The Rise of the Running Backs

Quarterbacks have won eight of the last nine Heismans, reflecting the dominance of the position in this age of spread offenses. 

But in 2009, running backs are resurgent–at least when it comes to the Heisman race.

Alabama’s Mark Ingram is on top of the race right now, while Stanford’s Toby Gerhart is moving up fast (I expect he’ll be in the top three of every poll this week).  Clemson’s C.J. Spiller is making some noise, too.  These three backs have been more consistent and compelling than the assortment of quarterbacks vying for the award, with Ingram shining against some tough SEC defenses, Gerhart grinding out huge numbers against ranked foes and Spiller doing it all in leading his team back to ACC prominence. 

Neither Ingram nor Gerhart are especially flashy.  Players like Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy are stars on and off the field, with their private lives well documented.  But I’m not sure Ingram or Gerhart would be recognized in a crowd outside of Tuscaloosa or Palo Alto. 

Still, I have a feeling their blue-collar styles stick out like a sore thumb compared to their high-flying counterparts under center–and that’s a good thing when it comes to their Heisman campaigns.  If 100 are red, it’s better to be blue.

All the preseason talk was of Tebow, Bradford and McCoy.  Spread quarterbacks dominated the Heisman conversation.  Only one running back cracked the top 10 of the HeismanPundit Heisman Poll on October 6.  

It’s five weeks later now.  Though a quarterback or two might still have a shot, it looks like the running backs have taken over.  They have brought some coherency to a race that has been murky to this point.  I think it could all come down to Ingram and Gerhart, with Spiller possibly sneaking into the top five if he keeps doing what he’s doing.  

Given the unpredictability of this year’s race, that would be appropriate.

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Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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3 Responses to The Rise of the Running Backs

  1. CloroxingTheGenePool November 15, 2009 at 5:44 pm #

    Why does Gerhart wear a brace on his right leg?

  2. Heismanpundit November 15, 2009 at 5:55 pm #

    Because he had two knee surgeries in his career.

  3. Anonymous November 15, 2009 at 10:25 pm #

    If Bama loses in the SEC champ game, does Toby’s numerical superiority (1395 yards, 19 TDs vs 1297, 10 TDs) finally vault him over Ingram? Or would Tebow’s win in that game give him a lifetime achievement award Heisman?

    I also wonder if the Pac-10’s TV affiliation is hurting Toby’s chances. Both the USC and Oregon games were on Fox Sports, and Toby’s highlights on Sportscenter on Saturday night were a fumble and a 1 yard TD plunge, not his 13 yard scamper on 3rd and 10 to prolong a drive, the ballsy give on 4th and 1 at the USC 15 early rather than kick a FG, his late 40 yard run or his impressive 6 yard off tackle burst to walk in untouched. Oh yeah, and the Cal game is on Versus channel, which no one with DirecTV can watch.

    Also, I post this telling statistic from an article written before the USC game:

    Normally, an Ingram supporter would point out that Ingram faces much more difficult competition than Gerhart, because Ingram is in the SEC. This year, though, the SEC has some abysmal defenses and the Pac-10 is actually better in terms of rushing defense, allowing 133 yards per game (122 not counting Washington State), compared to 136 yards per game in the SEC (132 not counting Kentucky).

    In particular, Ingram has played against much poorer competition than Gerhart — Ingram has not played any team ranked higher than 39th in rush defense and three of his opponents are ranked worse than 100th in rush defense. Gerhart, on the other hand, has played three of the top 15 rush defenses and has played only one opponent worse than 100th (San Jose State).