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Leonard Fournette has lost Heisman stranglehold, but he's still in the mix

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Leonard Fournette has maintained all along that he is not concerned about the Heisman Trophy race, and LSU’s star running back reiterated those thoughts this week now that he’s no longer the overwhelming favorite to win college football’s most coveted award.

“The Heisman doesn’t [matter],” Fournette said Monday. “I don’t worry about it.”

Plenty of LSU fans are worried about it, though, particularly after Alabama’s Derrick Henry pounded the Tigers for 210 rushing yards and three touchdowns and, depending on who you ask, possibly wrestled the Heisman lead away from Fournette.

Although it’s silly to insinuate that Alabama’s 30-16 victory was in any way a referendum on Fournette vs. Henry -- not once was either of them responsible for blocking for or tackling the other -- Henry obviously made the better impression when they occupied the same field.

While Henry was running wild against LSU’s defense, Fournette failed to find any room to run on most of his carries. He ran 19 times for 31 yards and a touchdown after posting at least 150 rushing yards in each of LSU’s first seven games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Alabama defenders hit him either at or behind the line of scrimmage on 11 of his 19 attempts, with Fournette totaling minus-4 yards on those 11 carries.

“We’re a team. I can’t do everything by myself, but forgive and forget,” Fournette said. “The O-line had a bad [day], I had a bad day. I think we as a unit had a bad day. It just wasn’t our game, our day.”

Even if he says he isn’t chasing the award, it’s up to Fournette to finish strong if he is to claim LSU’s first Heisman since Billy Cannon’s win in 1959. The good news is that he should be able to post solid rushing totals against the remaining defenses on LSU’s schedule: Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M.

Henry totaled 458 rushing yards and four touchdowns against those three SEC opponents on 82 attempts. If Fournette simply matches his per-game rushing average against those three, he’ll finish the regular season with 1,901 rushing yards and break Herschel Walker’s single-season SEC rushing record by 10 yards.

That would be enough to keep him among the leading Heisman contenders. However, the Heisman race almost always concerns more than the individual ability of the contenders.

Look back at the list of winners from the 2000s. There are a few exceptions, but the Heisman nearly always goes to the perceived best offensive player among teams that are competing for national titles -- and usually the quarterback on a top-ranked team.

It has never been an award that truly went to the best individual player -- no exclusively defensive player has ever won, after all -- although sometimes the Heisman winner deserved that distinction. The voters are slaves to win-loss records over all else, and then stats.

If Alabama plays in the SEC championship game and not LSU, that will be a decided point in Henry’s favor. Same for candidates such as Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson should their teams qualify for their respective conferences’ championship games. Five times in the past six years, the Heisman recipient played on that last weekend before ballots were due and cemented his status as the winner with a solid final outing.

Nonetheless, there are exceptions to the typical trend that the Heisman winner comes from one of the title contenders or playoff teams. Even if LSU fails to scratch its way into the SEC championship game, a season with extraordinary numbers still might be enough to lift a player like Fournette to the awards podium. That happened with previous winners Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III and Tim Tebow, all of whom played on teams with at least two losses that did not win or play for their conference titles.

Fournette still leads the nation (1,383 yards) in rushing despite playing in at least one game less than everyone else in the top seven. He is first in rushing yards per game (172.9, where Henry is sixth at 139.3), third in rushing touchdowns (16, one behind Henry and Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon) and seventh in yards per carry (7.09, where Henry is 41st at 5.75).

If he breaks or seriously threatens Walker’s SEC record, Fournette will at minimum earn an invitation to New York for the Heisman presentation. There are still far too many games to be played across the country to crown anyone the winner just yet, but as long as LSU keeps winning and Fournette keeps posting video-game stats, his chances to hoist the trophy are still very much alive.