Eric Berry for Heisman? Well, it was a longshot from the beginning, and while the fact that EB is second in the SEC in solo tackles may ultimately help keep him in the race for the Thorpe Award, only one pick in six games has effectively put him out of the Heisman race.
And besides, we all secretly believed that the very best Eric Berry was ever going to do was finish second to ESPN's flavor of the month. It's better this way.
Much more realistic, however, is Montario Hardesty being in the running for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's best running back. The Vols haven't had a player win a national individual award since John Henderson won the Outland in 2000, and the first half of Hardesty's season was certainly good enough to get him in the conversation.
Hardesty's first half rushing numbers: 160 vs WKU, 89 vs UCLA, 96 at Florida, 140 vs Ohio, 90 vs Auburn and 97 vs Georgia. He's been one carry away each week from having six consecutive 100 yard games.
Through six games, Hardesty is eighth nationally and second in the SEC in rushing, averaging 112 yards per game. This goes along with 8 catches for 94 yards, 7 total touchdowns and several highlight reel plays, including the screen pass against Auburn and this little beauty:
Hardesty benefits from the absence of a true signature running back in college football this season, now that Jahvid Best has been bottled up by Oregon and USC to the tune of 102 yards and zero touchdowns combined in those two games. The nation's top four rushers are Toby Gerhart, Ryan Mathews, Dion Lewis and Darius Marshall - can you name the schools any of them play for?* Gerhart, the leader, is still only 74 yards ahead of Hardesty.
Hardesty plays in the SEC and plays for Lane Kiffin, two things that mean increased media attention. And unless Jonathan Crompton continues to throw for 300 yards and 4 TDs every week, Hardesty is the home run hitter of the Vol offense, and at times throughout the season has been the only viable option. Despite the entire world knowing that earlier this season, it didn't keep #2 from being productive against good UCLA and Florida defenses. He is alarmingly consistent, going for 89+ yards and one rushing touchdown in each of the Vols' first six games.
Keeping a 112 yard per game pace in a year with no Heisman candidates at the position will keep you in the conversation, but it may not be good enough to win it. Here are the other names Hardesty will have to compete with:
- Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech: a good story on a top five team, turning Darren Evans' preseason ACL injury into a fantastic start. Scored twice on Alabama, and has four 100+ yard days in six tries. I saw him drop 150 and two scores in the rain against Miami, and was incredibly impressed with his balance. If I had a vote and the award was given today, I'd give him the nod.
- Ben Tate, Auburn: the SEC's new leading rusher after blasting Arkansas for 184 yards on only 22 carries. Outrushed Hardesty head-to-head with 128 yards in a game Auburn won. In Gus Malzahn's offense and with Onterrio McCalebb also getting carries, you never know how many carries he's going to get each week, but he's making the most of all of them.
- Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State: 13 touchdowns in six games for the 5'7" star, who has name recognition after his performance against USC last year, and...well, he's got a cool name. However, the Beavers are yet to play any of the top teams in the Pac-10, so the jury's still out.
- Mark Ingram, Alabama: getting more and more carries each week for arguably the best team in the country, Ingram went dark for three weeks after outrushing Ryan Williams in the season opener with 150 yards, but once Alabama started giving him 20+ carries again, he dropped 140 on Kentucky and 172 on Ole Miss. If those carries continue and Alabama keeps winning, he may become the frontrunner.
- Noel Devine, West Virginia: another guy with name recognition, Devine blasted Colorado for 220 for the best individual game of any of these candidates, and put 128 and 3 scores on Auburn in a losing effort. The Big East will allow lots of opportunities for yards but few opportunities for an audience to appreciate them.
- Others: *The nation's four leading rushers that play for Stanford, Fresno State, Pittsburgh and Marshall, plus John Clay at Wisconsin, and Jahvid Best (Cal) and Jonathan Dwyer (GT) if they turn in huge performances in the second half to make up for poor play against good teams.
Hardesty will get a huge opportunity against Alabama, in a game where he may be leaned on more than the Vols did against Auburn or Georgia. Against Ingram and against an Alabama defense that leads the conference in rushing yards allowed (65.7 per game, 2.3 per carry) Hardesty can make a real statement.
From there, he'll have a chance to pad his stats against the Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky defenses of the world. He's already on pace to run for almost 1,500 yards (counting a bowl game), which means we can also talk about the UT single season record (1,464 yards by Travis Stephens in 2001).
Hardesty has played well enough to put himself in the conversation. Against Alabama and for the rest of the year, he'll have a chance to continue to be the go-to guy for this offense, to chase the best single season in Tennessee football history, and to be one of the best running backs in the nation.