Heisman Watch: In appreciation of Clemson RB Travis Etienne

Sam Cooper

Each week for the rest of the season, we will highlight the five players we think are the top Heisman Trophy contenders. The list could change weekly as new players emerge and the true candidates separate themselves from the pack.

Previously: Preseason, Week 5, Week 6, Week 7, Week 8, Week 9, Week 10, Week 11

With votes due in just three weeks (Dec. 9), we’re coming down to the final stretch in deciding who will make the trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. One player who has flown under the radar, Clemson running back Travis Etienne, deserves more attention.

Clemson is almost assuredly heading to another ACC title and College Football Playoff appearance, and the efforts of Etienne have gone underappreciated.

Etienne finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting in 2018, but was overshadowed by the ascendance of freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Etienne rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns on 204 carries a year ago. Other than touchdowns scored, he has been even better in 2019.

In 11 games, the junior has rushed for 1,335 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 153 carries. That’s an average of 8.7 yards per attempt. What’s most remarkable is that rushing average is not an outlier statistic in his three years at Clemson. Etienne averaged 7.2 yards as a true freshman and improved to 8.1 yards per rush as a sophomore.

For his career, Etienne is averaging 8.1 yards per rush: 3,759 yards on 464 carries. That’s the third-best mark in FBS history behind Memphis’ Darrell Henderson (2016-2018) and Houston’s Chuck Weatherspoon (1988-1990). Henderson’s 3,545 yards on 431 career carries averages out to 8.225 yards per attempt. Weatherspoon’s 3,247 yards on 395 tries is next with an 8.220-yard average.

Etienne, a junior, is a heralded NFL draft prospect, so it seems like a long shot he would return for his senior season. Etienne is assured of at least three more games in 2019. If he finishes this season off with a flurry, he could end up atop the NCAA record books, as well as the Clemson record books.

Currently third in program history in rushing yards, Etienne is just 208 yards away from breaking Raymond Priester’s all-time record of 3,966 yards. And Priester did that in four years. Etienne could do it in just three.

(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)
(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

1. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU

Joe Burrow continues to pull away from the rest of the pack. Though he threw two uncharacteristic interceptions, the LSU senior had another excellent performance. The Tigers gained a ridiculous 714 yards of offense in a 58-37 win over Ole Miss with Burrow completing 32-of-42 passes for 489 yards and five touchdowns.

The 489 yards was a career high, and brought his season total to 3,687 yards with 38 touchdowns. Both marks rank second nationally while his completion percentage, 78.6, leads the country and would set an FBS record if the season ended today.

With Saturday’s win, the top-ranked Tigers improved to 10-0 on the season. Two games — Arkansas and Texas A&M — stand between LSU and the SEC title game. Those games represent three more opportunities for Burrow to continue to widen his Heisman lead.

(Last week: 1)

2. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma

Jalen Hurts committed three turnovers on Saturday night, but the Sooners had no chance to come back and beat undefeated Baylor without him. Hurts fumbled twice, including once at the goal line, and tossed an interception, but threw for 297 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 114 yards in a 34-31 victory in Waco.

The Sooners trailed 31-10 at halftime, but Hurts led a furious comeback to keep his team’s College Football Playoff hopes alive. And he did it without his top target, receiver CeeDee Lamb. After the game, Hurts is up to 3,039 yards and 28 touchdowns passing with 983 yards and 15 scores rushing. Both rushing totals are already career highs.

Burrow has a big lead, but Hurts likely has three more games to make his case to Heisman voters before their ballots are due.

(Last week: 2)

3. Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State

It says a lot about the season Chuba Hubbard is having when an afternoon with 122 yards and two touchdowns is one his lower statistical outputs of the year. Nonetheless, the performance in the 31-13 win over Kansas increased Hubbard’s national rushing lead, putting the sophomore at 1,726 yards and 20 touchdowns through 10 games. That’s 263 more yards than Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor as Hubbard gets closer to becoming the second OSU player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, joining Barry Sanders.

Hubbard has two more regular season opportunities to add to his total, including one against the rival Oklahoma Sooners on Nov. 30. With Oklahoma still in the College Football Playoff mix, the game will require national attention and give Hubbard the eyes he needs to make it to the Heisman ceremony in New York. On top of that, the Cowboys could play spoiler for their biggest rival and snap a four-game losing streak in the Bedlam series.

(Last week: 5)

4. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

We went in detail above on the ridiculous down-to-down consistency Travis Etienne has had over the course of his career. In the 2019 season alone, Etienne is leaps and bounds above other running backs. Among backs with at least 100 rushing attempts, the second-best average comes from Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, who is averaging 7.04 yards per attempt — well behind Etienne’s 8.73.

Etienne has also improved in the passing game this season. He combined for 17 catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns in his first two seasons — 28 total games. Through 11 games in 2019, Etienne has 25 catches for 252 yards and two scores. That versatility is something NFL scouts want to see as Etienne decides whether or not to come back to Clemson for his senior season.

(Last week: Unranked)

Clemson's Travis Etienne shakes off the tackle attempt by Wake Forest's Ja'Corey Johns on Saturday. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Clemson's Travis Etienne shakes off the tackle attempt by Wake Forest's Ja'Corey Johns on Saturday. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

5. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

With No. 2 Ohio State crushing teams on a weekly basis, Justin Fields hasn’t been tested all that much. Fields has thrown for 2,164 yards, 31 touchdowns and just one interception, but he’s only played into the fourth quarter in six of OSU’s 10 games. And several of those were only for one drive. But the next two weeks will be Fields’ time to shine.

In a game that will likely decide the Big Ten East, the Buckeyes welcome No. 9 Penn State to Columbus on Saturday. The Nittany Lions are 9-1 on the year, but have looked very shaky in the secondary in recent weeks. Fields will have a chance for a huge game when the eyes of the nation are upon him. After the PSU game, Fields will get his shot at OSU’s biggest nemesis, No. 15 Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Ohio State has won The Game in seven straight seasons.

(Last week: Unranked)

Also considered

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin: Taylor notched his third 200-yard effort of the season on Saturday, putting up 204 yards and two scores in a win over Nebraska. Taylor is second in the nation with 1,463 yards and will have the chance to get to New York if he can help the Badgers win the Big Ten West. The division will likely be on the line when UW travels to Minnesota on Nov. 30.

Chase Young, DE, Ohio State: Young’s Heisman momentum was halted when Ohio State held him out while his eligibility was being investigated by the NCAA. Young (15.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks in eight games) missed games against Maryland and Rutgers, both of which would have been stat-padding opportunities. He will be back on the field Saturday against Penn State with a chance to have another huge game.

Tyler Huntley, QB, Utah: Huntley has not gotten enough credit for the excellent season he is having at Utah. The senior is completing 74.2 percent of his passes and averaging 11.5 yards per attempt for the Utes, who are in the CFP picture. Those two stats trail only Burrow for the national lead.

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: Tagovailoa’s Heisman hopes were crushed when he went down with a season-ending hip injury. Tagovailoa has been one of the most exciting players in all of college football during his time at Alabama. Here’s to a full recovery.

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