It’s the first day of October and much like 2011 we have a serious Heisman contender from a non-traditional Heisman school. Last year it was Robert Griffin III from Baylor who shot onto the scene with a thrilling game (and victory) against TCU to start the season. Griffin followed up his performance against the Horned Frogs with a season for the ages. He took a team that probably would have been 6-6 without him to a top 15 national ranking and the program’s first ever win over Oklahoma. RGIII had an amazing individual season that was capped off by a comfortable Heisman win.
Oh, I forgot to mention that his team also got blown out by Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in back-to-back weeks. So prolific was his season that his Heisman campaign was able to withstand two ugly losses in a row.
West Virginia’s Geno Smith looks like he’ll be following that narrative if he is to end up in New York City. This is not to say that WVU can’t go undefeated, it’s just that they don’t have to for Smith to win the Heisman.
Let’s look at it like a sliding scale.
There are two metrics; team production and player production. In order to win the Heisman you must dominate at least one of the two metrics while the other surpasses a set threshold.
Here’s a generic example: If a quarterback passes for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns on a 12-0 team he will most likely be a Heisman finalist. Similarly, if a player accounts for 50 touchdowns and 4,500 yards on a 9-3 team, he may still end up as a finalist as well.
Before I get into recent examples, let me add one caveat. This rule doesn’t always apply to a player who attends a non-BCS conference school. For instance, Colt Brennan of Hawaii in 2006 threw for 5,549 yards and 58 touchdowns, but his team went 10-3 in the regular season. If that performance and record was done at a BCS conference school the Heisman ceremony would have been a formality. As it was, Brennan finished sixth in the voting and Troy Smith of number one ranked Ohio State won the award easily.
The following year, Brennan threw for 1,200 fewer yards and 20 fewer touchdowns but went to NYC and finished third in the Heisman vote because his team went 12-0 during the regular season. Brennan would have needed to go undefeated and put up his ridiculous numbers from the year before to even sniff the Heisman. Such is the plight of the non-BCS conference standout athlete (see Kellen Moore).
Lets look at some more specific examples. In 2007, Tim Tebow led the Florida Gators to a 9-3 record but accounted for 51 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards of total offense, as he won the Heisman over Darren McFadden (and Brennan). The previous year, Troy Smith threw for just 2,507 yards and 30 touchdowns but the Buckeyes went undefeated and Smith ran away with the Heisman. In 2006 the team record out weighed the just decent statistics while in 2006 the individual performance was enough to outweigh the mediocre record.
Last year put the sliding scale to the test. As noted we had a statistical gem of a season from RGIII but Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck were the unquestioned leaders (with more than adequate numbers) on title contending teams. The voters overlooked RGIII’s three losses because they recognized that Griffin’s season was spectacular and historic for his school. Team record took a backseat to individual performance.
Looking forward to this year’s race, you can see why Geno Smith is in such a great position right now. No one will jump off his bandwagon if he fails to beat Texas or Oklahoma (or even Kansas State, another team RGIII lost to last year). As long as his numbers stay on this record-setting pace, he’ll be fine.
On the flip, side we know that Aaron Murray and EJ Manuel teams need to keep winning. Neither can match Smith’s numbers over the course of a season, but if Florida State and Georgia are slated to play in the national championship game then they will be credible alternative to Smith if his team goes 9-3 and his numbers fall off a bit. The same goes for Matt Barkley and De’Anthony Thomas. If USC or Oregon finish the regular season ranked one or two, you can bet that they will be finalists.
Lastly, none of this applies to Notre Dame. In 1987 Tim Brown won the Heisman (convincingly) despite playing on an 8-3 team and putting up just decent numbers (his two punt return touchdowns against Michigan State helped create a lasting Heisman moment). In 1956 Paul Hornung (The Golden Boy) won the Heisman on a 2-8 Irish team. He also failed to get the most first place votes for the award and only won the Midwest region.
Notre Dame, yet another exception to the rule.