surprise many to learn that only one non-QB/RB is getting any real traction as a Heisman candidate this preseason.
Let’s look at Calvin Ridley, stud Alabama wideout, who is already blazing the same trail tread by Julio Jones and Amari Cooper:
Reigning national champs
Ridley and Mississippi State receiver Fred Ross both broke the 1,000-yard mark last season, but it’s obvious which player is more well-known. Ridley played for a modern-day dynasty that found itself in the national spotlight every week. He is already a household name as only a sophomore, and sometimes media hype really can make a difference when it comes to Heisman campaign momentum. Recognition cannot be overlooked.
Coordinator Lane Kiffin is an offensive mastermind who knows exactly how to maximize a talent of Ridley’s caliber. That much is evident by his production last season: 89 catches for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns.
Jumping off the last point, a major strength of Alabama under Kiffin is balance. The Tide has retained its ground-and-pound offensive identity while improving its ability to take advantage of mismatches on the perimeter. A key component of that last season was the tried-and-true strategy of drawing defenses in with Derrick Henry and then sending Ridley & Co. to beat them deep. That resulted in Ridley leading the SEC with six catches of 50 yards or more. Those big plays are mighty memorable, too.
Elite supporting cast
Under normal circumstances, the defensive remedy for Ridley is easy: Double him. But with ArDarius Stewart, O.J. Howard, Robert Foster and Gehrig Dieter all options in Kiffin’s playbook, that’s simply not an option if the Tide elect to roll with three or four wideouts and Howard at tight end. Ridley will still see favorable matchups.
A new face at quarterback
Alabama will have a new man under center for the third year in a row. Ridley has a great all-around skill set, but as mentioned above, his true forte is beating defensive backs with his speed. Whoever starts at quarterback will need the arm and accuracy to consistently connect with Ridley deep. It’s worth mentioning that Jake Coker had these very problems, and Ridley still topped the 1,000-yard mark. But if he wants to rack up Heisman-caliber numbers, someone needs to throw over the top.
Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris
Two Alabama running backs have won the Heisman since Nick Saban showed up in Tuscaloosa, and every other starter was good-to-great. If another Tide tailback nears the 2,000-yard mark this season, well, the Heisman trust pretty much has to invite that guy. And, as previously mentioned, balance will always be a part of Alabama’s offense. A 29.7 pass per game average (7th, SEC) stacked against 42.8 rushes per game reminds us that the Tide are committed to the ground whether it’s Kiffin or Major Applewhite calling the plays.
Ridley is truly special as a receiver, but the “outlier” Heisman winners all showcased a little something extra. Tim Brown, for instance, returned three punts for a touchdown. Desmond Howard caught 19 touchdown passes while also returning kicks and punts. If Ridley had the benefit of starring on special teams like Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, it certainly wouldn’t hurt his case.
Does not play quarterback or running back
See introductory section
- Sept. 3 vs USC (starting off strong against a big brand program always helps)
- Oct. 15 at Tennessee (matching up with Cam Sutton could be his toughest test)
- Nov. 5 at LSU (Ridley was held to “just” seven catches for 51 yards last season)
Will Contend If
Alabama fields a true play-maker at quarterback and the defense (somehow) takes a step back, warranting a more aggressive game plan from Kiffin and Saban. Yeah, I’m not holding my breath about those things, either.
Bovada Odds: 25/1
My Odds: 40/1
The better half of the Scarbrough/Harris combo is probably the safer bet when it comes to the Crimson Tide contenders, but dang it, we need some Heisman variety in our lives. Ridley is our best shot at making that happen.