Commentary: Discussing the Heisman
by Jonathan Hodges

With Northwestern's 2007 season all but done and the usual holiday lull coming on for non-bowl bound teams, I thought I would take a chance and talk about some other issues concerning the rest of the college football nation this time of year.  First off, the Heisman Trophy.

All over the TV, radio, and internet are discussions concerning the Heisman: who should be considered, who shouldn't be considered, and who should win.  It's a topic that comes up annually at this time of year, but particularly when there is no front runner (like Troy Smith from OSU was at this time last season).  There are so many aspects to the award and opinions as to the criteria, but the fact is that precedence has already set the criteria for the voters, who like most people of influence in college football, love to stick with tradition and their predecessors, rarely going outside of the mold.  Given that, here are the "unofficial" criteria for the Heisman trophy:

1. He must be an upperclassman, preferably a senior.
2. He must have been starting prior to the year in which he wins the trophy and garner some significant stats coming into the year.
3. He must play for a winning football team, preferably a team near the top of the rankings at the end of the season.
4. He must play for a BCS conference school.
5. He must put up gaudy statistics that season and for his career.
6. He must play running back or quarterback.

Obviously there are some notable exceptions to these rules, but those exceptions are very rare:

1. An underclassman has NEVER won.
2. It's been very rare for a relative newcomer to the scene ( e.g. a junior or senior starting for the first time) to win the award; typically it is someone who put up solid numbers the previous year and has been on everyone's radar screen.
3. If the team isn't winning, you are basically erased from contention.  The most notorious exception was Joe Theismann (Notre Dame, 1970) who reportedly changed the pronunciation of his name to sound like the trophy.  Obviously, Notre Dame is a huge exception in the world of college football and is treated in a unique way in almost everything.  [Ed. note: for further evidence of Jonathan's point, also note Mr. Hornung, who won the little metal man while playing on a 2-8 Notre Dame team (2-8.  2-8?!?) in 1956.]
4. The last non-BCS school winner was Ty Detmer (BYU, 1990) who overcame his school's status by putting up insane numbers over the course of his carrer, especially that season.  Of course it didn't hurt that BYU won the national title in 1984 and was probably the best recognized "lower conference" school at the time.  Before him, the next "lower conference" winner was Roger Staubach (Navy, 1963), and at the time both Navy and Army were solid nationally renowned programs (although that is about the time that their standing in college football started to slide).  Note that I include schools like Houston and SMU in the "major conferences" as they were both in the SWC (predecessor to the Big XII for some schools) at the time that they had winners of the trophy.

Outside of the BCS conferences (or their predecessors), Notre Dame, Army, and Navy, the only other winners have been from the following schools:
Detmer (BYU, 1990)
Kazmaier (Princeton, 1951)
Frank (Yale, 1937)
Kelley (Yale, 1936)

A lot of this is obviously because the teams from the big conferences get more press coverage, get on TV more, and are usually more successful and have more talented teammates (thus taking some pressure off of the individual - if an amazing OL is blocking for you then suddenly running with the ball becomes much easier).

5. Basically everyone who has won as of late has put up huge numbers, or at least numbers that are easily noticed in the box scores.  Obviously big numbers get your name in the papers, get you weekly awards, and get you on TV.  And if you have big numbers coming into the season for your career, all the more likely you'll get the press as you break career marks and can put up stats like 10,000+ passing yards and the like.  And, guess what, RBs and QBs are the ones who always put up the biggest numbers and that's the next point.

6. There have been 70 Heisman trophy winners, with 63 of them being a QB or RB.  Only ONE primarily defensive player has ever won - and, of course, that was Charles Woodson of Michigan back in 1997 who also played some WR on offense and returned kicks and punts as well (he also had the luxury of playing on a team that would later win a share of the national title).  Only 2 WRs have ever won; despite their ability to put up big numbers if they are not thrown to or are constantly double or triple teamed they won't get the ball to put up stats.

And, of course, there is the effect of the trophy being chosen following the regular season but BEFORE the bowl games.  This means that guys who played head to head (think Young vs. Bush in 2005) may not get decided by results on the field (which undoubtedly would have an impact on the results).  This is actually very similar to many pro sports which select their MVPs and other award winners at the conclusion of the regular season but before the playoffs - therefore lending itself to getting guys on winning/playoff or bowl bound teams the award but not necessarily a guy from the champion.  This can probably be a good thing, as there is a better chance of someone getting selected from a team other than the national champion (who obviously gets all the attention after they win).

