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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. [JOHN BAZEMORE  |  AP]
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. [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. [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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow holds the national championship trophy as safety Grant Delpit looks on after the Tigers beat Clemson 42-25 on Jan. 13 in New Orleans. [GERALD HERBERT  |  AP]
    The LSU Tigers faced five top-seven defenses, averaging 38 points against them.
  2. Coach Mike White has Florida come off a big home win over Auburn on Saturday and lose 84-82 at LSU three days later. [MATT STAMEY  |  AP]
    Video review shows time ran out just before Florida’s tying layup.
  3. Florida head coach Dan Mullen celebrates after the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game against Virginia, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Florida won 36-28. [BRYNN ANDERSON  |  AP]
    Defensive tackle signee Gervon Dexter has earned his fifth star.
  4. Florida forward Omar Payne (5) runs up court after making a shot against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla. Payne was a perfect 9 for 9 shooting during the game. [MATT STAMEY  |  AP]
    Previewing the Gators’ 7 p.m game at LSU on Tuesday.
  5. IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR ALLSTATE - Tim Tebow and fiancé Demi Nel-Peters volunteer together alongside Allstate volunteers at a community service project to benefit the Einstein Charter School ahead of the 2020 Allstate Sugar Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, in New Orleans. (Cheryl Gerber/AP Images for Allstate) [CHERYL GERBER  |  AP]
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  6. Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Josh Allen (41) takes aim for Florida Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) during a 2018 game. [MONICA HERNDON  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    The grad transfer will be eligible immediately.
  7. Auburn center Austin Wiley guards Florida forward Omar Payne during the first half of their game on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Gainesville. Payne, a freshman out of Montverde Academy, finishes with a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds for his first double double in college. [MATT STAMEY  |  AP]
    Freshman Omar Payne has a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds as UF earns its most impressive victory of the season.
  8. Florida's Keyontae Johnson, shown here scoring against Arkansas in last season's SEC tournament, is averaging 13 points and 6.8 rebounds this season. [MARK HUMPHREY  |  AP]
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  9. Florida guard Andrew Nembhard shoots over Mississippi guard Devontae Shuler during their game Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, in Gainesville. [BRAD MCCLENNY  |  AP]
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  10. Todd Monken spent two seasons in Tampa Bay, the last as offensive coordinator, before being dismissed along with the rest of head coach Dirk Koetter's staff after the 2018 season.
    Tampa Bay’s former play-caller will be designing game plans for the Bulldogs against the Florida Gators next season.
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