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This Day in Heisman History

Twenty five years ago today on November 14th, 1987 eventual Heisman winner Tim Brown led the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to a 37-6 victory over Alabama in South Bend. The Irish out gained Alabama 465 yards to 185 thanks in large part to Brown’s efforts. Brown had 225 all purpose yards catching, returning and even rushing the ball.

Here’s a clip of an Alabama kick off return from that game that doesn’t end well for the returner:

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This Week in Heisman History: Rashaan Salaam runs over Oklahoma

Things aren’t so good for the Colorado football program right now. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Buffaloes were one of the nation’s elite teams.

An undefeated regular season in 1989 and a share of the national title in 1990 for Colorado resulted in a shakeup of the Big 8 during that time, with the Buffaloes challenging traditional powers Oklahoma andNebraska for conference hegemony.

Coach Bill McCartney was the main reason for this success. He was an excellent recruiter and he raided the talent-rich Southern California area for many of his best players. One of the biggest names he brought to Boulder was a running back from the San Diego area namedRashaan Salaam.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was highly sought after by schools from all around the country despite the fact that he played on an eight-man football team for a small private school. It took a year for Salaam to adjust to the 11-man game, as he rushed for just 158 yards in his first season for the Buffaloes. But by his sophomore year, he was beginning to make his mark, rushing for 844 yards and eight touchdowns as a part-time back.

To term his 1994 junior season as a ‘breakout year’ would be an understatement. In his first five games, he rushed for 892 yards and 12 touchdowns as Colorado jumped out to a 5-0 start, including wins over No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 4 Michigan and No. 16 Texas.

The sixth game was a tussle with No. 22 Oklahoma. It came on Oct. 15, 1994 … this week in Heisman history.

Salaam rushed for 161 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries as the Buffaloes throttled the Sooners, 45-7. It was the most points that Colorado had ever scored against Oklahoma. It was such an utter domination, it caused Denver Post columnist Woody Paige to write “The last time I saw such an awful Oklahoma performance was at a dinner theater in Tulsa.” Salaam took over the nation’s lead in rushing from Washington’s Napolean Kaufman and, from that point on, he was the Heisman front-runner.

It all goes to show you how important it is to play well against a traditional power like Oklahoma. While the Sooners were going through a down period, their tradition still resonated with Heisman voters. Salaam’s mastery against Oklahoma helped give him the credibility to hold off his Heisman challengers the rest of the way.

Salaam became only the fourth player to surpass 2,000 rushing yards in a season, finishing with 2,055 and 24 touchdowns in 11 games. The Buffs finished 11-1 and third in the national rankings.

Salaam captured all six regions and won the Heisman over fierce competition from Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter and Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair. He skipped his senior year to enter the NFL draft and became a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears.

He didn’t have a great NFL career but, on that Saturday in mid-October of 1994, there wasn’t a better back in the country than Salaam.

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This Week in Heisman History: Steve Spurrier leads Florida to a close win over Florida State

Nowadays when people think of Steve Spurrier, they think of him as the brash, visor-wearing coach who led Florida to national prominence and South Carolina to respectability.

But before the visor, before the Fun ‘n Gun and before the entertaining press conferences, there was Spurrier the quarterback.

The 6-foot-2, 203-pounder starred for the Gators from 1964-66, earning All-American honors his last two seasons. In an era dominated by the run, Spurrier was, along with Jerry Rhome and Bill Anderson of Tulsa, one of the first quarterbacks to really air it out.

As a junior, he threw for 1,893 yards and 14 touchdowns while leading Florida to the Sugar Bowl (where the Gators lost a close one to Missouri, 20-18). And so “Steve Superior” entered 1966 as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.

He helped Florida to a great start that year as the Gators outscored Northwestern, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt by a combined 84-14. So Florida was 3-0 and ranked 10th in the country when it traveled to Tallahassee to take on in-state, unranked rival Florida State.

