Donald Trump was right. The election was rigged.
No, not that election.
I learned a long time ago that it’s not a good idea to discuss politics or religion in a sports column. And I’m not going to start doing it now.
The election to which I’m referring is the recent balloting for the Biletnikoff Award.
It’s an honor that, according to the Tallahassee Quarterback Club Foundation, Inc.’s website, is presented annually to “the season’s outstanding college football receiver regardless of position.”
That sounds good and all. But the reality is that the award is actually a recognition of the receiver from a Power 5 program that generates the most national buzz at the time of the voting and figures to go highest in the NFL draft.
This is not to say that Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook, this year’s Biletnikoff winner, isn’t an elite receiver who had an outstanding season.
Because he is and he did.
His body of work just didn’t come close to the one put together by the player that should have won the award, East Carolina’s Zay Jones.
Jones’ 158 catches were three more than anyone in the history of the FBS had ever recorded in a single season and his 1,746 receiving yards were nearly 200 more than anyone else in the country. To put how dominant his season was into its proper perspective, consider that 14 entire teams have either the same number or fewer pass completions in 2016 than Jones.
If you double Westbrook’s total of 74 catches, he’d still trail Jones’ total by 10.
These are all numbers and facts that were made available on multiple occasions by the Pirates’ sports information team of Tom McClellan and Malcolm Gray in weekly social media posts and emails to Biletnikoff voters.
Those communiques also pointed out that Jones was a finalist for the William V. Campbell Award as the nation’s top college football scholar-athlete and for the Senior CLASS Award for his contributions on and off the field.
That’s important, since one of the Biletnikoff Award’s stated criteria is that “every candidate must display leadership and self-discipline while making a positive impact on his team’s success.”
There’s no denying Jones accomplished all that.
About the only thing more the Pirates star could have done in order to enhance his chances at the recognition he deserved was to play in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or the top couple of teams in the ACC.
Truth be told, Jones never really had a realistic shot at winning the Biletnikoff Award. It’s a victory in itself that he was chosen as a finalist. Two years ago, his former teammate Justin Hardy didn’t even make it into the top 10 as a finalist despite putting together an impressive resume of his own.
At the time, the folks in Tallahassee went out of their way to remind voters that the Biletnikoff Award was a seasonal honor rather than a career achievement trophy — tacitly implying that they should dismiss the FBS career receiving record Hardy broke, despite the fact that he also had 121 catches that season.
Because Jones’ numbers were simply too eye-popping to ignore, the award committee chose a different way of downplaying his credentials.
They did it by including a caveat at the bottom of the official ballot encouraging voters to “consider the quality of the candidate’s opposing teams and the candidate’s team’s strength of schedule, as well as the candidate’s team’s strength of season record during the season he’s a candidate.” And just to drive the point home, they included a link to the NCAA’s strength of schedule rankings.
The insinuation is that Jones ran up his record-breaking statistics against inferior competition to Westbrook and the other Power 5 finalist, Austin Carr of Northwestern.
But here’s the thing: Jones caught 22 passes, one off the national single-game record, on the road against South Carolina, an SEC team. He recorded 10 receptions against ACC Coastal champion Virginia Tech, also on the road, while grabbing 12 balls against a Navy team that also won its division in the AAC.
In 12 games this season, Jones reached double digits in receptions 10 times and didn’t have fewer than seven in a game.
Yes, he scored only eight touchdowns with all those catches. But that had more to do with the inability of quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Gardner Minshew to execute in the red zone than his getting open or catching the ball.
Westbrook, by contrast, had a Heisman Trophy finalist throwing the ball to him.
And yet, he only caught 10 or more passes in a game once, against Texas. While that was admittedly a spectacular performance, in which he piled up 232 yards and three touchdowns, he offset it by posting several pedestrian efforts against lesser competition — like the one he had against Louisiana-Monroe with four catches for 33 yards.
But who needs stats when you’ve got an interesting backstory, a host of ESPN talking heads pumping you up on national television every Saturday and an award that puts more importance on who its winner plays for than how he actually plays?