The best argument for Derrick Henry is to imagine his absence.
What would Alabama look like without the 38% chunk of its offense this season that Henry accounted for? While it’s true Clemson and Stanford would be seriously hurt without Deshaun Watson and Christian McCaffrey, Henry controls the biggest stake of his team’s fate.
Without Henry, Alabama is a great defense wasted. The Crimson Tide would still shut down opponents, but they’d fail to capitalize and eventually slip up. Look at the Tennessee game as a prime example. With Alabama trailing late in fourth quarter despite holding the Volunteers to around five yards per play, Henry bailed the Tide out with a 14-yard touchdown run, his second score of the day. No other Alabama player reached the end zone that day.
Or how about the Iron Bowl, when five Henry runs on an eight-play drive set up a field goal to put the Tide up by two scores? Then to protect that lead, Nick Saban turned to Henry 14 straight times, the last of which Henry took 25 yards to the house.
With the No. 1 defense in yards allowed per play, Alabama was always going to be a very tough team. And with their powerful offensive line, the Crimson Tide were going to create holes. But without Henry to burst through those holes and make the most of them, Alabama’s strategy of building a lead and then grinding the game out on the ground falls apart.
Consider that despite his offensive line, Henry is still gaining 69% of his yards after contact, according to AL.com. That’s 1,235 yards, better than all but 27 running backs’ full rushing totals.
Given the size of Henry’s workload, it’s not surprising that his yards per carry doesn’t rank as high. It’s hard to carry the ball 14 straight times and not expect the defense to catch on. Even with that burden, Henry’s 5.86 still tops McCaffrey’s 5.79. Had Dalvin Cook (7.86) or Leonard Fournette (6.42) been Heisman finalists, they could have pointed to their superior efficiency; with McCaffrey as the only other running back left, Henry’s biggest vulnerability doesn't do much to drag down his candidacy.
What’s left is his record-setting production: 1,986 yards, the most ever by an SEC player. Henry did this despite playing against five of the 25 best units in Football Outsiders' rushing defensive S&P+.
Alabama's path to the national championship
McCaffrey, of course, has the versatility argument from his production as a returner than Henry lacks. And while McCaffrey had two more games to break Barry Sanders’s record for all-purpose yards in a season, McCaffrey’s supporters will note that he required fewer touches than Sanders.
However, that’s not as surprising as it appears when examining what kind of touches McCaffrey got. His 387 touches required to break the record included 32 kick returns compared to Sanders’s 21. At 29.8 yards per kick return, McCaffrey got an extra 327.8 yards as a result of those 11 extra returns (a factor neither he nor Sanders could control). Had McCaffrey gotten the same number of returns as Sanders, he’d still be short of Sanders’s record by a little over 80 yards with a yards-per-touch average of about a half a yard less.
That doesn’t mean McCaffrey’s season isn’t impressive. But compare it to Henry’s (he set the SEC record with 46 fewer rushes than previous record-holder Herschel Walker), and there’s a clear favorite. Just like in 2009, expect the Alabama back to top the Stanford one.