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Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (3) made an impact for Georgia starting with the season opener against Appalachian State.

Roquan Smith deserved to be in Heisman conversation

Cy Brown

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The case for Roquan Smith as a Heisman finalist

Although he’s in the conversation when discussing who is the best player in college football, Roquan Smith will not win the Heisman Trophy. The finalists for the greatest individual honor in college football were announced Monday, with Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, Stanford running back Bryce Love and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson heading to New York for the award ceremony Saturday.

Smith never had a chance to win the Heisman. Despite the fact that the Heisman is supposed to go the “most outstanding player in college football,” players who touch the ball almost always win. Defensive finalists are rare and defensive winners are rarer. Mayfield has had the award virtually locked up for most of this season against a fairly weak field.

There was a groundswell of support for Smith as a Heisman candidate in recent weeks, following outstanding performances against Georgia Tech and Auburn in the final two games of the regular season. It came mostly from Georgia fans. At that point, it was too little too late, as most voters had already made up their minds. But ESPN analyst Greg McElroy did make special mention of Smith as an obscure Heisman candidate during ESPN’s coverage of the College Football Playoff announcement. From Kipp Adams of Dawgs247:

“I think Roquan Smith belongs, I mean it,” McElroy said. “You look at what he’s meant for Georgia. Really the last couple of games symbolized the importance of his production. I believe against Georgia Tech he had 12, 14, 15 tackles, that’s what they gave him. He might have had 25. They spied him on everything.” …

“Then you look at the following game, and the impact he had in the game against Auburn,” McElroy said. “He took it over. From a defensive player’s perspective, taking it over, he can do it all.”

You can’t really say Smith should have been a finalist, because he didn’t get enough votes to meet the criteria, and we don’t know how many, if any, votes he received yet. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say he should have been in the conversation for the Heisman even before his lights-out performances against Tech and Auburn.

If any defender deserved to be in the conversation for Heisman votes this season, it was Smith. He leads Georgia in total tackles (113) and the SEC in solo tackles (72) to go along with 10½ tackles for loss, 5½ sacks, a forced fumble and 2 fumbles recovered. He won the Butkus Award, given to the best linebacker in college football. He was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which was awarded Monday to Bradley Chubb of N.C. State, and the Chuck Bednarik Award, each given to the best defender in college football. He’s been named the SEC Championship Game most valuable player, All-SEC first team, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is a likely first team All-American. In the intangibles department, he has been the leader and quarterback of the Georgia defense and helped position it as one of the elite units in college football in large part because of his ability to recognize plays and track down the ball.

But a look at previous linebackers who were Heisman finalists in recent years shows why Smith didn’t receive much of a look. In modern college football, there have been two: Manti Te’o (2012) and Jabril Peppers (2016). Te’o had 113 tackles, 5½ TFLs and 1½ sacks in 2012. He also had 7 interceptions and played for Notre Dame. Peppers had 66 tackles, 13 for loss and 3 sacks, but he also returned kicks, played some offense and played multiple positions on defense.

So what’s the common trait among those two finalists: They all had something that made them stand out from every other linebacker. Te’o had his interceptions and Notre Dame bias. Peppers had his returns and ability to play anywhere on the field. Smith doesn’t have any special trait like that. He’s just really, really, really good at doing what he does: running the defense from the field, making reads, tracking the ball and making stops. He doesn’t pick off passes or make returns. He’s just way better than most college linebackers and does his job almost almost flawlessly.

Basically, Smith’s argument for more Heisman consideration is the same as every other defender who ever deserved to be in the running. If it’s about being the most outstanding player in college football, and not the most outstanding player who scores touchdowns, defenders — and offensive linemen, for that matter — should get as much of a look as quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. And while semantic arguments about the definition of “outstanding” can be made all day, we’re really talking about the best player in college football. If voters ranked the best players regardless of position, I think Smith would be in a lot of top threes. He might not be the best player in the country, but I think he deserves to be mentioned in the discussion.

And, not for nothing, there hasn’t been much debate about the winner this season. It’s going to be Mayfield. In a year when the winner is obvious and the field is weak, like this one, it’d be nice to see some token votes thrown out to defenders at the very least. Give the defenders some love, y’all.

But, as they say, that ship has sailed. Smith won’t win the Heisman. Instead, Georgia fans will have to hope for the next-best thing: watching Smith terrorize the likely Heisman winner and the Oklahoma offense in the Rose Bowl. I think they, and Smith, would settle for that.

A number of Bulldogs claim SEC honors

AP postseason SEC honors and All-SEC teams were announced on Monday, and there were plenty of Bulldogs among those who made the cut.

Smith earned the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Quarterback Jake Fromm  and Jarrett Stidham of Auburn shared the Newcomer of the Year award. Kirby Smart took home SEC Coach of the Year in just his second season on the job.

Smith and tackle Isaiah Wynn each earned a spot on the All-SEC first team. Running back Nick Chubb, linebacker Lorenzo Carter and safety J.R. Reed were named All-SEC second team, as well as receiver Mecole Hardman, who garnered a spot as an all-purpose player.

Protective order filed against Oklahoma’s leading rusher

A protective order was filed against Oklahoma leading rusher Rodney Anderson. There isn’t much information out about this yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on in the buildup to the Rose Bowl.

Mel Tucker among candidates for Tennessee gig

Between his reputation as a coach and the way his defense has performed this season, rumors that Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker could get a head coaching job were inevitable. On Monday, Football Scoop reported new Tennessee athletic director Phil Fulmer has a list of five candidates for the vacant gig in Knoxville, and Tucker is among them.

Tucker is reportedly in the running along with Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, SMU coach Chad Morris and former LSU coach Les Miles. Considering the fantastic job he’s done in his two seasons in Athens, Georgia fans are not going to want to see him leave the program, especially if it means he’ll be heading north and wearing orange. We’ll keep an eye on how this develops.

2 Rose Bowl tickets to be given away at UGA hoops game

If you’re a UGA student looking for Rose Bowl tickets, you might want to think about attending the Georgia men’s basketball game against Winthrop Tuesday night at Stegeman Coliseum. That offer could tempt some alumni to dig up that old student ID. It never hurts to try.

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