So, for those who are calling for the system to be more "fair" or to reward someone from a lower tier conference or even division or to reward defensive players, while it may be fun to argue there is almost no chance the system will change any time soon.  You may as well write down the requirements above as official "rules" because barring strange circumstances, things will probably follow the same mold for some time to come.  Also, in this age of TV (particularly the highlight shows courtesy of ESPN) getting publicity on the tube really matters as many of these voters know about the guys that they are writing about or can see on a quick blurb after the games on Saturday night.

Do I think that this is the right way for choosing the "most outstanding college football player" in the nation?  Not really; the award is what it is - it is given to a QB or RB who is an upperclassman who plays for a winning big program and puts up big numbers.  There are definitely guys with better numbers, although possibly on lower tier teams; there are guys with more pro potential and/or talent; there are guys who may have much more of an impact on the game but play a position that doesn't lend itself to big stats.

The fact is that in the game of football the other 10 guys on the field matter a lot, and the positions that lend themselves to doing the most on your own are QB and RB: a QB can have great speed or throwing accuracy and can get around a lack of good players around them (of course having better players around them makes them look even better) PLUS they touch the ball on virtually every offensive down.  Running backs can get the ball on up to 50% or more of offensive plays and if they have great speed and moves they can overcome deficiencies on the rest of the offense.  Meanwhile, guys on the OL or DL will never put up any kind of notable numbers, WRs can see their numbers swing wildly as QBs don't get the ball to them or can be covered to basically remove them from the game, linebackers and secondary players can be eliminated with an effective blocking scheme and play calling by the opponent, and special teams players just don't get enough playing time (and people like TDs much more than kicks and definitely more than punts, so kickers and punters never have a shot no matter how far they can kick the ball).

Given all of that, here are the contenders in 2007:

Tim Tebow, QB (Florida): If anyone is going to break the upperclassman only rule, he's it.  He has 20+ TDs both running and passing, ranks 2nd nationally in QB passer rating, and leads a really solid offensive attack.  The negatives, though, are that he's an underclassmen, his team has lost 3 games and isn't even playing for its conference title.  If one of those were not the case, he may be a runaway winner.
Chase Daniel, QB (Missouri): He has put up huge passing numbers and is on the team currently ranked #1 (although they are the underdog in their final game of the season) and is a big reason that his team is in contention for the national title.  He is a junior and on a relatively smaller school from a big conference, and hasn't particularly stood out from a pack of big passers this year.
Colt Brennan, QB (Hawaii): He puts up gaudy passing stats - partially due to Hawaii's pass-only offense, and partially due to his QB skills.  His team is the only major college teams that remains unbeaten and he is likely to head to a BCS bowl.  He has been injured on a couple of occasions, though, and his opponents have been cupcakes (including 2 I-AA/FCS teams) - the injuries probably hurt more than anything.
Dennis Dixon, QB (Oregon): It's unfortunate that an injury has basically ruined his chances.  Looking at Oregon's offense with and without him, though, and his numbers prior to that injury - it's obvious that he made a huge difference and would have had a great chance to take the trophy if he had stayed healthy and led Oregon to the title game.
Patrick White, QB (West Virginia): He has led West Virginia to national title contention, but was injured during their one loss of the year and have generally played a weaker schedule.  Plus, his numbers don't shoot off the page like some others although he does it with both his passing and his feet which gives him a more even distribution than some of the exclusive runners/passers in the group.
Darren McFadden, RB (Arkansas): He put on a one man show against the then #1 LSU Tigers on the day after Thanksgiving while in the spotlight.  And it doesn't hurt that he's put up big numbers over a couple years and is a great talent.  While he doesn't have as big of numbers as others on the list, he is actually helped by the fact that the Arkansas passing game was horrible this year and it turned into a running-only attack.

This year figures to be a very close race to the finish, and I'm not going to make any prediction here, but I think that any of the top 3 QBs listed above has a solid chance to win the award (2 of them would break "rules" - Tebow being a sophomore and Brennan being from a non-BCS school).  In any case the fact is that this year none of the "traditional powers" of college football has a candidate that stands out over the rest - plus it doesn't help that the top 2 teams going into the final week of the season don't have a lot of national following.  It's also unfortunate that the top guys statistically are typically looked over - there are 2 RBs over 2,000 yards for the year and neither are garnering much national recognition: Smith from UCF and Forte from Tulane.  The nation's top rated passer, Bradford from Oklahoma, is a freshman and is basically written off (their 2 losses came when he was injured).  Another guy who puts up huge passing numbers, Harrell from Texas Tech, is basically written off as a "system" QB despite completing almost 73% of his passes.  And Crabtree, a freshman WR from Texas Tech, has over 1,800 receiving yards but is still a freshman.

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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