It’s a central tenet of the 10 Heismandments that freshmen can’t win the Heisman. The best a freshman has ever done in the Heisman race was Adrian Peterson finishing second in 2004 behind Matt Leinart. Even Herschel Walker’s legendary freshman year in 1980 could only manage a third-place finish, though Walker out-dueled eventual winner George Rogers head to head.
Why can’t freshmen break through? Well, remember the Heisman selection process is essentially an election. As with any election, name recognition is key. Upperclassmen have an advantage in this respect because, well, they’ve been playing college football longer. A senior like Geno Smith has 32 games as a starter under his belt, with many of those games coming on national television. Over time, voters have internalized the notion that Smith is an elite player. For a freshman to overcome that kind of advantage requires a season of epic proportions. That’s a very rare occurrence for a first-year player.
There’s also less urgency for voters to put freshmen on their ballots. There’s only one chance to vote for a great senior player. A junior or a third-year sophomore star might go pro, so a voter has to take that into account. An outstanding freshman? A voter might think: I can vote for him next year, or the year after.
Though I believe a freshman can’t win in the current Heisman climate, I don’t deny this dynamic could one day change. We’ve seen how social media has affected the race in recent seasons, so perhaps it’s becoming easier for players to become known earlier in their careers. For instance, many freshmen enter college with plenty of hype due to the ever-increasing focus on high school recruiting.
But I still think it would take a perfect storm for a freshman to win. We might be hearing some thunder in the distance.