Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Why Oklahoma State running back Ollie Gordon II is college football’s most undervalued player

Oklahoma State’s Ollie Gordon II won the 2023 Doak Walker Award as the best running back in the nation. He was the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year (besting the likes of Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers for the honor), a unanimous All-American and he finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting, the highest of three running backs that placed in the top 10. 

And he’s still college football’s best-kept secret; according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, that is. 

In the most recent run of Heisman Trophy futures, Gordon was tagged with +15000 odds to take home the sport’s top individual award. That put him 53rd on the list of eligible athletes, alongside the likes of Nebraska true freshman quarterback Dylan Raiola and Ohio State’s Julian Sayin, who’s expected to back up starting signal caller Will Howard in his first year with the Buckeyes.

Of course, the Heisman is a quarterback-slanted award. Seven of the last eight winners have made their name tossing the ball around the field. The only non-QB to win the Heisman in that span — former Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith — stood out because he was elite at catching those passes thrown by quarterbacks. 

A running back hasn’t won the Heisman since 2015, when Derrick Henry carried Alabama to a College Football Playoff National Championship. Even then he garnered just 65.7% of the vote, the lowest mark for a Heisman winner since 2011.  

Regardless of recent trends, Gordon shouldn’t just be in the Heisman conversation; he should be an early front-runner. He has the potential to follow in that Henry mold as the most important player on a team with conference championship aspirations and College Football Playoff upside. 

Because if Oklahoma State wants to reach those goals, it will follow Gordon. He was the engine that drove the Cowboys to the 2023 Big 12 Championship Game. 

Need some evidence? The Cowboys lost four games in 2023. Gordon had fewer than 100 yards rushing in three of them. 

His season-low in carries came against South Alabama, when he touched the ball just three times for 12 yards. The Cowboys lost 33-7 as seven-point favorites. Gordon averaged 154 yards on the ground in Oklahoma State’s wins. 

His offensive contribution compared to Oklahoma State’s team totals is eye-popping. 

Oklahoma State production Rushing yards Total yards Rushing touchdowns Total offensive touchdowns Yards per game

Team Total

2,174

6,045

29

48

431.8

Gordon’s contribution

79.7%

34.1%

72.4%

45.8%

34.1%

To condense those numbers, Gordon was responsible for more than one-third of Oklahoma State’s total offensive production. That’s an absurd rate for a player who doesn’t have the ball in his hands on every offensive snap. 

Not that Gordon lacked opportunity. He tallied 285 total rushing attempts, third-most among all FBS players in 2023. That’s immense volume, but he has plenty of quality to match that quantity. 

Gordon averaged just under 6.1 yards per touch, first among running backs with a minimum of 230 carries. He was the only running back in the nation to average six yards per carry on more than 20 carries per game. 

At 6-foot-2 and north of 215 pounds, Gordon also happened to be one of the most explosive players in the sport. He led the nation in rushes of at least 20 and 30 yards and tied for the lead with seven 40-plus-yard runs. He was also one of six just players, regardless of position, with two runs of more than 70 yards. 

Some detractors, or those that tend to devalue running backs in the modern game, may point to scheme or Oklahoma State’s veteran offensive line as the main catalysts behind Gordon’s production. While those factors surely played a role, 1,056 of Gordon’s 1,732 yards rushing came after contact. He was tough to bring down with a head of steam and often required multiple defenders to finally drag him to the ground. 

There are also concerns over Oklahoma State’s usage of Gordon and the considerable mileage he’s already piled up. He was injured on three separate occasions last season, though none of the setbacks were serious enough to keep him sidelined for an entire game. 

Even with an ailment, he’s shown he’ll put it all out there for the Cowboys. In last November’s win against Houston, Gordon exited the game near the end of the first half when he couldn’t put any weight on one of his legs. He returned in the third quarter and finished with 164 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries. 

Gordon may be the crown jewel, but he isn’t the only important piece Oklahoma State returns. The Cowboys bring back 85% of their production from the 10-win season, per ESPN. Oklahoma State’s offensive line, which 247Sports ranked No. 1 in the nation entering the 2024 season, boasts over 200 combined starts. They’ll pave the way for that Gordon-led rushing attack. 

With Oklahoma and Texas out of the fold, the Big 12 is more wide open than ever. The Cowboys have all the pieces to push for a title, which would give them a ticket to their first College Football Playoff. If Gordon’s at the center of that journey, that could mean a trip to New York for December’s Heisman Trophy ceremony. 

He’ll be impossible to ignore any longer, no matter what preseason odds may suggest. 

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