History hasn’t been kind to preseason Heisman favorites of late.
The last seven seasons have seen the early front-runners for the trophy get knocked off by upsets or injury, overwhelmed by record-breaking seasons from competitors, or picked apart by media critics.
Matt Barkley is the latest victim of that trend.
I’ve been getting questions on Twitter as t,o why I think USC’s 21-14 loss to Stanford is such a critical blow to Barkley’s Heisman hopes.
After all, as some noted, Robert Griffin III’s Baylor team got killed by Oklahoma State last season and he bounced back to win the award.
There’s still a lot of time left in the season, others pointed out. USC could win out and Barkley could get back in it.
These are both fair points, but they ignore the importance of narrative in the Heisman race.
Each player has a story to tell, and the player with the most attractive story always wins.
It’s important to remember that not all candidates begin a season on an equal footing. Some players have built-in advantages based on which school they play for and the level of name recognition they have accumulated during their careers.
Added to those factors are other externalities like whether a player has his team in the national title hunt, whether he is producing superior statistics or whether he has led his program into national relevance.
All these factors and externalities are encompassed in the 10 Heismandments, but a player’s narrative gives them meaning and context.
Heading into the season, Barkley had it all.
He was a likable, fourth-year starting quarterback for a traditional power that was considered one of the favorites to win the national title.
He was a highly-productive passer as a junior, setting the Pac-12 record for touchdown passes in a season with 39. He had the nation’s top receiving duo — and arguably one of the best in college football history — to throw to in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
He turned down the NFL to come back to a team that had been saddled by NCAA probation. He was perceived to be one of the main reasons that USC was able to overcome that probation on its return to national prominence. This season was supposed to be a triumphant rebuke to those who thought the Trojans wouldn’t be able to compete at a high level due to scholarship restrictions.
Indeed, the mantra for USC this year was: “unfinished business.”
All these factors combined to create Barkley’s Heisman narrative, and it was compelling. With USC destined to be favored in every game it played and ranked No. 1 in the preseason, the table was set. All Barkley had to do was sit down and eat.
But the loss to Stanford takes most of that off the table. USC’s national title hopes have been dealt a serious blow and the Trojans no longer control their own destiny. The prospect of Barkley overwhelming voters with a statistical season for the ages went off-track as the Cardinal held him without a touchdown pass and intercepted him twice. A swaggering program that thought it could shrug off a 75-man scholarship limit has been hurt by lack of depth and experience at some key positions.
In other words, a lot of USC’s business will remain unfinished and everyone knows it. The same standard that propelled Barkley into front-runner status in this race is now an albatross around his neck.
A player like Griffin didn’t have that same burden last season. His narrative was that he emerged from the outer edges of the Heisman race to produce a statistically brilliant season while leading a normally-downtrodden program into national relevance thanks to dramatic wins over TCU and Oklahoma . In his narrative, RG3 could afford a loss or two because it was never expected that Baylor would go undefeated. In the context of his narrative, getting killed by Oklahoma State was irrelevant.
For Barkley to crawl back into the race, he’ll need a new narrative. Perhaps it will be similar to the one that defending Heisman winner Tim Tebow had in 2008. An early loss to Mississippi caused Tebow to make a much-heralded vowthat he and his Florida team would play harder than ever the rest of the season.
But even that didn’t help Tebow, who finished third in the 2008 balloting (although his team did end up winning the national title).
And that’s the more likely scenario for Barkley. He will undoubtedly rebound to have a fine season and, barring a total collapse, USC is probably going to win 10 or 11 games and contend for the Pac-12 title. By many accounts, people will consider it a successful season. Considered in a vacuum, it might come off as Heisman-worthy to many voters.
Unfortunately, the Heisman race does not take place in a vacuum. There are a bunch of great players who also have compelling narratives and who will also be putting up outstanding statistical seasons. Now that Barkley’s ability to cut through all that noise and rise above the pack has been taken away, he’s just another candidate with a loss on the ledger. He will be judged accordingly.
I will not say a Barkley Heisman win is impossible. I just consider it highly improbable at this point. The one scenario in which he could jump back into serious consideration is with what I call a “re-set.”
In this scenario, every candidate in the race stumbles badly. As a result, the race gets re-set and a free-for-all for the trophy ensues. But this doesn’t happen very often. Usually, we see a player take control of the race at some point and cruise to an easy win. The winner is the player who best captures the spirit of a particular season.
No one knows exactly who that will be right now, which is what makes this year’s race so intriguing.
As for Barkley, I think it’s a safe bet that he will still get to New York as a Heisman finalist. He is still highly-regarded as a quarterback, he’ll still put up good numbers and USC is a couple good wins away from re-entering the top-10.
But I don’t think he’ll actually win.
To quote Austin Powers: That train has sailed.