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Austin Carr is thoroughly deserving of the Biletnikoff Award. Here’s why.

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The senior has been phenomenal and consistent this year against some fantastic competition.

NCAA Football: Illinois State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Rarely does Northwestern produce a player as outstanding as Austin Carr.

Only one other player in Northwestern football history has won a major individual award, and that was the man who now coaches the team. Pat Fitzgerald swept the Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski awards in 1995 and 1996 and is considered perhaps the best college linebacker in the history of the game.

Yesterday, Carr was named a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which honors the “most outstanding receiver” in the nation — an award won by former and current NFL stars like Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Michael Crabtree (twice) and Amari Cooper. Three finalists will be announced on Nov. 21 and the winner will be revealed at the College Football Awards Show on Dec. 8. Here’s the list of ten semifinalists for this year:

  1. Austin Carr, Northwestern
  2. Corey Davis, Western Michigan
  3. Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse
  4. Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech
  5. Isaiah "Zay" Jones, Eastern Carolina
  6. John Ross, Washington
  7. Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky
  8. Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech
  9. James Washington, Oklahoma State
  10. Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma

As most fans will do upon seeing this list, let’s look at the basic stats. Although these don’t come close to telling the whole story, it’s what will likely determine the Fan Vote and what most people use to evaluate the candidates:

Click column headers to sort

Candidates Catches Yards Yards/Catch Touchdowns
Austin Carr, Northwestern (Big Ten) 75 1102 14.7 12
Corey Davis, Western Michigan (MAC) 62 1029 16.6 14
Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse (ACC) 78 1242 15.9 8
Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech (C-USA) 61 1179 19.3 16
Isaiah "Zay" Jones, Eastern Carolina (AAC) 139 1473 10.6 6
John Ross, Washington (Pac 12) 52 896 17.2 15
Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky (C-USA) 77 1340 17.4 13
Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech (C-USA) 103 1343 13.0 10
James Washington, Oklahoma State (Big 12) 56 1132 20.2 9
Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma (Big 12) 68 1254 18.4 14

These are the easiest and most accessible stats, but they’re far from a fully accurate assessor of who will take home the award. First, it’s important to look at some of the trends this award has (credit some of these to commenter GTom):

  • The last non-Power 5 winner was Troy Edwards out of Louisiana Tech in 1998. Furthermore, only three non-Power 5 and non-Notre Dame wide receivers have been named finalists in the last decade (Jarrett Dillard, Rice, 2006; Freddie Barnes, Bowling Green State, 2009; Rashard Higgins, Colorado State, 2014)
  • Carr is the lone Big Ten representative on this list, so his impressive numbers — even if middle-of-the-pack in this elite group — show how far he’s been ahead of his conference peers. By comparison, there are two Big 12 receivers and three Conference USA receivers.

In my mind, where Carr really has a case is when you look at what he means to his team. Few receivers have done as much as Carr does while going up against the caliber of defenses he does. And while the committee often doesn’t seem to factor that in — five of the last six winners have been from the offensively inclined Pac 12 or Big 12 — they should take a look at what Carr has done for his team’s passing attack relative to what other candidates have done for theirs. Here are a few ways to measure that:

Click column headers to sort

Candidate % catches/pass attempt % of team catches % of team receiving yards
Austin Carr 19.6% 34.4% 42.8%
Corey Davis 24.1% 34.4% 42.1%
Amba Etta-Tawo 18.4% 28.7% 38.6%
Carlos Henderson 15.0% 22.1% 30.0%
Isaiah "Zay" Jones 28.1% 46.0% 41.0%
John Ross 19.2% 29.5% 33.5%
Taywan Taylor 20.3% 31.0% 36.0%
Trent Taylor 25.3% 37.3% 34.2%
James Washington 15.1% 23.0% 32.5%
Dede Westbrook 21.1% 39.6% 37.1%

The percent of catches per pass attempt stat is meant to somewhat neutralize a quantity overload within a candidate’s offense. East Carolina has thrown the ball nearly 500 times this year. Washington (271) and Western Michigan (257) have done so just over half that many times. So this helps truly show how important each player is in their passing attack, regardless of whether it’s a throw-it-50-times-per-game offense like that of the Pirates or a more balanced attack like that of the Huskies and Broncos.

The second statistic helps limit some quarterback variability. When the team completes passes, how often are those completions going to the specified candidate? Carr sees an astronomical rise here (14.8 percent, second most on this list) because of Thorson’s relatively low completion percentage and the fact that when he does complete them, over a third of those completions end up in Carr’s hands. He’s been the focal point of the passing attack all year and hasn’t slowed down a bit. Notice the relatively small jumps of Louisiana Tech teammates Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor in these categories. That’s because the Conference USA West division champs have two elite go-to options out wide. This also shows how incredible ECU’s Zay Jones has been this year: Nearly half of his team’s completions are to him.

