Monday, December 14, 2009

Who deserved the Heisman?

Congratulations to Mark Ingram, the 75th winner of the Heisman Trophy and (remarkably) the first from Alabama.

I would have voted for Ndamukong Suh -- I honestly believe he was the best player in the country -- and most of the Southwest part of the country did vote for Suh, but it wasn't nearly enough. He finished fourth in every other region while Ingram, Toby Gerhart and Colt McCoy were first, second and third in varying orders.

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot of voters out there who just wouldn't put a defensive tackle at the top of their ballots, which is pretty lame. If he's the best player, vote for him. When you don't really watch the games, though (which most voters don't) -- when 95% of what you know comes from Sportscenter highlights or box scores -- all you know is which guy put up the best numbers and which teams won the most games. In my opinion, that's why the Heisman is more of a beauty contest than anything else.

One of the positives of living in the 21st century is that information is more available than ever, and it seems like this should have an effect on voting. I've watched literally dozens of game this year after midnight during the middle of the week on CSTV or ESPNU or ESPN Classic, and a torrent of just about every televised game can be found online. People (specifically voters) can see whatever they want to see, yet this doesn't seem to have had any effect on the Heisman.

Charles Woodson is still the only winner who wasn't an offensive skill-position player, and he probably wouldn't have edged Peyton Manning if not for his effort in Michigan's season-ending victory over Ohio State that completed an undefeated regular season. In that game, Woodson caught a long pass to set up Michigan's first touchdown, returned a punt for a TD (Desmond Howard deja vu) and intercepted a pass in the endzone. He did EVERYTHING in a game EVERYONE was watching; if he had just been a standout corner, he'd have finished a distant second (or lower).

A voter by the name of Bud Poliquin for the Syracuse Post-Standard explains the problem pretty well ...
The Heisman Trophy is pretty much a wonderful thing, but the body of deciders includes too many who are swayed by the packaging and even by the pre-packaging . . . who bow to the hype machines . . . who never seem to consider that the “most outstanding college football player” in all the land might play for a mediocre club whose overall talent load won’t allow that athlete to fully flower.
... and then proves his own point:
Anyway, for the record, my 1-2-3 official ballot read like this: Tebow-Ingram-McCoy.
Amazing. How can you write something so logical and then completely disregard it? How can you watch the SEC title game (maybe he didn't) and put Tebow ahead of Ingram? I have a lot of questions I'd like to ask Bud Poliquin, and the last one will probably be if I can use his ballot next year.

Regardless, since Suh was never going to receive serious consideration from some voters, the question is whether the right running back won. Toby Gerhart had the more impressive numbers, but that's not the only factor (otherwise Case Keenum would be your runaway winner). You have to look at what each player did relative to his opportunities and the defenses he was playing against, and that requires a little more in-depth analysis.

The raw totals:

Player Gerhart Ingram
Rush yards 1736 1542
Rush yards/game 144.67 118.62
Carries 311 249
Yards/carry 5.58 6.19
TDs 26 15
Receptions 10 30
Receiving yards 182 322
Receiving TDs 0 3

It's pretty clear, as mentioned above, that Gerhart had an impressive statistical season. But what I noticed right away is that he had a ridiculous 311 carries, 62 more than Ingram despite Ingram playing one extra game (the SEC championship). Everything else being equal, Ingram would have finished with 1,926 yards if he had been given the same number of carries as Gerhart (311 carries * 6.19 yards per carry). The difference between a 6.19 average and a 5.58 average might not seem significant, but we're talking about an additional 400 yards for Ingram.

What about the schedule difficulty? Were SEC defenses significantly tougher than those in the Pac-10? Here are the rush defense rankings for each player's opponents:

Gerhart Ingram
117 52
82 116
119 104
66 67
60 100
25 55
22 46
18 58
39 44
42 63
27 120
90 80


Surprisingly, the Pac-10 actually had noticeably better rush defenses than the SEC; Gerhart's average opponent had a rush defense ranked 59th, while Ingram's average opponent was 70th. To give you a numerical idea, that means Stanford's opponents allowed about 5 percent fewer rushing yards than Alabama's.

Both played several terrible defensive teams, but Gerhart had a stretch of six games where no opponent was ranked lower than 42nd. This was obviously offset somewhat by Ingram's game against Florida, by far the most difficult defense on either team's schedule (Arizona State was relatively close at 18th in rush defense, but the defenses as a whole -- and the situations -- aren't really comparable). In those six games, Gerhart averaged 31.8 carries (!!!) and 149 yards, or slightly more than his season average. His yards per carry, though, dropped to 4.69. In Ingram's six most difficult games, his average was 154 yards -- significantly more than his season average -- on 24.3 carries, or an average of 6.38 per carry.

In other words, Ingram's numbers were actually dragged down by games against Florida International, North Texas and Chattanooga; he had a total of 29 carries in those three games. He was by far his best against Alabama's toughest opponents, including 113 yards and three touchdowns in the biggest game this year in all of college football.

I was curious what the numbers would have looked like if Ingram had been given Gerhart's carries against Stanford's opponents and vice versa -- I wanted an alternate universe where the two guys swapped roles -- and here's what I came up with:

Player Gerhart Ingram
Rush yards 1463 1829
Rush yards/game 112.53 152.42
Carries 249 311
Yards per carry 5.87 5.88
Rush TDs 21 18

That's fairly definitive. Even against slightly tougher defenses, the additional carries Ingram would gain in this hypothetical scenario make the stats a landslide. Ingram would have gained almost 100 yards more than Gerhart did in reality, while Gerhart would have gained about 100 yards less than Ingram did. Yards per game would swing from 26 yards in Gerhart's favor to 40 yards in Ingram's favor. Yards per carry, while closer, would remain in Ingram's favor despite the adjustment for opponents' defenses. Gerhart's only advantage is in touchdowns, but it's a small advantage; it certainly wouldn't be enough to ignore Ingram's edge in every other category.

Simply put, while Gerhart's raw numbers were impressive, Ingram was actually a little better when you remove some of the statistical noise. If you'd have flipped the number of carries, Ingram's stats would have been so superior that the Heisman vote wouldn't have even been close. When you throw in the fact that team success has always had (and should continue to have) some effect on the voting, it's really no contest: Ingram was a huge part of Alabama going 12-0, and while it certainly wasn't Gerhart's fault that Stanford lost four games, it didn't help that he was held 35 yards under his average in those games.

I still think Ndamukong Suh should have won, but if it had to be an offensive player, the choice was clear. The right running back got the trophy.

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