Heismandment No. 2 states that the winner must be a junior or senior.
This is born out by the fact that the award had, until the last two seasons, never been given to an underclassmen.
As events of the past two seasons have shown, it is now possible for a sophomore to win the trophy.
However, I don’t think it is now as cut-and-dried as we think. 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.
So, while the barrier to sophomores 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.
Before Tebow and Bradford, the three who came closest most recently were Darren McFadden (second as a true sophomore in 2006), Adrian Peterson (who finished second in 2004), Larry Fitgerald (who was second as a sophomore in 2003), Herschel Walker (third as a freshman in 1980, second as a sophomore in 1981)) and Michael Vick (third as a freshman in 1999).
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 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.
Tebow and Bradford were very special players who could not be denied. But all other things being equal, an upperclassman still has the advantage.