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.