Heisman! Trophy Factors for Barkley and McSorley

Momentum had been building all of last season. Big games led to big performances, and plenty of wins — nine straight, in fact, for the Penn State football team. The country began taking notice, and along with that, standout running back Saquon Barkley entered the Heisman Trophy conversation.

After the team’s dismantling of Iowa in early November at Beaver Stadium, here’s what Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said about Barkley and the lofty honor:

“As a team, we do believe that he deserves that. You can ask anyone on the team, and they’re going to say that Saquon’s one of the best running backs in the country and that he deserves to have that kind of recognition.”

Much has changed since then.

Barkley has gone from the outside of the Heisman Trophy conversation to a strong contender (and a projected Top 10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft, should he forgo his senior season), and McSorley has elevated his play to the point where he’s now a contender himself.

Setting aside outside circumstances that inevitably impact the Heisman race, here are five controllable factors that will have a significant impact on whether or not Barkley or McSorley claim the second Heisman Trophy in Penn State history.

1. Their performances against Ohio State (and whether or not Penn State makes the College Football Playoff)

I’d argue it’s impossible for either Barkley or McSorley to win the Heisman Trophy if Penn State doesn’t at least claim the East Division of the Big Ten, and most likely, the entire conference. The last 10 Heisman Trophy winners won an average of 12 games in their trophy-winning seasons, with many players competing for (and winning) national championships. Even though voters are dispersed across the nation, players in their own region tend to dominate voting in that region. So the more Barkley and McSorley can impress while playing in nationally televised primetime games (such as the Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl last season), the more it’ll help with voters who might not be as likely to place them on their ballot, simply because they’re not as familiar with them. After last season, both Barkley and McSorley don’t need to worry about being overlooked, but voters in other regions might not see them play every week, so it’ll be paramount to capitalize on those opportunities, or in the case of the postseason, create those opportunities.

2. How much they produce in the non-conference schedule

Penn State plays a fairly weak three-game stretch before Big Ten play, hosting Akron, Pitt, and Georgia State in consecutive weeks starting Sept. 2. The obvious potential is there for both players to post big-time numbers, though how much they produce will be key; or more precisely, how many reps they get before presumably Penn State has a big enough lead to pull them from the game. For example, will James Franklin keep his top two players in the game if Penn State has a 28-point lead in the second half? Early-season buzz is important, and more playing time equals increased numbers for Barkley and McSorley.

3. How much they compete against one another for votes

Voting takes place across the country, though voters are divided up regionally. For either to win, Barkley or McSorley will most likely need to dominate the northeast region. If neither does, they both will still rack up votes, though probably not enough for one player to create so much distance that it elevates him above everyone else to win the award.

4. Barkley’s pursuit of the Penn State all-time rushing record

Barkley currently ranks 12th all-time on Penn State’s career rushing list with 2,572 yards, as Evan Royster sits atop with 3,932 yards. Barkley’s certainly capable of the season that’s needed to take over the record, and if he gets there, it should do plenty to boost his Heisman chances. Look at it this way: In just three seasons, he’ll have ascended to the all-time leader in rushing yards in a program that’s famous for running backs. That should give Barkley enough national buzz and cache to earn a trip to the Heisman Trophy Award presentation in December in New York.

5. Penn State’s national perception (and how much the Lions shape it this season)

OK, so this last one isn’t totally controllable, though it’s still worth considering. Speaking to USA Today earlier this year, Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki said this, in describing Barkley:

“If he’s at Ohio State, people are blowing up; if he’s at Alabama, people are blowing up. But he’s at Penn State.”

Ohio State has had seven Heisman Trophy winners (tied with Notre Dame for most all-time), and Alabama’s two Heisman winners have both been running backs who claimed the award in 2009 and 2015. For a program that’s as historically rich as Penn State, this is the first season in 15 years when the Nittany Lions have a legitimate chance for the Heisman Trophy — Larry Johnson finished third in 2002.

Early signs point to a new vibe in Happy Valley this season in more ways than just having a serious contender. During this year’s Blue-White game, the team made available John Cappelletti’s Heisman Trophy from 1973, allowing fans to pose for photos and using the hashtag #HappyValleyHeisman.

Last season, McSorley prefaced his previous quote by saying the Heisman Trophy isn’t something that the team regularly discusses. That makes sense, given Franklin’s mantra about controlling what you can control. This season, that includes a possible Heisman push from the program, even if it’s subtle, like at Blue-White. And with players like Barkley and McSorley, it’s hard to blame anybody for making that connection.

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