Statistics, Meaning and the Heisman Trophy

There’s a healthy debate going on in the comments section of this blog between supporters of the various Heisman candidates.

For the most part, the focus is on statistics.


Sigh. They are a slippery slope. Rely on them too much and they become almost meaningless.

Voters do not care about about statistics past a certain point. You are not going to convince someone that Player X is better than Player Y because X played in five games against top 23 opponents while Y played in only four.

Voters look for players to meet a minimum threshold of statistical prowess. Once they pass that point, they are deemed statistically worthy and their numbers do not become a real issue again unless they are chasing major records.

Do a few voters find it meaningful that Matt Barkley has 39 touchdown passes while Andrew Luck only has 35? Possibly. Are they sophisticated enough to understand that such stats don’t always tell the whole story? Absolutely (note, Heismandment No. 6, the Andre Ware Rule). If numbers really did tell us everything, Texas Tech would have won five of the last 10 Heismans and Kliff Kingsbury would be a college football legend.

We mostly use stats to confirm our preexisting biases. Those who consider a player’s status as an NFL-ready product to be prima facie proof that he is the best player in college will tend to gravitate toward Luck. Those who believe Luck plays in an effete conference that doesn’t play defense will see every interception of his as proof of his fraudulence. Those who think that SEC defenses are automatically the best in the country will view Trent Richardson’s 203 rushing yards against Auburn as proof that he is an incredible back. Those who see SEC defenses as being overrated will downplay his accomplishment by noting that Auburn’s 99th-in-the-country run defense gave up more yards to Utah State than they did Alabama.

And what do we do when we can’t find stats to support our opinions? Why, we just create a new stat. Parse away!

But all these numbers and comparisons can be overwhelming.  That’s why, in the end, voters also rely on things like imagery, reputation, biography and even stereotype to determine the most worthy player. Actually watching the games helps them assess how a player does something as opposed to just what he does.  Desmond Howard scoring a touchdown on a punt return is nice. Howard returning the punt and then striking the Heisman pose while Keith Jackson says ‘Hello Heisman!’ is sublime. If this constant search for meaning and understanding in college football didn’t exist, all we’d have to do is look at the box scores to pick the Heisman winner and be through with it.

Consequently, the player who wins the Heisman usually isn’t the season’s stat king, but the player who best exemplifies the spirit of that particular college football season. That’s what the voters are looking for, even if most don’t really know it deep down.

So if you want to know who’s going to win the Heisman, just consider which player has captured the zeitgeist of 2011 college football. You can’t go wrong.

Maybe it’s not a perfect way to pick the most outstanding player, but it works for me.

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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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5 Responses to Statistics, Meaning and the Heisman Trophy

  1. Trickster November 30, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    Don’t buy the zeitgeist thing. It’s not definable or quantifiable, so it really can’t be the definition of a Heisman winner. The Heisman is based on things that can be quantified–or at least defined. People have to justify their votes, and not just vote for some guy they like. I’ve never heard a single voter justifying his vote by saying a guy had the spirit of the season.

    Stats is a real good start, but you almost always have to play for a top team against tough competition to even be considered. If you don’t then your stats have to be truly incredible. If you can rack up the stats in games that matter, that’s the best way to win the Heisman. The great majority of Heisman winners come from a simple combination of stats + playing on the biggest stages. 2nd-best is heroic performances in the biggest games of the season.

    • TreeCardMonty November 30, 2011 at 9:18 am #

      “People have to justify their votes”

      Yeah, they use stats & factual observations to explain why they voted the way they did because that makes it easier to defend their choice. But don’t believe for a second that ‘zeitgeist’ or ‘character’ or ‘leadership’ or other intangibles don’t matter. All of us make decisions based on stuff that we can’t really explain, then when we’re pressed to explain them, we look for the most objective-sounding reasons rather than say, ‘I just knew that was the right choice.’

      • Trickster November 30, 2011 at 9:27 am #

        I would never say intangibles don’t matter. But it ain’t the main thing, and I say that with some confidence because there IS a main thing and it’s identifiable. You can go through year by year and almost every winner is easily explained by a combination of stats and playing on a big stage.

        The lack of a big stage is what is hampering Griffin and Keenum. Griffin in particular would be a shoo-in with his stats against fairly tough competition, but he plays for a small-time football program that hasn’t been on TV much.

        No Heisman winner in my lifetime, and I’m 56, has failed to produce excellent stats. You think that’s a coincidence, that they really selected based on character and all the guys with great character just happened to also have great stats? I don’t. Stats and wins, and then if it’s not clear you start making judgment calls.

        It’s pretty damned close to straight math. Intangibles are on down the line as factors.

  2. Arce November 30, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    If you vote on who is the nicest guy, RG3. If you vote on who is the brightest guy, RG3. If you vote on who is the hardest working guy, RG3 (finished degree at academically challenging school in 3 years and Masters will be finished in one). If you vote for the guy who really, continually, pumps up his teammates (even when the ST and D are weak, and the O-line turns into a holey-line too often) RG3. If you vote for the guy who helps out his teammates, coaching on the field and off, RG3. Then, when you look at the stats (other than the W/L which is NOT his fault), RG3. Passes with accuracy, long and short. Runs effectively. Leads.

    • Trickster November 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

      Without challenging any of your assertions about nicest/brightest/hardest working, I will simply note that they are assertions. I could assert the same thing about anybody else and it couldn’t be proved either way.

      That’s why the Heisman is not based on intangibles. It would be nothing but an endless argument in a factual vacuum. The Heisman is based on facts, and the primary facts in football to evaluate players are stats, with wins coming next.

      You can LOSE the Heisman by being a criminal or angering a lot of voters, but the best you can accomplish by being a nice guy is getting a handful of voters to kinda-sorta-maybe take that into consideration. You can only win the Heisman on the field.

      And that’s high it oughta be. It’s not a nice-guy contest, and fans don’t get amazed and mind-boggled by acts of kindness viewed over and over in slow motion. It’s about amazing athletes doing amazing things, consistently and especially under pressure.