Sports fans love accolades. Stats and less tangible things like regular season wins are great, but a trophy or an award is something you can set up in your living room and explain its meaning to every person who doesn't want to hear a 30 minute explanation about your excellent bowling league attendance or your dominance of your church's Sunday picnic sack race.
In college football, your awards of the Ray Guy or Lombardi variety are well regarded, but there really is no altar that we grovel at more than the Heisman. In the run up to the Big Ten Championship game, the Sugar Bowl, and the National Championship game, Ohio State had to play three Heisman finalists in a row, like some kind of terrifying Billy Goats Gruff or Scott Pilgrim Versus Really Dangerous Offensive Weapons.
First was Melvin Gordon, he of the bowling ball parentage. Wisconsin's dynamo ended his campaign with 2587 yards, 29 rushing touchdowns, and 7.1 yards per carry. No one was even within 15 yards per game by the end of the season, and throughout the Big Ten season he crushed all comers underfoot.
Next, Amari Cooper, future NFL first rounder. Engineered by a team of particularly unethical North Korean genetic engineers with 12 fingers and three arms, Cooper finished with 124 catches (at ~14 yards a catch), 16 TDs and averaged 124 receiving yards per game. He made noted dumbass Lane Kiffin look semi-competent for most of the season, which really should've been worth the Heisman right then and there.
Finally, Marcus Mariota, the "Aw, Shucks" Wunderkind: Over 4,000 yards passing, 69% completion rate on 294 yards passing per game. The guy's from Hawai'i, so he's probably cooler than you in that he can wear Hawaiian print shirts unironically.
All of these guys were considered to be the best of the best, And Ohio State punked all of them with the same kind of glee A six-year-old takes in shaking up an ant farm.
It wasn't just three successive amazing defensive performances; it's what allowed Ohio State to win the national championship.
Melvin Gordon, possibly the best player on the worst overall team, was, is, and will always be, a beast. He ran roughshod through the Big Ten with Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave as his quarterbacks, which in itself is pretty much a dead giveaway that a running play was imminent.
Despite his freight train countenance, all Ohio State did was hold him to 76 yards on 26 carries, good for only 2.9 yards per carry. In fact, Gordon's best run the entire game was 13 yards.
Gordon only carried the ball 12 times for 33 carries in the second half of the B1G 'ship, and even that was generous. It was one of only two times Melvin Gordon was held below 100 yards all season. (By contrast, Ezekiel Elliott blew up Wisconsin's top ten defense to the tune of 220 yards on just 20 carries.)
Gordon went on to run all over Auburn in the Outback Bowl, and was the primary reason for their victory. It's not that Gordon wasn't good, it was simply Ohio State's defense was simply better. And after the B1G Championship, the resurrected Silver Bullets set out to prove it was no aberration.
Amari Cooper will be making trillions of dollars in the NFL soon enough, and that's not a fluke. One on one, he's almost impossible to defend, as those 124 receptions and 16 touchdowns will attest.
Playing him one on one was what stupid teams tried to do all season, and before the Sugar Bowl Cooper had only two games with fewer than 75 yards receiving. One was a legit shutdown by Arkansas in Alabama's worst offensive output of the season; the other was a li'l tussle with Western Carolina, and I'm going to assume that Amari didn't see a ton of adversity (or action) in that game.
Ohio State allowed him two touchdowns, but only 71 yards in receptions. His longest reception was all of 15 yards, as Doran Grant kept him under wraps for most of the night. (Also helping: Lane Kiffin is an idiot.)
Meanwhile, Zeke raked in 230 yards (something a Nick Saban-coached Alabama had never allowed) on only 20 carries. His sledge-hammering long runs were what broke the back of the Tide.
The actual Heisman winner, Marcus Mariota presented the most difficult challenge for Ohio State. It's one thing to be a skill player who gets the ball handed or thrown to them; Wisconsin and Alabama could be made one-dimensional and therefore Gordon and Cooper could be stuffed. Mariota, however, touched the ball every play, which is a different threat entirely.
Sure, Marcus Mariota came into the National Championship game averaging 348 yards of total offense — good for No. 5 in the country — and during the game he had 372 yards overall. But where Ohio State put the Duck commander on ice was how they contained him on explosive plays.
Mariota had one 70 yard touchdown pass, but beyond that, he had no passes longer than 30 yards. His longest run was all of 8 yards.
Contrast that with Elliott, who ate up both field and clock to the tune of 246 yards, and the Missourian moved the chains for Ohio State when they needed it.
Look, Mariota, Gordon, and Cooper are all amazing players, but Ohio State prepared and executed solid gameplans on all three. Of course, however, having a ball of destruction — and 2015 Heisman frontrunner — Ezekiel Elliott on hand helped too.
In those three games, Elliott accounted for 696 total yards on the ground, and he got better the further Ohio State drove into the postseason.
Those 696 yards, by the way, are more than the combined 519 that Gordon, Cooper, and Mariota were able to rack up. Three Heisman nominees combined couldn't outplay a guy who didn't even make the Honorable Mention team the past season.
So the question is: could Zeke fight and kill a bear with naught but his hands? I say yes. The other question is: at what point do we start looking at individual players and not their accolades when determining who might have an impact on the overall outcome of a game?
Because to me, it's pretty clear the Heisman finalists were way more vulnerable than the dude some people rated as the 5th best back in the Big Ten this year.