As the seconds ticked down on No. 2 Kansas State’s shocking loss at the hands of Baylor, and the field goal attempt by Stanford’s Jordan Williamson sailed through the uprights to knock off No. 1 Oregon, the thought occurred to me that history is often a slave to timing.
How else to explain the notion that, right here, right now … this year … may be the year a very unlikely player, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, becomes the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
This is a trophy that has been awarded since 1935 and, for various reasons, a freshman has never managed to bring home the honor.
That’s 77 years of futility for first-year phenoms for those of you keeping score at home. During much of that time, of course, freshman couldn’t even play varsity ball and were instead confined to freshmen teams. However, since freshmen were declared eligible for competition in 1972, we’ve seen some pretty special ones come and go.
But it just wasn’t their time.
Tony Dorsett rushed for 1,586 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman for Pittsburgh in 1973. With the idea of freshmen competing for the Heisman a recent proposition, he could only manage a fourth-place finish in the East region of that year’s vote (Dorsett did not finish in the top 10 of the vote overall).
Herschel Walker burst onto the scene in 1980, leading Georgia to the national title and earning All-American honors while rushing for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns. But he took third in the Heisman vote to South Carolina’s George Rogers, who he out-rushed in head-to-head competition, 219 yards to 168. Rogers was an elite talent and a future first pick in the NFL draft who ended up with better overall numbers on the year than Walker. Had Rogers stumbled that season, it’s likely Walker would’ve been the first freshman to win the award since Pitt defensive end Hugh Green was the runner up. But Rogers didn’t stumble and Walker had to wait his turn to win the Heisman. (Note: Walker’s timing was so bad that his best season, an 1,891-yard effort in 1981, was overshadowed by Marcus Allen’s record-breaking 2,342-yard effort. By the time Walker actually won in 1982, it was basically a career honor).
Michael Vick led the nation in passing efficiency and Virginia Tech to the national title game as a 1999 redshirt freshman and there was widespread acknowledgement that he was a game-changer at his position. But his third-place finish was well behind the winner, Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne, who just so happened to set the NCAA career rushing yardage mark that season.
Adrian Peterson seemed to have it all in 2004. He was an amazing freshman back playing for a traditional power that was competing for the national title. He rushed for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns and probably would’ve been a cinch to win, except his main Heisman competition was Matt Leinart, a legendary quarterback on one of the great college football dynasties of modern times, and his teammate, Jason White, who won the Heisman in 2003 and sapped votes from him as a result.
In each of these situations, timing was everything. And so it is the case with Manziel. Except in Manziel’s case, timing looks to be working for him, rather than against him.
The natural impulse of the majority of the Heisman electorate is to not vote for a freshman. Sometimes it is a conscious decision — the idea being that upperclassmen have proven themselves over time and that one can always vote for the freshman on another occasion in the future. Often times, though, it is an unconcscious bias, borne of the reality that freshmen just don’t have the same level of familiarity and name recognition that upperclassmen have. There is also a resistance to change among a good portion of the electorate, particularly the former winners. They see the Heisman as a venerable institution and they worry that to vote for a freshman is to succumb to the latest fad rather than a player who has sustained his excellence and reputation over time. An early-career Heisman win also creates the potential for overly-high expectations in the years to come, setting up a possible crash and burn situation.
But this year might be different. In all the previous occasions when the freshman was bypassed, there was a legitimate alternative for the voters to select.
Who is that consensus alternative in 2012?
It was going to be Collin Klein, but now that he crashed and burned against Baylor, his luster as the Heisman front runner has been lost. As long as the Wildcats were undefeated and on their way to a BCS title game berth, his numbers had meaning. With K-State out of contention, he’s now just seen as a really good quarterback for a one-loss team. But there are several really good players playing for one-loss teams right now, so it’s going to be hard for Klein to recover.
Oregon is now a long a shot to make the title game and its running back, Kenjon Barner, and quarterback, Marcus Mariota, have lost any and all Heisman momentum as a result of the team’s poor play in the crucial loss to Stanford. Count them out.
USC’s Marqise Lee is still putting up good stats, but his team has imploded. He won’t win.
Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o has stuck around the conversation, but voters are even more reticent to pick a defensive player than they are a freshman.
And so, Manziel, on a day when he piled up a bunch of yards against lowly Sam Houston State, might have clinched the Heisman by virtue of the fact that there’s no other rational alternative for voters to pick in order to maintain this longstanding tradition of anti-freshman bias.
With the field cleared out and Manziel standing alone, girded with the accomplishment of being the first player in SEC history to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 1,000, buoyed by a thrilling win over the nation’s most respected program, enough voters might eventually be cornered into realizing that, yes, it’s time.
That it won’t be a player who the media breathlessly tracked during high school, who didn’t play for a marquee national power, who didn’t lead his team to an undefeated season and who didn’t even talk to reporters during the year is, well, somewhat close to unbelievable.
But that’s college football, folks.
Am I ready to make the call that Manziel is going to be the winner? After the way this season has gone, that would be a bit foolish. I have a feeling that there are some curve balls yet to be thrown in this race.
However, with two more weeks of games left to play, there’s never been another freshman in a better position at this point in the season to take home the most prestigious trophy in sports.
That’s Johnny Football, folks.