College football is the only major American team sport in which a first-year player hasn’t won the sport’s most prestigious award. Freshmen have been chosen as national players of the year in college basketball, baseball and hockey. Rookies have won MVP awards in the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL.
And yet voters for college football’s Heisman Trophy have lagged behind. No freshman has won the Heisman since freshmen started playing with upperclassmen in 1972. Since then, the three freshmen Heisman finalists – Herschel Walker, Michael Vick and Adrian Peterson – have all lost for various reasons. Some of that has been timing. As a freshman, Walker had one of his best games a day after ballots were due. Apparently, the director of the club that hosted the award ceremony said Walker likely would have won the Heisman that year had his 205-yard, 3-TD performance against Georgia Tech been considered.
But the main reasons no freshman has yet won the Heisman are ignorance and bias. Unlike upperclassmen, freshmen don’t begin seasons as known commodities and that initial lack of familiarity among mostly sportswriter voters hurts their chances. As far as I know, no sports information department has launched a Heisman campaign for a freshman, no matter how talented.
Pervasive technology has larged wiped away this knowledge barrier, though. A decade ago, Texas A&M likely would have waited for this upcoming offseason to launch a Heisman campaign for Manziel. Video would have been edited and DVDs would have been mailed out along with snazzy press packets extolling the fleet feet and field awareness of Johnny Football.
The Aggies may still go through the trouble of doing this, but nowadays voters are more likely to pay attention to what’s coursing through their Tweetdeck feed than dropping into their mailbox.
Bias and muddled thinking persist, though.
By and large, voters expect freshmen to be even better as sophomores and juniors. Sure, this happens most of the time. But not always. Michael Vick, for instance, led the nation in passing efficiency as a freshman while leading Virginia Tech to the national title game, but as a sophomore his numbers dipped. Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne had his best overall statistical season as a freshman, but five regular season losses squelched any Heisman talk.
That season would still help propel Dayne to an eventual Heisman as a senior, but he should have been awarded on the merit of a single season.
Some of the 928 voters may argue the Heisman – meant to recognize “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity” – should reflect sustained excellence over multiple years and not equate to an MVP award for a single fall. That a mere season’s worth of kicking ass with integrity isn’t enough to prove one’s chops. Voters want to be certain that a player isn’t “a one-year flash in the pan,” longtime Heisman voter Dave Campbell told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. “When you get right down to it, the voters are probably reluctant to vote for some freshman if you have some legitimate – and I underscore legitimate – juniors and seniors to consider.”
In 2010, Cam Newton destroyed any arguments that more than one season matters. The Auburn quarterback won the Heisman almost purely on the merit of single season’s worth of play. He was so good, it didn’t matter if he’d stolen a computer earlier in his college career, feigned ignorance that his father was pimping him out or that he was a crappy teammate.
College football columnist Bruce Feldman’s no stranger to rolling the dice. Last summer, the national writer left a 17-year career at ESPN for CBS amid the controversial aftermath of the release of a memoir from former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.
He relocated to Los Angeles, where he has a close view of the University of Southern California football team and its star quarterback Matt Barkley. On Thursday, Fayettville, Ark.-based radio show host Bo Mattingly asked who he felt were top contenders for next season’s Heisman Trophy. Feldman could have gone out on a limb by not putting Barkley at the top of his preseason favorites.
Instead, he said Wilson will contend but said Barkley begins the season with a few advantages. “You’re gonna see Barkley come into next season probably as the favorite. He’s a high profile guy and plays for a high-profile [team] … they’ll probably start off preseason #1 or #2. He’s at a school with a history of producing stars and has, as I mentioned before, two fantastic receivers. He’s gonna put up big numbers.”
“In the case of Tyler Wilson, I think he’s up there with [Oklahoma quarterback] Landry Jones. I think you could put [quarterback] Geno Smith, who’s from West Virginia and gonna come back. He had a huge game against Clemson,” Feldman said on Sports Talk With Bo Mattingly. “They scored 70 points in the Orange Bowl. All his best receivers are back; they should be even better on the offensive line … You’re looking at a guy who’s gonna put up ridiculous numbers.”
Among other possible early-season contenders, Feldman mentioned Wisconsin running back Montee Ball and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.
Mattingly also asked if Arkansas has a strong chance of toppling LSU and Alabama at home next season: “I think so. I really do think so. Alabama, as terrific as they looked on Monday night, is only returning four starters on both sides of the ball. A key for them is they do have a nucleus of an outstanding offensive line… you know Nick Saban is gonna have a strong defense.”
In the end, though, Feldman predicted the SEC will not win its seventh consecutive national title.
U.S.C. is his pre-pre-preseason favorite.