Does the best player on the best team really always win the Heisman?

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher weighed in on the Heisman recently, saying it was for ‘show dogs’, while downplaying the importance of Seminoles quarterback EJ Manuel competing for the trophy.

Fisher’s approach is understandable. He doesn’t want his star player to lose focus this early in the season. You aren’t likely to find many coaches willing to talk about the Heisman just four games in. And, turning a folksy phrase always goes over well with the fans and media.

But one comment of Fisher’s stood out to me and I think it should be addressed:

“Great players have won it, I don’t mean that,” Fisher said. “It’s the best player on the best team, ok, that’s great. If you want to be the best team, you have to play well.”

This old saw, professed by many and repeated by Fisher here is that the Heisman is merely an award given to the best player on the nation’s best team. In other words, the voters don’t take their responsibilities seriously or actually watch the games. When it comes time to send in their ballots, they just look at the quarterback or running back for the No. 1 team and that’s who they vote for.

Of course, this is a grossly inaccurate depiction of the both the history and process of the Heisman vote. And it implies that, because the award is given to the best player on the best team, someone else is getting screwed.

To be fair, a common meme among Heisman detractors is that this idea of picking the best player on the best team is only a recent phenomenon, whereas in the past the focus was on the best player regardless of team success.

With that in mind, let’s look at recent winners and see if this sentiment is accurate:

2011 — Robert Griffin III, Baylor

Griffin III was clearly not on the best team, nor was his runner-up, Andrew Luck. The best player on the best team in 2011, Trent Richardson, was a distant third in the Heisman vote.

2010 — Cameron Newton, Auburn

Yes, Cameron Newton was the best player on a team that won the national title. But this is a pretty clear example of a team winning a title because of how good the player was. Take away Cam from this team and it goes 8-4, or worse. Who deserved the Heisman more than this guy?

2009 — Mark Ingram, Alabama

If it is such a slam dunk that the trophy goes to the best player on the best team, why did Ingram win by the smallest margin in Heisman history over Toby Gerhart, a player on an 8-4 Stanford team? This is the one case in the last five years where critics of the Heisman have a point, through Ingram winning was certainly a defensible proposition. A much more important factor in Ingram’s triumph might’ve been the fact that Alabama had never won a Heisman before and voters thought it was high time it won one.

2008 — Sam Bradford, Oklahoma

Heisman voters must’ve had some special insight that Oklahoma was the best team that year considering Florida, USC, Texas, Texas Tech and Alabama all had the same record as the Sooners at the end of the regular season. Why not pick Tim Tebow again? Or Mark Sanchez? Or Colt McCoy? All had a claim to being the best player on the best team. A better explanation for the final result is that voters saw Bradford account for 53 touchdowns and thought it was a pretty outstanding accomplishment.

2007 — Tim Tebow, Florida

Tebow’s team went 9-3 and, yet, he still somehow won the Heisman over whoever the best player was for LSU that year.

So, as you can see, it’s not really true that all recent Heisman winners have merely been the best player on the best team. And in the cases where that was true, there were other circumstances that came into play, with the success of the team merely being a logical byproduct of that player’s outstanding performance.

There are plenty of people, I’m sure, who won’t be convinced and still will insist that the Heisman goes to the best player on the best team.

I look forward to seeing them in New York in December when AJ McCarron holds aloft his trophy.

About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, 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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