The Heisman Isn’t Just About The Best Player On The Best Team

There is a meme among some who cover and follow college football that the Heisman Trophy is merely an award given to the best player on the best team.

In other words, Heisman voters sit around twiddling their thumbs until the end of the season and then look at the rankings and pick a player from one of the two teams that has a BCS title berth and, voila, that’s the Heisman winner.

I believe this to be a lazy analysis that doesn’t look close enough at why voters pick who they pick.

Granted, there is a superficial correlation between BCS title berths and the Heisman, especially in the past 11 seasons.

Nine of the past 11 Heisman winners have played in the BCS title game. The only exceptions were Tim Tebow in 2007 and Carson Palmer in 2002.

But Heisman winners are chosen for a lot of reasons. This site goes into it in detail with the 10 Heismandments.

Name recognition is a huge part of it. So is the tradition of the team for which you play, not to mention your position and class.

Statistics are key, if only because you must pass a certain minimum threshold to be considered a viable candidate.

And, yes, team success also plays a part. Some years it is a big factor, some years it is not.

But I think the mistake people make when talking about the impact of team success on the Heisman is that they tend to downplay the role of that individual player in determining his team’s success.

In other words, the reason a team is undefeated is often due to the performance of its best player. A player doesn’t become good just because his team is undefeated.

Look at this season. If LSU wins out, there will not be a Tiger within 1,000 miles of the Heisman ceremony. Meanwhile, Andrew Luck is going to win the Heisman even if his team doesn’t make it to New Orleans to play LSU.

So there goes that theory.

You might say “Yeah, but Stanford is winning a lot of games and is highly ranked and that’s why Luck is going to win the Heisman.”

But you’d have it backwards.

In reality, the reason Stanford is winning a lot of games and is highly ranked is because Andrew Luck is a Heisman-caliber player. 

Do you see the difference?

Heisman voters have done a pretty good job of grasping that concept over the years. I believe most of them understand that it is the player that  makes the team, not the other way around.

Would Auburn have won the national title without Cameron Newton last year? Nope. It required one of the best years in Heisman history to get the Tigers to that level and the voters rewarded him accordingly.

In 2009, Mark Ingram won the Heisman over Toby Gerhart by a mere 28 points, the lowest margin in Heisman history. Gerhart was on a team that was 8-4. So why wasn’t Ingram–the best player on the best team–a runaway winner?

The answer is that there were other factors in play, just as in previous seasons.

Picking the Heisman winner is a subjective exercise and voters take many factors into account. Determining who is the ‘most outstanding’ isn’t exactly easy to quantify. College football features a maelstrom of offensive styles and systems, non-uniform schedules, championship games in one conference and not another. It’s a hot mess. Team success is just one element that helps voters figure it all out.

But it’s not the only one.

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About Heismanpundit

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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6 Responses to The Heisman Isn’t Just About The Best Player On The Best Team

  1. Thomas November 9, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    Using the rational voiced in this article, Case Keenum should win the Heisman trophy this season.

    The University of Houston would not be vying for a potential BCS game if it wasn’t for him. Maybe an undefeated season? Not if it weren’t for Keenum. Everyone in the media will tell you that UH has this season only to potentially make their statement–one and done. Why? Because this is Case Keenum’s last year.

    Two years ago UH started the season undefeated and made it as high as 12th in the rankings. Then they trailed off at the end of the season with a few setbacks. Last year hopes were high, but then Keenum got hurt early on, and UH was no where close to the national spotlight. This season Keenum is back, and so are the Cougars. Tell me, who out there had the Cougars selected as potential BCS AQ at the beginning of the season? Not many out there, huh? Why are the Cougars currently ranked as the 11th best football team in the nation? Case Keenum.

    Some teams are good every year because they always have great quantities of superior talent. Other teams, like the Cougars, have an exceptional player that makes everyone else around him play better. Case Keenum is truely an outstanding player that leads him team to greatness, rather than the team leading the player to greatness.

