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Statistically Speaking- How does Booker win the Heisman?

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Devontae Booker is a Heisman candidate. Kyle Whittingham has openly discussed it, he’s shown up on preseason watch lists, he even has his own hashtag. Everyone knows that quarterbacks are the favorites to win the Heisman, but what does a running back need to do to earn a trip to the awards ceremony and hopefully win it all?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Winning the Heisman is about votes, first and foremost. Play and production matters, but it has to be the right kind on the right team at the right time to attract the attention of Heisman voters. To understand what Booker needs to do if he wants a plane ticket to New York, I have pulled together the season statistics for each of the three top finishers since 2004, a total of 33 names. I pared these 33 down to 31, excluding Manti Te’o and Amari Cooper, since they don’t really answer the questions we are asking.

Getting an invitation to New York as a running back is a matter of pure production. While quarterbacks are generally expected to play for top ranked teams, running backs do not have that pressure. The pressure comes instead from the lofty statistical expectations placed on these players.

Player & Year

Rush Yards

Rec. Yards

Y/Carry

TD

Return Yards

Return TD

Team Win %

Peterson '04

1925

12

5.7

15

92%

Bush ‘05

1740

478

8.7

18

672

1

92%

McFadden ‘06

1647

149

5.8

15

262

1

71%

McFadden ‘07

1830

164

5.6

17

316

0

61%

Ingram ‘09

1658

334

6.1

20

100%

Gerhart ‘09

1871

157

5.5

28

61%

L.M. James ‘10

1731

209

5.9

24

-2

0

92%

Richardson ‘11

1679

338

5.9

24

92%

Gordon ‘14

2587

153

7.5

32

78%

Average RB Finalist

1852

221

6.3

21

139

0

82%

Booker ‘14

1512

306

5.2

12

57

0

69%

This chart shows that winning percentage doesn’t matter for RBs the way it does for QBs (56% of whom had win percentages over 80); the Utes could go 8-5 in 2015 and that would be good enough for Booker to be a finalist, provided he puts up a lot of efficient yards and finds the end zone.

Efficiency has been key for Heisman finalist running backs, with no finalist in this group putting up less than 5.5 yards per carry. Every back but Peterson has also been relevant in the passing game, and the average total yards from scrimmage is about 2,000. Booker did not quite get there in 2014, but he was well within range. Hopefully, the improvements from the O-line that are expected in 2015 will help push his efficiency and yardage totals up to Heisman levels.

The part of Booker’s 2014 season that stands out as not being Heisman worthy is touchdowns. The 21 average is misleading; touchdowns have been trending upward at a rate of about 1.7 TDs per year. A regression analysis suggests that Booker will need 33 touchdowns to keep up, but in reality, it is likely that 25 or more will impress the voters.

Booker got the ball 335 times last season and scored 12 TDs, averaging a TD every 28 touches or so. In the last 10 games, Booker averaged 26 carries and 4 catches per game once he took over the starting role. At his 2014 rate, he’s projected to score about 13 TDs on 360 touches. If the Utes make it to Pac-12 championship game, he would score 14 times.

That is simply not enough. Booker needs to either substantially increase his touches, which is unlikely (only 6 running backs carried the ball more than 300 times last season), or make a dramatic improvement in his touchdown rate. To pick up 25 TDs on 400 touches, Booker will need to score once every 16 times he possesses the ball. Making that happen is going to require a dramatic improvement from every phase of the offense, so Booker sees fewer stacked boxes, particularly in goal line situations.

The bad news is that so much improvement from the rest of the offense is unlikely. The good news is that if Utah's offense improves this much, the Utes are likely to win almost all of their games this season and take at least the Pac-12 South crown. A 14th game means an opportunity to pile up more yards and scores.

If Booker wins the Heisman, it is probably going to be with a stat line that looks something like 340 carries for 2,000 yards and 50 catches for 300 yards, with 25 total touchdowns. That kind of performance will only be good enough, however, if a quarterback like Trevone Boykin or Cardale Jones does not have a Heisman performance for a Power 5 conference champion.

Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram have two things in common that set them apart from other Heisman finalists. First, their teams won a ton of games. Second and perhaps more importantly, no quarterback in those seasons hit the four key metrics for Heisman consideration.

First, a Heisman quarterback’s team has to win almost all of his games. Only one QB has won the Heisman in this group with a team winning percentage under .840: Tim Tebow’s 4000 yards, 55 total TDs, and 6 picks in ’06. (Only one player ever has won the Heisman Trophy from a team with a losing record, Paul Hornung in 1956.) Second, a Heisman quarterback has to have a 30/10 TD/INT ratio or better. In our group, only Johnny Manziel won the Heisman with less (26/9). Third, a QB has to be efficient and accurate, with a QB rating of at least 155.  Fourth, a Heisman QB has to be from a Power 5 conference. In 2009, Kellen Moore checked each box easily with a 39/3 TD/INT ratio and a 161.7 rating for an undefeated Broncos team. Despite this, Moore finished seventh in the voting.

For Devontae Booker to win the Heisman trophy, he will have to put up at least 2,000 all-purpose yards, 25 touchdowns, and rush for 6 yards per carry or so. He will have to do that for a Utes team that wins 10 or more games and plays in the Pac-12 Championship Game and hope that no Power 5 quarterback puts up Heisman numbers. It is a tall order, but one thing is for sure: Utah’s running back has the talent and skill to make it happen.