Why Dalvin Cook got my Heisman Trophy vote
My short list of Heisman Trophy candidates had five names on it.
The Heisman ballot only has room for three of them.
So my first year as a voter for the biggest award in college football happened to take place during one of the closest races anyone can remember. Right or wrong, this is how my voting process went.
First, remember the criteria. The award goes to the most outstanding player in college football. Character was not listed on the form, and it wasn't considered on my ballot. I only factored in team success once, for a specific reason I'll explain later.
A month ago, Baylor WR Corey Coleman and LSU RB Leonard Fournette might have been on my list, but both faded in November. Navy QB Keenan Reynolds didn't make the cut, either, because the Heisman is not a career achievement award.
Thus, the aforementioned five names: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, Alabama RB Derrick Henry, Florida State RB Dalvin Cook and Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey. Two had to go.
Watson's undefeated, top-ranked Tigers put up 58 points on Miami in a rout that cost Hurricanes coach Al Golden his job. Watching the game from the press box, though, I didn't think Watson was the best player on his team. DE Shaq Lawson was. Watson is dynamic, but 11 interceptions are a lot for the top player in the country. His passer rating was also 20 points lower than Mayfield.
Four names, three spots.
Without question, McCaffrey is the most versatile player in the country. He was second nationally in rushing and kickoff return yards, and he topped Barry Sanders' record for single-season all-purpose yardage. Sanders' 1988 season might have been the best year of any player in college football history, so topping that hallowed mark is impressive. But McCaffrey's season included 15 more kickoff returns, which yield more yards than a carry or catch. One other number jumped out: 13. That's how many touchdowns he scored - No. 34 nationally and second on his own team. Add in his two touchdown passes, and his 15 TDs accounted for would be the lowest by a Heisman winner in almost three decades. That's why, after landing on my initial ballot, he was painfully removed on the final one.
Three names, three spots. But what order?
Henry broke Georgia legend Herschel Walker's single-season SEC rushing record. That, like McCaffrey's mark, is a tremendous achievement. But as I looked deeper, I couldn't get past Henry's 5.9 yards per carry. That figure was tied for 49th in the country. Henry shouldn't be punished for his ability to handle monstrous workloads; that's part of what makes him great. But a pedestrian rushing average is what made him third on my ballot in an agonizing decision.
That left two.
Mayfield was third nationally in passing efficiency, and his 35-5 touchdown-interception ratio is great (and better than Watson). Seven touchdown runs helped his case. Mayfield was also the instance where I factored in his team.
A conference title was expected at ‘Bama and Clemson. Not so much at Oklahoma. The Sooners finished 8-5 last year, sparking some questions of whether coach Bob Stoops' time in Norman should be up. Mayfield helped quiet that crowd (and get the Sooners in the playoffs) on an offense that boosted its scoring by 12 points per game. With Mayfield, Oklahoma took a two-score lead on then-No. 18 TCU. After he was injured, the Sooners collapsed and needed a failed two-point conversion to hold on against the Horned Frogs.
But when I watched him, I didn't think he was the most outstanding player in the country. Mayfield didn't even become the best quarterback in his league until TCU's Trevone Boykin got hurt.
That left one: Dalvin Cook.
Cook's biggest flaw was obvious. He missed seven quarters due to injuries. I think he did enough in the other 37 quarters to justify being No. 1 on my ballot.
His 7.9 yards per carry led all major-conference running backs. When the Seminoles struggled against USF, he exploded for 266 yards. When Miami took the lead at FSU, Cook ripped off back-to-back 23-yard plays to take it back. He had 194 yards and a touchdown in the Clemson loss. Cook faced five teams that ranked in the top 20 in total defense. He averaged 146 rushing yards and scored seven touchdowns in those games. No player in the country had more plays of at least 20 yards than Cook (26).
My eyes backed up the numbers. I covered Henry and Cook in back-to-back weeks, against the same (very, very good) Florida defense. Henry had 189 yards and a touchdown. Cook had 183 and two touchdowns. But Cook did it on 18 fewer carries, and he had 150 yards in the fourth quarter to turn a close game into a statement win.
That sounds like the country's most outstanding player to me.