Freshmen and the Heisman

Why hasn’t a freshman ever won the Heisman?

Well, for starters, save for temporary repeals of the ban by the NCAA during World War II and the Korean War, freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity football until 1972.

Since 1972, however, freshmen have been at a disadvantage in the race for several reasons.

First, people forget that publicity and name recognition play a huge part in determining the winner. This is an election determined by 925 voters spread out across the country. Yes, players have to get it done on the field but, all things being equal, the player whose exploits and accomplishments are the most well-known and understood wins the award. An upperclassman with a couple seasons under his belt has a natural advantage in this regard. Voters read about him in preseason magazines, and they hear his name bandied about by pundits on television. Over time, the idea of that player as a Heisman candidate is internalized by voters.

Freshmen don’t have that advantage. A freshman challenging for the Heisman must catch fire quickly and, usually, be looked upon as a freak of nature. The only three freshmen to finish in the top three of the Heisman vote were Herschel Walker (1980), Michael Vick (’99) and Adrian Peterson (’04). All three were (rightly) perceived as other-worldly talents at the time.

Is Johnny Manziel seen as a freak? Not like these other guys, perhaps. However, he has a couple of advantages working in his favor that his freshman forebears didn’t. Namely, he plays in the social media era. Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere do a great job of pushing name recognition and, if all goes right, even a freshman can become all the rage in the college football world. Then, there’s that nickname. With “Johnny Football” being dropped left and right, Manziel should be no stranger to Heisman voters come December (although, it would be even more helpful if A&M let him talk to the media).

But then there are the voters themselves. They can be a conservative bunch and very cognizant of history. A question might arise: Is Manziel so good that he — not Walker, Vick or Peterson — should be the first freshman to win it? It’s a tough standard to beat. Then there is the notion that voters have three more years to vote for Manziel, but this will be their only chance to appreciate, say, a Collin Klein or a Kenjon Barner.

If I had to venture a guess, it adds up to Manziel finishing a strong second. But “Johnny Football” has beaten the odds before.

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About Heismanpundit

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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2 Responses to Freshmen and the Heisman

  1. TC November 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    THIS is a great article. I still hate the “we could vote for him in the years to come” argument. However, the rest of the article makes a lot of sense…

    Some things to note:
    Johnny Manziel rushing yards: 1,014
    Herschel Walker rushing yards: 1,616
    Adrian Peterson rushing yards: 1,925 (the all-time freshman record)
    Michael Vick passing/rushing yards: 2065/585

    Manziel has 1,144 yards of total offense more than Vick did his “Heisman” candidate season, he has a higher passer pct (67.6 vs. 58), and he’s accounted for 12 more touchdowns. All this… and he still has two games left to play.

    These four players have something in common. They scramble/run very well. Peterson holds the freshman record, and Vick holds the NFL QB record for season rushing. I think Manziel would be great company on this list.

    While he might not be seen publicly as a “freak”… Manziel has quietly put up these numbers against some of the Nation’s best defenses.


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