In order to be considered for the Heisman Trophy, a player must put up big numbers, but performances in certain games matter far more than others. As Heismandment #3 says, the Heisman winner “must put up good numbers on in big games on TV.”
A study on the Heisman Trophy by former Marshall sports information director Clark Haponstall backed up this theory, finding that the two most important factors for Heisman Trophy voters are “Personal observations from games watched on TV” and “Player’s performance in marquee games.” Using the Heisman Pundit’s straw poll from the last few seasons, let’s look further into how this has played out.
Looking at the past four Heisman Trophy winners, each had a single week where their total points increased significantly, accounting for more than half of their final total. What do all of these spikes have in common? They all took place in week seven or later, during conference play. In 2009, Mark Ingram’s 246 rushing yards with 1 TD against South Carolina in week seven catapulted him to the front of the Heisman race. In 2010, it was 140 passing yards and 1 TD along with 188 rushing yards and 3 TDs for Cam Newton against Arkansas that put him out in front for good in the Heisman race. The 2011 season saw Robert Griffin III put up 279 passing yards and 4 TDs in a week 12 win over fifth-ranked Oklahoma. Of course, Johnny Manziel’s big game in 2012 came in a week 11 upset of No. 1 Alabama, when he had 253 yards passing with 2 TDs and 92 yards rushing.
Big games don’t just make Heisman campaigns, however, they can also break them.
In 2009, Colt McCoy fell toward the bottom of the rankings after 127 passing yards and an interception in the week seven Red River Rivalry against Oklahoma. After slowly climbing back toward the front of the race, McCoy’s 184 yards passing and 3 interceptions in the Big 12 championship game hurt his Heisman chances; the same game where Ndamukong Suh shot up in the rankings with 12 tackles (6 for loss) and 4.5 sacks. In week eight, Tim Tebow took a major hit with 127 yards and 2 interceptions in a loss to Mississippi State. In 2010, the major boom for Denard Robinson’s Heisman stock from his week two performance against Michigan rival Notre Dame (passing for 244 yards and a TD; rushing for 258 yards and 2 TDs, including the game winner with 27 seconds left) was undone in a 3-interception loss to in-state rival Michigan State in week 6.
The 2011 Heisman race saw Andrew Luck remain as the clear favorite through most of the season, until a week 11 loss to Oregon where he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, leaving the door open for RGIII to take over.
2012 saw three clear favorites emerge and then drop in the polls after ugly showings in big-time games.
The early favorite, Matt Barkley, had two interceptions in a week two loss against Stanford, which quickly brought his Heisman aspirations to an end. Geno Smith then pulled to the front of the pack, but fell completely out of the race after a 2-interception game in a week eight matchup with fellow Heisman contender Collin Klein and Kansas State. Klein then held the lead until he threw 3 interceptions in a week 12 loss to Baylor.
All of these cases make it clear: big-time rivalry games and prime time matchups are where Heisman races are decided. For those wondering, here’s what the straw poll has looked like so far this season for some of the major candidates.
All of this year’s remaining contenders still have marquee games left on their schedules, so keep an eye on how the race develops over the last few weeks of the 2013 season.
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The author of this post, Daniel Heard, is a PhD candidate in Statistical Science at Duke University. He has dedicated a significant portion of his research to examining trends in Heisman Trophy voting and developing a model to forecast the voting each year.
You can contact Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org.