Back Travis Etienne for Heisman

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Travis Etienne for Heisman

By Jim Johnson
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Travis Etienne is going to win the Heisman in 2018.

Travis Etienne is going to win the Heisman in 2018.

This may end up being a market correction year for college football’s most prestigious individual award. In the last 12 years, just two running backs have taken home the trophy, while only one west coast player, since Reggie Bush’s vacated win in 2005, has struck the pose.

As wide open as the race is, it’s as good a time as ever to bet on someone a little bit outside the box.

With widespread departures among the most renowned quarterbacks in the country, there is not even a semblance of consensus as to who the best player will be at the game’s most important position. Whereas last year, everyone knew about Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield, or Deshaun Watson the year prior, there are anywhere from ten to twelve signal callers that one could reasonably make an argument for -- some more compelling than others, but still. Jarrett Stidham and Jake Browning stand out from that group, and Browning checks the Pac-12 box, yet neither is the caliber of player that any of the aforementioned were.

The running back landscape is filled with more accomplished talent -- Bryce Love and Jonathan Taylor, for example -- but with achievement comes expectations, and with sky high expectations, the perception of regression.

Outside of the traditional positions that contend for the honor, wide receivers A.J. Brown and N’Keal Harry are unlikely to meet the threshold of team success that looking back, fair or not, has been required for consideration.

It is poised to be the year of the defensive lineman, from Clemson’s potentially historically great front four to Nick Bosa to Rashan Gary to Ed Oliver to Jeffery Simmons, but, frankly, if Ndamukong Suh couldn’t score the votes in 2009, it doesn’t seem like it will ever happen for a purely defensive player.

Beyond that, there’s no one that particularly stands out in the Charles Woodson camp of versatile virtuosity, and he is still the only predominantly defensive player to hoist the trophy, so that remains unlikely.

Bearing all of that in mind, the list is both whittled down, and yet the outcome just as hazy and unclear. Nonetheless, no one is an obviously better wager than Etienne. He helps fill the recent void of running back winners, and while Bryce Love hits both marks, a pacific time zone star, as well, the voters hitting two birds with one stone feels fairly improbable. That, and playing alongside Browning who will take a good portion of the credit for Washington’s success, will knock Myles Gaskin down, too.

Just running through a few of the remaining backs, neither Cam Akers, Damien Harris, J.K. Dobbins, nor D’Andre Swift should be expected to get the requisite touches needed to post the sort of numbers to compete, while fellow dark horses Benny Snell, A.J. Dillon, and David Montgomery will suffer from not playing for contenders.

On the flipside, Etienne, based on last year’s production (and his 50/1 Heisman odds) will avoid the perception of regression phenomenon, even ostensibly “splitting” carries with Tavien Feaster, he ought to be Clemson’s feature back, and with Clemson headed for the first ever 15-0 season and its second national championship in three years, the national attention around the program will be unsurpassed.

Albeit on a smaller sample size, Etienne was remarkable as a freshman. Relative to the ten aforementioned fellow backs, the cream of the crop in college football, his 7.2 yards per carry tied for fourth, trailing Love, Swift, and Harris.

A nightmare in the open field, his 7.5 additional yards per opportunity, upon reaching the second level, ranked fourth, as well, behind Love, Swift, and Dobbins.

Always a threat to rip off a big gain, 7.5% of his carries went for 20+ yards (4th), and 3.7% for 50+ yards (2nd)

Efficient, not just explosive, he gained at least five yards on 45.8% of his carries, good for second in the group. Harris was the lone better back, in that respect.

And for good measure, showing off a nose for the end zone, his 12.14% touchdown rate was first.

For those scoring at home, the Clemson standout was the only one to finish in the top four of all six categories. In fact, Harris was the only one to even finish in the top six of each metric.

No, Etienne may not be quite as steady as Harris, but he’s more explosive. He may not be as electric as Love, but he’s more efficient. Even guys like Taylor, Swift, and Dobbins, who performed solidly, almost across the board, were not without deficiencies -- the scoring rates for the latter two, and the lack of any one elite facet for the former.

It’s too early to just call that Etienne will be the most well-rounded ball carrier in the nation, but if he maintains his per touch production with a large sample size, that will simply become a statistical truth.

This guy is electric with sprinter speed -- it’s like if Dash from The Incredibles parents had let him play football -- and as reliable as the sunrise. His having a “Heisman moment” is a foregone conclusion -- probably coming on some kind of nonsensical 80-yard rush in which he switches fields like seven times and jukes all eleven opposing players’, plus at least two refs’, souls out of their respective bodies.

He’s just off the radar enough to elude overwhelming expectations, like he eludes would-be tacklers, but with enough notoriety that he won’t be starting from scratch. Plus, the way he runs is so aesthetically pleasing, so exciting, so mesmerizing -- he’s sure to become a fast favorite of fans everywhere. With narrative and buzz and theatrics as important as actual production, as far as the Heisman goes, these days, those 50/1 odds are starting to look like free money.

Jump on the bandwagon early, there’s still plenty of space. By October, it’ll be standing room only. Come November, it’ll be a fire hazard. And on December 8th, watch him join the game’s most exclusive fraternity.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP