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K9 for Heisman: Can it still happen?

Kenneth Walker III is the nation's best tailback. Is that enough to win the Heisman Trophy?

Through ten weeks of the 2021 season, Michigan State tailback Kenneth Walker III was the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy – college football’s most prestigious individual award.

Then, the Spartans traveled to Columbus on Nov. 13 for a Top 10 showdown with Ohio State. With all the college football world watching, Walker was limited to six carries for 25 yards by the Buckeyes – and his coaching staff.

It’s fair to label Walker’s minimal performance against Ohio State as ‘circumstantial’. The tailback had been dealing with an ankle injury, which head coach Mel Tucker pointed out following the game. In addition, Michigan State's defense allowed the Buckeyes to score at will, and the game was out of hand early with the Spartans trailing 21-0 after the first quarter, and 49-0 at halftime.

So, were the limited touches for Walker due to his injury, or due to the game situation?

That question hasn’t been answered one way or another, but regardless, the tailback’s no-show in one of the biggest games of the year severely impacted public perception of his Heisman candidacy.

But should that lone game derail what has been an outstanding season for college football’s best tailback?

Walker bounced back from the Ohio State game with a strong performance against a very good Penn State defense. Against the Nittany Lions, the Spartan tailback ran for 138 yards on 30 carries with a touchdown.

Onlookers wanted Walker to have his “Heisman moment” against Ohio State – but the transfer from Wake Forest had already turned in his moment, in Week 9 against archrival Michigan.

How quickly onlookers, analysts and, potentially, voters forget the performance Walker had against the Wolverines, when he rushed for 197 yards on 23 carries with five touchdowns.

In Michigan State’s biggest game of the year, Walker delivered a historical performance and led the Spartans to an upset victory.

That’s a Heisman moment if there’s ever been one.

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For the season, Walker has collected 1,636 rushing yards on 263 carries, good enough to rank second and fourth nationally in those categories, respectively. The junior is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, which is tied for 26th in the country – but none of the 25 players with a better ‘per carry’ average have as many total carries as Walker.

Walker’s 18 rushing touchdowns are tied for the fifth-most in college football.

The Heisman Trophy, like many other individual awards, often comes down to statistical performance – but the player who wins it should exemplify more than just gaudy numbers.

The official moniker of the Heisman Trophy Trust is this:

“The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. The winners of the trophy epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.”

Walker hasn’t just had an outstanding statistical season. The junior tailback has been the best player on a 10-win Michigan State team and, according to some, has made the biggest individual impact on his team of any player in college football.

“I think Kenneth Walker is clearly the best player in college football,” ESPN’s David Pollack said before the Ohio State game. “If you took him off this team, they’re at least a three-loss team. He is that sensational. He’s got the ‘wow’ factor, he makes you miss. He can do everything.”

Pollack also said Walker was being overlooked as a candidate because he played for Michigan State, as opposed to a bigger name-brand school in college football.

“If Kenneth Walker played for Ohio State, or if Kenneth Walker played for Alabama or Georgia, he’d easily be No. 1 – Without a doubt,” Pollack said. “If he played for those other teams, he’d be the frontrunner.”

Obviously, Walker has stiff competition for the award. The newly-anointed favorite is probably Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who’s thrown for 3,901 yards and 40 touchdowns with a completion percentage of 68.9 percent. Young has only thrown four interceptions.

Ohio State’s CJ Stroud is another leading candidate, having thrown for 3,862 yards and 38 touchdowns with a 70.9 completion percentage. Stroud has thrown five interceptions.

Currently, Walker is widely considered behind those two candidates, but with the Heisman-caliber performance against Michigan, and the season he has had as a whole, Walker should not be overlooked for college football’s most prestigious award.