With just one month to go before the 2009 Heisman Trophy ceremony, Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram is the Heisman front runner. Back in August, who would’ve thought this likely?
Indeed, his rise from nobody to somebody in this race is unparalleled in Heisman history.
The two previous sophomores who have won the award were both well-known quantities by the time their second-years rolled around. Sam Bradford led the nation in passing efficiency as a freshman and Tim Tebow had made a name for himself as the oft-used backup to Chris Leak during Florida’s 2006 national title run. And, besides that, both Tebow and Bradford threw and rushed for a combined 55 touchdowns in their Heisman-winning years, so their statistical feats worked to outweigh their lack of seasoning.
Other nobodies have come from out of nowhere to win the Heisman, too. Barry Sanders was known as a great kick returner when 1988 started. Then he went out and set the NCAA single-season rushing record.
Andre Ware was seen as a talented quarterback for a probation-riddled program. Then he won the Heisman in 1989 by throwing an NCAA-record 44 touchdown passes.
Like Sanders and Ware in their years, Ingram wasn’t even a blip on the Heisman radar coming into the 2009 season. Dedicated college football watchers knew of him, sure, but he wasn’t considered on the verge of mega-stardom after rushing for a solid 728 yards as a freshman. Like Tebow and Bradford in their winning years, he is in his second season playing college football. But unlike the aforementioned players, he has moved into the role of Heisman favorite despite putting up good, though not necessarily great, numbers.
Here’s Ingram’s game log for 2009:
Date Opponent Result Att Yards Avg. TD 09/05/09 Virginia Tech W 34-24 26 150 5.77 1 09/12/09 Florida Int'l W 40-14 10 56 5.60 1 09/19/09 North Texas W 53-7 8 91 11.38 1 09/26/09 Arkansas W 35-7 17 50 2.94 1 10/03/09 Kentucky W 38-20 22 140 6.36 2 10/10/09 Mississippi W 22-3 28 172 6.14 1 10/17/09 South Carolina W 20-6 24 246 10.25 1 10/24/09 Tennessee W 12-10 18 99 5.50 0 11/07/09 LSU W 24-15 22 144 6.55 0 Totals 175 1148 6.56 8
This is a good, maybe very good season. He’s averaging 127 rushing yards per game and has been especially potent against ranked teams. But he’s not scoring a bunch of touchdowns–the last Heisman-winning back to score fewer than 16 touchdowns in a season was George Rogers in 1981–and there’s a chance he might end up with the fewest rushing yards by a Heisman-winning running back (at the time of the vote) since Billy Sims in 1978.
In other words, he’s doing well, but he’s not blowing the rest of the field away. So what is it about him exactly that is impressing Heisman voters? Why is he the leader right now?
“I think he’s been the most consistent runner against really good defenses,” said Bruce Feldman of ESPN. “He ran all over Virginia Tech, Ole Miss and South Carolina and then bailed his team out against LSU. If you’re going to go with an offensive player this year, he makes the most sense.”
Others also note the level of competition.
“He’s arguably the best running back in the nation’s most difficult conference,” said Tom Dienhart of Rivals.com. “Defenses are gameplanning to stop him, especially with Greg McElroy struggling, and he’s still producing. So it makes his body of work all the more impressive.”
The rise of Ingram could also be viewed in the context of the overall race, which by all accounts has been disappointing. Tebow and McCoy have underwhelmed statistically, while injuries or suspensions have taken their toll on guys like Bradford, Best and Bryant. This has opened the door for players who wouldn’t normally be on the Heisman radar.
“It’s been a mediocre Heisman year,” said Feldman. “I think voters are looking for other guys out there besides the usual names. It’s been such a quirky race, I think you could make a case for six other guys besides Ingram, too.”
And with quarterbacks dominating the Heisman conversation in this decade–they’ve won eight of the nine trophies so far–it’s no wonder that a running back–even one that’s not putting up crazy stats–might have an advantage this year.
“Ingram is no Reggie Bush as far as excitement goes,” said Dienhart. “But none of the quarterbacks from major teams have stepped it up numbers-wise and that’s benefitting Ingram as a result.
“And I’d love to see the award get a little more diversified.”
Another factor helping Ingram could be that Alabama has never won a Heisman Trophy. As we get closer to the Heisman ceremony, this is likely to get mentioned more and more by the media.
“I think it adds a little bit of excitement to his candidacy,” said Dienhart.
It all adds up to what could be a perfect storm on Ingram’s behalf. There’s still a month to go and there’s a lot of football left to be played.
But right now Ingram is on course to become the most unlikely Heisman winner ever.