Did Rashaad Penny Get Snubbed?

Let me preface this with a couple of quick bullet points:

  • My interest in season-ending awards, in baseball or football, has thankfully waned over the years.
  • I’m not necessarily a San Diego State football fan, although I did watch three or four of their games this season.
  • Whatever comes below does not discount the tremendous season that Rashaad Penny had.

Okay, glad that’s out of the way. My interest in whether Penny got snubbed from one of the three spots as a Doak Walker finalist is purely a curiosity. As in, is he or is he not one of the three best running backs in the country?

Of course, it’s a simple question with an almost impossible answer. Football is a team game, and much of the statistics that are recorded are tough to entangle from team play. How much credit goes to the running back and the offensive line on a good running play? How much credit goes to the quarterback and the wide receiver—let alone the O-line—on a long touchdown pass? And, further, how do we account for things that aren’t even recorded, like the blocking skills of a running back or the value of good play-calling?

Without getting into over-my-head big picture football stuff, we can at least attempt to contextualize the performance of the top running backs. By the pure numbers alone, Penny is an easy finalist, and possibly the best back in the country. You know the numbers, but he’s rushed for 1,824 yards and counting in 11 games, with 7.2 yards per carry and 22 total touchdowns, three of which came from the kick/punt return game. He ranks second in rushing yards per game, tied for third in rushing touchdowns, and seventh in YPC among backs with at least 100 tries.

From this angle, he’s an obvious choice for the top three, but there’s one complicating factor—strength of competition. San Diego State plays in the Mountain West Conference, which is not exactly a powerhouse collection of gridiron foes. Penny’s rushed for over 200 yards in each of his last three games, an impressive feat at just about any level. But those three performances came against Hawaii, San Jose State, and Nevada, three of the worst defenses in the entire country, according to Football Outsiders. In the two games prior to that stretch, when Penny faced the class of the conference—Boise State and Fresno State—he ran for just 122 yards combined at a 3.4-yard clip.

I broke down the opposition in all of Penny’s games using Football Outsiders’ defensive rankings and good old-fashioned average rushing yards allowed per game. This should give us a decent sense of what kind of competition he faced throughout the year.

Opponent FO Def Rank Avg RYPG Rank Total Def Rank
@Arizona St. 73 57 65
Stanford 63 70 67
@Air Force 118 119 119
Northern Ill. 15 9 12
@UNLV 117 125 121
Boise St. 40 23 32
Fresno St. 39 16 28
@Hawaii 129 107 118
@san Jose St. 130 128 129
Nevada 113 115 114

Overall, the average rush defense Penny faced ranked 80th in the country, at least according to my method here. There are 130 Division I football teams, so by definition, Penny faced worse than average defenses. But how does that compare him to the rest of the top running backs? Well, I did the same thing with all 11 Doak Walker semifinalists. The following table shows each player’s strength of opposition, along with a number of other key statistics.

Player Avg Def Rank Gms Touches Yards Avg TDs
Rashaad Penny 80 11 271 1,966 7.3 19
Bryce Love 53 10 201 1,723 8.7 16
Devin Singletary 72 10 247 1,711 6.9 25
Jonathan Taylor 60 11 242 1,709 7.1 12
Saquon Barkley 47 11 229 1,647 7.2 17
Phillip Lindsay 70 11 305 1,646 5.4 14
Ronald Jones 65 12 225 1,527 6.8 17
Royce Freeman 62 11 237 1,497 6.3 14
Justice Hill 59 11 257 1,473 5.7 14
Josh Adams 53 11 181 1,419 7.8 9
Kerryon Johnson 67 9 238 1,338 5.6 18

Among the 11 semifinalists, Penny faced the worst average defense—by quite a lot. Even Devin Singletary, from little Florida Atlantic of Conference USA, faced a tougher schedule, which included Wisconsin, the third-ranked defense in the country by Football Outsiders. Saquon Barkley faced the toughest opponents, and had a seven-game run in the middle of the season against top 50 defenses.

As a final attempt to further contextualize the performance of the top backs, I isolated their performance against top 50 defenses. This shows both how many times they had to face off against such defenses, and how well they performed in those games.

Player Games Touches Yards Avg. per touch TDs
Saquon Barkley 7 156 1,009 6.5 8
Jonathan Taylor 5 129 799 6.2 4
Bryce Love 5 100 747 7.5 9
Kerryon Johnson 4 124 683 5.5 7
Justice Hill 4 122 556 4.6 5
Royce Freeman 4 88 493 5.6 2
Devin Singletary 3 73 474 6.5 6
Josh Adams 4 78 409 5.2 1
Ronald Jones 4 64 385 6.0 3
Rashaad Penny 3 64 270 4.2 2
Phillip Lindsay 2 54 198 3.7 1

Barkley shines again here. Not only did he face the toughest schedule, he fared well against it, notching 1,000 yards from scrimmage against good defenses alone. His performance in a 21-19 win at Iowa—ranked as the 16th-best defense by FO—could be the game of the year from this group. He gained a total of 305 yards from scrimmage on 40 touches, with 211 coming on the ground and the other 94 through the air. Penny, on the other hand, played just three games against good defenses, with one solid outing and two clunkers.

