In last week’s mailbag, a reader asked why Florida State running back Dalvin Cook wasn’t getting more Heisman Trophy love. Our answer was concise: Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was running away with the trophy, and Cook’s numbers were down from last year.
Not surprisingly, the latter half of that comment riled up #FSUTwitter, which rightfully argued that Cook is on pace to top last year’s totals in yards and touchdowns. Cook’s stellar performance against Florida (timed nicely with a four-turnover loss by Jackson to Kentucky) only bolsters that argument.
So were we just flat-out wrong on Cook?
The answer -- as usual -- requires some context.
The reason we dismissed Cook’s numbers as being “down” this season is because his rate stats -- per-carry or per-game averages -- are indeed down a bit. Last year, Cook’s Heisman case went largely ignored, but it shouldn’t have. He was markedly better than any other running back in the country when it came to those same rate stats, and FSU fans argued that eventual winner Derrick Henry’s numbers, while impressive, were more a result of additional touches rather than better play. While Henry had 328 more rushing yards than Cook at Heisman time last year, Cook was averaging a whopping 2 more yards per rush than Henry behind a markedly worse offensive line.
It was a compelling argument for those willing to listen.
The problem this year is FSU fans wanted to make the opposite argument, the one Alabama fans were making in Henry’s favor last year. Cook ranks second among Power 5 backs in rushing yards, but he’s 20th among Power 5 backs (minimum 120 carries) in yards per rush. His offensive line is also improved, with just 18.7 percent of rushes going for a loss or no gain, down from 25 percent last year.
Of course, that’s not the end of the debate. After all, those high rushing totals Henry tallied last season ultimately won him the award, while Cook, with those spectacular averages, finished seventh. So maybe this really should be Cook’s year to make it to New York.
And if we dig a little deeper into the numbers, there’s more evidence on Cook’s side.
Indeed, Cook has been stopped behind the line less often this year, but his yards before contact overall are down from 2015. His line hasn’t been brutal, but it hasn’t been great, either.
A year ago, Cook was a master of big plays, but just 17.6 percent of his third-down runs resulted in a conversion. This year, that rate is up to 62 percent.
Cook’s workload has gone up, too. He’s responsible for 42 percent of Florida State’s offensive touches this season (third highest in the Power 5), and only Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey has accounted for a higher percentage of his team’s scrimmage yards among Power 5 backs.
Cook has also been especially good in his team’s toughest games. Against opponents that won at least eight games this year, Cook averaged 202 yards from scrimmage, scored 11 times in six games and averaged 7.5 yards per touch -- nearly a yard per play better than anyone other Power 5 back (minimum 75 carries).
Cook’s problem, however, is that even when we examine the big picture, as voters did with Henry last season, Texas tailback D’Onta Foreman is still well ahead in rushing yards and yards per play. But take a deeper dive, and again Cook comes out on top.
Foreman played just three games against teams with eight or more wins, and he averaged a full yard per play less than Cook did in such games.
According to ESPN’s Defensive Efficiency metric, Cook played seven teams ranked in the top 25 nationally. Foreman didn’t play one.
Against teams that ranked in the top 50 in defensive efficiency, Cook played two extra games, averaged more yards per carry, scored five more touchdowns, averaged more yards after contact and converted a significantly higher rate of third-down runs despite nearly twice as many of his runs being stopped in the backfield.
The numbers aren’t close even if we look big picture. Cook’s FBS opponents allowed other FBS backs an average of 4.86 yards per carry. Cook averaged 5.98 against them, a 19-percent increase. Foreman was just 12 percent better than his competition’s average, and McCaffrey was just 15 percent better.
So add it all up, and it’s pretty clear: Cook is the best running back in the country this season. The problem he has now is that the Heisman leaders -- Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Jake Browning, Dede Westbrook and Baker Mayfield -- aren’t running backs, and while Cook's numbers are exceedingly good, it’s hard to stack them up against quarterbacks and receivers in an apples-to-apples way. Because Florida State was out of the playoff hunt by September, Cook doesn’t have narrative on his side, either.
Most Florida State fans have become a bit more realistic now. Cook isn’t going to win the Heisman, and their hope is that he can simply sit on that stage in New York. There’s good news in that regard. In the last 25 years, there have been just four seasons when a running back wasn’t among the top five vote getters for the Heisman (1991, 2001, 2008 and 2012). Although the hardware isn’t likely to end up in Cook’s possession, there’s at least a reasonable chance -- assuming voters are willing to look beyond rushing totals -- that he’ll earn an invitation to join the winner in New York.