Rushing Records Preferred When It Comes to the Heisman

One of the tried and true ways to win the Heisman is to break a season or career record of some sort. 

It appears, however, that running backs get the most bang for their buck when doing so.

Five of the last six running backs who broke the NCAA career rushing record went on to win the Heisman Trophy.  Those five backs were Steve Owens, Archie Griffin, Tony Dorsett, Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne.  The sixth back was Ed Marinaro of Cornell, who finished a very close second to Pat Sullivan in 1971 (an impressive feat for an Ivy Leaguer).

During that same stretch of time (1969-present), the NCAA career passing yardage mark has been broken 11 times (and is about to be broken again this year).  However, just Jim Plunkett, Doug Flutie and Ty Detmer managed to bring home the Heisman after setting that mark.  Of the other eight record holders, only Jim McMahon could garner as high as a third place finish.

Running backs fare better with single-season records as well. 

Here are the most recent single-season rushing record holders (note: 1964 is the most reliable cutoff date for these records since that year marked, for the most part, the beginning of two-platoon football):

Barry Sanders (2,628)
Marcus Allen (2,342)
Tony Dorsett (1,976)
Ed Marinaro (1,881)
O.J. Simpson (1,709)
Mike Garrett (1,440)

Again, five of the six single-season record breakers won the Heisman, with the sixth only missing out due to the handicap of playing in the Ivy League.

Now, for the single-season passing record breakers during the same stretch:

Bill Anderson, Tulsa (3,464)
Marc Wilson, BYU (3,720)
Jim McMahon, BYU (4,571)
Andre Ware, Houston (4,699)
Ty Detmer, BYU (5,188)
B.J. Symons, Texas Tech (5,833)

Only two Heisman winners in the bunch and they came in back-to-back years (with voters no doubt going into a temporary swoon over the impressiveness of the stats).   But it’s not just the record holders who have been passed over.  There have been 48 seasons of over 4,000 yards passing in FBS history and only four of those seasons have resulted in a Heisman Trophy.

Conversely, there have been 22 seasons where rushers have gained over 2,000 yards (including bowls) and nine of those seasons resulted in Heismans.

The moral of the story:  Rushing yardage is a far more respected stat when it comes to deciding the Heisman vote.  Passers are far more likely than ball carriers to be branded with the dreaded ‘system player’ tag. 

Quarterbacks and running backs, take note.

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Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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2 Responses to Rushing Records Preferred When It Comes to the Heisman

  1. Ed Newman August 19, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    John Hannah said in an interview this week that creating a dominant passing game is easier than building a dominant running game. As maybe the best O-Lineman ever he likely knows what he’s talking about, but does everyone agree? It would seem that this would be even more true in college where your O-Line turnover is greater but you also have to consider the greater talent discrepancies between teams than in pro football. Thoughts?

  2. Anonymous August 19, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    This is an interesting article, here are my thoughts on why passing records impress voters less:

    1. A passing game can appear unstoppable with just one mismatch. Some conferences and teams regularly have comical mismatches. It takes a number of mismatches for a running game to be dominant.

    2. There’s been a general trend away from rushing and toward passing… so breaking a rushing record is more noteworthy.

    3. Often prolific passers turn off voters by throwing the ball late in lopsided wins. But running the ball late is seen as a classy way to run the clock out.