With their convincing win over Arizona State on Saturday, the Colorado Buffaloes have improved 5-0 on the season, their best start since 1998. In that game, Laviska Shenault was more or less the entire Buffs offense and he was responsible for all 28 of Colorado’s points. With his stunning performance adding to his already incredible body of work, Shenault has emerged as a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy.
Against Arizona State, Viska posted 13 catches, 140 yards from scrimmage and 4 total touchdowns. He was everywhere on the field doing everything for Colorado. ASU knew he was going to get the ball but there was nothing they could do to stop him from dominating his fifth game in a row. The Buffs coaches knew too that they could force-feed him and let him roll through everyone.
Those numbers give him a total of 51 catches, 708 receiving yards and 10 total TDs. Shenault is third in the nation in each of those three categories, but the players ahead of him — UMass’s Andy Isabella and Hawaii’s John Usua — have played 7 games to Shenault’s 5. Looking at a per game basis, Shenault is best in the nation in receptions (10.1), yards (141.6) and total TDs (2). If you include rushing yards too, Shenault is first in yards from scrimmage per game (149.8), with ASU’s Eno Benjamin and his 23 second half yards just behind him.
As detailed in our argument that Shenault is better than N’Keal Harry — which was confirmed on Saturday, although Harry was injured in the second half on a weird play — Viska is also dominating with advanced stats. Pro Football Focus had him rated as the best receiver in the nation, and that was before Saturday. His overall rating for the season was a stunning 90.3, which is absurd considering his game against ASU earned less than that at 89.5. Shenault has been the best receiver in the country by just about every statistic, and the eye test could confirm this.
If Colorado continues to contend in the Pac-12 and maybe even challenges for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it will likely be on the back of Shenault (and Steven Montez). If that happens, Viska wouldn’t just be the best non-QB in the nation, but he would also have the narrative of carrying his team to contention at a position where that’s extremely rare. Sports Illustrated’s Scooby Axson has him fifth in his Heisman watch, and that’s before Colorado have proven themselves as possible CFP contenders.
But even if Shenault keeps this up as he faces better defenses that will be focused entirely on stopping him, he still has an uphill battle towards being a finalist, let alone the Heisman winner. For one, we’re five games into the career of Tua Tagovailoa and he looks like he’s going to win the next two Heismans and a couple more championships. There’s also Kyler Murray going off in what will likely be the final season of his mythical football career. Then there’s Travis Etienne carrying Clemson, Dwayne Haskins lighting up scoreboards in Columbus and Will Grier leading the Mountaineers in an undefeated run.
There’s also the issue of Viska’s position. It would be rare to see someone lead his team at wide receiver, but only three receivers have ever won the award, and none since Desmond Howard (who was also a superb cornerback and lethal punt returner) won in 1991. Dede Westboork was a finalist in 2016, but even with 1524 yards and 17 TDs, he finished a distant fourth in voting. Amari Cooper (2014), Marqise Lee (‘12), Justin Blackmon (‘10), Michael Crabtree (‘08) all faired similarly despite putting up incredible performances.
You would have to go all the way back to 2003 to find an actual Heisman contender at receiver, and that was Larry Fitzgerald barely losing to Jason White despite having perhaps the greatest ever season for a receiver. Viska isn’t quite Fitz, and Tua is much better than White, so maybe this Heisman pipe dream is ridiculous for now.
Shenault is very, very likely not going to win the Heisman, but it’s amazing that we can seriously say that he’s a legitimate contender for the sport’s premier award.