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On non-AQ Heisman contenders

It is not uncommon to see at least one Heisman trophy contender from outside the six automatic-qualifying (AQ) BCS conferences. Unfortunately, since the BCS was introduced in 1998, no player from a non-AQ conference has finished higher than third in Heisman voting (Hawaii QB Colt Brennan in 2007) and the last winner from a non-AQ conference was Ty Detmer of BYU in 1990.

Three major hindrances to the Heisman aspirations of non-AQ players are the lack of marquee games, strength-of-schedule and the perceptions about the systems in which they play. We have already looked at how the Heisman race is largely determined by a few key games which rarely feature non-AQ teams. Regarding strength of schedule, the average Sagarin strength-of-schedule ratings for non-AQ Heisman finalists since 1998 is 65.46 compared to 75.27 for Heisman finalists from AQ conferences. Finally, most non-AQ players who end up as Heisman finalists play in systems that are designed produce gaudy numbers regardless of the talent of the player in question and voters take that into consideration .

So, what would it take for a player from a non-AQ conference to win the Heisman? I developed a statistical model to forecast Heisman voting based on a number of factors, including player position, conference, strength of schedule and 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 overall voting trends and estimate what kind of numbers a non-AQ player would have to put up to win the Heisman. Let’s look at a few finalists from recent years and see how much more it would have taken for them to win.

Hawaii QB Colt Brennan finished sixth in 2006 and the was a Heisman finalist when he finished third in 2007. In 2007, he passed for 4,174 yards, 38 TDs and 14 INT, for the 12-0 Rainbow Warriors. From model estimates, Brennan would have needed 5,100 yards, 62 TDs and a passer rating of 197 to beat out Tim Tebow for the Heisman.

Boise State QB Kellen Moore placed seventh in 2009, fourth in 2010 and eighth in 2011. Looking at the 2010 season, Moore passed for 3,506 yards, 33 TDs and 5 INTs for the 11-1 Broncos. Moore would have needed 4,900 yards, 58 TDs and a passer rating of 199 to win the trophy over Cam Newton.

Houston QB Case Keenum finished eighth in 2010 and seventh in 2011, the year he passed for 5,099 yards and 45 TDs with 5 INTs for the 12-1 Cougars. To top Robert Griffin III, Keenum would have needed an eye-popping 5900 yards, 74 TDs and a passer rating of 214.

All of these estimates are based on the candidates’ actual win-loss record and strength-of-schedule from that particular year. From these cases, it’s clear that non-AQ players would have to produce mind-boggling stats to take home the Heisman trophy.

Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch (who finished seventh in Heisman voting in 2012) and Fresno State QB Derek Carr have been the only two non-AQ players in the Heisman discussion this year; neither is projected to place in the top five finishers in Heisman voting (currently projected as Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Bryce Petty and AJ McCarron). Assuming all of the top candidates win their remaining games and put up numbers consistent with their season averages, what would Lynch and Carr have to do to win?

Lynch, as a dual threat QB, would have to combine for 8,000 yards of total offense and 77 total touchdowns to take home the trophy, while Carr would have to pass for 5,200 yards, 69 touchdowns and a QB rating of 216 to win. It would take consecutive weeks of record-setting performances for either player to achieve these numbers.

There’s certainly a chance for both of these players to gain a decent amount of Heisman support, but their chances of winning are demonstrably slim.

On another note, check out the 2014 Kentucky Derby betting and the live Derby 2014 betting odds.

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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

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Prime time performances: Which games determine who wins the Heisman Trophy


How Bryce Petty does against OU will help determine his Heisman fate

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.

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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

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The role of conference realignment in Heisman voting

Last year, Heisman Pundit wrote about how conference realignment gave West Virginia’s Geno Smith a unique advantage in the Heisman race.

While Smith failed to finish in the top 10 of Heisman voting due in large part to a poor showing in a week 8 matchup against fellow Heisman hopeful Colin Klein and Kansas State, one player did end up as the beneficiary of conference realignment in last year’s Heisman voting: Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M.

Heisman balloting is divided into 6 geographic regions: Far West, Mid Atlantic, Mid West, North East, South and Southwest. When the BCS was introduced in 1998, the 6 BCS automatic-qualifying conferences were each mostly contained within a single region: the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) was in the Far West, the ACC mostly was in the Mid Atlantic, the Big 10 was mostly in the Mid West, the SEC was mostly in the South and the Big 12 was mostly in the Southwest. The Big East was more spread out across the east coast.


As discussed before, voters have a tendency to vote for players from their region. Looking at voting from 1998 through 2012, with the exception of the North East region, which has had only two finalists in that span, every region on average gives the highest vote totals to players from within that region.

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Examining a conference breakdown of regional votes over the same period, we see a similar pattern of conference preference by region.

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Conference realignment has adjusted the relationship between region and conference. More schools are playing in conferences that are concentrated in regions different from where the school is located.  So, in addition to writers and reporters in their school’s region, players now receive more media exposure in their conference’s region.



Texas A&M’s move to the SEC put it in the unique position of being located in Texas, the major media outlet center of the Southwest region, while playing in the SEC, concentrated in the South region.

The Aggies’ conference schedule set up some high profile games played in the South region, namely a marquee match-up with Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which earned Manziel major support in the South region, and nationwide. With no offensive Heisman candidates from the South region and no other candidates from schools in Texas, Manziel was the clear standout candidate in two regions. Manziel went on to receive the highest vote total in every balloting region except the Mid West, where Manti Te’o of Notre Dame (located in the Mid West region) received the highest total. With all of these schools changing conferences, which ones are in the best position to benefit?

Missouri and Texas A&M moving to the SEC, West Virginia moving to the Big 12 and Colorado moving to the Pac-12 provide the most exposure for these schools in a new region. With the structure of the ACC and American Athletic Conference, moves to these conferences does less to help players’ exposure within a region outside of their own. Of course, regardless of realignment, players have to perform well enough to garner Heisman consideration.

Let’s see if anyone steps up to take advantage of the changing landscape.

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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

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