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'They'll put up a statue of him': With Heisman history awaiting, here's how Joe Burrow became an LSU icon

Yahoo! Sports logo Yahoo! Sports 12/13/2019 Pete Thamel
a man holding a football ball: LSU QB Joe Burrow, who is considered a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, acknowledges the crowd as he is pulled from his last game in Tiger Stadium on Nov. 30. (AP) © Provided by Yahoo! Sports LSU QB Joe Burrow, who is considered a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, acknowledges the crowd as he is pulled from his last game in Tiger Stadium on Nov. 30. (AP)

Joe Burrow’s 2019 season has unfolded like offensive emancipation for the LSU football program. The ghosts of unimaginative gameplans, metaphoric Danny Etlings at quarterback and a string of pedestrian coordinators have been released from the tortured souls of LSU football.  

While lofty team goals remain for LSU heading into the College Football Playoff, the individual culmination of one of the most remarkable seasons in the history of college football arrives on Saturday night. Fitting of Burrow’s eye-popping 48 touchdown passes and litany of records, the only drama remaining in the Heisman Trophy race is how much he’ll win by.

Along with redefining quarterback excellence at both LSU and in the SEC, Burrow led LSU to the conference title, a 13-0 record and the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff. He is also on the cusp of altering the standard for Heisman Trophy winners, as his ability to exorcise LSU’s ghosts has left him chasing Heisman legends like O.J. Simpson, Troy Smith and Marcus Mariota for singular dominance. 

For an LSU program that’s had dominant players at nearly every position but quarterback for the past two decades – think Leonard Fournette, Tyrann Mathieu and Odell Beckham – Burrow’s transcendent season finally unlocked the program’s unfulfilled potential.

“For everything we’ve been through from an identity standpoint offensively, for him to presumably win the Heisman Trophy, it’s special,” LSU great Booger McFarland said. “We’ve been missing that for years.”

Around LSU, they’ve begun to ponder the profound legacy of a quarterback who arrived with measured expectations two years ago after transferring from Ohio State. His two seasons offered a distinct dichotomy of performance. Along with the most impressive individual season in school history in 2019, Burrow also reset the standard for individual improvement. He jumped his completion percentage by an astounding 20 percent to position himself for the NCAA record at 77.9 percent. He also threw 32 more touchdown passes than in 2018.

The influx of more aggressive and innovative schemes from pass game coordinator Joe Brady set up Burrow for his historic transformation. The modern system stressed one-on-one matchups, mismatches and quick delivery, swiped from New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton’s playbook. The refined passing game highlighted the resplendent talent at wide receiver, as Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall combined for 42 touchdown catches.

“His legacy is immortal,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward told Yahoo Sports. “And he did it with such savoir faire and class.”

Part of the mystical quality of Burrow’s season comes from the unexpectedness of it. At least on the outside. Burrow’s individual records this season practically require their own syllabus. He’s already broken the LSU and SEC record for passing yards (4,715) and touchdown passes (48), and that’s with potentially two games remaining.

He’s positioned to break the NCAA record for completion percentage, as his 77.9 percent leads Texas’ Colt McCoy (76.7). He has a chance at the school’s career touchdown record, as he’s second with 64 after just two seasons. (Tommy Hodson has the all-time record, 69, after starting four years from 1986-89.)  

And there weren’t many signs that he’d arrive at all. He was a middling SEC quarterback his first year at LSU, completing 57.8 percent of his passes and throwing for 16 touchdowns. He’s bristled at the notion of being a game manager, but that’s what he was. He showed a fearlessness with gutsy runs and an affinity for fourth-down conversions, but there were few pieces of empirical evidence that foreshadowed historic success.

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron deserves credit for unearthing Brady to unleash Burrow. He found Brady in the Saints’ back offices, where he was essentially an assistant to an assistant coach. Coincidentally, he worked with Burrow’s close friend and former Ohio State teammate, J.T. Barrett, who was the Saints’ practice squad quarterback last season.

“What’s crazy is that I’m not that shocked,” Barrett said in a phone interview this week. “Everyone put him in a bubble of what they saw last year. Now they’re like super shocked. Why you so shocked? The system changed.”

Barrett predicted that Brady and Burrow would be “best friends” when the hire was made, but few could have seen them so intertwined in LSU history. Burrow will become the school’s second-ever Heisman Trophy winner, following Billy Cannon in 1959. Brady won the Broyles award for the nation’s top assistant and appears poised to become the sport’s first $2 million-per-year offensive assistant coach. LSU may be forever changed.

“I think he’s going to win the Heisman Trophy and go down in history,” McFarland said. “They’ll put up a statue of him and remember him like Billy Cannon. I think Joe Burrow may go down as the most revered Tiger of all.”

The numbers to watch for Saturday night will revolve around Burrow’s total votes, first-place voting percentage and the number of ballots that he ends up on. All of those records would appear to be in peril.

The most accurate measure of Burrow’s dominance will be whether he can top Troy Smith’s record of 91.6 percent of “possible points” in 2006. (This is essentially a measure of first-place votes.) Another potential tally is Mariota’s record of appearing on 95.1 percent of Heisman Trophy ballots from 2014. Voters who leave Burrow completely off their ballot may need eye exams and voting privileges revoked.

Simpson’s record of 855 first-place votes is a pinch complicated. The Heisman Trophy website warns that there’s variance in the number of total voters, and the number of first-place votes may not be the best metric to determine dominance.

“Keep in mind that in some years (1968, 1976) there were more voters than in recent years,” the site says. A Heisman official told Yahoo Sports there have been 927 voters registered this year, which should give Burrow, the runaway favorite, a chance to top that. (The votes are 870 media, 56 living Heisman winners and a fan vote.)

Regardless of what records he sets, it’s clear Burrow has entrenched himself alongside some of the sport’s most dominant names.

“I don’t have a sophisticated enough vocabulary to describe it,” Woodward said of Burrow’s dominance. “He’s been stupendous, spectacular, once in a lifetime. It’s just incredible what he’s meant to a whole state, university, community and conference.”

Former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo recalls hosting Cannon at practice during his tenure at the school from 1995-99. Cannon passed away in 2018 at the age of 80, but DiNardo recalls a poignant connection that resonated for decades. “What he meant to the people of Louisiana and the football program,” DiNardo said, “it’s hard to put into words.”

Burrow will lead No. 1 LSU against No. 4 Oklahoma on Dec. 28 and then, potentially, against the winner of No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Clemson in the CFP championship game. He’s already racing to history at LSU, in the SEC and beyond. There are two games left to determine where this run ends.

“If they win the national championship, he’ll be the Heisman Trophy winner that led them to the title,” DiNardo said. “I don’t know we can write the last chapter yet.”

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