This week in Heisman history, 46 years ago, the Gators needed a big game from Spurrier to beat the Seminoles, albeit under controversial circumstances.

Spurrier was on target early, hitting receiver Richard Trapp for a 35-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring, then finding him again for a six-yard touchdown before the half after the Seminoles had stormed back with 10 straight points. The teams went to the break with the Gators up, 14-10.

Florida State dominated the third quarter to take a 19-14 lead, but then Spurrier struck back with a 41-yard touchdown pass to halfback Larry Smith with 10:44 left in the game. A two-point conversion pass to Trapp made it 22-19.

The Seminoles didn’t give up. They drove down the field with time winding down, and quarterback Gary Pajcic found wide out Lane Fenner in the end zone for a 45-yard touchdown with just 17 seconds left.

But the referees ruled Fenner was out of bounds, and Florida came away with the win, its eighth in nine tries against the ‘Noles. News photos later revealed Fenner was actually in bounds, and the bad call stuck in the craw of FSU fans for years.

Spurrier was 16-of-24 for 219 yards and three touchdowns against the Seminoles as Florida moved to 4-0. It also made Spurrier the favorite to win the Heisman. The Gators went on to a 7-0 start and a No. 7 ranking in the polls before falling to Georgia, 27-10. A 27-12 triumph over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, 1967, gave Florida a 9-2 record and its first major bowl victory.

But before the Orange Bowl, Spurrier was awarded Florida’s first Heisman Trophy. On the year, he completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 2,012 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also kicked three field goals, including a 40-yard game-winner against Auburn after he waved off the starting kicker.

Spurrier won four out of five Heisman voting regions and totaled 1,659 points to easily beat runner-up Bob Griese ofPurdue (816 points) and Nick Eddy of Notre Dame (456 points).

He went on to be selected third overall in the NFL draft by San Francisco, where he played nine years. A somewhat lackluster pro career eventually turned into an outstanding coaching career.

But 46 years ago this week, there was no player more outstanding than Spurrier.

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Heisman Weekend Wrap up: The Sliding Scale

It’s the first day of October and much like 2011 we have a serious Heisman contender from a non-traditional Heisman school. Last year it was Robert Griffin III from Baylor who shot onto the scene with a thrilling game (and victory) against TCU to start the season. Griffin followed up his performance against the Horned Frogs with a season for the ages. He took a team that probably would have been 6-6 without him to a top 15 national ranking and the program’s first ever win over Oklahoma. RGIII had an amazing individual season that was capped off by a comfortable Heisman win.

Oh, I forgot to mention that his team also got blown out by Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in back-to-back weeks. So prolific was his season that his Heisman campaign was able to withstand two ugly losses in a row.

West Virginia’s Geno Smith looks like he’ll be following that narrative if he is to end up in New York City. This is not to say that WVU can’t go undefeated, it’s just that they don’t have to for Smith to win the Heisman.

Let’s look at it like a sliding scale.

There are two metrics; team production and player production. In order to win the Heisman you must dominate at least one of the two metrics while the other surpasses a set threshold.

Here’s a generic example: If a quarterback passes for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns on a 12-0 team he will most likely be a Heisman finalist. Similarly, if a player accounts for 50 touchdowns and 4,500 yards on a 9-3 team, he may still end up as a finalist as well.

Before I get into recent examples, let me add one caveat. This rule doesn’t always apply to a player who attends a non-BCS conference school. For instance, Colt Brennan of Hawaii in 2006 threw for 5,549 yards and 58 touchdowns, but his team went 10-3 in the regular season. If that performance and record was done at a BCS conference school the Heisman ceremony would have been a formality. As it was, Brennan finished sixth in the voting and Troy Smith of number one ranked Ohio State won the award easily.

The following year, Brennan threw for 1,200 fewer yards and 20 fewer touchdowns but went to NYC and finished third in the Heisman vote because his team went 12-0 during the regular season. Brennan would have needed to go undefeated and put up his ridiculous numbers from the year before to even sniff the Heisman. Such is the plight of the non-BCS conference standout athlete (see Kellen Moore).