    Case Keenum is to the Houston Cougars what Peyton Manning is to the Indianapolis Colts.

    There will always be players like Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck in the FBS. Great teams make great players. Case Keenum is the true standout of the FBS taking his team and leading it toward greatness.

    • bifftex November 10, 2011 at 8:44 am #

      So true so true. You put the logic together nicely. I am a big Keenum supporter as my son goes to UH. The guy is also an outstanding student and all-around role model for younger kids. Everyone has nothing but nice things to say about this young man. For the nay-sayers – ever hear of Drew Brees? If you put their college football history side by side, there are some really eerie commonalities. System quarterback or not – if it puts points up, then it works…

  2. Craig November 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    I can’t argue with Thomas’ logic. Keenum’s individual play is clearly what has made Houston so dominant this year. Combine that with the fact that he has broken every major college football passing record while leading a Houston team to an undefeated record that won 3 games in Keenum’s absence last year, it just makes a hell of a lot of sense to award Keenum the Heisman.

  3. HP November 11, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    I think both Luck, Moore and Keenum are in the same mold: QBs who are vital to the status of their schools right now.

    Stanford, Boise and Houston would not be undefeated were it not for these guys.

    I think the thing that is separating Luck from them is (1) his clear physical talent advantage and (2) his playing in a BCS conference and (3) the recognition that his numbers are good despite playing in an offense that runs the ball a LOT.

    • Thomas November 11, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

      Stanford only averages 50 more yards rushing per game than Houston and 40 more yards rushing per game than Boise. There isn’t as big a difference as you would be led to believe. Ten extra passing plays per game still wouldn’t put Luck anywhere Keenum’s stats this season, much less his career. The only thing true about your #3 is the word “good.” It’s exactly right. Luck’s stats are good–but the Heisman demands outstanding performance. Good doesn’t cut it.

      To downgrade Moore and Keenum some might throw in there the Andre Ware Rule (Heismandment #6), but Keenum is so much more than the system. Look at his rating for crying out loud (193.3), it’s nearly 20 points higher than Luck. Is the rating skewed because of the system? His completion percentage (74.2) just part of the system? What about his touchdowns to interceptions ratio (greater than 12-to1), system again? Only two FBS QBs in the top 100 in pass attempts have fewer interceptions than Keenum. Keenum runs the #1 offense in the nation, currently averaging more yards per game (628.8) than any team ever has in the history of FBS/NCAA Division I. What does this guy have to do to earn some respect?

      Everyone talks about how Luck pulled out the win versus USC in overtime–how about how he almost gave the game away with that interception? Keenum brought UH back to win a game earlier this season after trailing by 27 points. How about that for a signature win? How many other games have been won this year after falling behind so far?

      It will come down to the final few weeks to see who sinks and who swims. How can voters support the yearlong favorite if he underperforms when the game is on the line versus Oregon or in the conference championship game? Will Moore defeat TCU in Boise State fashion? UH finally plays decent competition in SMU, Tulsa, and then perhaps BCS ranked Southern Miss–their three hardest games of the year. Will Keenum dominate the better competition as he has the rest of C-USA this year?

      The only thing separating Luck from Moore and Keenum right now is the perception that the latter two are “system” quarterbacks. Perhaps UH, more than any other school out there, will forever be cursed with Heismandment #6. (Maybe Heismandment #6 needs to have an addition of “or percieved” in addition to the word obvious).

      At what point does one have to step back and look beyond the “system” created stats, and just realize that he really is that good? The “system” doesn’t win 45+ games by itself or throw for 17,000 yards with just anybody taking the snap. Moore and Keenum should get more honest consideration instead of being written off so easily. BCS conference or not, some stats can’t be brushed aside. After all, I don’t see those records being broken anytime soon by anyone else.

    • Brionne November 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

      Funny how Luck’s stock rises after an L, while Moore has been declared Heisman-deceased after his kicker missed the entire stadium with that kick.