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How can Chase Young win the Heisman Trophy?

Defensive players hardly ever build a legitimate case for the Heisman, but the Predator could have quite a compelling argument.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Miami OH at Ohio State Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It has been almost 22 years since a player other than a quarterback or running back has won the Heisman Trophy.

The last and only “primarily” defensive player to win the award was infamous Michigan Man Charles Woodson in 1997. There have been some notable high finishes in the two decades plus since then, with the closest being Manti Te’o’s second place finish in 2012. Te’o and former Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green remain the only defensive players other than Woodson to earn a seat among the top three finalists at the Heisman Ceremony in New York. There have been other interesting finishes for defensive players throughout the years — among them a 1986 final tally that saw three linebackers including Chris Spielman finish in the voters’ top ten — but most end up falling just short of college football’s most prestigious individual award.

Defensive linemen in particular have had a rough time breaking into the upper echelon of Heisman voting. Hugh Green — a future NFL linebacker — came closest to winning and is the only defensive lineman to ever attend the ceremony, finishing second to George Rogers in 1980 despite compiling 123 total tackles, 17 sacks, and seven forced fumbles. Steve Emtman of Washington’s 1991 National Championship team finished fourth in Heisman voting that year despite what many consider to be one of the most dominant individual seasons in college football history. Aside from those two, the only other defensive lineman to finish in the top four of Heisman trophy voting was Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh in 2009. Warren Sapp finished in sixth place in 1994.

Even if including linebackers that predominantly serve as pass/edge rushers, Jadeveon Clowney is the only member of that group that has finished in the top six players receiving votes since 1991 (A.J. Hawk also finished sixth as an OLB in 2005 but played in a 4-3 defense and was not primarily used as a pass rusher). It’s also worth noting that Terrell Suggs didn’t even finish in the top ten for Heisman voting in 2002 when he recorded 24 sacks to set an NCAA single-season record. There have been more than a handful of defensive lineman that have cracked the top ten — most recently Jonathan Allen and Quinnen Williams of Alabama finished 7th/8th in 2016 and 2018, respectively. But no defensive lineman since Suh has even come close to sniffing an appearance at the Heisman Ceremony in the last decade, and no defensive lineman in nearly 40 years has made it there at all.

Enter Chase Young, 2019.

Young has been an absolute wrecking ball through the first eight games of Ohio State’s season, and has proven his nickname of “The Predator” has far more to do with his playing-style than hairstyle. Young is coming off the best game of his career that saw him record four sacks and two forced fumbles against a Wisconsin program that is effectively known around the football universe as an NFL offensive lineman factory. He has an absurd 13.5 sacks and five forced fumbles with five games remaining on the schedule before Heisman Trophy voting begins. Young’s media hype outside of the Big Ten probably isn’t where it deserves to be yet, but a thrilling November on tap for the Buckeyes combined with a sky high NFL Draft projection will likely help him build a commanding national profile over the remaining weeks of the regular season.

So does Chase Young have a case for a seat in New York? Does he have a legitimate chance to become the first pure defensive player to win the award, or at least the first defensive player since Woodson? Yes, but there are three musts that have to happen if such a scenario is to take place:

1. Ohio State needs to win out

There’s simply no way Chase Young even gets top three consideration for the Heisman if the Buckeyes aren’t in the driver’s seat of their destiny by College Football Playoff time. The majority of Charles Woodson’s Heisman campaign in 1997 stood on the fact that Michigan finished the season undefeated and eventually went on to become co-National Champion. Their narrative was that they had the best defense in the country led by the nation’s best defensive player, and Woodson’s incredible performance with the football world watching in Michigan’s game against Ohio State cemented that narrative. Woodson’s individual defensive stats for the season weren’t exactly other-worldly (he made 43 tackles, his seven interceptions didn’t lead college football, and he had only five pass breakups all year), but his prime-time performance in all three phases against Ohio State gave his candidacy the lift it needed to put him over the top. Had Ohio State beaten Michigan in 1997, it’s fair to assume Peyton Manning wins the Heisman Trophy instead.

(Side Note: Randy Moss should have won over everybody, and the fact that he didn’t will forever be one of college football’s most unforgivable sins)

But with that standard being set by Woodson, it’s clear that Heisman voters value the impact an individual player has on their team’s most important games. Fortunately for Young, his fingerprints were all over the Buckeyes’ 38-7 domination of Wisconsin. One down, two or three more statement wins to go.

But the even better news is that Young should have ample opportunity to shine in both of Ohio State’s toughest remaining games, not including a date in the Big Ten Championship game. Young does a majority of his damage on 3rd downs, and Football Outsiders tells us that Penn State has one of the worst passing downs surrendered sack rates in college football this season at 12% (112th overall out of 130 teams). Michigan’s 3rd down rate is much better than Penn State’s, but all three of their surrendered sack rates are firmly in the middle of the pack of college football (total surrendered sack rate of 5.7%, ranks 63rd overall). Wisconsin ranked as a top ten pass-protection team in college football with a surrendered sack rate of 2.8% prior to the Ohio State game, and Young nearly dropped their ranking to 61st overall (5.7%) by himself. There’s a very good chance the Buckeyes could see the Badgers again in the Big Ten Championship.

So the opportunities for Young are there. Win out with three impactful games against three quality opponents, and Ohio State will find themselves positioned as a national title favorite led by the game-changing play of The Predator. With a narrative like that working in his favor, it’s going to take a very compelling counter-argument to keep Young out of New York. But just how good is Young going to have to be in his remaining five games to have the stats working in his favor as well?

