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McGONIGAL: Barkley should be in Heisman conversation

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Saquon Barkley has rushed for 675 yards in his last four games.
  • Barkley is 12th nationally with 1,055 rushing yards this season.
  • Barkley has two games of more than 200 yards rushing this year.

Take a deep, deep breath.

Everyone good? OK, sweet.

Penn State football coach James Franklin celebrates a win with running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley was originally committed to Rutgers, but Franklin changed his mind.

Saquon Barkley is not going to win the 2016 Heisman Trophy. Barring injury or the Monstars stealing his talent, Lamar Jackson has it locked up; I’d be somewhat surprised if Louisville hasn’t already purchased a trophy case for it.

So no, Barkley won’t be hoisting the Heisman this season.

Many believe he’ll be a contender next year, and that’s well and dandy. But I’m talking about this year — he’s not going to win it, but Barkley, without question, deserves to legitimately be in the conversation about a trip to New York City.

During this five-game winning streak in which Penn State has vaulted to No. 12 nationally (and higher come Tuesday), Barkley has been the driving force.

What he’s put together the last month has been nothing short of remarkable, and if he and the Nittany Lions keep that pace, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be considered for a seat at the Heisman Trophy presentation ceremony.

There aren’t specific requirements, other than being the nation’s best player, to win the Heisman, but over the years it’s become apparent what matters to the voters, who cast their ballots after conference championship weekend.

So Barkley has three more games — possibly a fourth if some wacky stuff happens (i.e. Michigan losing twice) — to prove why he belongs.

Let’s take a look at the Heisman criteria, and how it relates to Barkley.

1. Gaudy statistics: If heads can be pulled from the heavens for a minute, it’s worth remembering the semi-rough start Barkley got off to the season — 105 rushing yards against Kent State, 85 at Pittsburgh, 68 on Temple, and 59 in Ann Arbor. Even when Penn State as a team turned the corner in a 29-26 overtime win against Minnesota, Barkley was largely held in check, finishing with 63 yards and 3.2 yards per carry.

But the final play of that game is where things seemingly clicked for the sophomore. A 25-yard game-ending touchdown run as he leapt into the end zone with excitement was the start of his 2016 Heisman highlight reel.

Since then, he hasn’t looked back. Barkley, with 167 rushing yards in Penn State’s 41-14 demolition of Iowa on Saturday, has racked up 675 yards on the ground the last four games. That includes a pair of 200-plus yard performances (202 against Maryland, 207 on Purdue) and a 99-yard showing in Penn State’s upset of Ohio State in which he averaged 8.3 yards per carry.

He’s shown the patience to let plays develop, the speed to burn any defensive back, and the leaping ability that has people left thinking, “How the hell did he just do that?”

As it stands, while his talent shows he could be the country’s best running back, the rushing leaderboard has him further down. Barkley is only 12th nationally with 1,055 rushing yards.

But no one has posted the recent production he’s had, other than San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey’s 690 rushing yards over the last four games.

And Pumphrey, even though he’s the fifth player on ESPN’s Heisman Watch, could get bumped from the conversation for playing non-Power 5 opposition. Whether or not that’s fair or indicative of his talent is a discussion for another time.

2. Winning team: There’s an exception here and there — think Robert Griffin III in 2011, and Tim Tebow in 2007 — but for the most part, the team of the Heisman contender has to be an exceptional one. Consider this: the overall record of the last 10 Heisman winners in their given year is 123-13.

And by proxy of winning quite a few games, the team is usually in the national conversation. As weird as it is considering how bleak things looked in September, that’s firmly where the Nittany Lions are.

With the No. 4, 10 and 11 teams in the country losing on Saturday, Penn State is sure to leap into the top-10 and is favored in its remaining three games (at Indiana, at Rutgers, Michigan State). Should the Nittany Lions win out, finishing the regular season with a 10-2 mark, they’ll end up hovering a few spots outside the top-5 or better.

Assuming Barkley leads the way to that scenario — a highly-ranked Penn State with an eight-game winning streak — the running back should capture attention nationwide.

3. Strong finish: And he can do it by continuing his recent form, which admittedly, would be hard to do.

Or would it?

I mentioned that soft finish for the Nittany Lions, and it should present plenty of opportunity for Barkley. Indiana and Michigan State are 60th and 61st against the run, allowing 165 and 166 yards per game on the ground, respectively. Meanwhile, Rutgers’ rush defense has been a dumpster fire at best, giving up 248.4 rushing yards per game (122nd nationally).

It’s possible — some would even say likely — that Barkley keeps his 168.8 rushing yards per game average from the last four weeks going.

How important is a strong finish? Consider recent Heisman-finalist running backs and their rushing average over the final five games before voting ended.

►2015: Alabama’s Derrick Henry, 188.4

►2015: Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, 157.4

►2014: Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, 208.0

►2013: Auburn’s Tre Mason, 173.6

►2013: Boston College’s Andre Williams, 218.4

If, and of course, all of this is predicated on big “ifs,” Barkley can sustain that 168.8 rushing yards per game pace, it would put him at 1,512 rushing yards for the regular season. If the running back, who has 13 total touchdowns this season, can get to 20 by time the clock hits zero against Michigan State, that’ll help, too.

He has the remaining schedule to make those stats reality.

In 2013, there were six finalists, and if four or five get the nod this year — Jackson, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers are no-brainers — Barkley could find himself in an opportune position.

1. Win out

2. Go off in the last three games

Long story short, if these two things happen, Barkley should be in the conversation — and could be on his way to New York sooner rather than later.