Leonard Fournette isn’t in the Heisman Trophy race — yet
LSU's star RB seemingly bounced back with a strong performance against Ole Miss, but what will it take to join the Heisman conversation?
Leonard Fournette isn’t in the Heisman Trophy race — yet
One big question to come out of LSU’s win over Ole Miss on Saturday night was whether or not Leonard Fournette’s performance puts him back into the Heisman Trophy race. It’s an interesting takling point, and one which could have more validity as the season progresses. However, the simple answer as stand in late October is “no” — not yet, anyway.
One game doesn’t make a Heisman campaign
Football can be cruel at times, and Leonard Fournette has a strong case to say that he was better than last season’s Heisman winner, Alabama’s Derrick Henry, over the balance of the season. However, with the lights at their brightest, the Alabama defense shut Fournette down while Henry continued to put up big performances as the Tide rolled, and the rest is history. You really can pinpoint that night as the game where Fournette lost the Heisman. Just because you can lose the award with one game doesn’t mean that you can win it with one, however.
This has been a frustrating season for Fournette, with injuries severely limiting him and LSU’s offense struggling to the point of a coaching change having to be made. He looked very good against Ole Miss on Saturday night in primetime, but up until this point he has managed to rack up just 670 yards on 83 carries. That’s still an impressive 8.1 yards per carry, but the total volume is lacking when you stack it up against the rest of the running backs in the nation. He ranks 31st in rushing yards, despite being tied for fourth in yards per carry. He’s forced 15 missed tackles on those 83 carries, one every 5.5 rushing attempts, and when you factor in four missed tackles forced on 15 receptions and an average of 3.2 yards after contact per carry, he has an elusive rating of 64.1 — ranking 77th among running backs in the nation. Simply put, Fournette is a great football player, but injuries have limited him to a much smaller role than you’d like to see from a Heisman Trophy candidate so far this year.
Stacked list of candidates
As you’ll have seen from Steve Palazzolo’s Heisman ranking earlier today, the group of players putting themselves in the running for the award this year is stacked. It starts with Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has been a human highlight reel with the ball in his hands. That being said, this could finally be the year when a defensive player gets their hands on the bronze statue once again, with both Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen having incredible seasons for undefeated teams.
Even when considering only those three players, Fournette can’t make a case. Fournette’s season grade of 70.2 so far this year comes up short, compared to grades of 92.3 for Jackson, 82.9 for Peppers and 92.3 for Allen. All three have made multiple plays that have helped define the college football season, and shape the College Football Playoff picture so far, and right now it would be hard to justify Fournette as the victor. Jackson has the ridiculous touchdown total, Peppers has made plays on offense, defense and special teams, and Allen had that incredible “Heisman moment” play against Texas A&M, where he beat the guard with ease before leaping over the running back to get to quarterback Trevor Knight. Fournette has a big performance that was boosted thanks to some well-blocked runs and poor defensive play by Ole Miss, like the play below, so it doesn’t quite add up as the same wow factor.
Lot of ball game left
That being said, just because I’m not ready to anoint him with the trophy after his 284 yard performance against Ole Miss, doesn’t mean that Leonard Fournette cannot categorically win the Heisman Trophy this year. LSU has four big conference games left to end the season and Fournette could still play a pivotal role in shaping the SEC and the College Football Playoff.
The defining game will most likely come against Alabama on November 5th. While one game won’t win him the Heisman Trophy, he needs the narrative of a revenge game against Alabama. The No. 1 team in the nation will roll into town, and if LSU can be knock them from the ranks of the unbeatens behind a dominant performance from Fournette, everyone will notice. Let’s not forget that if they win out there’s a very good chance they will win the SEC West, and even with two losses, an SEC title that included wins over several top 25 teams, but most notably Alabama and Texas A&M, would be tough to keep out of the College Football Playoff if that happens.
Most importantly, Fournette has the ability to cause any defense major problems — even Alabama’s. As evidenced by the play below, he’s a wrecking ball with legs in the open field for opposing linebackers and defensive backs, so the Alabama defense will have to be at their usual high standard to keep him at bay. Really, it starts up front. Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen both rank in the top three in terms of grades among players on the defensive interior, so the LSU offensive line will struggle to move them out of the way to allow Fournette to get to the second level. If he does, this is what he’s capable of.
That’s the type of play that has seen Fournette break 131 tackles on 571 carries over the past three seasons, and it’s exactly the kind of highlight play that can fully vault a player into the Heisman Trophy picture under the right circumstances. It’s already got people talking, but realistically it shouldn’t put him fully in the picture for the award quite yet. What he needs to do now is do the same against Alabama next week, and eventually lead LSU to the SEC Championship game. If he does that? Then he’ll have earned the right to be in the discussion for the award.
Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.