By Jordan Dominick || Columbia already has a George Rogers Boulevard, but could a Marcus Lattimore Avenue be in the works this time a year from now?
It’s certainly a possibility. In fact, Las Vegas odds makers currently have the rising sophomore running back from the University of South Carolina listed third among potential Heisman Trophy candidates behind only Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones.
Given all of the preseason Heisman buzz surrounding Lattimore, it’s hard not to reminisce about George Rogers and his epic 1980 season. En route to becoming the first overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, Rogers led the nation in rushing with 1,781 yards to earn his trip to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City.
There, he became the first (and to this day the only) player from either USC or Clemson to capture college football’s most prestigious individual award.
After being drafted by the Saints and racking up an NFL-leading 1,647 yards during his rookie season, Rogers eventually joined the Washington Redskins where he became a Super Bowl Champion in 1988. Yet while Rogers remains the only Heisman winner from either of South Carolina’s major in-state schools, he’s not the Palmetto state’s only tie to the award. In fact, its namesake – John Heisman – has a South Carolina connection.
Heisman coached the Clemson Tigers from 1900-1903, compiling a 19-3-2 record that still stands as the school’s all-time best winning percentage. In his first year at the helm, Heisman led Clemson to its first-ever undefeated season – a campaign in which the Tiger defense allowed just two touchdowns all year.
In Heisman’s final season at Clemson, the Tigers played Cumberland in a de facto bowl game dubbed “the Championship of the South.” His team also defeated Georgia Tech – a program he would later lead to national prominence – 73-0 that year. Because his career was marked by a 102-29-7 record with the Ramblin’ Wreck, many don’t realize that Heisman is the man who put Clemson’s football program on the map.
Returning to Lattimore, though … can he live up to the hype? Will his 2011 season add another chapter to the Palmetto state’s “Heisman history?”
After a stellar high school career, Lattimore burst onto the SEC scene a year ago as a true freshman – racking up 1,197 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns to go with his 412 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions. Lattimore’s bruising ground game also opened up the USC passing attack, leading to monster seasons for Gamecock quarterback Stephen Garcia and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
The end result of all that offensive firepower? South Carolina’s first SEC East championship, the school’s first Top 25 finish in nine years and only the third nine-win season in the program’s history. For his exploits, Lattimore was the unanimous AP “Freshman of the Year” and the only freshman named to the AP’s first-team All-SEC squad.
In fact, aside from the record-shattering season produced by eventual Heisman winner Cam Newton, a case could easily be made that Lattimore was the best player in the best conference in college football a year ago.
Based on his remarkable 2010 season -Lattimore is certainly deserving of the hype he’s getting heading into 2011. In fact, it’s scary for opposing defensive coordinators to think just how much better he’ll be this year after having a season of college football under his belt and another off-season to work on his game. Also, Lattimore will head into the upcoming season bigger and stronger than he was a year ago.
To win the Heisman Trophy, though, a lot of things will have to fall into place for Lattimore. Perhaps the most important factor? Playing for an elite team.
It’s obvious that in recent years the Heisman has become less about being “the best player” and more about being “the best player on the No. 1 team.” In fact, of the last five Heisman winners – Cam Newton, Mark Ingram, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Troy Smith – only Tebow won while failing to play for a national championship.
In order for Lattimore to win the Heisman, he’ll not only have to reprise his 2010 numbers – but the Gamecocks will likely need to earn a Bowl Championship Series bid. With an experienced roster and a more forgiving schedule than usual, that’s obviously a distinct possibility this year. In fact, barring major injuries, it’s arguably an expectation among long-suffering Gamecock fans.
And speaking of injuries, it goes without saying that Lattimore himself will need to stay healthy throughout the season. Missing time will not only adversely affect his numbers (which will be disseminated and dissected by numerous national analysts on a weekly basis this year), but the Gamecocks proved in 2010 that they weren’t the same team without him in the lineup.
Against Kentucky, for example, the Gamecocks built up a huge 28-10 lead in the first half on the strength of Lattimore’s three touchdowns and 212 all-purpose yards – but then fell apart after he went down with an injury early in the third quarter. They lost that game 31-28 – and delivered an unimpressive 21-7 victory over SEC doormat Vanderbilt the following week with Lattimore out of the lineup.
In the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Florida State in December, Lattimore was knocked out of the game on the Gamecocks’ opening series. Without him, USC struggled en route to a 26-17 loss.
Obviously, the argument can be made that Kenny Miles and Brian Maddox filled in admirably for Lattimore in the bowl game – and that Stephen Garcia’s interceptions were what cost the team the game. Such an argument is valid, although it is important to consider that in other big games USC head coach Steve Spurrier rode the freshman for all he was worth – putting Garcia in more manageable situations.
Against Georgia, Lattimore carried the ball 37 times for 182 yards. Against Florida, in the game that clinched the SEC East title, Spurrier called Lattimore’s number 40 times as he raced to a career-high 212 yards. Not only did Lattimore chew up huge chunks of real estate, but the sheer volume of carries allowed his team to dictate the flow of the game.
If the Gamecocks are going to have similar success this season, Lattimore will once again have to carry a heavy load again and remain healthy while doing so.
One other tidbit to remember about preseason Heisman odds is that more often than not as of late, the Heisman winner has not been one of the favorites during the summer.
The last two winners — Netwon and Ingram— weren’t really on anybody’s radar the summer before their big seasons and neither were listed in the opening odds at Vegas. In 2007, Tebow was starting for the first time after coming in during situational scenarios the previous year for the Gators. In fact, of the previous five winners, only Bradford (10-1) and Smith (8-1) were truly considered contenders before the season began.
This recent trend of winners coming out of nowhere is interesting, but it’s unlikely to have any direct affect on Lattimore’s chances.
Barring a major injury, he should have another spectacular year and the Gamecocks should contend for the SEC championship and a BCS berth. And while it’s true that a lot of things need to happen for Lattimore’s name to be called in New York six months from now, none of those things are outside the realm of possibility.
Pic: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina