TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In the search for the next Heisman Trophy winner, we often look for a Heisman moment, a game we can replay over and over in our minds to justify that this is, in fact, the best and most deserving player in college football.
It’s a simple but challenging task: When everyone is watching, shine brightest.
Doug Flutie launched a Hail Mary against Miami. Charles Woodson returned a punt for a touchdown, intercepted a pass and caught a touchdown against Ohio State. Johnny Manziel danced around Alabama’s defense. Robert Griffin III put up 500 yards against Oklahoma.
So what Amari Cooper has done this season for Alabama should be looked upon with awe.
Not only has the junior wide receiver put up monster numbers, he has come through most when it counts -- and on more than one occasion. He has doubled down on his Heisman moment and turned it into a handful of resume-building games.
In six games on network television, Cooper has averaged 122 receiving yards and a touchdown. That includes a 201-yard, three-touchdown game against Florida; a 140-yard, two-touchdown game against Texas A&M; and pivotal late-season wins over LSU and Mississippi State in which he caught eight passes for 80-plus yards and a touchdown both times out.
When CBS couldn’t put Alabama on the air again because of contractual obligations, Cooper took his talents to ESPN in a telecast that set overnight records for viewership. Against Auburn on Saturday, Cooper looked like the best player in college football, racking up 13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s pretty good,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He’s probably one of the better playmakers in college football, and he showed that.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Cooper, who has broken school records held by Ozzie Newsome and Julio Jones, has a style all his own.
“He's made a lot of big plays for us this year,” he said. “I think he is probably one of the best wide receivers in the country.”
If you’re looking for overall production, Cooper has that.
He ranks second nationally in receiving yards (1,573) and receiving touchdowns (14), and he is fourth in receptions per game (8.6). Against seven of the country’s top 50 pass efficiency defenses, he has 69 catches for 1,041 yards and 10 touchdowns.
If you’re looking for explosive plays, Cooper has those, too.
His 26 plays of 20 yards or more trail only Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (33) among Power 5 teams. Of Cooper’s 107 total touches, 69 have resulted in a first down or touchdown.
“You never know where he’s at,” said Alabama safety Landon Collins, a potential All-American in his own right.
Because Cooper’s route-running is so precise, you can’t predict where he’s heading, Collins explained. It’s what makes him wonder why anyone would try to defend Cooper one-on-one.
“Once you put one person on him, you’re making a bad mistake,” Collins said. “We don’t even do that in practice.”
It will be interesting to see if Missouri takes that advice on Saturday when it faces Alabama during the SEC championship game.
If the Tigers’ secondary loses track of Cooper like so many have, we could be looking at yet another Heisman moment for the already impressive receiver.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said you have to understand with Copper that, “You’re not going to stop him.”
“He's a great, great player,” he said. “You try to limit the amount of damage they can do.”
The last time Cooper played in Atlanta this late in the season, he was limited to eight catches and 128 yards by Georgia. His game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter catapulted him to Freshman All-American status.
Three years later, could he have another career-defining moment on the national stage? After all, that seems to be business as usual this season.
Though he might not win the Heisman Trophy because so few at his position ever have, what Cooper has accomplished is undeniable.
It should earn him a trip to New York for the award ceremony, at the very least.