The Cyclical Nature of Heisman Expectations

Nov 3, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; General view of the Heisman Trophy before the NCAA football game between the Oregon Ducks and the Southern California Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Full disclosure: I have a fixation bordering on unhealthy when it comes to the Heisman Trophy. I’m hardly alone. There’s so much interest in college football’s most celebrated individual honor, blogs and beats dedicated solely to estimating likelihoods (or in some cases, influencing voters) of a player winning have appeared in recent years.

That the Heisman has become the benchmark for player greatness is one of the great right place, right time scenarios in sports history. The Heisman Trophy had a two-year headstart with its 1935 introduction on the Maxwell Award, unveiled in 1937. Had the Maxwell Award beaten the Heisman to the punch, might we have a HandsOnHipsTrophy.com or Maxwell Pundit today?

Consensus is the Heisman is given to college football’s best player, but how the award recipient is determined is such a highly subjective process. Historically, that process has gone through various cycles, some longer than others.

The Heisman as it’s voted on today is less about body of work than it is who happens to be buzzworthy in mid-to-late November.

This isn’t necessarily a provable theory, so I’m opening myself to scrutiny. But here it goes: Collin Klein could have the same statistics, and Kansas State the same results; Johnny Manziel could have the same statistics, and Texas A&M the same results. Now, change the order of their schedules.

If Klein has a pedestrian effort in a losing effort at Baylor in September, but smashes Texas Tech in late November, does his stock improve? Keep in mind, after K-State walloped the Red Raiders on Oct. 27 Klein was considered a shoo-in.

Conversely, Manziel’s star skyrocketed in November with Texas A&M’s upset of Alabama. Should the Aggies open the season with a defeat of the Crimson Tide, but lose a defensive struggle to Florida near the season’s end, is Manzielmania running wild with the same ferocity?

A big November is virtually a requirement now. Griffin commanded national attention with his effort in Baylor’s late season upset of Oklahoma last year. Mark Ingram burst onto the Heisman scene in 2009, barely edging out Stanford’s Toby Gerhart. Both were propelled to New York City on the strength of late season performances.

Gerhart scored 13 of his 28 touchdowns in November, and had games of 223, 178, 135 and 203 yards. Ingram scored seven rushing touchdowns on Nov. 14 or late, nearly half of his output on the year. Three came in the Crimson Tide’s SEC championship win over Florida.

Ndamukong Suh was on the radar heading into Nebraska’s Big 12 title match-up with Texas, but a night spent terrorizing the Longhorn backfield ensured his place among the finalists.

Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow were the 2009 season’s other two finalists. Both were 2008 finalists, Tebow was the winner in 2007, and thus both were very much on the radar in September. And neither really did much, if anything, to invalidate their candidacies.

They weren’t otherworldly in their conference championship games, either. While Ingram and Suh used those games to jump-start their candidacies, McCoy and Tebow’s cases suffered.

Current voters weight statistics heavily, and today’s game is conducive to bigger numbers.

Quarterbacks who both pass and rush have a major advantage. Should Johnny Manziel win the 2012 installment of the Heisman, he will be the third straight dual threat quarterback to earn it, and the fourth since 2007.

Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Manziel all accrued mind-boggling stats. That such a large percentage of plays were entrusted to them allowed them to stuff the stat sheet both on the passing and rushing columns. Moreover, there are far more plays being run per game as offenses boost the tempo. That’s more chances for putting up numbers.

With the fervor voters now have for two-way statistic, I can’t help but wonder if Joe Hamilton had played in this era and not the late 1990s, might he have taken home the trophy? Hamilton passed for 3060 yards and 29 touchdowns, and rushed for another 734 and six.

The most effective offensive player of a top five ranked team was destined to win from the early 1990s on.

As mentioned, Georgia Tech’s Hamilton put up gaudy numbers as a two-way play maker for the Yellow Jackets. Hamilton was runner-up to Ron Dayne, whose Wisconsin Badgers won the Big Ten and later the Rose Bowl. The Badgers were ranked No. 4 at the end of the regular season — the Yellow Jackets were No. 17.

The next season, Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke bested LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees, as well as Oklahoma’s Josh Heupel. FSU played in the national championship game, while TCU was a 10-1 mid-major and Purdue an 8-3 Big Ten champion that backed into a Rose Bowl berth. Huepel’s Oklahoma team beat Weinke’s FSU in the Orange Bowl, but Weinke was the clearly superior choice from a statistical gauge; Heupel’s place among the finalists was largely due to a defensive-minded OU team simply playing for the BCS championship.

Team rankings bear credence in a player’s Heisman pursuit — captain of an eight-loss team like Paul Hornung in 1956 could never win the award today. It’s a tad less emphasized now than it was through most of the 1990s and into the 2000s though, when 13 winners were on teams in the national championship game.