Lets look at some more specific examples. In 2007, Tim Tebow led the Florida Gators to a 9-3 record but accounted for 51 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards of total offense, as he won the Heisman over Darren McFadden (and Brennan). The previous year, Troy Smith threw for just 2,507 yards and 30 touchdowns but the Buckeyes went undefeated and Smith ran away with the Heisman. In 2006 the team record out weighed the just decent statistics while in 2006 the individual performance was enough to outweigh the mediocre record.

Last year put the sliding scale to the test. As noted we had a statistical gem of a season from RGIII but Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck were the unquestioned leaders (with more than adequate numbers) on title contending teams. The voters overlooked RGIII’s three losses because they recognized that Griffin’s season was spectacular and historic for his school. Team record took a backseat to individual performance.

Looking forward to this year’s race, you can see why Geno Smith is in such a great position right now. No one will jump off his bandwagon if he fails to beat Texas or Oklahoma (or even Kansas State, another team RGIII lost to last year). As long as his numbers stay on this record-setting pace, he’ll be fine.

On the flip, side we know that Aaron Murray and EJ Manuel teams need to keep winning. Neither can match Smith’s numbers over the course of a season, but if Florida State and Georgia are slated to play in the national championship game then they will be credible alternative to Smith if his team goes 9-3 and his numbers fall off a bit. The same goes for Matt Barkley and De’Anthony Thomas. If USC or Oregon finish the regular season ranked one or two, you can bet that they will be finalists.

Lastly, none of this applies to Notre Dame. In 1987 Tim Brown won the Heisman (convincingly) despite playing on an 8-3 team and putting up just decent numbers (his two punt return touchdowns  against Michigan State helped create a lasting Heisman moment). In 1956 Paul Hornung (The Golden Boy) won the Heisman on a 2-8 Irish team. He also failed to get the most first place votes for the award and only won the Midwest region.

Notre Dame, yet another exception to the rule.

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This Week in Heisman History: Ernie Davis outshines Terry Baker in ’61 opener

The late 1950s and early 1960s were wonderful years for Syracuse football.

In 1959, the Orange won their only national championship, going 11-0 under the guidance of coach Ben Schwartzwalder. Among the stars on that squad was a 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore running back named Ernie Davis, who led the team in rushing and scoring.

Davis had come to ‘Cuse on the heels of the great Jim Brown, even taking over his No. 44 jersey and, by his 1961 senior season, the ‘Elmira Express’ was considered the favorite to do something Brown never could — win a Heisman Trophy.

This week in Heisman history (Sept. 23, 1961), Syracuse traveled to Corvallis, Ore., to take on the Beavers of Oregon State in the season opener for both teams. The Orangemen, as they were then called, were ranked 10th in the preseason by the Associated Press while the Beavers were among the “others getting votes.” (The AP ranked only 10 teams 1961-67.)

This game featured two players who would go on to establish two firsts in college football. Davis became the first black Heisman Trophy winner in ’61, and OSU quarterback Terry Baker would become the first West Coast player to win the Heisman in 1962.

Things got off on the wrong foot for the Beavers that day. A first-quarter fumble gave the ball to the Orangemen and led to Davis slanting off the right side of the line, bulldozing a would-be tackler and scoring the game’s first touchdown from 16 yards out.

The early turnover was the first of five OSU miscues, but Baker kept things interesting, pushing the Beavers out to an 8-7 lead following a remarkable 36-yard touchdown off a scramble, plus a two-point conversion.

From there, however, Syracuse’s powerful line — and Davis — took over. His second touchdown of the day, a fourth-quarter plunge from three yards out, clinched the 19-8 win for the Orangemen. His stat line against OSU: 68 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, two catches for 15 yards and, in that era of single-platoon football, a stellar effort at corner as he helped hold Baker to just 4 of 10 passing for 31 yards.

