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How Melvin Gordon’s Big Day Exposes Flaw in Heisman Award System

With a record-setting rushing performance, the Badgers’ back instantly enters the race for the prestigious trophy – and that’s not right

Melvin Gordon

Melvin Gordon of the Wisconsin Badgers runs the ball against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Ronald Martinez/Getty

I am not here to disparage Melvin Gordon, because what Gordon accomplished last Saturday, in rushing for an NCAA-record 408 yards in Wisconsin’s win over Nebraska, was indisputably badass.

So let me clarify this up front: What follows is not a complaint about Melvin Gordon. What follows is a complaint about the process surrounding Melvin Gordon.

Before last Saturday, Gordon was not a first-tier contender for the Heisman Trophy, the prestigious award that is bestowed upon the best college football player in the country based on utterly nebulous criteria. Now, Gordon is a clear second in ESPN’s straw poll, because Melvin Gordon had one (undeniably awesome) game that somehow set him far above the rest of the excellent running backs in the country (and in his own conference). And this would be totally fine, if it were based on any measure of consistent thought.

Because there are no real proscriptions as to how the Heisman should be voted upon – because it is not an MVP Trophy, or a position-specific honor – it’s more subject to the whims of the moment than any other major athletic award. Sometimes, it’s only about numbers; sometimes, it’s actively not about numbers. In Gordon’s case, it is about the numbers: If he had run for 408 yards in September – or if he had run, for, say 320 against Nebraska – and then been very good for the remainder of the season, it seems doubtful that anyone would have a tailback on an 8-2 team in the top five of their Heisman vote.

Perhaps you don’t believe me. Perhaps you think this person is somehow biased against the Big Ten, or short-legged omnivores, or soured milk. Fine, whatever. But there is a double standard at work here, and it goes back to a more innocent time in this 2014 football season, to a game played late in the evening of October 4, when a Washington State quarterback named Connor Halliday threw for 734 yards against Cal. This, too, was an NCAA record; this, too, was a breathtaking performance that probably should have earned Halliday at least some token Heisman consideration.

But it didn’t. Halliday was dismissed as a “system quarterback” who happened to play for pass-happy coach Mike Leach. Halliday’s record was a product of play-calling and desperation (the Cougars actually lost to Cal, 60-59), and therefore his numbers – which, if he’d completed the season, would have broken virtually every passing record known to man – were dismissed as irrelevant. Halliday was never even tossed into the cobwebbed depths of those Heisman straw polls. (Eventually, his numbers were rendered irrelevant, due to the unfortunate fact that Halliday broke his leg, ending his season in the worst possible way.)

But Melvin Gordon, largely because he happened to set his record at midday in a nationally televised November game, immediately leapt into the thick of the Heisman race.

It’s very possible that Gordon will win this thing, if he continues to put up huge numbers, and if Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota somehow stumbles in his final two contests. And perhaps you are a Heisman voter reading this who thinks Gordon clearly deserves it; perhaps you watch Melvin Gordon and think to yourself, he is clearly a notch better than, say, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman (who rushed for 307 yards against Rutgers last Saturday), or Georgia Southern’s Matt Breida (whose 9.4 yards per carry are even better than Gordon’s 8.6), or Minnesota’s David Cobb (who put up 145 yards against Ohio State last weekend). But before you go thinking those thoughts, read this tweet:

That’s Montee Ball, the former Wisconsin running back who is now in the NFL. And it points to an obvious truth that is both a credit to Wisconsin and an example of the double standard I’m referring to: If teams like Washington State and others with quarterbacks putting up huge statistics are “system offenses” with “system quarterbacks,” then what is Wisconsin but a “system offense” with “system running backs?”

I realize that the college game has veered toward gaudy passing numbers – and it is to the Badgers’ eternal credit that they’ve managed to stay competitive by turning in the opposite direction, and by developing whale-sized offensive lines – but you can’t have it both ways here. Either numbers mean nothing, or they mean everything. Either the system itself factors into your vote, or it should not. And if you want to get after me that winning matters more than anything else, then (if things stay as they are) you should hold your nose and vote for Jameis Winston.

Yet when it comes to the Heisman, you can have it both ways. You can have it whatever way you want. And this is why the Heisman vote is always such a fascinating study in groupthink. And this is why the Heisman vote is a reflection of the issue that looms over college football as a whole.

It gets, in fact, at my primary concern about bestowing the decision-making for the College Football Playoff onto a committee comprised largely of establishment-types. Forget the far-fetched notions about oligarchic conspiracies: The most insidious problem the committee must combat is groupthink. Is there anyone in that room advocating for the entirely sane idea that, say, an undefeated Marshall team should at the very least be ranked among the top 25 squads vying for a playoff berth? Is there anyone willing to raise the equally sane notion that head-to-head matchups should be the primary tiebreaker? Or are a few prominent people in that room setting the tone, and convincing everyone else to go along without much discussion?

I mean, I know it’s just college football, and the decisions we’re talking about are inherently inconsequential in the grand scheme of actual life. But this is a sport that never ceases to amaze me in its ability to reflect the vagaries of American culture. Maybe it’s just a stupid trophy, but the arguments always manage to reveal something about ourselves.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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