The build up to the college football season is ripe with prognostication and prediction, ranging from which coaches are least likely to retain their post through bowl season, which teams are likely to emerge from the gauntlet of their conference triumphant, which conference will hold head highest among its peers by season's end, and of course, which players will be taking home the hardware for their individual accomplishments.
This is the first year in a while that the reigning Heisman trophy winner isn't trying to Archie, by which I mean win a second Heisman not father two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, so the preeminent honor in the land is more freely up for grabs than it appears to be most years. There are even some speculators suggesting that this might the year that a pure defensive player sneaks off with the usually (always) offensive minded award.
I have written about our cultural difficulty appreciating the negative space in an athletic contest, and how sometimes a player's performance wrenches the conversation away from us and forces us to pay attention to all the things that player is taking away from the game, forcing the background into the foreground. Even when the best player in college is a defensive player, they rarely win the award, and never without a significant contribution in the more tangible, positivist space.
In fact, forget winning the award. A defensive player has only finished in the top five in the voting 18 times in the last 80 years, and only 10 of them played on just the defensive side. That is ten players who have wrenched our focus from our addiction to offense and managed to even make the shortlist, out of 400.
In the scoreboard spinning whirlwind of the spread offenses, it takes a special player to even break into the conversation, and by the time most players have managed to generate enough traction in the public awareness they are leaving for the greener pastures of the Sunday games (by greener, I mean collecting green money for their services, not trying to slight collegiate ground crews).
It is a true rarity for a player to declare their preeminence before their three years of mandatory indentured service are up, and as Jadaveon Clowney showed us, living up to that notice is a particular challenge in it's own right. This year general consensus seems to have declared that the best player in the country is a player who was a nightmare for opposing coaches as a sophomore, and is set to put on an even more impressive show now that the spotlight will be firmly fixed upon him for the entire season.
Tell me, have you heard about Joey Bosa?
Joey Bosa is the best player in college football. Joey Bosa is the best NFL prospect in college football. Joey Bosa is so good he should already be in the NFL. Joey Bosa is pretty much JJ Watt (who just ripped off the most impressive three year run for a defensive player in NFL history).
I guess the reason that I'm a little confused by the enormity of the Bosa bandwagon because there is another player who bedevilled offensive coaches as a sophomore and is returning to the psuedo amatuer ranks this year, a player who won almost every single defensive award last year, including both national defensive player of the year awards, the Bednarik and the Nagurski, and the Lombardi award for most outstanding defensive lineman despite not being a defensive lineman. Do you know who WAS a defensive lineman last year? Joey Bosa.
The notable award unwon was the Butkus award for the nation's top linebacker, which wasn't prepared for his out-of-nowhere season and restricts eligible winners to those designated on a preseason watchlist, going to someone else in the conference of champions instead.
He might not have a signature emoticon, but damnit, we need to talk about Philip Wright III.
Philip Wright III, who apparently isn't even the best player at his position. Philip Wright III, who apparently isn't even in the top three of NFL draft prospects at inside linebacker for the draft after this one. Philip Wright III, who in some circles isn't even the highest rated linebacking prospect in the PAC12.
He goes by Scooby.
I just don't get it. Now, I will be the first to admit that some of the nuances of defensive footishball escape me. This is one of the reasons that I am so happy to be alive during the Bayesian statistical revolution, with all of the advanced statistics to evaluate more holistic impact on a given game, to be able to fully appreciate the difference that chaotic terrors like Watt bring to the table.
I couldn't find similarly advanced individual statistics for collegiate defenders, so I am going to try and just compile some less advanced stats for comparison between the two players. It's time to breakdown two impressive seasons, and two impressive players.
One of the difficulties in evaluating collegiate play is that all conferences are not created equal, as everyone in the southeastern corner of the country is so fond of reminding us. As an example, Joey and the Buckeyes played in a total of four games, out of fifteen, against opponents ranked in the top 25 in the country by the Associated Press, including the national championship game against the PAC12 champion, Oregon. Scooby and the Cats played seven such games, out of fourteen.
For this comparison, we are just going to look at how each of those players performed in those games, the games against teams everyone considers good, using the split stats at cfbstats.com as our reference. We'll offer a comparison with their performance against unranked teams, just because it seems relevant if a player performs better against good teams or against less good teams.
We are going to start with tackles, because this is the one to which we should maybe pay the least attention. Joey is a defensive end, with a pretty narrowly defined role: get after the quarterback. Scooby plays deeper, as a backer he is expected to clean up more of the things that get past the line. Even JJ Watt doesn't put up the kind of tackling numbers that a Luke Kuechly will.
Bosa v Ranked: 2.5 t/pg
Bosa v Unranked: 4.09 t/pg
Wright III v Ranked: 12.0 t/pg
Wright III v Unranked: 11.2 t/pg
Tackles for loss
I would expect the comparison to begin to even out here, as a great deal of what Joey brings to the table is the ability to disrupt the running game behind the line. Granted, disruption does not always result in a tackle, but even so I would expect the athletic marvel who starts closer to the backfield to have more backfield tackles than the 'athletically limited' hard worker who starts from a deeper position.
Bosa v Ranked: 0.25 tfl/pg
Bosa v Unranked: 1.82 tfl/pg
Wright III v Ranked: 2.36 tfl/pg
Wright III v Unranked: 1.79 tfl/pg
This is area where Joey should at least be tipping the scale a bit. Sacks are a pass rushing defensive ends preeminent focus. The reason Joey might be the first name called on draft day isn't because of his ability to hinder the read option.
Bosa v Ranked: 0.0 s/pg
Bosa v Unranked: 1.35 s/pg
Wright III v Ranked: 1.0 s/pg
Wright III v Unranked: 1.0 s/pg
I hesitate to include these, because forcing turnovers is difficult to allege as a skill unless one happens to be named Peanut. That being said:
Bosa v Ranked: 0 ff
Bosa v Unranked: 4 ff
Wright III v Ranked: 2 ff
Wright III v Unranked: 4 ff
The reduction to per game statistics helps mitigate some of the sheer weight of production Scooby put on the table last year, though it does amplify the difficulty of Joey's smaller sample size. Even counting the playoffs, less than a third of Joey's games were against quality opponents, compared to half of Scooby's. Additionally, the grossly inaccurately named Big10 is far from the offensive showcase that the PAC12 rolls out on a weekly basis. The law of small numbers might suggest that we shouldn't read too much into these splits, but it doesn't change the fact that over four games against ranked opponents, Joey Bosa produced a grand total of 1 tackle for loss, 0 sacks, and 0 forced fumbles.
In seven such games, Scooby produced 16.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles.
Oh, and those two forced fumbles? To seal the victory in Eugene, and steal the victory in Tempe, giving Arizona the PAC12 South Division title. For me, that is the biggest mover of the needle in the conversation. Scooby showed up bigger in bigger games. If you are looking for more behind the line production against subpar opponents, though, Bosa has a slight edge.
I am not saying that Scooby should be the first pick in the draft, though I suspect he'll be a better pro than he is being given credit. I'm not saying that Joey Bosa is a bad or even average player.
I am saying that the award for the best collegiate player should go to the player who plays the best in college. This year that might be a defensive player, and if it is a defensive player then the reigning national defensive player of the year seems like a more natural place to start the conversation than the specialist who doesn't even perform as well within his specialization.
It's time. Let's rally around the little(r) guy who doesn't come from a football production factory, who doesn't play on the easy to love offensive side of the ball. Let's pull for the guy who is famous for his emotion, rather than his emoticon.
It's time for Phillip 'Scooby' Wright III for Heisman.
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