Dierks: Was No. 1 South Dakota State snubbed of a Walter Payton Award finalist?
The top-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision was the only playoff seed without an inclusion on the 30-man list of finalists. Was it the correct call?
BROOKINGS — There was a curious omission from the 2022 Walter Payton Award finalists list.
The entity denied inclusion on the 30-person list wasn't a specific player, but rather a team. The No. 1 program in the Football Championship Subdivision, South Dakota State.
First, a bit of context: The Walter Payton Award is given annually to the most outstanding offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision. It's often referred to as the Heisman Trophy of the FCS.
Lindsey Scott Jr., the quarterback for the University of the Incarnate Word, looks likely to win the award this season, as he should. There wasn't a more electric player in the FCS this year, as Scott passed for 3,791 yards, rushed for 342 more and accounted for 57(!) total touchdowns during the regular season.
This isn't an argument for why a South Dakota State player should win the award. Rather, it's a case for why it's ridiculous the best team in the FCS, which is widely regarded as having the most talented roster in the subdivision, didn't have a single representative among the 30 finalists.
There's an unspoken rule that those considered for the Heisman Trophy must play on one of the best teams in the country unless they're truly transcendent. After all, if an individual's outstanding play doesn't translate to wins, how outstanding really is it? Piling up gaudy statistics is well and good on an individual level, but without team success, those numbers tend to feel empty.
Applying that same standard to the Walter Payton Award, of the 30 finalists, 13 did not qualify for the FCS postseason. From the remaining 17 finalists, one is playing on either side of the Celebration Bowl between Jackson State and North Carolina Central and therefore not included in the 24-team playoff field, and seven more were on unseeded teams and did not make it past the second round.
Of the eight seeded teams in the FCS playoff field, No. 1 South Dakota State was the only one without a finalist. Such exclusion only serves to underscore the selection of SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier as the FCS coach of the year for guiding the Jackrabbits to what currently stands as a 12-1 record (12-0 against FCS competition) and a third-straight national semifinal berth.
When it comes to getting recognition for the top individual player awards, an argument could be made that the Jackrabbits are victims of their own roster depth. With so many quality options for distributing the football, it certainly makes it more difficult for players to accumulate the statistics as they might in another system.
For example, SDSU starting running back Isaiah Davis had 932 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns during the regular season (it's worth noting Davis missed one game and was held out of a significant portion of two others due to injury), with No. 2 back Amar Johnson gaining 494 yards and four more touchdowns. All running back finalists had at least 1,050 rushing yards with the exception of North Dakota State's do-it-all utility back Hunter Luepke (621), who had his season ended early due to injury.
In the passing game, SDSU boasts a future NFL draft pick in tight end Tucker Kraft (who also missed a considerable chunk of the season due to injury) alongside NFL hopefuls in receivers Jaxon Janke and Jadon Janke and tight end Zach Heins. There are simply not enough passes to go around and make any one of those targets stand out statistically.
Among the 11 finalist quarterbacks, one appeared to set the barrier for entry into the group at 1,849 yards, 21 touchdowns and three interceptions through the air with 310 rushing yards and one score. SDSU's Mark Gronowski, almost certainly the Jackrabbit closest to consideration for the award, put up 2,247 yards and 18 touchdowns (to five interceptions) on 65% passing while adding nearly 200 yards and eight more touchdowns on the ground.
It wouldn't have been a stretch to include Gronowski among the finalists. In fact, it wouldn't have been altogether dissimilar to what occurred at the FBS level in the Heisman Trophy voting.
One of the four finalists for the Heisman this season was Stetson Bennett, the starting quarterback for the University of Georgia. While his production might not have stacked up favorably against the other three finalists, what Bennett's Georgia Bulldogs do better than any other team in the country is win. Georgia is 27-3 during Bennett's career as a starter, including a 13-0 record this season as the Bulldogs look to repeat as national champions. That's why he finished fourth in the voting for the most prestigious award in college football.
In Gronowski's career, he's 20-3 as a starter and is one win away from making it 2-for-2 in trips to the FCS national championship game in his time leading the Jackrabbits, a place the program had never been prior.
The statistics are there, and the team success is there, but the recognition is not for the SDSU signal caller.
Perhaps the best thing for the Walter Payton Award would be to follow the Heisman's lead and narrow the list of finalists down to a manageable list of a half dozen or so in order to better define who is truly in consideration for the most outstanding player in the FCS.
But in its current structure, with nearly three dozen finalists and a blurred threshold for consideration, there's little excuse for how the top team in the country was snubbed.