The third statistic is the one that helps Carr the most. He leads the semifinalists in percentage of team receiving yards (42.8), just ahead of Corey Davis and Jones. So even though Carr isn’t quite the focal point Jones is when it comes to catches —Jones’ usage rate is ridiculous — what Carr does when he gets the ball (essentially one out of every three completions) is very, very impressive. Yardage-wise, Carr is the best, relative to his team’s output. That’s why the numbers in the first table don’t do Carr justice.

This also speaks to Carr’s importance as Northwestern’s leading wide receiver. Notice again how teammates Henderson and Taylor rank quite low in this metric. The Bulldogs line up two players who accrue major yardage. Henderson’s contribution of 30.0 percent of the passing offense and Taylor’s contribution of 34.2 percent pale in comparison to Carr’s 42.8, even if the raw stats above don’t convey that. When it comes to gaining yards through the air, no one is more important to his team than Carr is to Northwestern. Basically, he puts up huge numbers week in and week out without a legitimate receiver opposite of him. Flynn Nagel, Andrew Scanlan and others have improved significantly and played at a high level at times this season, but none require a portion of the attention Carr does. Yet he just keeps producing.

It’s also important to reconsider the trends regarding non-Power 5 receivers introduced above. Not only has there not been a non-Power 5 winner since 1998, but there hasn’t been a finalist group (three players) with more than one non-Power 5 receiver since 1997 (Edwards and the winner, Marshall’s Moss).

That creates an interesting dynamic in this race. Jones has had an absolutely insane year, and it will be difficult for any non-Power 5 receiver to beat him out. Corey Davis of Western Michigan certainly has a chance with a strong finish to the season: His team is 10-0 and preparing to host College Football Gameday this weekend, giving him some much-deserved attention.

To illustrate the difficulties of getting into the Biletnikoff discussion, look at Justin Hardy, a former ECU Pirate who is now an Atlanta Falcon. The NCAA’s all-time receptions leader, Hardy hauled in 121 catches (second in the nation) for 1,494 yards (fourth) and 10 touchdowns in his senior season. That came after a 114/1,284/8 campaign as a junior.

He wasn’t a finalist either year, beaten out by Kevin White’s inferior 109/1447/10 line in 2014. Higgins was the lone non-Power 5 representative in the final three.

It seems increasingly hard to keep Jones out of the finals. His stats are astronomical. But Davis plays for the better team and will pull in the eyes of the nation this Saturday. Is there room for two? Only time will tell, but if the past 19 years is any indication, the answer is no.

A final point that could work most significantly in Carr’s favor is the level of competition faced. He has faced two teams in the top 10 in terms of pass defense (Ohio State at 5; Wisconsin at 7). The rest of the candidates combined have faced five, and none has faced two as Carr has. Here’s how those players fared:

  • Taywan Taylor vs. Alabama (9/10): 9 receptions, 121 yards
  • Dede Westbrook vs. Ohio State (9/17): 5 catches, 51 yards
  • Zay Jones vs. Virginia Tech (9/24): 10 receptions, 115 yards
  • Amba Etta-Tawo vs. Viginia Tech (10/15): 5 receptions, 54 yards
  • Austin Carr vs. Ohio State (10/29): 8 receptions, 158 yards
  • Austin Carr vs. Wisconsin (11/5): 12 receptions, 132 yards, 1 touchdown
  • John Ross vs. Southern California (11/12): 8 receptions, 154 yards, 1 touchdown

No one has faced the level of competition and succeeded at the rate Carr has this year. And that’s not to mention that Carr ought to have had an extra couple of yards and a score versus the Buckeyes. He also has a three-touchdown game versus Iowa (S&P+’s 19th-best pass defense) to lean on.

Of course, this isn’t to say Carr is a favorite for the award. After all, his raw numbers listed in the first chart aren’t overwhelming in any category. There’s also likely some inherent bias when it comes to the Northwestern brand. Simply playing for a school such as Oklahoma (Westbrook) or having just ridiculous numbers (Jones) certainly helps the cause, too. Still, Carr is a former walk-on who is perhaps the No. 1 receiver in the nation when it comes to team importance. He has been consistently outstanding with an inconsistent sophomore quarterback throwing him the ball, even against some of the best defenses in the nation and despite the fact that he is the only elite weapon on the outside.

Only time will tell if Carr wins the title for the “most outstanding” receiver in all of football, but Carr has made it known that he is among an elite bunch of remarkable college football players.

And maybe — just maybe — if the voters look beyond the basic stats, they’ll see that the most outstanding receiver in football wears No. 80 for the Northwestern Wildcats.