There was a time when seniors dominated the Heisman Trophy.
Seniors claimed 60 of the first 75 Heismans, with the other 15 being juniors.
This made a lot of sense since seniors tend to have a natural publicity advantage over the other classes. After all, the longer a player stays in college, the more time he has to build accolades and cultivate his name recognition with college football media and Heisman voters.
But all of a sudden, six of the last seven Heisman winners have been non-seniors. We’ve even seen three sophomores in the mix. And of the last 22 winners, only 10 have been seniors.
So what happened? I’ve identified three factors as being key to this change:
1. The change in the NFL draft rules in the 1980s. After Barry Sanders won the 1988 Heisman as a junior, he jumped to the league. This started an exodus of early entries and sapped the college ranks of some of its best players. After a while, the stray senior who stuck around was looked upon with a bit of suspicion–if he was really any good, he would’ve left early, right? Juniors, in essence, became the new seniors. A truly brilliant junior is now expected to go pro and–with a few recent exceptions to the contrary–they invariably do. Meanwhile, many seniors have been reduced to being considered ‘reclamation’ projects who need to stay for that final season to salvage their careers.
2. The rise of recruiting as a spectator sport. In the old days, most college football media didn’t really know about a player until he showed up on campus. Now, the elite freshmen have been hyped and analyzed since their junior years in high school. They begin their careers as known quantities and many have already formed lasting relationships with media members. By the time they are sophomores or juniors, it can sometimes feel like they’ve been around forever. As a result, most of them don’t need that senior year to acquire the name recognition and accolades needed to be considered Heisman worthy.
3. The rise of the spread. The impact of the spread on college football has been analyzed ad nauseum, but I believe it’s had a big effect on the class structure of recent Heisman winners, too. The old pro style and I-formation systems were more complicated and took longer for players to master. Those systems favored the experienced upper classman who developed over time. But many spread systems have simple concepts that can be picked up quickly by young players who can then shine without an emphasis on pro-style fundamentals. In particular, it gives a physically advanced quarterback an opportunity to use his athletic ability to produce some amazing numbers.
So, the siphoning off of upper-class talent to the NFL, plus an influx of more overly-hyped young athletes inserted into easy-to-learn, wide-open offensive systems is why we see fewer senior Heisman winners these days.
I don’t expect this dynamic to change in the near future. There will, of course, be some exceptions, but I doubt we’ll ever get back to the days when senior Heisman winners were the norm in college football.