The worst thing that can happen to a Heisman contender is for him to have a bad game while his team loses. It makes his longterm task seem a lot harder since the chatter in the media and among fans tends to focus exclusively on that which has happened most recently. For instance, it’s hard for many people right now to imagine that West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith can still win the Heisman after two consecutive embarrassing losses for his team. Certainly, if the vote were held today, Smith would not come close to winning. But five weeks from now, the landscape could look quite different.
Some of you might ask: How come some candidates are knocked out of the race after a loss, while others are not?
The reason is that there’s more to a Heisman campaign than just the raw calculus of wins, losses and statistics. All of these factors take place within a certain context. If the main reason a player is a Heisman candidate is that he is leading a team that is expected to go undefeated or challenge for a national title, then his statistics do not matter as much as his team’s performance. When that team loses, it strips away the narrative that supported that player’s candidacy in the first place. Unless he quickly finds a new rationale for his candidacy, he’ll fall from contention.
On the other hand, a candidacy centered around superlative production is less susceptible to team failure. This kind of candidate isn’t expected to win every game. Indeed, he is seen as the bulwark that shields his team from total disaster. That doesn’t mean his team’s record is irrelevant, but it does mean he has a chance to overcome a couple losses if his production is really amazing.
Taking all of that into account, there is also the context of the season itself. A weak Heisman year with a lackluster field of candidates may not require a statistical outlier or an undefeated team. A really strong Heisman year could value the best combination of those two qualities among a variety of different candidates. One year may feature several candidates from traditional Heisman powers while other years may feature none.
In 2007, Tim Tebow’s Florida team lost three games and he was a true sophomore, yet he won the Heisman. Why?
First, he had a statistical season that was head-and-shoulders ahead of all the other competitors. Second, he played for a team that had a Heisman tradition, with two previous winners and a recent history of national success. Third, the field arrayed against him was weak, consisting of candidates from non-traditional powers. Lastly, while his team had three losses, the national champion that year, LSU, had two. In that context, three losses was fairly acceptable.
So can Smith lose two or even three games and still win the Heisman? Absolutely, so long as he lives up to his end of the bargain (meaning, incredible production) and other players in the race fail to create a meaningful counter to his candidacy.
This is not to say that I think Smith is going to win. I currently have Collin Klein as the front-runner. But if we go by history, Smith is still in the mix, despite the losses.