By now, most are aware that the finalists for the 2015 Doak Walker Award, presented to the nation's best running back of the year, have been announced. This year's three finalists are Derrick Henry (Alabama), Leonard Fournette (LSU), and Christian McCaffrey (Stanford). Surprising to many was the exclusion of Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, who is currently having the greatest statistical season in Florida State history despite battling both hamstring and ankle injuries.
So why was Cook omitted? Did the "down" year at Florida State cost Cook being named a finalist? FSU has two losses-- the same as Stanford, and better than LSU's three. Have the off-the-field issues at Florida State over the last few seasons jeopardized the award chances of some of its high profile players?
Cook was not the only Seminole left off the ballot as a finalist for some of the nation's top awards: Jalen Ramsey did not make the finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, and Roberto Aguayo came up short for the Lou Groza (and he already has the 2013 Award and came up just shy in 2014). We won't try to delve into the mind of voters and analyze why they may have felt Cook was undeserving, but we can look closer at the numbers of the nation's premier running backs this year and see just how closely they stack up.
Derrick Henry of Alabama is having a sensational year and is either on pace to or already has broken a slew of Tide rushing marks. Henry is a workhorse, and the Tide have relied on him significantly in its biggest games. Versus Wisconsin, Ole Miss, Georgia, LSU, and Mississippi State, Henry carried the ball 123 times (24.6 carries per game despite only 13 carries vs. Wisconsin in the opener) and has amassed 836 yards (167.2 yards per game) and 10 touchdowns. He ranks among the nation's best in yards (No. 4), touchdowns (No. 1), and yards per game (No. 6). Any list of elite running backs for the 2015 season must include Henry; without him, the Tide likely is not 10-1, No. 2 in the nation, and two wins away from the College Football Playoff. With another couple of big performances against Auburn and Florida, Henry will likely make it to New York City with a chance to join the Tide's Mark Ingram as the only two running backs in 'Bama history to win the Heisman trophy.
It is when we take a closer look at the other running backs nominated that things get a tad confusing. McCaffrey is having a wonderful season for the Cardinal. He is a do-everything back who helps the Trees flip the field with his participation and electrifying kickoff returns. But as you look closer, you will see that when Stanford played good/great rush defenses, McCaffrey wasn't nearly effective. In a season-opening loss at Northwestern (No. 18 rush defense), McCaffrey was held to a season-low 66 yards (albeit on 12 carries). In three games versus Top-50 rush defenses this year, McCaffrey is only averaging 96.7 yards per game on 4.75 yards per carry with one rushing TD.
How about media darling Leonard Fournette? Through September and much of October, the press was already engraving Fournette's name into any and all trophies for which running backs are eligible. He torched Florida for 180 yards (on 31 carries) and two scores. LSU rose to No. 2 in the College Football Playoff poll, and the nation was abuzz about the kid who reminded them of Bo Jackson and Hershel Walker.
Then November happened. Fournette was completely shut down vs. Alabama (19 carries, 31 yards, one TD). Sledding didn't get any easier the following week when Fournette faced Arkansas (19 carries, 91 yards, one TD). And just last week, Fournette had 108 on 25 carries in a loss to Ole Miss. Through the first seven games of the season, Fournette was never held under five yards per carry. The last three weeks, all LSU losses, Fournette has failed to break five YPC, while facing three-straight Top-50 rush defenses.
With all that said, we come to Cook. Cook is sixth in the nation in rushing yards (despite only playing 10 games). He's also tied for seventh in touchdowns (16), third in rushing yards per game (147.5 ypg), and second in yards per carry (7.97 ypc). Of the three Doak Walker finalists plus Cook, only Henry has faced more Top-50 rush defenses (seven, to Cook's five), and none average as many yards per game or per carry as Cook (163.0 ypg at 7.41 ypc).
So why was Cook left off the finalist list? It could be that in two nationally televised games, Cook has been limited to 15 carries for 54 yards and no touchdowns. Or maybe it is because, in FSU's first loss of the year, Cook was held to 82 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown. But, of course, in two other nationally televised "showcase games," Cook put up 22 carries for 222 yards and 2 TDs (and added a 36-yard TD reception) against Miami and also ripped off 194 yards and a TD against No. 1 Clemson (which has a solid rush defense as well, No. 20 in the nation).
Whether it is the media perception of the Florida State program or voters not being informed enough of exactly who has done what, against which defenses, it is disappointing to Seminole nation that Dalvin Cook will not be recognized nationally for an outstanding season.
But there's also reason for optimism. Cook will be back in 2016, and the rest of the ACC, and country, could be in trouble if he's actually healthy, especially since he'll be running behind an offensive line that won't be as green as it was this year. Simply put, this kid is beyond special, whether the award circuit wants to recognize it or not.