Heismandment No. 2 states that juniors and seniors have a distinct advantage over sophomores and freshmen in the Heisman race.
This is born out by the fact that the award had, until 2007, never been given to an underclassmen.
As events of the past few seasons have shown, it has now become possible for a sophomore or a freshman to win the trophy.
However, I don’t think it is now as cut-and-dried as we think. For instance, note that both Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford hailed from Heisman powers. Also, both put up seasons that were above and beyond what the average Heisman-winning season entails. Both had seasons for the ages, with Tebow throwing and passing for a combined 55 touchdowns in 2007 and Bradford putting up an NCAA record in passing efficiency to go with 50 touchdown passes.
In other words, these guys weren’t just your average, ordinary sophomores.
Same with Johnny Manziel winning as a freshman. It took a Heisman-record 5,116 yards of total offense for him to win.
So, while the barrier to sophomores and freshmen winning the Heisman has been battered, it is not yet fully destroyed. All other things being equal, I don’t expect a run-of-the mill sophomore or freshman to win the Heisman any time soon with your standard very good season. For now, juniors and seniors will still have the strong advantage, unless it is clear that the underclassman has boldly gone where no player has gone before and, hence, can’t be ignored by Heisman voters.
There are several reasons why underclassmen have a hard time winning Heismans. Some of them are structural and some are bias-oriented.
On the structural side, it just stands to reason that an underclassman generally has less name recognition than an upperclassman. Name recognition is a key factor in the Heisman voting and is something we monitor very closely on this site.
There is also the fact that most of the elite players in college football are junior or seniors. That’s because they have, by definition, had more time to develop and mature. There is a much smaller pool of elite underclassmen.
Also, it is very rare that a true freshman comes in and makes a splash in game one or two. A true Heisman candidate generally has a season that is at least proficient at the outset.
Then, there is the bias. Voters generally are not disposed to picking fresh faces or names. Heisman voters are very conservative, feeling their way blindly in the dark for comfortable faces and names to latch on to.
In 1980, Herschel Walker ran for 1,616 yards (an NCAA freshman record) and led Georgia to a national title. He went head-to-head against the eventual Heisman winner in South Carolina’s George Rogers and outgained him 219 to 168. He also had more TDs than Rogers on the season and probably would have outrushed him had he not sat out 11 quarters during the season due either to injury or because the Bulldogs blew several teams out. Walker was a college football phenomenon.
The point is, if Walker couldn’t do it that year, when was it likely to happen? I used to think it would never happen until Tebow and now Manziel came along.
Obviously, there is now a caveat to this Heismandment. College football is changing. More players leave early for the NFL. The internet and cable has expanded exposure for athletes. The Heisman electorate is getting a bit more sophisticated. The spread offense is boosting offensive numbers at an unprecedented rate.
Tebow and Manziel were very special players who could not be denied. But all other things being equal, an upperclassman still has the advantage.