Jonathan Taylor is chasing history this season.
Chasing his predecessors in the University of Wisconsin running back pipeline. Chasing the NCAA’s all-time rushing leaders. And — the largest uphill battle — chasing the Heisman Trophy.
For Taylor to have any shot at becoming just the fourth (third if you don’t count Reggie Bush) running back to win the Heisman Trophy this millennium, the UW junior is going to have to put up a huge effort in Saturday’s matchup between the No. 13 Badgers (6-1) and No. 3 Ohio State (7-0).
If Taylor bucks the trend and joins Bush, Mark Ingram Jr. and Derrick Henry as recent tailbacks to hold college football’s greatest trophy, it will cap off an unprecedented run of individual success in Wisconsin athletics.
Wisconsin, the 20th-most populated state in the United States, would become the first state ever to win five of the sporting world’s highest individual awards — the NFL MVP, NBA MVP, MLB MVP, Heisman Trophy and NCAA men’s basketball player of the year — in the same decade.
A hypothetical Taylor Heisman Trophy would add him to an incredible run of Wisconsin athletes that already includes two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers (2011 and 2014), MLB NL MVPs Ryan Braun (2011) and Christian Yelich (2018, 2019?), NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (2019) and Naismith Award winner Frank Kaminsky (2015).
While not part of this equation, the UW hockey programs have also won the top individual trophy in their respective sports. Blake Geoffrion won the Hobey Baker in 2010, while Meghan Duggan (2011), Brianna Decker (2012) and Ann-Renee Desbiens (2017) have each won the Patty Kazmaier Award.
Beating the odds
It’s not a small sample size. The MLB NL and AL MVPs date back to the Chicago Cubs’ Frank Schulte and Detroit Tigers’ Ty Cobb in 1911, while the Heisman Trophy goes back to Chicago’s Jay Berwanger in 1935; the first NBA MVP went to the St. Louis Hawks’ Bob Pettit in 1956; in college basketball, the first AP Player of the Year went to Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas in 1961 and the first Naismith Award went to UCLA’s Lew Alcindor in 1969; and in the NFL, the first Sporting News Player of the Year went to the Cleveland Browns’ Lou Groza in 1954, the first AP MVP went to the Cleveland Browns’ Jim Brown in 1957, and the first Pro Football Writers Association MVP went to the Minnesota Vikings’ Fran Tarkenton in 1975.
Wisconsin’s success is even more impressive when you factor in the number of teams the state has to work with. The UW football team taking home a Heisman would make it a clean sweep, as all three professional teams and the state’s two most prestigious collegiate programs would have claimed the top individual award in their sport. With no NHL organization, the only other Wisconsin team with a realistic chance to claim such an award is Marquette basketball.
In contrast, California currently has 13 teams between the NBA, MLB and NFL, to go along with 11 colleges that have Division 1 football teams. Yet, the Golden State has never done what Wisconsin has a chance to do. California was one trophy short in the 1960s, not getting any NBA contributions to go along with Lew Alcindor of UCLA (men’s basketball, Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson of USC, Roman Gabriel of the Los Angeles Rams, Willie McCovey and Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants, and Maury Wills and Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ohio also nearly got it done in the 1960s, but the Buckeye State surprisingly didn’t have a Heisman winner to go along with Gary Bradds and Jerry Lucas of Ohio State, Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns, Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds, and Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals.
The rest of the powerhouses haven’t done so either. Not Texas, which has never put it all together despite a number of high-end athletes and successful teams. Not Massachusetts, which doesn’t have relevancy in NCAA basketball or football to go along with their professional dominance. Not Florida. Not New York. Not Illinois.
Wisconsin and Florida are the only states with four major MVPs this year, and that’s counting the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov winning the Hart Trophy in the NHL to go along with the Miami Heat’s Lebron James, the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton and Florida State’s Jameis Winston.
While it’s a bit of a long shot for Wisconsin to accomplish the feat, the state is still experiencing unusual success. Even if Taylor, Rodgers and Yelich come up short this year, the six major awards in the 2010s would be enormous for a state that only had 15 before this decade — the UW’s Alan Ameche (1954) and Ron Dayne (1999) winning the Heisman Trophy; Marquette’s Butch Lee winning the 1978 Naismith Award; the Packers’ Paul Hornung (1961), Jim Taylor (1962), Bart Starr (1966) and Brett Favre (1995, 1996, 1997) winning NFL MVPs; the Brewers’ Robin Yount (1982, 1989) and Rollie Fingers (1981) winning AL MVPs; and the Bucks’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1971, 1972 and 1974) winning NBA MVPs.
Taylor’s uphill climb
Taylor and Wisconsin need to bounce back in a big way after last week’s shocking 24-23 loss at unranked Illinois left them scrambling before their biggest game of the season.
Taylor remains a top candidate to make the trip to New York City for the Dec. 14 Heisman Trophy ceremony. The 5-foot-11 back enters the weekend fifth in Odds Shark’s Heisman Trophy odds at +1600. Taylor’s the top running back on the list, but the field is loaded with stat-stuffing quarterbacks on undefeated teams. LSU’s Joe Burrow leads the pack at +125, followed by Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts (+190), Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (+400) and Ohio State’s Justin Fields (+900).
It’s possible that those four teams will make up the playoff field, and at least one will likely be unbeaten when they head to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. But Taylor can start to close the gap if he keys a Badgers’ win over Ohio State. He can also get a boost if Tagovailoa’s ankle injury keeps him out for an extended period of time, Alabama shuts down Burrow and LSU on Nov. 9, or the voters get some Oklahoma quarterback fatigue.
Oklahoma quarterbacks have taken home the trophy the last two seasons, with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray winning in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Taylor was in the mix each season, finishing sixth in the voting as a freshman and ninth as a sophomore. Taylor had 299 carries for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017, while tallying 307 carries for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. The latest version of Taylor is outpacing those numbers with at least six games remaining.
Taylor’s rushing yardage is similar, as he has 157 carries for 957 yards through seven games. However, he’s finding the end zone at a much higher clip with 15 rushing touchdowns thus far. The Salem, N.J. native has also joined the passing game. After tallying just 16 receptions for 155 yards and no touchdowns through his first two seasons, Taylor has 16 catches for 138 yards and four touchdowns this fall.
Taylor could reach Henry’s numbers from 2015, the last year a running back took home the Heisman. The Alabama back put up 395 carries for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2015, with only 11 catches for 91 yards. However, Alabama went 14-1 on the way to winning the national championship, a luxury that Taylor almost certainly won’t have.
Individual awards are heavily dependent on team success and the level of talent across the country that year. Taylor is going to have to put together a special second half of the season to unseat the current Heisman leaders. If it’s going to happen, it starts Saturday in Columbus.
If it doesn’t happen, the slate is wiped clean and Antetokounmpo is the favorite to win the first NBA MVP award of the 2020s.
Follow Brock Fritz on Twitter @BrockFritz or contact him at 608-963-0344.
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