Even with this new information, there’s no easy way to order these guys. A more serious effort, by a more serious football nerd or numbers-cruncher, could have probably gotten closer to a better answer. Still, at least we have some new info to work with. In the end, the final ranking can’t avoid some subjectivity. Here’s my top five:

1. Bryce Love, Stanford

This is close between Love and the next guy, Barkley. In the end, Love was simply the most efficient player among this group. He’s only had 20 carries or more in four of his 10 games, yet he’s still racked up 1,756 total yards. He’s also ripped off huge games against good competition, including a crazy 14-touch, 187-yard tour de force against a San Diego State defense that’s only allowed 113.5 rushing yards per game on the season (and that figure would drop to 97.6 without Love’s romp).

The knocks against Love are minimal. For one, he’s been a non-factor in the passing game, but that’s a trend for this group. Two, he missed a game, but that might be more of a plus than a minus. Against Oregon State, one of the worst rushing defenses in the country, Stanford rushed for just 81 yards on 27 carries without Love, a hint that his huge season wasn’t propelled by the offensive line alone.

2. Saquon Barkley, Penn State

Barkley was the only serious contender to make an impact in the passing game, catching 46 balls for 590 yards and three touchdowns so far. For comparison, Love, Penny, Singletary, and Taylor have combined for just 414 yards through the air. The additional yardage expected from a catch—Barkley averaged 12.8 yards per catch and 5.8 yards per rush—makes a good pass-catching running back all the more valuable. Given the competition, Barkley’s running stats alone wouldn’t stack up, as he barely cracked 1,000 yards on the ground.

What makes Barkley a threat for this award (and a sleeper for the Heisman) is the competition level. As mentioned above, he’s clearly played against the best teams (or, at least, defenses) in this group of running backs, and his performance against those teams was great. Throw in a couple of kick return touchdowns—which count in the Heisman but probably shouldn’t here—and Barkley may be another 300-yard game (and a full Baker Mayfield meltdown) away from a Heisman run.

3. Rashaad Penny, San Diego State

Look, I was totally miffed as to where to go here. It’s a virtual tie between Penny, Taylor, and Singletary, with Notre Dame’s Josh Adams getting a long look. I didn’t necessarily want to pick Penny, because it goes against some of the evidence I’ve displayed above. Then again, I didn’t want to not pick Penny, because it’d make me look like too much of a contrarian, considering most people reading this are likely San Diego State fans.

Penny’s had a great year, of course. While his ho-hum performance against good defenses was mentioned above, he’s gone off against everyone else on the regular, going for 200-plus yards from scrimmage five different times, twice against Pac-12 schools. He’s also played with a somewhat limited passing offense, as San Diego State ranks 117th in the nation in passing yards per game. Teams have focused on Penny all year, and he’s still been able to burn them with ruthless consistency.

Overall, the point with Penny is that I don’t think he was snubbed. He could have definitely been included in the top three, and arguably was more deserving than Taylor. But it was basically a toss-up between a few guys, not a great injustice against Penny or San Diego State. Just like with rankings, players that play against less competitive schedules have to be dinged some for individual awards. In Penny’s case, while the raw numbers alone make him the no. 1 choice, when other factors are considered he falls from sure-fire Doak Walker winner to a terrific candidate. Not bad at all.

4. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

Taylor’s one of the few backs here to not have a truly bad game. His worst performance came against Northwestern back in September, and even in that game he cruised for 80 yards and two TDs on 19 touches. He’s had a couple of other games where he just wasn’t used often, but whenever Wisconsin’s asked him to handle the ball more than 20 times, he’s picked up at least 150 yards. The undefeated schedule gives him something of an added bonus, but ultimately he’s interchangeable from the three through five spots.

5. Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic

How much is a touchdown worth? Singletary’s scored 25 of them so far, and his 24 rushing TDs lead Penny, who’s second among running backs, by seven scores. He’s had at least two touchdowns in eight games running, and he gained 530 yards from scrimmage in a two-game stretch against Marshall and Western Kentucky earlier this season. If his touchdown count is more the product of his play-making than stuffing in some extra goal-line TDs, he’s a legit contender for the top three.

In the end, why limit the finalists to just three players? There are five players listed above with legitimate claims to the honor, and even if Love is somewhat obvious as the no. 1 choice, the rest of the group deserves to hear their name called with the other four guys. Rashaad Penny had a great year, but so did Love and Barkley and Taylor and Singletary. Let’s honor them all.

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