Don't believe Jadeveon Clowney has a real chance to win the Heisman this season? Maybe it's time to reassess. ESPN's Heisman Straw Poll has Clowney as the preseason favorite for the award. Clowney is actually a fairly solid frontrunner, garning 55 points to Braxton Miller's 40 and Johnny Manziel's 36. At least coming into the season, Clowney appears to not only be a serious contender, but to be a real favorite.
Conventional wisdom has been that while Clowney might represent the best chance for a pure defensive player to win the award in recent memory, the deck is still stacked against him. ESPN's projections may reflect a shift in media opinion on the issue. In part, this shift is fueled by the wane in Manziel's fortunes, as Johnny Football's public image has taken a beating over the summer due to his indiscriminate partying, and he's now mired in the midst of an NCAA investigation that threatens his eligibility. Even if he plays this season, character and public image do tend to play a roll in how the voting hashes out, so Manziel may have trouble repeating as the winner regardless of what he does on the field. Enter Clowney, who has filled the void left by Manziel as the nation's top player in the media's mind. The other major contender is Miller, a great QB for a powerhouse program, but one who has yet to have many "wow" moments in big games, partially because his team was on probation last year and was never considered a serious contender for the national title.
Although Clowney is clearly a magnificent player and one who could very well become the first pure defender to win the award, I tend to agree with this writer that ESPN's projection is shocking given the historical precedent. The Heisman is not a meritocracy, and its voters show a decided preference for quarterbacks and tailbacks. Most people believe that for Clowney to win, he'll not only have to have a great season (15+ sacks, game-changing plays against big opponents, etc.), but he'll have to hope that none of the offensive favorites have great seasons, as well. The shift in public opinion represented by the ESPN projections may suggest that Clowney is a big enough defensive star to have a good shot even if there are impressive offensive candidates, but still, it's going to be tough for him. Defensive ends just don't keep building their stat sheets on a play-by-play basis like quarterbacks and runningbacks, and if Clowney has a meager stat line against Georgia, Florida, or Clemson, it will significantly hurt his chances, even if we win the game and Clowney makes his presence felt in ways that can't be measured by his statistics. Still, I'm becoming more and more optimistic that the Heisman isn't completely unrealistic for Clowney.