True Freshmen: The final Heisman frontier

Leonard Fournette

The first 72 years of Heisman history were fairly predictable when it came to the class status of the winner. To wit: Every player who won the trophy from 1935 until 2006 was either a senior or a junior.

That all changed in 2007, when Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman. With Tebow’s win, the floodgates opened and he was followed by Sam Bradford (redshirt sophomore), Mark Ingram (true sophomore), Johnny Manziel (redshirt freshman) and Jameis Winston (redshirt freshman).

The reason for the sudden change wasn’t just about Tebow, though he personified the new era he helped usher in. Rather, it was the result of a combination of two things:

1. The new offensive styles that came to dominate college football from 2006 onward.

2. The digital media revolution.

If we made a chart of the statistical production of Heisman winners over the years, we’d see a fairly consistent range of values between 1974 and 2006 (with a few sudden blips here and there), then a hockey stick-like jump in the years since 2007. Of the last seven Heisman winners, six have been quarterbacks running a version of a ‘non-traditional’ offense. This means some permutation of the spread, or a no-huddle, from a shotgun and often with read option mixed in. These six quarterbacks averaged 49.6 combined touchdowns with 4,578 yards of total offense and a passer rating of 177. For comparison’s sake, Ty Detmer totaled 5,022 yards and 45 touchdowns with a rating of 155.9 in 1990, the year he won the Heisman. But Detmer’s win was seen at the time as a dramatic statistical outlier, one of the great Heisman seasons ever. We now see that kind of season every year, not just with the winner of the Heisman, but often with the contenders as well.

It seems unlikely that this recent swarm of underclass Heisman winners would’ve happened without the opportunities afforded them by the offensive philosophies currently in vogue. And because each of these players were highly-unique talents operating in systems that were easy to learn and molded to fit their skill set, they were able to produce these staggering numbers early on in their careers. The result was they became Heisman candidates much earlier, too.

The media change has been just as important and possibly even more dramatic. The Heisman is an election. And, as with all elections, the candidate who is the most familiar to the electorate generally has the best chance of winning. For years, this meant that juniors and seniors had the advantage since over the course of three to five years they tended to receive more exposure in the media. The more exposure in the media, the better known you become to voters and the better chance you have of building your brand as a Heisman candidate.

But the digital revolution changed all that. The proliferation of recruiting web sites means we learn about players at a much earlier point than before. Certain players are over-hyped in high school and are already seen as Heisman candidates the moment they step foot on campus. Meanwhile, social media provides multiple channels of access to players while schools promote them in new and innovative ways. A remarkable performance or a memorable play now spreads throughout the internet like wildfire thanks to a media eager to serve up the latest meme in ever-smaller and chewable bites. This means a player like Tebow is already a known commodity — nay, a legend — by the time he takes his first snap. It means Johnny Manziel’s nickname, Johnny Football, is in widespread use after one game. In other words, the old timeline for players to gain name recognition and media exposure has been condensed and the advantage that upperclassmen once had in this area has now been diluted.

Combine the new media environment with the new offenses and the result is five underclass Heisman winners since 2007.

But one more class frontier remains: The true freshman.

It could be argued that it’s even harder for a true freshman to win the Heisman now than it was in the 1970s. That’s mostly due to the aforementioned change in football over the last decade. But the 1970s and early 1980s were dominated by the running back and the offensive systems set up to feature that position — USC’s I-formation, Oklahoma’s wishbone, Nebraska’s I-bone, etc. The most talented player on the field in that era was the tailback and he played a position that was more conducive to early productivity. That’s why we saw instant success from players like Herschel Walker and Tony Dorsett.

But we are now in a quarterback-dominated era and the most talented players on offense are often taking the snaps.  But football is still football and the complexity of the game remains the biggest obstacle to young players in the Heisman race. As talented as Manziel and Jameis Winston are, they both needed a redshirt year to adjust to the speed of the game and to absorb their respective playbooks. Even then, they each had to have absurd statistical production to win the Heisman in their first years as starters.

