Ninety-one years ago John Coltrane was born in the small town of Hamlet, North Carolina. When his talent as a musician became apparent, he joined a band led by own of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Miles Davis. After a few years of that collaboration, Coltrane formed a group of his own and produced such landmark titles as Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and his signature record, A Love Supreme, one of the greatest recordings in music history.
What does any of this have to do with Stanford Football? Why does it serve as the lede for an article claiming to review the performance of the 2017 running backs? It's simple really. Seven decades after Coltrane's birth in Hamlet, a boy named Jonathan Bryce Love was born just ninety minutes up the road in Raleigh. Like Coltrane, Love rose to prominence while serving in the shadows of a legend. With Coltrane it was Miles Davis; with Love it was Christian McCaffrey. Like Coltrane, Love was doubted by some when he was elevated to the staring role in the Stanford backfield this past fall. Like Coltrane, Love wasted little time in achieving stardom of his own.
Before we talk about what Love accomplished this season, let's look back to 2016 and a campaign that foreshadowed the brilliance we saw this fall. McCaffrey was the darling of the college football world, just coming off a historic season and a historic Heisman snub, but Love was rising. Their collaboration during Love's sophomore season produced the most prolific rushing tandem in Stanford history, combining for 2,386 yards. Love accounted for 779 of those yards, and he logged two hundred-yard games in his two starts, providing enough evidence that he might eventually be good enough to take the job on a full-time basis.
Any doubts were immediately erased with his first touch of the season, a 62-yard run against Rice that served as an announcement of the greatness that was to come.
Looking back at that run now it's hard to believe that it was a revelation, but some saw it that way at the time. Back in August it was Bryce Love breaking free of McCaffrey's shadow and running to daylight, but four months later it's just another run buried in a mountain of touchdowns and highlight clips. Love would run for 180 yards in that season opener down in Sydney, Australia, but he'd follow that game with totals of 160, 184, 263, and a mind-bending 301 yards against Arizona State.
My Favorite Things
That Triple Benjamin game set a Stanford single-game record, just one of many Love lines that will fill next year's media guide. He tied two McCaffrey marks with eleven 100-yard rushing games this season and nine straight stretching back to 2016, and he's only a carry or two away (46 yards) from C-Mac's single-season record of 2,019.
More amazing than all that, though, is the record that Love already held. Entering the season he had averaged 7.21 yards per carry in his career, best by a full yard over McCaffrey, but no one could have expected him to maintain that average after logging a full season as the primary back. But after adding 237 carries to his total, Love actually increased his per-carry average, jumping all the way up to a preposterous 7.88.
As hard as it might be to wrap your head around all those numbers, they don't begin to tell the story of Bryce Love. On a meaningless carry in the third quarter of a 49-7 thrashing of Oregon, Love twisted his right ankle while being tackled. It was mildly concerning at the time, but it would derail what could've been a historic season. Love missed the Oregon State game twelve days later, and even though he returned to the field the following weekend in the loss to Washington State (the only game this season in which Love came up short of 100 yards), he was never again completely healthy. He averaged 198 yards a game and 10.3 yards per carry before the injury, but those numbers dipped to 117.2 and 5.75 after.
A Love Supreme
Those last two numbers, however, just might be the most important ones in Love's All-American season. At no point over the past five games did he ever look close to healthy. He still managed six touchdowns and a handful of long runs, but his cuts weren't nearly as sharp, and his top speed was no longer world-class level. It was as if he had been too good during the first half of the season; he was forced to finish with a handicap.
Love didn't just lead the Power 5 in rushing yardage, he led in athletic tape. Several times a game he'd emerge limping from a pile of tacklers, hop to the sideline to have his ankled stabilized, and return a few plays later. It became a weekly display of grit and determination, a profile in courage that obscured the fact that even while hobbled, Love was still the best running back in the country and still a threat to score every time he touched the ball.
Not surprisingly, Love was showered with postseason awards. He was the Heisman runner-up, naturally, and a unanimous All-American, the tenth player in Stanford history to earn that distinction. He won the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation's best running back, and he was the Pac-12's Offensive Player of the Year. As David Shaw said during a late season press conference, "Give him all the awards. All of them." They pretty much did.
When I spoke with Love before the season, I asked him about the rich legacy of Stanford running backs that he was stepping into, and his answer was thoughtful and prophetic: "It's an honor. You look at all the great backs that have been here, from Tommy Vardell to Darin Nelson to Christian, Stepfan Taylor, Toby Gerhart. The list goes on and on. Greatness is here. I wouldn't say it's pressure, but it makes you want to live up to the standard that's been set."
Love did far more than live up to the standard; he exceeded it. Even if Love never plays another down for the Cardinal after next week's Alamo Bowl (the guess here is that he'll return for his senior year), he is already the greatest running back in Stanford history. Christian McCaffrey might be the best player ever to wear the Cardinal and White, but after watching what Love was able to do this season, I have no doubt that he's the best pure back we've seen. He is a Love supreme.
Position Grade: A+