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Travis Etienne Belongs in the Heisman Conversation

Benny Snell, Jonathan Taylor, and of course Tua Tagovailoa may be front runners, but Travis Etienne could earn an invitation to New York.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson trailed by three with six minutes to go. They were on their own six yard line. QB Kelly Bryant had left the team and QB Trevor Lawrence was out with concussion-like symptoms. Where did the coaches turn? Sophomore Travis Etienne, the team’s best offensive weapon.

On a 13-play, 94-yard game-winner drive, the staff looked first to Travis Etienne. He had 22 carries to that point, already a season high, but on his first carry he galloped for 14 yards. The fresh legs of Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice continued the charge before a 20-yard pass and then a 17-yard QB keeper set-up four straight RB runs, culminating in a 2-yard TD from Travis Etienne to win the game and push Clemson to 5-0.

With Kelly Bryant at the helm, the Tigers rushing attack often leaned on the QB-run. Etienne averaged just 11.5 carries per game through the first four weeks of the season. Now, with either Trevor Lawrence or Chase Brice under center, Travis Etienne is a bigger focus point of the offense, as was on display in his 27 carry 203 yard performance against Syracuse.

Among P5 RBs with at least 30 carries, Travis Etienne leads the pack with a 8.1 YPC average. He ranks 6th in rushing yards among this group, despite being under-utilized in the first few games of the season. Jermar Jefferson (OSU), AJ Dillon (BC), Benny Snell (UK), and Jonathan Taylor all have more yards, but have done so with at least 29 more carries. Eno Benjamin also has one yard more than Etienne’s 594, but it took Eno 25 additional carries to get there. His 8 rushing TDs have him tied for first among P5 running backs with Benny Snell and Jermar Jefferson.

Travis Etienne is certainly surrounded by excellent talent, but it’s clear his stats are not simply a product of running behind a dominant run blocking offensive line (though Clemson’s is certainly above average), not is he racking up gaudy yardage totals due to a system or heavy usage. It’s a long way to go, but his stats align with the eye test in exclaiming that Travis is a special talent deserving of Heisman consideration.

Here are some brief thoughts on some of the other Heisman contenders to this point.

Tua Tagovailoa (QB, Alabama): With a 14 TD - 0 INT ratio, a 75% completion percentage, and over 1,100 passing yards, Tua is the clear early leader. With Arkansas, Mizzouri, and Tennessee upcoming, he’ll have a chance to pad those statistics before LSU and Auburn come late in the season. If this goes anything like it did for Lamar Jackson, he may have it wrapped up before then. Unlike then, I wouldn’t have a gripe. Assuming he maintains his current level of play, he may truly be both the Most Outstanding Player and the Most Valuable Player - a distinction the voters have been inconsistent in which use determine their vote.

Benny Snell (RB, Kentucky): The catalyst to the offense for the 5-0 Kentucky Wildcats, Benny Snell has 8 rushing TDs and 639 rushing yards. He will be playing against Texas A&M on ESPN at 7pm (EST) this weekend, which will give him a chance to make a statement on a national stage. After that, they have several weaker opponents where he can rack up stats and another big game where the nation will be watching against UGA. Kentucky has a chance for 10+ regular season wins and if he leads the way, there’s no reason a Kentucky player can’t be in the running. Like Charlie Whitehurst, Benny Snell has never lost to the Gamecocks!

Will Grier (QB, West Virginia): Grier ranks 5th in passing yards despite having his game at NC State canceled due to Hurricane Florence. He has averaged 378 passing yard per game and has 17 passing touchdowns. Only Dwayne Haskins has more TDs (19) with fewer INTs (2).

Dwayne Haskins (QB, Ohio State): Haskins has exploded on the scene at Ohio State this year. He’s averaging 298 passing yards per game and leads the S&P+ #3 ranked offense. He also led the Buckeyes down the field for a game-winning drive at Penn State for the biggest win of the college football season thus far.

Kyler Murray (QB, Oklahoma): Murray had massive shoes to fill with Baker Mayfield going #1 overall in the NFL draft, but they seem to fit. He has a 17-2 TD-INT ratio, averages 292 passing yards per game, and leads the S&P+ #1 ranked offense in the country.

Jonathan Taylor (RB, Wisconsin): As Taylor goes, so goes the Badger offense. He’s received at least 18 carries and at least 113 rushing yards in each game. Wisconsin’s loss to BYU definitely took some luster off his Heisman campaign, but it hardly Taylor’s fault. The sophomore will get a chance to pad his stats next week against the struggling cornhuskers before their first game in the national spotlight - at Michigan.