Could a true freshman quarterback come in and dominate in the mold of Manziel and Winston? It seems unlikely. If it did happen, I’d assume it’d be a true freshman who enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Otherwise, we’re talking about a young player learning a system and taking over a team in a few short weeks. He would have to be a prodigy of a kind we’ve not seen before.

I suppose a true freshman running back could make a run at it. Adrian Petersen did so in 2004. But the bar for what constitutes a Heisman-worthy season has been raised since then. Meanwhile, the prominence of the running back position has receded a bit as the quarterback has taken center stage. Nonetheless, an elite talent like Leonard Fournette of LSU could certainly make some noise in this year’s Heisman race, though he’d probably need to break the 2,000-yard barrier and have the rest of the field implode to win. It’s also smart to keep an eye on the offensive systems that are best at generating yards, which is why Racean Thomas of Auburn is an intriguing prospect, too.

But the Heisman electorate is highly adaptive and I think the back-to-back crowning of redshirt freshmen — and all the issues that have surrounded these young men in their too-early exposures to college football immortality — could give some voters pause moving ahead. The Heisman is a great honor, but also a heavy burden to place on a young player’s shoulders. Herschel might’ve been able to handle it back in the days when one could go to a party without having the highlights appear on TMZ, but times have changed — maybe a little too much.

Voters might think twice before pushing this envelope any further, which is why I think the true freshman frontier won’t be crossed any time soon.

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Looking back at Archie Griffin’s Heisman repeat — and what it means for Jameis Winston

Since we once again have a player looking for that elusive second Heisman, I thought it would be appropriate to take a peek back at the circumstances that created the only two-time winner to date.griffin

Archie Griffin is probably a shade under 5-8, but his shadow looms large over Heisman history.  He won the award in 1974 after rushing for a Big Ten-record 1,620 yards and then returned in 1975 as the favorite to become the first two-time winner.

There weren’t a whole lot of established candidates to challenge Griffin in ’75.  Going in, his main competition was probably senior running back Joe Washington of Oklahoma, who was coming off a 1,321-yard (8.4 ypc) junior season in which he led the Sooners to a share of the national title.   Washington finished third in the 1974 Heisman voting, but he had one major hurdle to face in his quest for the 1975 trophy:  The Sooners were on probation and banned from television.  As we know, big performances on TV are key in the Heisman race.

Of the top 10 Heisman finalists in 1974, only Griffin and Washington returned in 1975.  That paved the way for some up-and-coming names to make a move in the race.

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By the numbers: How returning Heisman winners fared

How hard will it be for Jameis Winston to get that second Heisman?

Here’s a look back at the Heisman winners who returned the following season (and in Tim Tebow’s case, the following two seasons) to play college football and how they finished in the Heisman vote:

Player/Team/Year      Following Yr Finish/Pts behind winner

Doc Blanchard, Army, 1946 4th 535
Doak Walker, SMU, 1949 3rd 765
Vic Janocwicz, OSU, 1951 DNP DNP
Roger Staubach, Navy, 1964 DNP DNP
Archie Griffin, OSU, 1975 1st
Billy Sims, Okla., 1979 2nd 922
Ty Detmer, BYU, 1991 3rd 1,632
Jason White, Okla., 2004 3rd 368
Matt Leinart, USC, 2005 3rd 1,744
Tim Tebow, Florida, 2008 3rd 151
Tim Tebow, 2009 5th 914
Sam Bradford, Okla., 2009 DNP DNP
Mark Ingram, Alabama, 2010 DNP DNP
Johnny Manziel, TAMU, 2013 5th 1,784

DNP=Did not place in final top 10

As you can see, only the legendary Tebow–with all his accolades, hype, larger-than-life heroics and statistical accomplishments–came within 200 points of becoming the second player to win a second Heisman.

The nine players who managed to garner any votes following their Heisman years lost out by an average of 978 points.  For perspective’s sake, that’s more than the winning total points captured by Eric Crouch in 2001.

Only Archie Griffin managed to win that second Heisman.  And he did so to cap a four-year legendary career in which he became the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher while leading his Ohio State team to four-straight Rose Bowls and an 11-0 finish as a 1975 senior–a year, incidentally, in which he beat a very weak field.

