What a stinking shame, as college football dares to play national semifinal games on New Year’s Eve, that the life of the party won’t be there. Good luck getting down and rowdy with Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Michigan State — Ryan Seacrest sounds more fun — when Christian McCaffrey could have rocked the night in his headband like no combination of streamers, champagne and illegal drugs.
Stanford is headed to the Rose Bowl for the third time in four years, no small feat, but the Cardinal fell short of the Final Four on Saturday evening because of their own previous missteps. Had they not lost to Oregon last month on two late botched center snaps and not lost to Northwestern in early September because they never received their hotel wakeup calls, they’d be competing for a national title. And their incomparable dynamo — stutter step, turbo burst, something out of a virtual reality lab — would be boosting ESPN’s ratings that night and perhaps walking onto a podium next weekend to collect a Heisman Trophy that he clearly deserves.
McCaffrey will be in New York for the ceremony, no doubt. And if the Eastern-most chunk of the 900-voter electorate didn’t go to bed early again, I suppose there’s a chance he could one-up the workmanlike Alabama running back, Derrick Henry, and the productive Clemson quarterback, Deshaun Watson, and dash away with the bronze stiff-arm the same way he has cut and deked and exploded for 3,496 all-purpose yards this year, the most in major college football history. Not to knock the other two leading candidates, but after a recent run of troublesome Heisman winners (see: Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel), McCaffrey truly is the golden child and American dream, wrapped in a 6-foot, 200-pound package of pure delight that almost challenges the wonders of the basketball miracle who plays a short drive north off I-880.
In a hallmark performance, McCaffrey showcased his spectacular talents in the Pac-12 championship game, sprinting and catching and, again, passing his way into history in Stanford’s 41-22 victory over Southern California. In shattering the single-season all-purpose yards record of Barry Sanders, he amassed 461 for the night — 207 on the ground, 105 receiving, 149 in the return game … and 11 on a gadget touchdown pass to the quarterback, Kevin Hogan. On that play, in sweet family symbolism, Hogan pitched the football to Sanders’ son, Barry Jr., who gave it to McCaffrey as he crossed from left end. Hogan was more open than the vast swath of seats at Levi’s Stadium, where the announced crowd of 58,476 was closer to 48,476 in attendance.
“I was just praying I’d get it to him,” McCaffrey said.
The only prayers that should be said are by opponents who can’t stop him.
“In my opinion, he should win the Heisman,” USC linebacker Su’a Cravens said. “I mean, what doesn’t he do? He catches the ball in the backfield, makes the guy miss and takes it to the house. He rushes the ball inside and on the edge, and he can score on any play they draw for him. He’s just a special guy.”
Stanford coach David Shaw, who delivered a political statement in saying a system that includes five power conferences should allow for all champions to be in an eight-game playoff, was even more emphatic about McCafffrey at the postgame press conference. “The man to my left here is the best player in the nation. It’s not even a debate,” Shaw said. “What Christian has done is phenomenal. The yardage today was something ridiculous, I lost count.
“You see that flash of lightning, the kid exploding through the hole. It has been so much fun to watch.”
What else do voters want to see? Along with the outrageous stats, McCaffrey was named to the Academic All-America team the other day, the same honor won by his father, Ed, 25 years ago at Stanford before his successful career as an NFL wide receiver. He’s humble as can be, making sure to praise the great Sanders in saying, “He’s a guy whose poster was on my wall growing up. To be in the same category as him, it’s definitely a huge honor. I couldn’t do it without my teammates. I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you how much I love these guys.”
He is especially fond of Hogan, the fifth-year senior who has dealt with searing adversity — his father’s death and serious injuries. McCaffrey was quick to point out, as was Shaw, that both Hogan and McCaffrey had thrown for a touchdown, rushed for a touchdown and caught a pass for a touchdown Saturday. So much for the knocks that used to haunt Shaw, that he’s too conservative. Even he could figure out the obvious: Get the ball to McCaffrey, all night long.
Team captain Blake Martinez, who forced a fumble that led to Solomon Thomas’ 34-yard touchdown return, worked with McCaffrey as co-interns at a commercial real-estate firm last summer. “Going into it, I was like, ‘All right, what am I going to see from this kid? Am I going to see that great person I was expecting?’ “ Martinez said. “We all knew he was going to be a great player. Every single day he was personable. I talked to coach (Duane) Akina one day and he was like, ‘What about No. 5? Do you know anything?’ And I said, ‘Honestly, coach, you couldn’t say anything bad about him.’ He’s going to come up to you, no matter who you are, and he’s going to be respectful. That’s just the way he was raised.”
The nation instead will see McCaffrey on New Year’s Day, not a bad consolation prize. Shaw thinks there should be an eight-team playoff, which might be hypocritical if the sport is trying to limit head injuries and preserve study time. “If the worst thing we do is go to the Rose Bowl, that’s pretty cool,” said Shaw, who is likely to hear today that Stanford is No. 5 and will play No. 6 Ohio State in Pasadena. “If you win one of the Big Five conferences, you should be in the playoff. Eventually, (the system) is going to get there. You strive to have Power Five conferences and have only four spots. It doesn’t make sense. If they invite us, great. If not, we’ll go to Pasadena and have a great time.”
The party is going to be a blast at any venue so long as Christian McCaffrey is in the house, dancing and raging.