The Best Seasons That Failed To Win a Heisman

Heismandment No. 8 points out that you need to cross a statistical threshold to be considered Heisman-worthy.  But that doesn’t mean you automatically win the Heisman.  In some cases, players did more than enough to win, but still did not take home the trophy.  Other factors kept them from winning.

Someone asked me the other day what the best non-winning Heisman seasons were and these came to my mind:

2009: Toby Gerhart, Stanford — Gerhart led the nation with 1,871 yards and scored a phenomenal 28 touchdowns in 2009.  He rushed for over 200 yards three times and scored as many touchdowns in his last five games–15–as the eventual Heisman winner (Mark Ingram) did in his first 11.  And he did it all despite carrying 18 challenging units as a Stanford student.  He was second to Ingram in the closest vote in Heisman history.

2007: Kevin Smith, UCF — Smith rushed for 2,567 yards and scored 30 touchdowns in 2007 and exactly three people voted him first in the Heisman race, where he finished eighth.

1980: Herschel Walker, Georgia — The true freshman phenom led Georgia to the national title while rushing for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns with an average of 6 yards per carry.  He out-rushed the eventual Heisman winner, George Rogers, in spectacular fashion in a marquee matchup won by the Bulldogs.  He ended up third in the Heisman vote, victim of the freshman curse.

2006: Colt Brennan, Hawaii — Brennan put up incredible numbers even for the June Jones offense.  He passed for 5,549 yards, 58 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while setting an NCAA record for pass efficiency with a mark of 186.0. It was enough to finish sixth in the Heisman vote.

1980: Jim McMahon, BYU — McMahon set some NCAA records that year that lasted for quite a while.  He threw for 4,571 yards and 45 touchdowns (with 18 interceptions) and had a pass efficiency rating of 176.9 (thanks to a ridiculous yards per attempt of 10.3).  He ended up fifth in the Heisman voting.

2001: David Carr, Fresno State — Carr piled up 4,299 passing yards to go with 42 touchdowns and just seven picks while finishing fifth in the Heisman vote.

2009: Kellen Moore, Boise State — Hard to ignored 39 touchdowns vs. just three interceptions, not to mention 3,536 passing yards for an undefeated team.  However, Heisman voters had him just seventh in the final tally.

1996: Troy Davis, Iowa State — Davis became the only player to have two 2,000-yard seasons, rushing for 2,185 yards and 21 touchdowns in just 11 games.  He did manage to finish a strong second in the Heisman vote.

1998: Troy Edwards, Louisiana Tech — If ever there was a season by a pure receiver that should’ve won, it was Edward’s in ’98.  He caught 140 passes for 1,996 yards and 27 touchdowns.  He was basically unstoppable, but didn’t garner a single Heisman vote.

2000: LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU — LT rushed for 2,158 yards and 22 touchdowns in just 11 games, averaging 196 yards per game.  All it got him was a fourth-place finish in the Heisman balloting.

Note: Feel free to add to this list.  I’d like to go back a bit further, but a lot of the stats from the old days are incomplete. 

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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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10 Responses to The Best Seasons That Failed To Win a Heisman

  1. Jeremy August 15, 2011 at 6:57 am #

    Alex Smith, QB, Utah 2004.
    Randy Moss

  2. Trickster August 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    Herschel Walker and Kellen Moore are the only guys on the list who played for a championship contender. Walker is probably the only one who played for a team that played a tough schedule.

    So on one hand, it’s an interesting listing of a bunch of guys who had great years without picking up the trophy. On the other hand, it uses a definition of the word “best” that is not the same definition that Heisman voters use. Beyond doubt, having your feats factor into the championship competition that all the fans follow is a huge part of how the decision is always made, the way it has been made throughout the 50 years I have been following CFB.

    Another factor: most of the guys on this list played for teams that did not face a schedule full of big-time competition. Did you apply any sort of discount to their stats on that basis? Not to belittle Kellen Moore, who would probably have gotten my Heisman vote in ’09 even though I’m a huge Alabama fan, but it’s hella easy to rack up big stats when you’re playing for a team that absolutely murders its competition on a weekly basis.

    When I think of the guys who have been left out, my mind does not go first to the guys who played for small schools or schools in mediocre conferences, or the guys who were the only good player on their team so they got all the opportunities.

    The first name that comes to mind for me is Peyton Manning, who doesn’t fit in based on sheer stat comparison (compared to, e.g., Kellen Moore or Colt Brennan) but was a more impressive college player IMO. In 1997, Manning passed for 3819 yards, with 37 TDs to 11 picks, and he did it for a contender against an SEC schedule. To me, that’s a Heisman season.

    • Floridan August 25, 2011 at 6:25 am #

      Manning’s downfall was that he couldn’t beat Florida — if, for instance, the Vols had beaten the Gators in 1997 (instead of losing by almost 2 touchdowns), Tennessee would have finished the regular season unbeaten and very likely ranked No. 1. If I remember correctly, the Heisman voting that year was really between just Woodsen (whose Michigan team was undefeated) and Manning — a few flips by voters could have produced another result.

      • brian sanger September 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

        yeah that and the fact they won the whole shebang the next year without him, and with Tee Martin under center.

  3. ed newman August 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    Two freshmen come to mind: Marshall Faulk and (especially) Adrian Peterson.

  4. A-Train August 30, 2011 at 5:43 am #

    How can you not have Adrian Petersons Freshman year on this 1,925 yards ?? True Freshman ??????? C,mon now, i think that season warrants being on this list instead of instead of most of the Darkhorses who piled up stats in weak confrences considering the strength of OU’s Schedule that year and how he dominated

  5. Yo August 31, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    Vince Young’s 2005 season.

    Also, when Peyton played, the SEC wasn’t what it is now. Still, Peyton should be on this list.

    Rex Grossman’s 2001 season.

    Drew Olson’s 2005 season (UCLA had an 10-2 or 11-2 or 10-3 record), he had 33 TDs against 6 INTs (with three INTs coming in the Sun Bowl).

    Colt McCoy’s 2008 and 2009 seasons. 2008, in particular.

  6. VBCROC September 1, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    Go back to 1971 and you’ll find the first great mistake – maybe the worst ever. Pat Sullivan of Auburn won the HT beating out a great player from Cornell – Ed Marinaro. Check this guy out – he was a great running back in college, played many seasons for the NFL Vikings and starred in a television series – Hill Street Blues. In addition, he was a terrific public speaker. Check this out – very funny and worth staying the full time – <embed id=VideoPlayback src= style=width:400px;height:326px allowFullScreen=true allowScriptAccess=always type=application/x-shockwave-flash A truly good man and a great running back. I did not go to Cornell but I did see him play as I went to Brown and lived near Yale and saw him four or five times.

  7. brian sanger September 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    I like a couple of scramblers. I’m not saying they should of won, but they should not have been completely dissed. Dee Dowis. Air Force. ’89 – about 2,700 Rushing + Receiving. Antwaan Randle El ’00 (Jr. Year) over 3,000 yards Rushing + Receiving. He had a stellar year in ’01 too. I think some credit should go to guys who are complete one man wrecking crews on teams that may not have won 8 or more games. I mean, it’s the whole “If Tim Tebow played for the Hoosiers” thing.

    • brian sanger September 22, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

      I meant Rushing & Passing sorry