The greatest intrigue in the Heisman Trophy race this season is not who will win it. Everyone who has followed college football this season would probably agree that LSU’s Joe Burrow is the runaway choice. This shouldn’t be a tough choice like Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa was last season.

No, the biggest question mark will be who joins Burrow in New York as a finalist. There are usually two or three others selected as finalists. Can Ohio State send multiple players? Can the Buckeyes possibly send three? Indeed. Chase Young, Justin Fields and J.K. Dobbins are all excellent candidates. And differentiating between the three (each of which is having a historic season) is essentially splitting hairs. But I’m going to try.

Young burst into the conversation with his four-sack game against Wisconsin and seems likely to be the top defensive player since Mante Teo finished second in 2012. Fields also seems likely to be a finalist. In The Athletic’s weekly Heisman Straw Poll that polls 51 writers and features identical protocol as the actual Heisman voting ballot, Fields was second, Young was third and Dobbins was fifth.

If there are just two others with Burrow in New York, I believe that it should be Young and Dobbins.

It’s not meant as a slight to Fields at all, or to diminish anything that he’s done. He’s a game-changer and the most important player on the team. If he gets hurt, Ohio State won’t win the national title. And Ohio State may be able to win the national title with Master Teague at running back instead of Dobbins.

But let me explain.

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Most have penciled in Fields, the star quarterback of the most dominant team in the country, as a finalist. In most years, his 37 passing touchdowns against just one interception — plus 10 more scores on the ground — would be good enough to win. And Dobbins plays a devalued position (at least in the eyes of many).

Dobbins, however, is also having a Heisman-worthy season. The numbers don’t lie.

Running backs don’t win the Heisman often, but take a look at the last three to win it and how Dobbins stacks up. Keep in mind, too, that Dobbins still could have three games left to add to those numbers (though only Saturday’s Big Ten Championship will be played before voting). Derrick Henry’s stats are in 15 games, while Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram played in 14. Dobbins has played in just 12.

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While Dobbins clearly has the stats, the Heisman isn’t just a numbers award. It’s about the impact on winning. It’s about that Heisman moment. And in watching Ohio State, I think Dobbins impacts winning as much as any player. In the Buckeyes’ biggest games, they lean on him.

  • Vs. No. 13 Wisconsin: 20 carries for 163 yards and two TDs, plus 3 catches for 58 yards
  • Vs. No. 9 Penn State: 36 carries for 157 yards and two TDs, plus 1 catch for 11 yards
  • At No. 10 Michigan: 31 carries for 211 yards and four TDs, plus two catches for 49 yards

Dobbins’ four worst games (his only sub 100-yard games) were against Ohio State’s four worst opponents: Florida Atlantic, Miami (Ohio), Maryland and Rutgers. Translation: Dobbins’ numbers are legit. They’re earned.

Dobbins is fourth in the country in rushing yards per game at 138.1, behind Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard (161.3), Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (146.8) and Boston College’s A.J. Dillon (140.4). But maybe the reason Dobbins is lagging slightly behind those other three is because he hasn’t played in the second half four times. Hubbard has 150 second-half carries (most in the country), Dillon has 146, Taylor has 111 and Dobbins has just 72. Dobbins’ backup, Master Teague, has 113 (11th most in the country). Think if Dobbins got some of Teague’s second-half workload.

Fields has had a special season, too, no doubt about it. The sophomore quarterback is certainly hard to argue against in terms of basic stats, with 37 touchdowns against one interception. Fields has attempted just over 23 passes per game, for a total of 277. The closest comparison to Fields is Tagovailoa’s 2018 season in which he threw 43 touchdowns in 15 games while averaging 23.7 attempts per game. He also excels with his legs, with 10 rushing touchdowns.

Here’s my case against Fields, though. Fields has attempted 277 passes this season, which is barely more than Dobbins’ 250 rushing attempts. In today’s game, it’s rare to find a team with such an even distribution of pass attempts and rushing attempts from a back. For some perspective, Burrow has thrown double the passes (401) than Clyde Edwards-Helaire (182). Even in a conservative offense like Georgia’s, Jake Fromm has attempted way more passes (313) than star running back D’Andre Swift (193).

You know who else nearly has an equal split? Wisconsin, with Jack Coan (271) and Jonathan Taylor (279). And we know how heavily Wisconsin leans on Taylor.

Here’s the bottom line: Ohio State is seventh in the country in rushing attempts per game with 48.1, and it is 96th in the country in pass attempts per game at 27.3. And we want to put the quarterback over the star running back at the Heisman ceremony? I don’t buy it.

Fields will be a Heisman candidate again next season, and probably the favorite, along with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. But this season, the notoriety of being a finalist should go to Dobbins. He has been the catalyst for this offense, and he should be recognized as such.