Statistics and the Heisman

I’ve been accosted on Twitter of late by supporters of the various Heisman candidates, begging me to get behind their players.

Putting aside the fact that I do not endorse any player for the Heisman, I always find it remarkable that, for the most part, the focus is always on statistics.

Statistics.

Sigh. They are a slippery slope. But if you rely on them too much, they become almost meaningless.

Look. Heisman voters care a lot about statistics, but only up to a certain point. You are not going to convince someone that Player X is better than Player Y because X played in five games against top 23 opponents while Y played in only four. You are not going to compel someone to vote a certain way because Player A had 3,900 passing yards and Player B had 3,800.

Voters look for players to meet a minimum threshold of statistical prowess. Once they pass that threshold, they are deemed statistically worthy and their numbers beyond that do not become a real issue again unless they are chasing major records, or unless their numbers end up being way out in front of the competition.

Do a handful of voters find it meaningful that Jameis Winston has 26 touchdown passes in nine games while Johnny Manziel has 31 in 10?  Possibly. Are they sophisticated enough to understand that such stats don’t always tell the whole story? Absolutely (note, Heismandment No. 6, the Andre Ware Rule). If numbers really did tell us everything, Texas Tech would have five Heismans by now and Kliff Kingsbury would be a college football legend for reasons other than his impeccably-manicured facial hair.

But we mostly use stats to confirm our preexisting biases and we do it for a bunch of things besides the Heisman. If you like a political candidate, you are going to use numbers that portray him favorably to justify in your mind why he’s worthy of being elected. Similarly, if you do not like that candidate, you are going to ignore any favorable numbers and look for other reasons to not like him.

It’s the same when it comes to the Heisman race. Those who consider a player’s status as an NFL-ready product to be prima facie proof that he is the best player in college might tend to gravitate toward a guy like Winston, who has made his living primarily as a pocket passer. Those who believe Marcus Mariota plays in an effete conference that doesn’t play defense will discount his touchdowns and see every fumble of his as proof of his fraudulence. Those who think that SEC defenses are automatically the best in the country will view Johnny Manziel’s numbers as total validation of his Heisman worthiness. Those who see SEC defenses as being overrated will downplay his accomplishments by noting that A&M has played just one defense ranked among the top 30 teams.

And what do we do when we can’t find stats to support our opinions? Why, we just create a new stat. Or we ignore the negative ones. Parse away!

But all these numbers and comparisons can be overwhelming.  That’s why, after the stats are taken into account, voters also rely on things like imagery, reputation, biography and even stereotype to determine the most worthy player. The narrative surrounding a candidate matters and actually watching the games helps them assess how a player does something as opposed to just what he does.  Desmond Howard scoring a touchdown on a punt return is nice. Howard returning the punt and then striking the Heisman pose while Keith Jackson says ‘Hello Heisman!’ is sublime. If this constant search for meaning and understanding in college football didn’t exist, all we’d have to do is look at the box scores to pick the Heisman winner and be through with it.

Consequently, the player who wins the Heisman usually isn’t the season’s stat king, but the player who best exemplifies the spirit of that particular college football season. That’s what the voters are looking for, even if most don’t really know it deep down.

So if you want to know who’s going to win the Heisman, just consider which player has best captured the zeitgeist of 2013 college football. You can’t go wrong.

Maybe it’s not a perfect way to pick the most outstanding player, but it works for me.

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.

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    […] on-field statistics. It’s clear that, as much as some fans wish it were the case, Heisman voting is not determined by a simple formula and voter behavior is influenced by several factors. The model can be used, however, to capture […]