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My Heisman Trophy ballot: Joe Burrow, then a pair of defenders

Matt Baker put two defensive linemen on his ballot, but neither could top the LSU star quarterback.
In this Dec. 7, 2019, file photo, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) warms up before the SEC championship game against Georgia, in Atlanta.
In this Dec. 7, 2019, file photo, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) warms up before the SEC championship game against Georgia, in Atlanta. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP ]
Published Dec. 15, 2019

As cutting-edge offenses with elite passers rewrite records every season, it’s easy for quarterbacks like LSU’s Joe Burrow to star.

Burrow’s historic season — his completion percentage (77.9) is more than one full point better than Colt McCoy’s Division I-A record — made him an easy choice atop my Heisman Trophy ballot.

Related: The Florida Gators didn’t pursue Joe Burrow. It’s working out for both sides.

What’s usually harder, though, is for defensive players to make their case as one of the most outstanding players in the nation. But a pair of defensive linemen did that this year to claim my final votes in an extremely crowded field.

Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young deserved his trip to New York as a Heisman finalist. His 16 ½ sacks and 1.91 tackles for loss per game are the most in the nation. His 1.5 sacks per game are the most by any player since 2005 (Elvis Dumervil, Louisville), and only one player has forced more fumbles this year than Young (six).

In this Nov. 30, 2019, file photo, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young plays against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.
In this Nov. 30, 2019, file photo, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young plays against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. [ PAUL SANCYA | AP ]

As impressive as those numbers are, they’d be even better if he hadn’t been able to pad them against lowly Rutgers and Maryland — games he missed because of an NCAA violation. I considered his suspension as I compiled my ballot, but I ranked him second, anyway, because his performances in the 11 other games overshadowed his absence in two blowouts.

Young’s presence alone was enough to alter plays; against Penn State, his impending rush caused an opponent to twitch for a false start penalty. And even when Young didn’t get sacks, he created mayhem. Twice late in the Big Ten championship, he knocked the ball out as Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan prepared to throw.

My other top defender had his share of plays like that, too: Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who was third on my ballot.

Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown, left, scoops up a fumble by Florida quarterback Kyle Trask (11) during the first half of an Oct. 5 game in Gainesville.
Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown, left, scoops up a fumble by Florida quarterback Kyle Trask (11) during the first half of an Oct. 5 game in Gainesville. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

His performance against the Gators was the best game I saw in person this year. The numbers weren’t eye-popping (five tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries). But he was consistently disruptive, and he did it all season.

Brown’s 11 1/5 tackles for loss during conference games were the most in the SEC — an impressive showing for an interior lineman. One of his sacks came against LSU when he somehow shoved a Tigers blocker into Burrow.

In some ways, the defensive linemen had an advantage as I whittled my short list of 11 Heisman candidates down to the three allotted spots. There was little separation with the great running backs (Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard). The Tier 2 quarterbacks (Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts) were all about the same, too.

Related: USF’s Jeff Scott is starting what Kirby Smart called the hardest month of his life

But there was no question which defensive players stood out the most. They just weren’t good enough to supplant Burrow, who leads the nation with 48 touchdown passes.

Only one other player in major college football history has had a better single-season passing efficiency than Burrow (201.5). Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa had a better mark this year, but he missed three full games due to injuries.

Although I usually don’t take team success into consideration, Burrow deserves credit for transforming the old-school Tigers into a modern offense and the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff.

When I rewatched LSU-Auburn to focus on Brown’s performance, my eyes kept drifting to Burrow, who found ways to elude the pressure and fire the perfect pass downfield. It was a fitting summary for the season as a whole.

No matter how good the defender, no one can bring Burrow down.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.