Don't expect it, but Trevor Lawrence winning the Heisman over DeVonta Smith would be lazy 20th century logic
On Tuesday night at the first virtual Heisman Trophy ceremony, I expect there to be a lot of talk about the 20th century.
If and when DeVonta Smith wins the top individual honor in the sport, within the same breath will be the fact that he’s the first receiver to earn the Heisman since Desmond Howard in 1991.
All signs point to that happening. The final Heisman Trophy odds had Smith at -200 compared to +170 for Mac Jones and +500 for Trevor Lawrence (via DraftKings Sportsbook). That was revealed when all the votes were due with conference championships in the books.
If Smith wins the award, there will be nothing lazy about it. It’ll be perfectly fair to reward the best player in college football in the midst of arguably the best season we’ve ever seen at the position.
If Lawrence somehow beats the odds and wins the Heisman, however, there should be a lot of talk about the 20th century. As in, the lazy 20th-century voting that often rewarded the Heisman as a lifetime achievement award for upperclassmen instead of actually deciding on the best player in college football in a given year.
Surely you know what I’m talking about. Go ask 1999 Ron Dayne about that. Perhaps the 19-7 TD-INT ratio of Miami senior quarterback Gino Torretta in 1992 rings a bell. Even the great George Rogers got the lifetime achievement award Heisman in 1980 when freshman Herschel Walker was clearly the best player in college football.
In voters’ defense, times were different then. We didn’t have cable packages with 16 hours of football that allowed us to see players from coast to coast on a given Saturday.
Consider that all the more reason Lawrence shouldn’t be given a lifetime achievement award in 2020, wherein access to all players is no longer a legitimate excuse for voters.
That’s not a slight to Lawrence, who proved to be one of the great 21st century quarterbacks in the sport. And believe it or not, that has nothing to do with what happened in the Sugar Bowl. But sorry, Dabo Swinney (not really). Lawrence winning the award wouldn’t be the product of him actually being the best player in college football in 2020. He wasn’t even the best quarterback in college football in 2020.
This is the part where I start by saying, yes, Lawrence missed 2 games this year so it’s probably not fair to only compare his cumulative numbers to the likes of Mac Jones and Kyle Trask, though it’s probably worth noting that only 2 Heisman winners in the last 40 years missed a game in the regular season, and only 1 missed a Power 5 game (Charlie Ward in 1993). Sure. Let’s get that out there.
But if you missed 2 games, including the biggest game of the regular season, you’d better be all sorts of efficient. Lawrence wasn’t.
Through conference championship weekend (when votes were finalized), Lawrence ranked No. 10 in passer efficiency and completion percentage among FBS quarterbacks with at least 6 games. That’s the troubling thing. Never mind the fact that fellow finalists Kyle Trask and Mac Jones had Lawrence beat by double-digit touchdown passes and over 1,000 passing yards.
(OK, so Jones only had Lawrence beat by 986 passing yards through conference championship weekend. But you get it.)
Lawrence was excellent. Was he better than any previous version of himself? Maybe slightly? A year of predominantly Power 5 foes with a midseason COVID diagnosis could’ve been partially responsible for that.
The problem is that the justification one would’ve used for Lawrence over Smith doesn’t really hold much weight. That is, assuming the Heisman is still supposed to go to the player who had the best season in the sport.
Lawrence didn’t necessarily outperform himself or his other quarterback competitors. Compare that to Smith, who is 140 yards from breaking Ja’Marr Chase’s SEC single-season receiving record despite the fact that he’ll end the season with 2 fewer games played. Smith is already tied with Chase for the most receiving touchdowns in a season by an SEC player (20), which is why if you watched the semifinal game, you heard on the broadcast that longtime SEC coaches called Smith “the best receiver they had ever seen.”
Shoot, let’s go outside the SEC record books and focus our attention nationally. We’re talking about someone who went into the Heisman voting leading the next-best Power 5 receiver by 12 catches, 318 yards and 5 receiving touchdowns. That’s essentially 3 games worth of production that Smith out-kicked the competition, despite the fact that Alabama lost 2 first-round receivers and Jaylen Waddle went down at the midway point of 2020.
Here’s the entire list of Power 5 receivers who had 95 catches, 1,500 yards and 17 touchdown catches in their first 11 games of the season:
- DeVonta Smith (Alabama), 2020
- Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech), 2007
(Crabtree also played in a Mike Leach Air Raid offense that averaged 59 pass attempts per game compared to an Alabama offense that averaged 32 pass attempts per game.)
Hopefully, Heisman voters recognized that before they cast their ballots and didn’t simply default to Lawrence for his remarkable college career. If that lifetime achievement award logic used to decide such a prestigious award, then we’ve reverted to pre-2007 times when there was the unwritten rule that an underclassman couldn’t win the Heisman (Herschel and Darren McFadden would like a word).
Much like when Tim Tebow became the first underclassman to win the Heisman in 2007, Smith winning the award would be a sign of some long overdue progress when it comes to voters’ thinking. It’s a good thing that so many have been outspoken about it being a quarterback award because I believe it got us to this point. That is, the point where a receiver is a legitimate betting favorite.
While I don’t expect it to happen, it wouldn’t necessarily be as big of a blunder if Jones were to win the Heisman because at least he was the most efficient quarterback in America (he ranks No. 5 all-time in yards per attempt in a season). Jones outperformed Lawrence in 2020, which will remain true regardless of what their NFL futures hold. That can’t be denied.
Still, it’s Smith who deserves to stand alone on Tuesday night. A historic season should be met with a historic honor.
Here’s hoping this 21st century virtual ceremony doesn’t have any glitches.