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Friday Flashback: Reassessing Heisman Races


Peyton Manning. Marshall Faulk. Tommie Frazier. All are legendary in college football annals, none won the Heisman. All three peaked at second place in the voting, though easily could have brought home the bronze statue. But should they have won college football’s top honor? Let’s reassess a few of the recent decades’ closer Heisman races. Did the voters get it right?

1995: Eddie George over Tommie Frazier

This one is of particular personal interest. Tommie Frazier remains the best option quarterback I have ever watched. He was the engine that drove the Cornhuskers to a national championship, and made that Nebraska team arguably the best in college football history.

Frazier’s passing numbers aren’t that impressive. Aside from a strong 17 touchdowns to four interceptions, he completed just 56 percent of his attempts and finished with just 1362 yards through the air. On the ground, he carried for a little over 600 yards — again, not that impressive on the surface and all together, about the same total Eddie George accumulated simply rushing the ball. However, Frazier rushed just 97 times and average a touchdown every 7 attempts. That equates to 14 rushing scores, giving him an impressive 31 on the season.

That Frazier was scoring a touchdown on average every eighth snap, whether by air or ground, is what makes that 31 score figure so meaningful. His leadership moved along the Husker offense with ruthless efficiency. Frazier may have registered even more impressive numbers were he not sharing a backfield with Ahman Green and Lawrence Phillips, two of the most talented backs in recent Nebraska history.

George was outstanding, no question. As mentioned above, he surpassed 1900 yards rushing and tacked on another 400 receiving. His 24 touchdowns via carries were unrivaled. Arguing George didn’t deserve the Heisman is tough duty, and pulling Nebraska’s record over Ohio State’s diminishes the individual quality of the award. I contend the Heisman should go to the best player overall, not just the best player on the best one or two teams.

  • Verdict: Close call; Frazier’s Hall of Fame snub exacerbates the outrage in retrospect, but ultimately George deserved it.

1989: Andre Ware over Anthony Thompson

Indiana landed the most celebrated quarterback recruit in the nation earlier this week. Gunner Kiel’s commitment to the Hoosiers is monumental, but if he lives up to expectations he won’t be the first great Hoosier. Antwan Randle-El finished sixth in the voting in 2001 (more on that vote to come), but running back Anthony Thompson came oh-so-close to actually winning it 12 years prior.

Thompson posted impressive numbers for a thoroughly mediocre IU team. The Hoosiers finished 5-6, which likely killed Thompson’s chances, yet he was still just 70 points behind Andre Ware in the voting. Perhaps voters realized just how much worse IU would have been without Thompson’s work horse load out of the backfield. He carried the ball over 350 times for 1800 yards. That’s an average right around 5 per carry, not earth-shattering, but worthwhile when opposing defenses are targeting the rush. Twenty-four of those 358 carries resulted in touchdowns.

Seemingly, the previous Heisman chase had to have been a detriment to Thompson’s case. The 1988 winner was a running back, but one who put up numbers still unparalleled to this day. That was Barry Sanders. Sanders marked the third in a run of three-out-of-four years a quarterback didn’t win the Heisman, perhaps another strike against Thompson.

Had Thompson been a nominee in say, 1987 with his same numbers, he wouldn’t be follow the greatest single running back season in football history and would be just years removed from Bo Jackson’s victory. Thompson and Jackson rushed for almost the same number of yards (1793 for Thompson, 1786 for Jackson) and Thompson had seven more touchdowns. In that comparison, it’s difficult not to acknowledge what the IU back accomplished. Following Sanders’ 37-touchdown, 2600-yard ’88? Downright impossible.

Ware put up a few statistics that were mind-blowing, namely a hair below 5000 yards passing and 46 touchdowns. But his 63 percent completion rating and 3-to-1 touchdown:interception ratio didn’t scream Heisman.

  • Verdict: Thompson was likely the victim of various conditionals: his team collectively struggling, following an historic running back; a system quarterback like Ware can barely even sniff the Heisman anymore, which I contest is an equally egregious variable to assess Heisman candidates on. However, the system benefited Ware immensely when Thompson probably should have won.

2001: Eric Crouch over The Field

When Eric Crouch was named Heisman Trophy winner in Dec. 2001, I was astounded. Of those invited to New York City, I assumed the Nebraska quarterback had the weakest case. Perhaps with a pasting against Colorado fresh in my mind, my opinion was clouded. Yet, looking back on player production, the award certainly could have gone elsewhere. Florida’s Rex Grossman finished second, Miami’s Ken Dorsey third and Oregon’s Joey Harrington fourth. The truth? None of the four were truly Heisman level performers.