  • 1992 Gino Torretta, Miami: Sugar Bowl
  • 1993 Charlie Ward, Florida State: Orange Bowl
  • 1996 Danny Wuerffel, Florida: Sugar Bowl
  • 1997 Charles Woodson, Michigan: Rose Bowl
  • 2000 Chris Weinke, Florida State: Orange Bowl
  • 2001 Eric Crouch, Nebraska: Rose Bowl
  • 2003 Jason White, Oklahoma: Sugar Bowl
  • 2004 Matt Leinart, USC: Orange Bowl
  • 2005 Reggie Bush, USC: Rose Bowl
  • 2006 Troy Smith, Ohio State: Fiesta Bowl
  • 2008 Sam Bradford, Oklahoma: Orange Bowl
  • 2009 Mark Ingram, Alabama: Rose Bowl
  • 2010 Cam Newton, Auburn: Fiesta Bowl

In the BCS era, Ricky Williams in 1998 and Dayne in ’99 mark the only time players who did not play in the national championship were Heisman winners in consecutive seasons.

A Manziel win would match that feat, while making some recent precedent of its own. The consecutive wins of Griffin and Manziel would mark the first time since 1989 and 1990 that consecutive recipients did not play in what are now the BCS bowls. Andre Ware’s Houston team missed the postseason due to NCAA sanctions, while Ty Detmer’s BYU Cougars played in the Holiday Bowl.

Heisman voters in the late 1980s through 1991 showed the most daring with their ballots.

Sep 1, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; ESPN analyst Desmond Howard takes a photo with a fan on the set of ESPN College Gameday before the game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Michigan Wolverines at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports


Of the non-traditional Heisman winners, a large percentage were crowned within the same half-decade. Tim Brown became the first wide receiver to take home the award in 1987. Ware produced stats that would still impress in today’s offensive renaissance en route to taking home the 1989 Heisman. Ware beat out Indiana running back Anthony Thompson, whose Hoosiers went 5-6.

Ware was a system quarterback; to wit, his replacement in 1990, David Klingler, garnered Heisman votes the next year. Klingler was among those finalists to lose out to BYU quarterback Ty Detmer, another system quarterback and the last player from a program now defined as non-BCS to win the award.

The 1990 Heisman race was unique all around. Had Detmer not won — and with a whopping 28 interceptions, a case could certainly be made against it — the runner-up was Notre Dame return man and receiver Raghib Ismail. Ismail averaged over 21 yards per catch, but scored just two touchdowns. He rushed for three more, and returned one kickoff for a touchdown — the lowest total in his career as a returner for Notre Dame.

The ’87 vote had a similar unique, with the surprising third place finish of Holy Cross running Gordie Lockbaum.

Desmond Howard concluded the run of non-traditional winners in 1991 when his Heisman pose touchdown celebration became perhaps the most iconic moment in the award’s recent history. In a truly shocking development given the aforementioned importance of championship contention on a Heisman candidacy in the years since, only one player from the two teams that split the ’91 season’s crown finished in the top 10. That was Washington defensive tackle Steve Emtman.

The only season from 1987 through 1991 to not award a non-traditional recipient was 1988, and Barry Sanders’ selection was a no-brainer. Sanders was at the tail end of an era that produced many of the sport’s most recognized running backs.

The late 1960s to the mid-1980s was the Age of the Running Back.

Talking heads who pontificate on modern football being a passing game! like it’s some profound revelation are misguided. Yes, teams are passing at a record pace. But offenses are also running plays at a record pace, as mentioned above.

Coaches didn’t all morph into Hal Mumme in the last half-decade. The run is still integral to the game, but the aforementioned emphasis on dual threat quarterbacks and platoon backfields have made the star running back obsolete. It’s not so much a passing game as it is a quarterback game.

Starting with O.J. Simpson in 1968, 15 of the Heisman winners over the next 18 years were running backs. Even more astounding is that every winner from 1972 until Doug Flutie snapped the streak in 1984 played running back.

Contrast that with the 21st century, when only two running backs (Bush, Ingram) have won the award.

  • 1968 O.J. Simpson, USC
  • 1969 Steve Owens, Oklahoma
  • 1972 Johnny Rodgers, Nebraska
  • 1973 John Cappalleti, Penn State
  • 1974 Archie Griffin, Ohio State
  • 1975 Archie Griffin, Ohio State
  • 1976 Tony Dorsett, Pitt
  • 1977 Earl Campbell, Texas
  • 1978 Billy Sims, Oklahoma
  • 1979 Charles White, USC
  • 1980 George Rogers, South Carolina
  • 1981 Marcus Allen, USC
  • 1982 Herschel Walker, Georgia
  • 1983 Mike Rozier, Nebraska
  • 1985 Bo Jackson, Auburn

Examining trends of Heisman voting in years past provides fascinating insight onto how the game has evolved to its current point, and what those tasked with determining such things measure as greatness. Might the next step be greater emphasis on defense? Manti Te’o's place among the final three this year marks the third time in four seasons a defensive player was invited to New York.

Perhaps even offensive linemen will emerge as viable candidates. Technology today gives observers the chance to see more angles in higher definition than ever before, allowing us to appreciate the nuances of the game like outstanding blocking.

Whatever turn the cycle takes next, I’ll watch eagerly.

Topics: Football, Heisman Trophy, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Texas A&M Aggies

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