But he was the exception, not the rule, when it comes to the Heisman.

So, I think it’s clear why Winston’s chances of repeating are remote.  Not only is there a clear voter bias against repeat winners, there is also the difficulty of duplicating a Heisman-type season and then once again being judged to be more worthy than your competitors.  It’s just so hard for lightning and good fortune to strike twice. Plus, voters are well aware that to give him a second Heisman would put him on hallowed ground and, as good as he is, there doesn’t appear to be a rush by the voters to do that.

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Jameis Winston will not win a second Heisman

jameis winston

The Heisman and the unofficial rules that govern its selection process — the 10 Heismandments — have evolved a bit over the past decade.

That’s to be expected. The dramatic changes in offensive football since 2004 were bound to influence the Heisman race at some point. As lofty as they sound, the Heismandments were never meant to be etched into stone. They were meant to reflect the current reality of the Heisman environment so that we could more easily analyze the state of the race in a given year.

That said, the only real departure from the original Heismandments has been the sea change that came about from the quintet of underclassmen who’ve won the trophy since 2007. Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston all captured their Heismans before their second seasons of eligibility expired. Prior to Tebow, we thought that underclassmen couldn’t win. After all, every one of the previous 72 winners before Tebow were either juniors or seniors. As that is clearly not the case anymore, we’ve adjusted the language of Heismandment No. 2  to reflect this reality. While junior and seniors still have a built-in advantage, underclassmen who put up extraordinary single-season numbers can win the Heisman. Aside from Ingram, who was a sentimental winner in the closest race in Heisman history, each of the five underclassmen produced seasons that could arguably be considered among the best in college football history. That’s what it took for them to win.

The underclassman rule was one of those rules that required us to go out on a limb. So, too, was Heismandment No. 9, which states there will never be another two-time winner of the award.

But while the strictures of Heismandment No. 2 have relaxed over the years, Heismandment No. 9 appears to be stronger than ever.

Jason White and Matt Leinart couldn’t repeat. Neither could Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram or Johnny Manziel. And that’s just in the past 10 seasons. Before them, there was Doc Blanchard of Army, Doak Walker of SMU, Roger Staubach of Navy, Billy Sims of Oklahoma and Ty Detmer of BYU. 

The failure of these players to win that second trophy raised the bar very high for future players attempting a double. After all, the next player to match Archie Griffin’s feat will have to be put on the short list of all-time college football legends, right? The Heisman electorate went against normal convention by selecting underclassmen in recent years, but casually doling out two Heismans is another story.

And that’s why I’m very confident in predicting that Jameis Winston will not win a second Heisman.

You would think by now that writers putting together preseason lists would understand the challenges inherent to repeating as Heisman winner. Yet Winston still appears on the top of such lists, as did Manziel last year and Tim Tebow in the seasons before that.

But at HP, we’ve always said that the return winner would not repeat. Each time, we’ve pissed off that player’s fan base.

And, each time, we’ve been right.

As the ninth Heismandment reads:

It’s not easy to win the Heisman once.  So it really is just too hard for a player to have a Heisman-worthy season two years in a row. Both of those seasons must be arguably better than each of the other candidates in the running in both years.

There are a lot of other factors working against a would-be repeat winner, namely media fatigue and fickleness that tends to reward the fresh face and requires a higher burden of proof the second time around.

Besides all that, there is also that mysterious Heisman karma that seems to take hold of a race every year. In the end, everything has to fall perfectly in place for someone to win the Heisman just once. So in order to win it again, things have to fall perfectly in place twice.

Think of all that had to happen for Winston to win the Heisman last year. The preseason front runner, Braxton Miller, had to get hurt early and miss three games. Marcus Mariota, who took control of the race mid-season, also suffered an injury that slowed him down in big losses to Stanford and Arizona. Meanwhile, Winston didn’t just glide his way to the Heisman. He had to produce a remarkable season with 42 touchdowns running and passing and a passer rating that, at the time of the Heisman vote, was the highest in college football history. This doesn’t even take into account the off-the-field issues he had to weather.

