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What if Maurice Clarett hadn’t gotten hurt in the 2002 season? Was a Heisman in his future?

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It was a great year for running backs, but if Mo C. had played the full campaign, I feel confident that he would have at least been in New York.

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Maurice Clarett #13 runs Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

If you haven’t heard, SB Nation has deemed this seven-day period “What If? Week,” and to celebrate, before I get into the “What If?” scenario that I have been thinking about for nearly 20 years, I wouldn’t be doing my service-journalism best if I didn’t recommend that you check out the book “What If? A Closer Look at college Football’s Great Questions” by LGHL and SBN legend Matt Brown. So, get your copy now, and spend some quarantine time pondering the un-ponderable.

Anyway, onto my scenario. If you follow me on Twitter dot com (and I can’t really recommend that you do), you might remember that I mentioned a slightly more hyperbolic version of this last month; but I believe that had Maurice Clarett played in all 14 games of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ 2002 season, he would have become the first freshman in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy.

Due to injuries, Clarett missed OSU’s fourth game — the unforgettable nail-biter against Cincinnati — almost all of their 13-7 win over No. 18 Penn State in late October, the 34-3 win over No. 23 Minnesota the following week, and the heart attack-inducing 23-16 victory over Illinois in mid-November.

For those that aren’t old enough to remember, that entire season was a surreal experience that confused, excited, frustrated, and exhilarated an Ohio State fanbase that had been beaten down by disappointment for decades. The second-year head coach donning a sweater vest led his team to an undefeated 14-0 season and the program’s first national title in over 30 years, but none of it was easy. Practically every game was close — many of them unnecessarily so — but nonetheless, that team and especially the other-worldly running back that powered them felt destined for so much more than we had seen in a very long time.

Now, admittedly, I might be looking at this hypothetical through scarlet and gray colored glasses, especially since I was in my senior year at OSU that season and my recollection might be coated with an extra helping of nostalgia, but I lived the Mo C. hype, and let me tell you youngins, it was real.

Publications far and wide, like ESPN the Magazine, The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune all noted that until his injury issues began, Clarett was very much a Heisman contender. In fact, with just three college football games under his belt, the freshman phenom had already broken through the decades of stodgy sports writer bias to appear on ESPN’s Heisman Watch... as a freshman.

Unfortunately, due to injuries, his Heisman campaign was not meant to be, but if Clarett had been healthy for the entirety of the 2002 season, I absolutely believe that he would have at least been invited to the ceremony in New York, with a legitimate shot to win.

There were five official finalists that season; eventual winner USC quarterback Carson Palmer, Iowa QB Brad Banks, Penn State running back Larry Johnson, Miami running back Willis McGahee, and Miami QB Ken Dorsey. Obviously it is rare when any non-QB wins the Heisman, so it would have been difficult to beat the Trojan signal-caller. However, heading into the BCS National Championship Game, I think that Clarett would have had plenty of momentum to make it a distinct possibility.

Let’s take a look at the vote totals and final season stats (including bowl games) for the top-10 Heisman vote-getters from 2002.

2002 Heisman Trophy Voting

Rank Player School Class Pos 1st 2nd 3rd Tot Summary
Rank Player School Class Pos 1st 2nd 3rd Tot Summary
1 Carson Palmer* USC SR QB 242 224 154 1328 309 Cmp, 489 Att, 3942 Yds, 33 TD, 10 Int
2 Brad Banks* Iowa SR QB 199 173 152 1095 170 Cmp, 294 Att, 2573 Yds, 26 TD, 5 Int
3 Larry Johnson* Penn State SR RB 108 130 142 726 271 Att, 2087 Yds, 7.7 Avg, 20 TD
4 Willis McGahee* Miami (FL) JR RB 101 118 121 660 282 Att, 1753 Yds, 6.2 Avg, 28 TD
5 Ken Dorsey* Miami (FL) SR QB 122 89 99 643 222 Cmp, 393 Att, 3369 Yds, 28 TD, 12 Int
6 Byron Leftwich* Marshall SR QB 22 26 34 152 331 Cmp, 491 Att, 4268 Yds, 30 TD, 10 Int
7 Jason Gesser* Washington State SR QB 5 22 15 74 236 Cmp, 402 Att, 3408 Yds, 28 TD, 13 Int
8 Chris Brown* Colorado SR RB 5 11 11 48 303 Att, 1841 Yds, 6.1 Avg, 19 TD
9 Kliff Kingsbury* Texas Tech SR QB 6 2 11 33 479 Cmp, 712 Att, 5017 Yds, 45 TD, 13 Int
10 Quentin Griffin* Oklahoma SR RB 1 8 9 28 287 Att, 1884 Yds, 6.6 Avg, 15 TD

Now, when you just compare Clarett’s actual, realistic, non-What If? numbers to those finalists, especially the running backs, they more or less fit into that discussion on an average basis, but aren’t exactly overwhelming.

Clarett got injured after only four carries against Penn State — though he had racked up 39 yards already — so if we discount that game and those stats, in just 10 contests in 2002, including the national championship Fiesta Bowl, the freshman running back rushed for 1,237 yards and scored 18 touchdowns; an average of 119.8 yards and 1.8 scores per game.

The top running back vote getter that year, as you can see above, was the son of current OSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson. His numbers were obviously impressive going for 160.5 yards and 1.8 TDs per outing. Similarly, McGahee put up 134.8 yards and 2.15 scores per game.

So, I’m not saying that Clarett clearly was on pace for a better season than those guys, but with Ohio State’s return to the college football title discussion, he certainly had an extra helping of hype in his favor that few freshmen have ever had before.

Following the shoulder injury that forced him out of the game against the Nits, Clarett was never able to fully return to his bruising, physically dominating style that had served him so well in the first half of the campaign. In the three games that followed, he averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, compared to his 6.2 average before it.

I mean, check out these insane highlights that our old friend Colton Denning put together:

If we extrapolate Clarett’s pre-injury numbers out to a full season, even accounting for the increasing competition of Big Ten season, it is likely that he would have been in the 1,700-2,000 yard area with roughly 25-30 TDs; more than holding his own with the other backs in Heisman contention and potentially challenging Palmer for the trophy. And remember, even with the bum shoulder, Mo C. put up 119 yards and a score on 20 carries against That Team Up North in what was already a pretty special Heisman-level performance.

Now, I understand that part of what made Clarett so special was his uncanny combination of speed and power, and that a byproduct of that type of approach is that injuries are inherently going to be a part of his style. But this is a hypothetical designed to distract you from the fact that we don’t know when we will have actual football to watch again, so get off my back.

But, it’s about more than just the numbers. Clarett was an electric performer, looking like a man amongst boys from the outset of the season. It is difficult to think of anyone before, and potentially since, who has looked so physically and athletically dominant at the running back position from the moment he stepped on the field.

When you couple that with the fact that when the Heisman voting took place the Buckeyes were already slotted into the BCS title game — cementing their return to blue blood status — the historic story of the team and the player might have been too much for voters to ignore.

So, if in my own personal world of make-believe I could rewind to the fall of 2002 and guarantee that Clarett stayed as fundamentally healthy as an imposing back could be for the duration of the campaign, I feel very confident that he would have been a Heisman finalist and potentially a very worthy winner.

Now, we all know that Clarett’s football career never fulfilled the promise that we all assumed that it would, but in these days when many of us are struggling to find light and happiness in the world around us, I think that it is worth celebrating the man that Mo. C has become, Heisman Trophy winner or not.