In Nebraska’s option offense, Crouch had over 2600 combined passing and rushing yards. That’s better than Tommie Frazier. Crouch scored 25 touchdowns, 18 on the rush. The latter also surpasses Frazier. But Crouch was intercepted 10 times. He was averaging a pick less than every other throw! That’s astoundingly inaccurate for a Heisman winner.

Grossman wasn’t the Arm Punter Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins fans know when playing under Steve Spurrier. The ’01 season was probably the best of his entire life, as he completed around 66 percent of his attempts and threw 34 touchdowns. He was picked off 12 times though, giving him a ratio below 3:1. Doesn’t scream “Heisman.” It was certainly more worthy than fellow Floridian QB Ken Dorsey, who had 23 touchdowns to nine interceptions and a completion percentage below 58. Harrington had the best touchdown:interception ratio of the top four finishers at 4.6:1, but threw just 23 scores and was also below 58 percent complete.

Trumping everyone was fifth place finisher David Carr. Fresno State flirted with becoming the first BCS buster behind Carr’s 42 touchdowns and 4300 yards. Both were national bests. He accumulated such numbers while completing 64.7 of his attempts and giving away interceptions just seven times. That would be an interception every 68.4 passes. Compare that to Crouch, who was tossing picks every 1.8 throw. A staggering difference, to be sure.

Carr also rushed for five touchdowns. Some teams don’t score 47 touchdowns in a season. Carr did so as an individual, and he did so with amazing efficiency.

  • Verdict: This was a weak field, no question about it. What this vote exhibits is one of the greater follies of the Bowl Championship Series. It’s institution has drawn a tremendous line in the sand dividing the “Big Six” and the also-rans. An Andre Ware or Ty Detmer would have an impossible climb to the Heisman in this landscape, and David Carr’s snub proves that. It’s bad enough he didn’t win when stacking up his numbers against the other nominees, but to finish fifth? That’s astounding. Carr should have won in ’01.

1992: Gino Torretta over Marshall Faulk

While the Heisman becoming a “team” award has always been something of a caveat, it may never have been more evident than in 1992. Miami had returned to the national championship scene with a tenacious defense and unmatched swagger. The U was back to 1980s standards on the scoreboard. But no one was going to confuse Gino Torretta with Vinny Testaverde. Torretta was good enough to captain the ship to an 11-0 regular season finish and the Orange Bowl, but he wasn’t the type of quarterback to do so single-handed.

He threw just 19 touchdowns while giving up seven interceptions. He surpassed 3000 yards, but needed over 400 pass attempts to do so. Meanwhile, San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk was blazing past defenses at an over 6 ypc clip. He managed 18 touchdowns on the ground, just one fewer than Torretta had through the air. And he did so in just over 260 carries, giving him a touchdown roughly every 11 rushes.

It isn’t so much that Torretta won that’s surprising; well, it IS given his pedestrian numbers, but playing for a national championship contender is going to buoy a quarterback competing against a mid-major conference player whose numbers, while impressive, aren’t necessarily eye-popping. What’s most surprising though is Torretta won by over 300 points.

  • Verdict: Torretta is one of the more perplexing Heisman choices. Faulk was at an immediate disadvantage, as non-power conference players like Detmer and Ware must produce ludicrous numbers to wow jaded voters. Faulk didn’t do that, and his inactivity in that season’s Miami game hurt. Faulk may not have deserved it, but Torretta really didn’t either. Garrison Hearst of Georgia finished third, but probably could have finished first.

1997: Charles Woodson over Peyton Manning

Looking back on Peyton Manning’s career is always interesting. For all the accolades and accomplishments, his college days seem like either a cruel joke, or the necessary slight that fueled his pro dominance. Tennessee won the national championship the very year after his departure, and in 1997 he was runner-up in the Heisman race to the only defensive winner.

His final season may not necessarily have been Manning’s best. In 1995, he threw just four interceptions and completed 64.2 percent of his attempts. Both were career bests. In fact, his 60.2 completion percentage in 1997 was his lowest at UT. But that season he did have career highs in touchdowns, with 34, and yards, surpassing 3800. He’s had NFL seasons when he didn’t reach either of those figures.

Charles Woodson was an integral cog in Michigan’s stout defense, a defense that powered its way to a national championship. He played on all three phases of the Wolverines, returning a punt for a touchdown and catching two scores. Great contributions for sure, but not Heisman-level. Woodson did eight interceptions: a healthy figure to be sure, and a total that would lead the nation most seasons. However, other eight interceptions defensive backs are nowhere near the Heisman radar, including those who return a pick or two for touchdowns. Woodson had no such plays.

The fear Woodson struck in opposing passing games is renowned. The question is, was it historically so?

  • Verdict: That a defensive player won the Heisman is a testament that it rewards the best PLAYER in college football, not simply the most prolific offensive performer. Woodson’s selection was an unusual one though, in context of how many great defenders before and since were nowhere near the Heisman discussion.