Ever since Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman last season, the assumption has been that the floodgates are open and that a bevy of first-year players will now start to win the award.
But while Manziel definitely established himself as a pioneer in Heisman lore, it’s important to take into account the circumstances that allowed that to happen.
Last year was a particularly weak Heisman field. The front runner, Matt Barkley, was vanquished early. So, too, was Denard Robinson, Montee Ball and Marcus Lattimore.
The early boomlet for Geno Smith collapsed by the first week of October, leaving Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein as the front runner. In the meantime, Manti Te’o of Notre Dame started to build momentum as a candidate after leading the Irish over Oklahoma in late October.
The myth exists that Manziel’s performance in his team’s win over No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 10 is what clinched him the Heisman. But here’s what the HeismanPundit Straw Poll looked like after that weekend:
1. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State – 26 (6)
2. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M – 18 (3)
3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC – 10 (2)
4. (tie) Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State – 4
Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame – 4
6. (tie) Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon – 2
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon – 2
Despite Manziel’s amazing game against the Crimson Tide, Klein was still the front runner for the award. All Klein had to do was win out and the trophy was going to be his. But the epic weekend of Nov. 17 changed all that. Baylor crushed Kansas State in such a fashion that the senior quarterback’s campaign was dealt a mortal blow. The rationale for his candidacy — that of a hard-nosed, blue collar player leading a hard-nosed, blue collar team to a BCS title berth — vanished.
But a few other things happened that weekend, too. USC’s Marqise Lee was knocked out of contention when he was bottled up by UCLA in a bad loss. Any chance Oregon’s Kenjon Barner had of making a late run at the Heisman was gone when his team was upset by Stanford. Meanwhile, Braxton Miller of Ohio State threw for 97 yards and rushed for 48 in a lackluster win over Wisconsin.
That left Te’o and Manziel as the only viable options. Given the choice between a ridiculously entertaining offensive player with a catchy nickname who happened to be a freshman and a Notre Dame linebacker, the voters chose the former (though not by much, as it turns out).
So as you can see, Manziel won the Heisman because of a very unique series of events. By comparison, previous freshmen who challenged for the Heisman were matched up against more formidable competition. Herschel Walker had George Rogers in 1980. Michael Vick had Ron Dayne, the all-time NCAA rushing leader, in 1999. Adrian Peterson couldn’t match the power of USC’s Heisman tradition when Matt Leinart won in 2004.
How does that relate to this season?
Well, we have yet another freshman making a run at the Heisman. This time, it’s Florida State’s Jameis Winston. But while the field arrayed against him is much stronger than the one that Manziel faced last year, he has also benefitted from a few timely occurrences. Miller, the front runner entering the season, got hurt in the early going and bowed out of the race as a result. Aaron Murray’s candidacy collapsed under the weight of all the injuries his team suffered, which led to debilitating losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt. Teddy Bridgewater was removed as a factor in the race when Louisville lost to UCF.
Of course, these things haven’t just helped Winston. They’ve also helped Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, too. But the Ducks quarterback is the current front runner because, unlike Winston, he does not have to overcome the hurdle of being a freshman. I’m not talking about the oft-talked-about ‘bias’ against first-year players. I’m talking about the nuts and bolts of why and how voters pick their candidates.
Let’s assume that the season-ending stat lines for both Mariota and Winston result in exemplary, yet virtually indistinguishable, production. Let’s also assume that both lead their teams to undefeated seasons.
What would be the deciding factor in the race?
I believe that, given those sets of circumstances, Winston’s status as a freshman will be what ultimately hands the Heisman to Mariota.
The freshman status affects Winston’s candidacy in two ways. First, there is a practical consideration that some voters will take into account when making their decisions. Since Mariota is eligible for the NFL draft and Winston is bound by the rules to return for another season, they might decide to pick Mariota now while they still can, the rationale being that they can always vote for Winston next year.
The other factor that would hurt Winston in this circumstance is the nature of publicity and name recognition. The Heisman is an election. As with any election, people vote for who they know best. Mariota is in his second season while Winston is in his first, which means that voters have been aware of the name ‘Mariota’ for a longer period of time than they have the name ‘Winston’. Mariota’s ‘brand’ has had two seasons to saturate with the Heisman electorate. They know what he looks like under the helmet, while Winston is more of a mystery. Also, from a pure data standpoint, voters will have a more complete picture of Mariota’s accomplishments than they will of Winston’s. At the time of the Heisman vote, Mariota will have played in 26 games while Winston will have played in only 13. Career accomplishments tend to carry more weight when two players of equal single-season value are being considered.
Besides these two factors, there still exists a small subset of voters who are somewhat reluctant to place a freshman atop their ballots, especially when there is a viable alternative. I don’t see them as being a deciding factor, unless the race is extremely close.
Winston’s freshman status will end up being less of a factor in the race if Oregon loses or if Mariota’s production falls off a cliff. If that were to happen, his role as the catalyst for Florida State’s undefeated season (‘return to glory’) combined with his remarkable single-season statistics would be more than enough to overcome whatever issues he faces as a freshman.
So class status by itself isn’t enough to disqualify Winston. But class status is a factor and could decide the race if everything else is perceived as being equal.