Stanford running back Bryce Love overtook Penn State running back Saquon Barkley this week as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, after weeks with Barkley as the favorite.
Wasn't this supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback? Preseason proclamations are often ripe for midseason mockery, but this felt much more certain.
Look at the talent pool. From the city of Los Angeles (USC's Sam Darnold and UCLA's Josh Rosen) to the states of Oklahoma (Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph) and Washington (Washington's Jake Browning and Washington State's Luke Falk), there was a surplus of star quarterbacks, including the returning Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville's Lamar Jackson.
For myriad reasons, the star power of this season's crop of quarterbacks hasn't materialized. In their place, stars have emerged at a different position. Barkley's versatility has made him a highlight machine. If you're up late on game days, you'll find #SaturdayNightLove trending on Twitter when Stanford's star running back Love plays. Other backs such as San Diego State's Rashaad Penny, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor and Notre Dame's Josh Adams are pushing for fringe Heisman attention.
"The quarterbacks are always more fun to talk about, but as you get into the season and you start to run the football, these guys, in particular, make some special things happen," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "The quarterback play has been good. It probably hasn't been stellar across the nation, especially from a few guys. A bunch of guys have played well in spurts, but the running backs have been as dynamic and as consistent."
Let's examine the reasons why running backs have become the stars of 2017 -- and why quarterback play has been slightly disappointing.
There's such a thing as too much tape
Every coach wants an experienced quarterback, but there's a flip side to having more tape at the college level: It exposes more tendencies. Defenses needed little introduction for several of this season's headline QBs; they saw, heard and read about them all offseason.
"As a defensive player, you like the challenge," said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. "You see it on tape, the talent, and it makes you work to not get yourself embarrassed."
When DeRuyter studied Washington State's Falk, he noticed how long Falk held the ball to allow plays to develop downfield. So, DeRuyter mixed up the pass-rush personnel, trying to "change the tempo on him." Instead of selling out on blitzes, defenders would rotate responsibilities. For example, Cal rushed its cornerback on what looked like a blitz but would then rotate its free safety to the corner spot and a linebacker to the flat. It became a four-man rush, just with different rushers.
The Bears intercepted Falk five times and sacked him nine times in a 37-3 rout on Friday. Falk entered the game with just two interceptions on 262 attempts.
That exposure also can provide extra motivation for opposing defenses, according to UCLA coach Jim Mora.
"The human nature of it and the psychological part of it is that when a guy's getting a lot of publicity and he's highly ranked and he's very successful, you might find a little more juice to compete against that guy," Mora said.
Mora expects future opponents to mimic Arizona's approach to defending UCLA during the Wildcats' 47-30 win on Saturday, as Rosen was picked off three times and sacked five times.
Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates acknowledges that the Wildcats went into the UCLA game thinking pass first and run second against Rosen.
"We don't want to give up explosive passes," Yates said. "We don't want the ball over our heads, we want to compete."
The Wildcats featured Cover 1 (man-free) and Cover 3 looks, which are common around the Pac-12 because there are so many top quarterbacks in the conference.
"A lot of the offenses today are designed to attack [Cover 4], open-field coverage," DeRuyter said. "You've got to be able to play some man or some Cover 3 with man principles so you can be closer to receivers. These quarterbacks, ever since they were in junior high, even Pop Warner, those guys are going against [Cover 4], and they know how to attack it."
A season ripe for a rise in RB play
It's still a quarterback's game, coaches say, perhaps more than ever. The number of elite quarterbacks and pass-friendly offenses has changed the way teams recruit and design their defenses.
There's a trade-off.
"You're seeing more big runs," Yates said. "Quarterbacks can make these throws, and you're sometimes losing somebody in the run fit, so you may have some creases or guys not filling their gaps."
Led by Love, four players (three running backs, plus Navy quarterback Zach Abey) already have eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards. Eight running backs have at least three 150-yard rushing performances. Twenty-four players have at least 15 runs of 10 yards or longer. Forty teams have at least 40 rushes of 10 yards or longer, and 49 teams are averaging at least five yards per rush on at least 40 percent of their attempts.
"This game is very cyclical," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "People get to where they're playing more people to defend the pass, and you've got less people in the box to run the football. Or they've gotten smaller in how they've recruited."
The standouts this season have clearly been Love and Barkley. Critics will point to Barkley's rushing average, which ranks 18th nationally (108.2 yards per game), well behind Love (198.1) and others. But what makes Barkley a generational back is the totality of his game.
Barkley averages 4.8 receptions per game (fifth among all Big Ten players). He averages 32.1 yards on kick returns, one of which resulted in a score. He also has thrown a touchdown pass.
"[It] allows us to be creative from a game plan perspective," Penn State coach James Franklin said of Barkley. "That's where we're different from some of these guys. When you run a one-back offense, they can overload you and take your running game away, just based on numbers. For us to be able to use him in so many different ways to get the ball in his hands, it allows us to make sure he's going to have an impact each week, and I think causes some headaches for some defensive coordinators."
Love's unicorn trait is his speed. Any type of crease for him usually equals a touchdown. But there's more to his game.
While some backs benefit from defenses targeting their schemes to stop the quarterback, Stanford regularly faces seven or eight men in the box.
"He's not getting enough credit for what he's doing between the tackles when things are dirty," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said of Love, "when he's putting his pad down and running through somebody, and then dragging the third or fourth defender two more yards."'
As Love's and Barkley's profiles increase, so will the attention defenses devote toward stopping them. Barkley on Saturday will begin a stretch against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State, three defenses that allow less than three yards per carry. Love still has Washington (2.17 yards per carry allowed) and Notre Dame (one rushing touchdown allowed).
Don't expect either running back to give up the spotlight easily.
"The big thing is with dynamic running backs, which we've had some experience with here," Shaw said, "is given enough opportunities with the ball in their hands, you can do everything right on defense, but if the one guy that's free doesn't make the tackle, then it's going to be difficult to stop them."