S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!
If it wasn’t already patently obvious, Saturday night delivered confirmation: The Southeastern Conference’s hostile takeover of college football is complete.
Sure, the SEC has not won the national championship the last two seasons, but it did win it every year in the previous seven. And now you can add the Heisman Trophy to the list of SEC hegemony.
Alabama running back Derrick Henry became the fifth SEC player to win the prize in the past nine seasons. This dominance not coincidentally mirrors the SEC’s takeover of the BCS in its final eight seasons.
Before Florida’s Tim Tebow won it in 2007, only one SEC player had won the Heisman in the previous 21 years (the Gators’ Danny Wuerffel in 1996). In fact, until the recent run of SEC winners, players from that conference had taken the statuette south just seven times in the trophy’s first 73 years of existence.
Alabama, for all its storied history, never had a Heisman winner until running back Mark Ingram in 2009. Ingram won it at the expense at another Stanford running back, Toby Gerhart – just like Henry over Christian McCaffrey – in the closest Heisman voting ever.
While the SEC has dominated this award in recent years, no one has come so agonizingly close but ended up empty quite like Stanford. McCaffrey became the fourth Stanford player to finish runnerup in the past seven years, joining Gerhart and Andrew Luck (second to Cam Newton in 2010 and Robert Griffin III in 2011).
Except in 2010, when Newton led Auburn to an undefeated season and a national championship, a case can be made that each Stanford player was robbed during that span. Luck fell victim to a late-season hype for Griffin, whose flamboyance on and off the field helped to overtake the Stanford QB. Ingram, much like Henry, was a system runner in a formidable Alabama machine that also churned out other accomplished college backs such as Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.
Henry, who continued that lineage under the Nick Saban regime that began in 2007, put up impressive numbers but they were hardly exceptional. In each of the past four seasons, at least one back ran for at least 1,900 yards (Henry had 1,986) and had a better yards-per-carry average than Henry’s 5.86. Yet none of them came closer than fourth in Heisman voting with two receiving no votes at all.
McCaffrey, by contrast, broke Barry Sanders’ 28-year record with 3,496 all-purpose yards. Even if the ’88 Heisman winner did it in two fewer games, the fact remains that no one had come close to his mark until McCaffrey’s smashing season.
Without a doubt, McCaffrey, just like his fellow Stanford alums, suffered from a hype deficit. Most of the award’s 900-plus voters probably never saw McCaffrey play until the final two weeks of the season when the Cardinal faced Notre Dame and USC (in the Pac-12 title game) in back-to-back weeks. By then, the narrative had already been shaped and Henry already had the award well within his grasp.
Henry made his closing argument in the SEC championship game, where Alabama demolished Florida in a Saturday afternoon window going unopposed on CBS. McCaffrey, on the other hand, played in the Pac-12 championship game that same night, going up against two other conference title games with the Pac-12 game the only one not on network TV and drawing the lowest ratings among all four Power 5 title games.
It was difficult for McCaffrey, or anyone, to overcome a built-in advantage for SEC frontrunners in today’s college football landscape. ESPN, which has a near monopoly on the sport, practically is a shareholder of the SEC, with an 80 percent ownership stake in the SEC Network. CBS began its exclusive coverage of the SEC in 2001 and is seasoned at championing the league’s cause.
CBS actually began Henry’s campaign this year during its prime-time telecast of the Alabama-LSU showdown on Nov. 7. When it became apparent that Leonard Fournette, the Tigers running back and Heisman frontrunner at the time, was going nowhere against the Crimson Tide defense, the network’s announcers immediately installed Henry as the new favorite.
That’s nothing new for Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson, who helped to kick off the SEC dynasty in the BCS era with a full-throated campaign for Florida to be included in the 2006 BCS title game over Michigan during that year’s SEC championship game. The pollsters were swayed and moved up the Gators, who went on to beat Ohio State and began the SEC’s seven-year title run.
History is repeating itself with college football’s most prestigious award, which used to be dominated by the Big Ten, Notre Dame and USC. But the sign of the times is instructive in how the epicenter of the sport has clearly shifted.
Immediately after Henry claimed the statuette over a pair of sophomores, ESPN on its web site declared the frontrunner for next year’s campaign – not McCaffrey, not Clemson’s Deshaun Watson – but LSU’s Fournette.