2. Chase Young must break two single-season NCAA records

Yes, not merely one, but two records must be broken for Chase Young to put himself over the top.

Young is currently within striking distance of what would prove to be the most dominant pass rushing season by any player in the history of college football. His 13.5 sacks this season already eclipses the amount Jadeveon Clowney had when Clowney finished sixth in Heisman voting in 2012. His five forced fumbles are most by any defensive lineman in college football this season. That Young has managed to do all of this merely eight games into his team’s schedule — without playing either of the two worst teams in the B1G East yet — is nothing short of spectacular.

So spectacular, in fact, that Young finds himself in contention to set two new NCAA single-season defensive records in 2019. As mentioned earlier, Terrell Suggs currently holds the single-season sack record with 24, though he did not earn any Heisman votes whatsoever due to his Arizona State team’s 8-6 finish in 2002. Former Illinois linebacker Whitney Mercilus currently holds the single-season forced fumbles record with nine in 2011. Young has an opportunity to break both of these records this season if Ohio State advances to the National Championship game and earns an opportunity to play a fifteen game schedule.

The sack record seems to be the easier of the two to obtain. In order to gain sole ownership of the record, Young would need eleven sacks over the next seven games, for a rate of ~1.57 sacks per game the rest of the season. That’s actually a slightly smaller average than what Young has posted to date, as his 13.5 sacks over his first eight games figure out to a rate of ~1.69 sacks per game. Five of these last seven games would come against top 25 competition, but if Young keeps performing at the level he has and Ohio State is still playing in January, the sack record will likely be his to lose.

However, the forced fumbles record is a bit trickier for two reasons. For one, Young will need to double his total that he has now to claim sole ownership of the record, and four of his five forced fumbles have come in just two games this season. Additionally, while Young leads all defensive linemen in forced fumbles so far, there’s actually another Illinois linebacker this season that is threatening Mercilus’ NCAA record. After the Illini’s game against Rutgers this past weekend, Jake Hansen currently has seven forced fumbles through nine games. With Illinois nowhere near Big Ten Championship contention, Hansen will have three regular season games left to add to his tally, and likely a fourth should Illinois win one more game and qualify for a bowl.

This means Young will have to catch and eclipse Hansen some time in Ohio State’s next five games. Having a two game advantage prior to the Heisman ceremony certainly helps, but even with Young seeming to get fumbles in bunches this year, turnovers other than interceptions are still fairly sporadic in football. Young will need to force at least three more fumbles over his next five games if he wants a shot at Mercilus’ record, and that’s assuming Hansen doesn’t force any more himself.

It’s highly unlikely Young owns either of these records prior to the start of the College Football Playoff. However, if he ends Ohio State’s regular season undefeated with a Big Ten Championship in hand and is at least on pace to set two new NCAA records, that’s a Heisman candidacy that is impossible to ignore. If Young has 22 sacks and eight forced fumbles on his way to New York, he’s already had one of the greatest seasons by any defensive player in the history of college football.

But for the The Predator to ultimately win the award, there’s still one final domino that needs to fall. Unfortunately, it’s entirely out of his or Ohio State’s control:

3. Total SEC Chaos

The Heisman is a quarterback’s award in the modern era. It’s an annoying and inconvenient truth. Look no further than the fact that, for the first two months of the 2019 season, Oklahoma looked poised to have three different QBs consecutively win the Heisman in Lincoln Riley’s system in a conference where teams deem defense optional on most Saturdays.

Fortunately, Oklahoma took a loss to Kansas State in their last game of October, and Jalen Hurts’ candidacy took a hit as a result. Hurts is going to continue piling up stats for the rest of the year — even in OU’s road tilt with Baylor in a couple weeks — but Oklahoma now finds itself on the outside looking in when it comes to making the Playoff. With other quarterbacks boasting unblemished records in presumably more competitive conferences, Heisman voters are likely to look elsewhere if Oklahoma isn’t in a position to play for glory as the season nears its conclusion. Hurts currently remains second in Heisman voting as of this writing, but his inability to control his own national destiny is almost certainly going to hurt his profile as end-of-season awards talk starts to become more serious.

That leaves former Buckeye quarterback Joe Burrow of LSU and 2017 National Championship MVP Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama. Both are slated to play each other this weekend, and it’s fair to assume the loser will be cast out of the Heisman running given their team won’t have an opportunity to play for the SEC Championship. LSU’s stellar October indicates they likely won’t lose another game prior to their conference title match-up, and Alabama still has Auburn on their schedule for rivalry week.

Painful as it may be for Buckeye fans to root against the Amish Rifle of Athens, Chase Young enthusiasts are going to want to hope for an Alabama win this weekend. In all likelihood, a win for LSU puts Burrow firmly in the driver’s seat for the Heisman race, with their only remaining challenge a month away in the SEC Championship. Conversely, a win for Alabama likely vaults Tagovailoa to number one, but with a game and a half missed due to injury and two looming challenges at the end of the season, a potential case against Tagovailoa is much easier to build.

If December 8th comes, neither Burrow nor Tagovailoa are undefeated or possibly a conference champion, and Hurts has pretty numbers but no shot at the Playoff... suddenly, it becomes far more inviting for Heisman voters to cast their ballot for a truly historic defensive talent leading the best team in the country than one of three quarterbacks no one’s entirely sure is better than the others.

College football is inherently unpredictable, and November in particular tends to be the wackiest of the major stretches of the season given the stakes. But a little more than a month out from conference championship week, the football universe appears to have its first legitimate Heisman candidate on defense since Manti Te’o. Whether or not that opportunity turns to glory for only the second time ever rests squarely on the shoulders of Chase Young.