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.