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Thanks to Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon III, the Heisman race just got a whole lot more interesting.
Last Saturday Gordon had arguably the greatest single-game performance by a college football player since the turn of the century. He rushed for 408 yards, breaking former NFL great and TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson’s single-game rushing record (406) that he set in 1999.
The two historic performances look similar at first glance, but dive deeper in the numbers and you’ll discover that even Tomlinson’s day in ‘99 pales in comparison to what Gordon did to Nebraska last weekend.
Tomlinson needed 41 carries to achieve his 406 yards, which is an average of about 10 yards per carry. Gordon needed just 25, however. His yard per carry average was an astonishing 16.3. He also did it against Nebraska, a team that could still feasibly win the Big Ten championship. Tomlinson did it against UTEP, a team that finished the ‘99 season 5-7.
Tomlinson didn’t win the Heisman in ‘99, though he did finish fourth in 2000. By comparison, Gordon is now in the thick of the Heisman race, moving from No. 4 to No. 2 in my most recent Heisman Watch. He now trails only Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. A lot can and will change between now and early December, but this appears to be a two-man race between Gordon and Mariota, even though TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, Alabama receiver Amari Cooper, and Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott have each produced solid seasons.
Voters do emphasize team record, which Mariota will have to his advantage. Oregon is probably going to finish the regular-season 11-1 and play a ranked team in the Pac-12 championship, giving him an excellent opportunity to pad his stats in front of a national audience.
Nevertheless, Gordon will have a compelling case if he leads Wisconsin to a Big Ten championship. No longer is this an improbable task, as the Badgers' win over Nebraska cements them as the frontrunners in the Big Ten West. Victories over rivals Iowa and Minnesota would secure Wisconsin’s berth in the Big Ten title game, where they would play mighty Ohio State for the conference title.
The Badgers cannot beat Ohio State unless Gordon plays spectacular. They don’t have much of a passing attack, so coach Gary Anderson is going to ride Gordon as far as he can take the program.
If Wisconsin somehow wins the Big Ten championship this season, then all the credit will rightfully go to Gordon.
The Heisman trophy would follow, regardless of what Mariota does the rest of the season.
Last Week: 5-0
Season Record: 46-16
No. 25 Minnesota at No. 23 Nebraska
Time/TV: 12:00 PM EST Nov. 22, ESPN
Prediction: Last week, Minnesota hanged with Ohio State for the entire game, proving they were better than advertised. This week, they’re walking into a Lion’s Den, and the Lion is angry. Nebraska is looking forward to getting back on the field, so they can put last Saturday’s embarrassing loss to Wisconsin behind them. A program of their caliber doesn’t lose 59-23 one week, and come out the next and lay a dud at home.
Nebraska 42 Minnesota 17
No. 15 Arizona at No. 17 Utah
Time/TV: 3:30 PM EST Nov. 22, ESPN
Prediction: The Pac-12 South might be college football’s most competitive division. Five teams (Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, USC, and Utah) can still reach the Pac-12 title game. Utah is the longest of long shots. They need to win their final two games, and hope that the remaining four teams all finish conference play with a 6-3 record. Neither Utah nor Arizona is playing at a high level right now. The Wildcats peaked when they upended Oregon in Eugene, and Utah is just 1-2 in their last three games. The Utes cannot afford to fall behind against the Wildcats, as they don’t have enough explosiveness in the passing game to mount a comeback against a team as dynamic as Arizona is. Therefore, Utah must run the ball with running back Devontae Booker to keep the Wildcats’ offense on the sidelines. Booker is arguably the top running back in the conference, so I’m going to ride with him in what is a very difficult game to project.
Utah 30 Arizona 28
No. 16 Wisconsin at Iowa
Time/TV: 3:30 PM EST Nov. 22, ABC
Prediction: Winning in Iowa is always tough for Wisconsin, but the Badgers’ offensive line is beginning to hit its stride. Gordon deserves all the praise in the world for his performance against Nebraska, but Wisconsin’s offensive line dominated the trenches. Additionally, the defense is quietly one of the best in the country. Until last week, they hadn’t played anyone credible, but they did a great job of holding Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah to less than 100 yards on the ground. The Hawkeyes pride themselves on their rugged play, but no Big Ten defense outside of Michigan or Ohio will slow down Gordon. The Badgers all of a sudden are an extremely interesting team with a good defense, offensive line, and Heisman-contending running back.
Wisconsin 35 Iowa 24
No. 8 Ole Miss at Arkansas
Time/TV: 3:30 PM EST, Nov. 22, CBS
Prediction: Nobody is every truly safe in the SEC, especially against Arkansas. The Razorbacks are coming off their first SEC win of the Bret Bielema Era, which may end in a couple of weeks, and they’ve routinely played other SEC schools tough this year. Texas A&M beat them in overtime, Alabama beat them by a point, and Mississippi State by seven. From a talent standpoint, Ole Miss might be the best overall team in the SEC. They have the best defense, and their offense is potent as long as they protect the ball. If there is a two-loss team that is going to crash the college football playoff, it’s the Rebels.
Ole Miss 28 Arkansas 14
No. 19 USC at No. 9 UCLA
Time/TV: 8:00 PM EST, Nov. 22, ABC
Prediction: If not for Arizona State’s unlikely Hail Mary against them last month, USC would be in the driver’s seat to win the Pac-12 south. The Hail Mary happened, though, making a USC run at the Pac-12 title a bit more difficult. They need to win their final two games, and hope that Arizona State loses one of its final two. UCLA controls its current destiny. They’re playing much better on the offensive side of the ball, with quarterback Brett Hundley producing with both his arm and legs. The defense remains an area of concern. They’ve given up 30 or more points in four of their last five games. Protecting Hundley is another concern. Their offensive line is among the worst in the conference, and led by defensive lineman Leonard Williams, USC has plenty of muscle upfront to wreak havoc on the Bruins' star quarterback. Home-field advantage and quarterback play favors UCLA, but the overall matchup favors the Trojans.
USC 38 UCLA 31