Here’s the third in a series that I’m featuring on this site, entitled Great Heisman Injustice?
In the first edition, we looked at whether Archie Griffin deserved two Heismans or not.
In the second edition, we looked at whether George Rogers should have beaten out Herschel Walker in 1980.
This time, we’ll look at the 1997 Heisman race to figure out if there truly was a Great Heisman Injustice.
Peyton Manning was the frontrunner coming into the year, having led Tennessee to a 10-2 season in 1996. Manning was a bit better as a sophomore numbers-wise (he finished sixth in the Heisman race that year), but had done well enough as a junior (8th-place Heisman finish) to make the trophy his to lose in 1997.
Charles Woodson was considered a longshot for the Heisman as the 1997 season got underway. He had not finished in the top 10 of the voting as a sophomore in 1996, though he was an All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
The rest of the field wasn’t very strong. Ryan Leaf came out of nowhere to finish third in the voting for Washington State, Randy Moss took fourth as a sophomore receiver and Ricky Williams garnered only three first-place votes on his way to getting fifth (setting himself up for a win in 1998).
The Case For Woodson
Woodson was a remarkable player in 1997. He was perhaps the most dominant corner to come along in college football since Deion Sanders in the late 1980s. On the season, he had 47 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 9 pass breakups and 8 interceptions. His picks were of the acrobatic variety, usually very timely and all the more impressive considering how rarely teams threw his way.
Still, it was not his play at corner that ended up being the difference in the Heisman race, but his exploits on offense and special teams. In 1997, he ran 5 times for 21 yards and a touchdown, caught 12 more passes for 238 yards and 2 touchdowns and had 301 more yards on punt returns, with a touchdown.
That punt return TD was an amazing 78-yarder against rival Ohio State to assure the Wolverines of their first undefeated, untied regular season since 1971. Of course, Michigan went on to win its first national title since 1949, in large part due to Woodson’s outstanding play.
He did everything he could do at his primary position and then threw in some spectacular plays on offense and special teams to help his team win. He was definitely worthy of Heisman consideration.
The Case For Manning
While Woodson was lightning in a bottle, Manning was the steady, efficient, cerebral quarterback leading his squad to an 11-2 season (11-1 at the time of the Heisman vote). He threw for 3,819 yards with an amazing 36 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. He had passing games of 523 yards (a Tennessee record), 399 yards and 373 yards. He capped his career with 11,201 passing yards and 89 touchdowns (the first an SEC record) and set a then-NCAA record for lowest interception rate (2.39%). He also was a fine student.
Most importantly, he went 39-6 in his career for the Vols and helped establish them as an elite program at the national level. He was without a doubt the greatest player in Tennessee history and meant as much to his program as Herschel Walker did to Georgia or Ron Dayne did to Wisconsin.
We all know what he went on to do in the NFL. But in 1997, he was definitely worthy of Heisman consideration.
The Heisman is supposed to go to the ‘Most Outstanding’ performer in a season. That obviously means different things to different people. Charles Woodson may have indeed been the most outstanding player, but how do we know that for sure? Was he really better than Randy Moss was that year? That certainly is arguable.
In reality, we give more weight to what Woodson did because he did it on a team that ended up winning the national title. If Brian Griese had not blossomed as a senior, it is likely that Woodson never would have been given serious consideration, since Michigan’s record would have suffered as a result. As good as Woodson was, he was primarily a defensive player (on an incredible defense, I might add) but merely a hood ornament on offense.
Manning suffered the ignoble fate of lofty expectations. His profile was so high coming into the season that voters might have suffered a bit from Manning fatigue. At some point, they began to look for reasons NOT to vote for him. Voters knew that Tennessee went 0 for 4 against Florida in his career and they punished him for it. An 8 for 25 performance against South Carolina and a 12 of 27 clip against Vanderbilt didn’t help, either.
In the end, Woodson had one ace-in-the-hole going for him: He was playing for a traditional Heisman power while Manning was not. Had the two swapped teams, Manning the Wolverine would have taken home the trophy.
Woodson also benefitted from Michigan’s schedule and the attention paid to the Wolverines as they went for the national title. Michigan opened against Colorado, then played Baylor and then Notre Dame. The exposure to voters in the Rockies and the Southwest no doubt helped his cause, as did the epic high-profile battles with Penn State and Ohio State later in the year, when everyone was watching. Beating Notre Dame, as Beano Cook has said, never hurts, either.
In contrast, the loss to Florida early on was a serious blow to Manning’s Heisman hopes and Tennessee was pretty much not a factor in the national title race from that point on. Nor did Manning have any high-profile games in which to show his stuff to the voters later on before they cast their ballots. The Florida loss pretty much sealed his fate. Voters were looking for more than just a great quarterback on a very good team.
It turns out that Woodson was the conduit for that rare instance in Heisman history where voters wanted to do things a little differently. They were awfully fickle that year! And so, he won a solid–though not overwhelming–victory (1,815 points to 1,543 points), winning five of the six regions.
Was there a Great Heisman Injustice done in 1997? Both candidates had good cases for the Heisman. Both were great players who ended up being great pros.
Woodson won because he had a bit of magic that captured the imagination of the voters. Manning never really had that ‘wow’ factor going for him, though he rarely failed to perform at the highest of levels.
While I certainly think that Manning was worthy of the Heisman, I don’t think that Woodson was unworthy of the trophy by comparison. Either would have been a good pick.
While Tennessee fans will no doubt disagree, I believe the 1997 race does not rise to the level of a Great Heisman Injustice.
He was worthy….
…but so was he