Syracuse would go on to finish 8-3, including a 15-14 win over Miami in the Liberty Bowl. Davis rushed for 823 yards and 15 touchdowns and caught 16 passes for 157 yards. He also intercepted two passes on defense.

Voters recognized his excellence by awarding him the Heisman over Bob Ferguson of Ohio State and James Saxton of Texas. Davis won the East region and finished third in the South, Midwest and Far West. It was the second-closest vote in Heisman history at the time, with Davis edging Ferguson by a mere 53 points.

Baker finished 11th nationally in total offense in ’61, setting up his own run for the Heisman in 1962. An incredible all-around athlete, he remains the only collegian to win a Heisman and participate in a basketball Final Four.

Of course, we all know the sad and tragic tale of Davis — he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after graduating from Syracuse and he passed away on May 23, 1963.

But on that day in September of ’61, there was simply no stopping The Express.

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This Week in Heisman History: Tony Dorsett leads Pitt over Notre Dame

Pittsburgh may be struggling now, but 36 years ago this week, it was about to embark on a magical journey.

The Panthers of 1976 were coming off their first bowl win since 1937, a 33-19 victory over Kansas in the Sun Bowl. Head coach Johnny Majors had taken a Pitt program that was 22-68-2 from 1964-1972, and 1-10 the year before he was hired, to an 8-4 record. With his fourth season looming and all his recruits in place, expectations were high.

One big reason: He had the great Tony Dorsett in the backfield.

The Aliquippa, Penn. native rejected Penn State and 66 other schools to play for Majors and he took advantage of the new freshman-eligibility rule to rush for 1,586 yards in 1973. He was hit by injuries as a sophomore and ‘only’ managed 1,004 yards, but his junior year he rushed for 1,544 yards, including 303 against Notre Dame.

As the 1976 season dawned, Dorsett was poised to crush every NCAA rushing record on the books. But could a player from an independent East Coast school known for its soft scheduling win the Heisman? Dorsett’s main competition entering the season was USC tailback Ricky Bell, a big, bruising back destined to be the top pick in the NFL draft. The hype was on Bell’s side.

What Dorsett needed was a statement game right out of the blocks. He had the perfect opportunity with a road trip to No. 11 Notre Dame slated for September 11.

The stage was set.

Notre Dame’s Heisman history is well known. The Fighting Irish had produced six winners by 1976, more than any other program. The school’s storied tradition also made it somewhat of a kingmaker for the Heisman runs of opposing players, causing Beano Cook to state that ‘you either have to play for Notre Dame or beat Notre Dame to win the Heisman.’

Dorsett took full advantage of that maxim.

The Irish drove for a touchdown on the opening series against the Panthers, but Dorsett answered with a 61-yard touchdown romp on his first carry. With the stage set, he had come to perform.

Dorsett and the Panthers showed they were legitimate national title contenders that day, leaving South Bend with an impressive 31-10 win. Dorsett darted for 181 yards on the ground to bring his career rushing total against the Irish to a remarkable 754 yards.

Over on the West Coast, Missouri was walloping USC, 46-25, and suddenly Dorsett’s path to the Heisman was clear.

Pitt was elevated to No. 3 in the next AP poll and went on to an undefeated season and a national championship. Dorsett rushed for an NCAA-record 1,948 yards on his way to winning the trophy, with Bell finishing a distant second.

His 6,082 career rushing yards remained an all-time record until broken by Ricky Williams of Texas in 1998.

Dorsett would go on to more glory in the NFL, helping to lead the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl win during his rookie season. But his performance against the Irish on that September Saturday in 1976 would remain one of his all-time best.

For all intents and purposes, it won him the Heisman Trophy.

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Heisman Pic of the Day

The Heisman finalists (minus Andrew Luck, who had not yet arrived in NYC) with the trophy:

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