It was sometime late Saturday afternoon, well after Stanford had solidified its 34-24 victory over Arizona State, that the mundanity of the game truly set in. The Cardinal, at times, had excited and dazzled its spectators in quick bursts of action, but the warm, sun-filled September day was reminiscent of many past Cardinal performances. Adequate by most people’s standards, the team was finally able to shake the Sun Devils midway through the 4th quarter, although the game felt less competitive than it actually was.
Stop. Wait. Look. This was in fact no ordinary gameday at all. On Saturday, the 30th day of September, in the year 2017, junior running back Bryce Love eclipsed the school record for rushing yards in a game. No Stanford man, neither Toby Gerhart, nor Christian McCaffrey, nor anyone who came before had ever rushed for over 300 yards in a single game. This milestone is significant for numerous reasons. First, Love’s record is tangible proof that Stanford has successfully filled any gap left by McCaffrey. But more so, Stanford’s track record of developing NFL-ready running backs, makes the program one of the most appealing in the country for recruits at that position. Yet, given the high caliber of Stanford athletics, specifically football throughout the last decade, how has a Stanford player not won the Heisman trophy in nearly a half century?
Stanford is not without top talent. Four times in the past, and three in the last decade, a Cardinal has come in second place for the most coveted personal trophy in all of college football; Toby Gerhart in 2009, Andrew Luck in 2011 and Christian McCaffrey in 2015. Of course, each case is different, but analyzing the last three Stanford runners-up, a familiar pattern develops. In 2009 and 2015, running backs from Alabama beat out Stanford’s contestant. And in 2011, Andrew Luck was defeated by Robert Griffin III, the quarterback of Baylor. In each case, numbers suggested that either finalist had a legitimate shot at the Heisman, yet each time the Stanford athlete went home empty-handed.
It’s possible that the Heisman voters have an “East Coast bias.” Most of Stanford’s games have 7 p.m. PDT kick offs, which means that the most impactful moments of games are often after midnight on the East Coast. In the last 12 years, only one West Coast school has had a player who won a Heisman: Oregon with Marcus Mariota. Without the galvanizing presence of a program like USC, many West Coast schools are inherently disadvantaged, because pundits watch players and games on replay rather than live. Taking games out of context, it becomes harder to judge the immensity of accomplishments. This pattern was true with Christian McCaffrey during Stanford’s 2015 run, and is still true today with Bryce Love.
Love might have had the single best September of any running back in college football history. Yet ESPN, and other outlets still insist that Penn State’s running back Saquon Barkley is the front runner, despite Love having strictly better statistics in most categories. Comparing across positions is more difficult, but many rank USC quarterback Sam Darnold as a leading candidate. Thus arises the crux of the conundrum for Stanford athletes. By its very nature, Stanford is one of the most challenging universities on the face of the planet. D-1 college athletes practice for nearly as much time as many full-time jobs take per week. At Stanford, athletes must balance both school and team commitments to survive. But at most other schools, be it Penn State, Alabama or even USC, academic commitments are not nearly as tolling. Stanford students have some of the best athletic facilities, coaches and trainers in the country, but with the variety of other obligations Stanford football players have it is astounding that they continue to compete at a level matched by few other schools in the nation.
So when the Heisman committee meets this December, hopefully they take into consideration the enormity of Bryce Love’s accomplishments, both on the field and off. Like those who came before him, Love will face humbling competition, on the gridiron and in his HumBio core as well. With Stanford set for a grueling few weeks of Pac-12 matchups that include road trips to undefeated Utah and Washington State, we will soon find out how versatile Stanford football is. Hopefully we get some Heisman Love!
Contact Michael Spelfogel at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.