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Tom Oates: Unfortunately, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor won’t get sniff at Heisman

November 25, 2018
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UW sophomore Jonathan Taylor rushed for 321 yards against Purdue last week to give him an FBS-leading 1,869.

His exploits are are being compared to those of record-setting tailbacks Ron Dayne and Melvin Gordon. He has virtually wrapped up the national rushing title with one regular-season game to play. And he’s done it all despite being paired with a passing offense ranked 114th in the country.

Opposing defenses know University of Wisconsin tailback Jonathan Taylor is coming and they still haven’t been able to stop him. Indeed, the 5-foot-11, 221-pound Taylor has gone places no UW sophomore has ever gone before.

A few of Taylor’s highlights:

The 321 rushing yards he had against Purdue last week was the third-highest total in UW history, behind Gordon’s 408 against Nebraska in 2014 and Dayne’s 339 against Hawaii in 1996.His 1,869 rushing yards this season average out to 169.9 per game and lead second-place Darrell Henderson of Memphis by an astonishing 31.6 yards per game.After last weekend’s round of games, he had outrushed 66 of the NCAA’s 130 FBS programs all by himself.His 3,846 rushing yards in his first two seasons broke the FBS record for combined rushing yards as a freshman and sophomore set by Dayne, UW’s Heisman Trophy winner in 1999.His two-year total ranks eighth in FBS history for rushing yards in consecutive seasons and, with two games to play, he’s within striking distance of the leader, Gordon, UW’s Heisman runner-up in 2014.

With a nation-leading 47 runs of 10-plus yards in UW’s 11 games, Taylor has become must-see TV.

“I don’t know what else you’d watch,” guard Michael Deiter said. “If you want to watch someone who’s really dynamic with the football, watch J.T.”

Still, when UW faces Minnesota in its final regular-season game today at Camp Randall Stadium, one question remains: Are the Heisman voters watching J.T.?

Badgers fans aren’t going to like the answer because even though Taylor has put up Heisman-like numbers, he hasn’t been in the discussion for the award since early in the season. It’s all in the Heisman demographics.

Since Dayne won the trophy almost 20 years ago, the Heisman has morphed into an award reserved almost exclusively for the best quarterback on a highly ranked team. As a tailback on a UW team with a disappointing 7-4 record, Taylor doesn’t fit the description.

None of this diminishes in any way the spectacular season Taylor — and his run-blockers — are having. In fact, it says way more about the award than it says about Taylor.

Of the 18 Heismans handed out since Dayne walked off with the trophy, 15 have gone to quarterbacks. That’s a significant shift for the most prestigious award in college sports, which was first handed out in 1935.

The Heisman was primarily a running back award for much of its existence, culminating in a stretch from 1973 through 1985 in which runners took 12 of the 13 trophies. Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and even a cornerback (Michigan’s Charles Woodson) passed around the award for the next 14 years before the college game changed and quarterbacks took over, starting with Florida State’s Chris Weinke in 2000.

The only three running backs who have won the award since then — USC’s Reggie Bush in 2005, Alabama’s Mark Ingram in 2009 and Alabama’s Derrick Henry in 2015 — have one thing in common: Their teams all played in the national championship game.

Which brings us to the second of the new-school Heisman requirements: If a player doesn’t play for a team that is in the top 10, he’s likely off the Heisman grid.

Of the past 19 winners, including Dayne, 16 played for teams that ended the season ranked in the top eight in The Associated Press poll. The three outliers — Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2007, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III in 2011 and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in 2016 — played on teams that were solidly in the top 25.

The Badgers haven’t been ranked in a month and their four losses alone might keep Taylor from serious consideration. Oklahoma’s Steve Owens was the most recent player to win the Heisman from a team that lost four games during the regular season. That was in 1969.

Even though Taylor has rushed for 714 yards — 8.93 per carry — in his past three games and had his Heisman moment in UW’s come-from-behind, triple-overtime win at Purdue last week, he wasn’t among the top nine candidates in odds posted by Bovada.com this week. Eight of the nine were quarterbacks and the only running back was Travis Etienne of second-ranked Clemson, who was a distant seventh. One trait the top nine candidates share is that all are on teams ranked in the top 12.

That’s just the way it goes for the Heisman these days, which is unfortunate for Taylor, who belongs in any conversation for the best player in the nation.

“He’s playing as well as any running back in the country, I would believe and do believe,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “I’m glad he’s on our team. I love his approach because it has nothing to do with what’s in it for him and yet he’s playing as well as (anyone). He’s a football player that’s playing at the highest level.”

Though clearly true, that likely won’t be enough for Taylor to earn passage to New York as a Heisman finalist, especially in a season where there are so many productive quarterbacks on highly ranked teams.

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