Freshmen, Johnny Manziel and the Heisman

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should know by now that Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is about to become the first freshman to win the Heisman in the 78-year history of the prestigious award.

Time will tell if this is merely a quirk of circumstance or the beginning of a larger trend for the trophy. But it’s worth looking back to put in proper context the impressiveness of Manziel’s pending feat.

Keep in mind that for a good chunk of the past 78 years, freshmen were not eligible to play college football. Although freshmen were given a pass during World War II and Korea, they were not given full eligibility until 1972.

Freshmen in the Heisman Vote

Name School Year Finish
Clint Castleberry Georgia Tech 1942 3rd
Herschel Walker Georgia 1980 3rd
Emmitt Smith Florida 1989 7th
Marshall Faulk San Diego State 1991 9th
Michael Vick* Virginia Tech 1999 3rd
Adrian Peterson Oklahoma 2004 2nd
Johnny Manziel* Texas A&M 2012 ???

* — Redshirt freshman

Of this group, Walker, Vick and Peterson probably had the best arguments for winning the Heisman. Walker was the seminal player of the 1980 season and he dominated while leading his team to the national title. Vick led the nation in passing efficiency and guided his team to the BCS title game. Peterson came the closest to winning, but he had the misfortune of competing with Matt Leinart, the face of a juggernaut USC dynasty that tended in those days to suck all the publicity air out of the room, and his own teammate, Jason White.

So why has it been so hard for freshmen to break through over the years?

There are a couple explanations that make the most sense.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to the Heisman is that it’s an election. It’s an honor that is voted on by about 926 voters from around the country. As with any election, it helps when those who are voting know as much as possible about the person for whom they are voting. And so, the importance of name recognition can’t be overstated.

Therefore, freshmen are, by virtue of their class status, at a significant disadvantage when it comes to this. It stands to reason that a player who has three or four years under his belt is more likely to be be better known by voters than a player who is in his first year playing. Coming into this season, players like Matt Barkley and Montee Ball figured prominently into the preseason calculus. They appeard on magazine covers and on television and most voters knew their resumes and their faces. A player like Manziel had a lot of ground to make up in this regard. It can happen, but it’s rare. It certainly helps when you have a catchy nickname.

The other factor that can hurt a freshman is the subconscious bias that some voters might have in favor of upperclassmen, partially because of the name recognition issue already pointed out. Given the choice between a talented freshman and a talented senior, the voter is more likely to pick the latter since it’s the last opportunity to honor that player and he knows him so well. Meanwhile, the thought could be that there will be plenty of more opportunities to select the freshman since he has at least one or two more years left to play.

For a non-football example of this mentality, consider the Academy Awards of 1970. The choice that year for Best Actor was John Wayne, who beat out youngsters Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, among others. Wayne’s illustrious Hollywood career was in its twilight and, to that point, he lacked any type of prestigious honor from his peers. Voters gave him the Oscar over the young guys because they knew it was probably their last chance to do so.

We’ve seen a few Heismans given out with that thought in mind over the years and, perhaps, more than a couple freshmen and sophomores were spurned as a result.

But every year is different. No matter your class status, everything has to fall perfectly into place to win the Heisman. For Manziel to get here, it required an evisceration of the entire preseason Heisman field, some stumbling by a few better-known dark horses at midseason, record production on his part and an unlikely upset of a No. 1 team on its home turf. For those in the prediction and analysis business, this type of combination of events is better known as a Black Swan.

If Manziel wins the Heisman, does that mean he was a better player than his freshman forebears? Not necessarily. It just means he was the right freshman in the right place at the right time.

Saturday night, that’s going to be a pretty cool place to be.

About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, 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.

Follow HP

Find us on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube!

Comments are closed.