Both Miller and Mariota are back for a second bite at the apple. Meanwhile, Winston’s off-the-field issues have piled up. Heisman voters, satisfied that Winston got the Heisman he deserved in 2013, will likely look elsewhere in 2014. Plus, the statistical bar he set in 2013 is a challenge — anything less than 42 total touchdowns will be seen as a drop off.

This doesn’t make Winston any less special as a player. It just means that it’s going to be nearly impossible for him to pull off this feat.

I fully expect Winston to be in the Heisman conversation throughout the season, which is why I have him on my post-spring Heisman Watch list. There’s a pretty good chance he returns to New York as a finalist. After all, White, Leinart, Tebow and Manziel all did so in recent years.

But he’s not going to win. The smart money says that some other player is going to capture the spirit of the 2014 season, the same way Winston did so in 2013.

Who will that player be?

Well, that’s the fun part. Stay tuned.

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A decade of Heisman Pundit

My, how the time flies.

Ten years ago this month, I got the ball rolling here at Heisman Pundit.

What started out as a way to blow off some intellectual steam and get a few thoughts down for posterity – mostly for the amusement of family and friends, I thought — turned into something much bigger.

I never figured so many people would share my fascination with Heisman voting trends, not to mention its history and tradition. That so many have stopped by over the years to take in (or take on) my opinion on the subject is rather humbling.

Not coincidentally, the last decade has seen the Heisman grow in popularity and visibility. I like to think no one has done a better job of stoking that interest and evangelizing on the trophy’s behalf than HP. It’s something we truly care about.

And now, more than ever, coverage of the award focuses on all the historical trends and data that go into the making of a Heisman winner. I think it’s safe to say we blazed a trail in this area. The 10 Heismandments are now industry standard and, from what I can see, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.

As usual, we’ll be using the month of August to preview the season and survey the field of candidates vying for the Heisman. But we’ll also be taking a look back at some of the more memorable HP moments of the past 10 years. Hope you enjoy.

Thanks again for all your continued support.



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Brett Hundley graces Sports Illustrated cover

Check out UCLA junior quarterback Brett Hundley on the cover of this regional edition of Sports Illustrated.


It used to be that landing on the cover of SI in the preseason was a sure sign that a player was a leading Heisman candidate.

Maybe the impact isn’t quite the same as in those analog days, but covers like this definitely help to boost name recognition and visibility.

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Marshall throws Rakeem Cato’s hat into the Heisman ring


The 2014 football season is almost here, which means Heisman campaigns are revving up.

First up is Marshall, which launched a Heisman campaign on behalf of its senior quarterback, Rakeem Cato, on Wednesday.

The website has video highlights and features, biographical information, statistics, records and more. There’s also a video player that outlines one touchdown from every game during Cato’s 32-game streak of consecutive outings with a TD pass, which leads all active FBS players. The FBS record is 38 by Russell Wilson (2009-11 at N.C. State; 2011 at Wisconsin).

“What Rakeem has accomplished in his three seasons at Marshall speaks for itself,” Herd coach Doc Holliday said. “His maturing as a person and as a player is obvious to all of those in our program and those who follow the Herd closely.

“He is a special player, and a big reason we are able to embrace the expectations others have for us this season. I’m sure every coach in America would love to have a leader like Rakeem on his team.”

In 39 games in three seasons, Cato has hit 886-of-1,387 passes (63.9 percent) for 10,176 yards and 91 touchdowns. In the red zone, he has thrown for 58 touchdowns with only one interception. The 6-foot, 188-pound QB also has rushed for an additional 357 yards and 7 scores. He was the 2012 C-USA Most Valuable Player and the 2013 C-USA Offensive Player of the Year.

It’s a great move by Marshall as I’m a big fan of schools doing all they can to promote their star players. There’s really no downside to it. Sure, Cato is a long shot, but having his name mixed in with Heisman contenders helps Marshall’s prestige and visibility (the school is no stranger to Heisman candidates). People laughed when Oregon put Joey Harrington on a billboard in Times Square back in 2001. Now look at Oregon.

I’m looking forward to keeping an eye on Cato’s exploits this fall.

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