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Can A Freshman Win College Football's Heisman Trophy?

Ty Sefton - 19/10/2012 17:14 CDT

Dallas, Texas, United States

College football’s most prestigious individual award is the Heisman Trophy, a sort of “Most Valuable Player” and “Best Statistical Player” award rolled into one.  The Heisman Trophy is voted on by a combination of 870 members of the press and previous winners of the award.  As of August 2012, there were 55 eligible former Heisman winners (Wikipedia).  Seniors have dominated in terms of winners by class, having claimed 57 out of 77 awards, with 17 juniors having also won the award.  Until recently, no sophomores had ever won, but Tim Tebow set the class precedence bar one rung lower in 2007 with an amazing year out of Florida. Three sophomores have now won the award.  Since the inception of the award in 1935, no freshman - true or redshirted - has ever won the award.

There have been a few close finishes by a freshman over the past few decades.  Adrian Peterson finished second in 2004 in a race many thought he should have won over Matt Leinart.  Peterson finished with a freshman record 1,925 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns as the starting running back (RB) for an undefeated Oklahoma, while Leinart had an impressive yet unspectacular passing stat line as quarterback (QB) for undefeated University of Southern California (USC).  Peterson also set another freshman record by rushing for 100 or more yards in nine straight games to start his college career.  Michael Vick finished third in 1999 as a dynamic dual threat QB out of Virginia Tech, although he would have had a tough time passing Wisconsin RB Ron Dayne’s season, and career, in the voter’s eyes.  Marshall Faulk, RB out of San Diego State, finished ninth in voting after the 1991 season.  Emmitt Smith, RB out of Florida, finished ninth in 1987.  Hershel Walker, RB out of Georgia, finished third in the 1980 season, and many consider that to be another close instance.  Prior to that season, no freshman had finished in the top ten in voting since 1942, when Clint Castleberry, RB out of Georgia Tech, finished third.  And prior to Castleberry, there isn't much of a detailed history, but no freshmen show up in the top four or five from 1935 through 1941.

Prior to 2008, the former winner portion of the Heisman voters had all been upperclassmen, and most of them seniors.  They were reluctant to give votes to underclassmen, and the press followed suit.  Tim Tebow finished with 3,286 passing yards and 32 passing touchdowns (TDs) as well as 895 rushing yards and another whopping 23 rushing TDs, setting himself apart from the rest of the field by a wide margin, during his sophomore season in 2007.  Tebow’s gaudy stat line basically took the voter's reluctance out of their hands and forced the issue, as he became the first sophomore to win the award.  Tebow was succeeded immediately by two more sophomore winners in Sam Bradford, QB out of Oklahoma, and Mark Ingram, RB out of Alabama.

As you can see, the Heisman trophy has been awarded to upperclassmen for most of college football history.  Even with Hershel Walker’s 1980 and Adrian Peterson’s 2004 anomalies (Walker finished second in rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns while lifting Georgia on his back towards SEC and national prominence), freshman – regardless of position – have not found a way to force their college contemporaries or members of the press to cave in and vote a freshman winner.  However, with the sophomore boundary having been recently crossed, you have to wonder if a freshman winner is around the corner…perhaps as soon as this year.

Matt Barkley, QB out of USC, was all but given the Heisman Trophy before the season started, but he and USC stumbled against Stanford and has fallen to eight in the ESPN Experts' Poll.  Geno Smith, QB out of West Virginia, looked like he was going to run away with the trophy until Texas Tech slaughtered the Mountaineers.  Smith, currently first in the Experts’ Poll, still has a 25 to 0 TD to interception (INT) ratio, and if he manages to guide West Virginia to a one loss record, he could very well be your Heisman winner.  But he has a long way to go, and a tough remaining schedule.  Braxton Miller, a dual threat QB out of Ohio State, sits at second, and is guiding an undefeated team with 1,271 passing yards, an 11 to 4 TD to INT ratio and a spectacular 912 rushing yards and 9 rushing TDs.  If he keeps this up, and Ohio State runs the table or picks up a close loss, Miller should take over the first slot by year’s end.  It will be interesting if the voters take Ohio State’s ineligibility into account if there is a close race.  Collin Klein, third in the Experts’ Poll, is another dual threat QB for undefeated Kansas State, who is in position to win the Big 12 outright; Klein’s 1,074 passing yards and 7 to 2 TD to INT ratio and 510 rushing yards with 10 rushing TDs have dominated the Kansas State offensive attack.  Manti Te’o is sitting fourth in the Poll, and the LB is the defensive rock that the undefeated Notre Dame football team rests upon.  De’Anthony Thomas, RB for undefeated Oregon, is listed as fifth in the Poll with a solid 582 yards from scrimmage (377 rushing yards and 205 receiving yards) and 9 total TDs.

It will take a special kind of athlete on a highly successful team putting up impressive statistics in a difficult defensive environment to change the voter’s minds and select a freshman for the first time as a Heisman Trophy winner.  And while it seems impossible, I propose to you that it is in fact possible, perhaps as soon as this year, as the recently released Heisman polls have shown a freshman among the ranks: Johnny Manziel, the QB from Texas A&M, who currently sits at sixth in the ESPN Experts’ Poll.  Manziel started his first ever college game against currently # 2 in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings Florida, and held the lead for much of the game before the Florida running game and defense took over, leading to an eventual three point loss, 20-17, in Texas A&M's first ever SEC game.  Since then, Manziel has improved drastically, guiding Texas A&M to five wins in a row and the # 18 BCS ranking.  Manziel – known as “Johnny Football” – has already broken a longstanding SEC record set by Archie Manning for total yards in a game, and did so in his fourth start ever.  The statistics are nice, but what is even more impressive is the presence Manziel has on the football field.  He threw his first interception of the year in his fifth game against Mississippi, and fumbled as well, leaving the Aggies down 27-17 with less than nine minutes remaining in the game.  He was sacked on his first play of the next drive for an 11 yard loss and ruled down at the 1 yard  line.  And then, he put the team on his back.  From deep in the end zone on 3rd down with 19 yards to go for a 1st down, Manziel threw a jump ball downfield to wide receiver (WR) Mike Evans, another redshirt freshman, for a 32 yard completion.  Two plays later, he ran for a 29 yard TD to pull within 3 points.  After a defensive stand that included a fourth and inches stop, Manziel guided another drive capped by a 20 yard TD pass to Ryan Swope.  In less than a quarter, he led his team to a 10 point come-from-behind win in his team’s first ever SEC road game after committing the first three turnovers of his career (and overcoming six team turnovers overall) and putting the Aggies in an early hole.  Talk about composure.  The next week, a road game to a ranked Louisiana Tech team, Manziel threw another 4th quarter interception on the road that was returned for a TD by the Louisiana Tech defense, and allowed them to pull back into the game.  Manziel dialed up two more scoring drives by throwing a 17 yard TD and running for an unbelievable 72 yard TD in A&M's next two possessions.  That night, per ESPN: “He (Manziel) broke his own SEC record for total offensive yards when he threw for 395 yards with three touchdowns and ran for 181 yards and three more touchdowns (against Louisiana Tech on Saturday night).  That's 576 yards from one person.  Nasty.  He's third in the SEC in passing (1,680 yards) and has 14 touchdowns to three interceptions. He also leads the SEC with 676 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.”

By year’s end, a lot can happen.  Geno Smith faces a big test in a hungry Kansas State defense this weekend.  After narrowly escaping with wins against their first two ranked opponents, they now face four more ranked teams in their final six games.  If he returns to form and guides the Mountaineers to another win this weekend, Smith takes one step further towards that trophy.  But with a nasty loss this past weekend, and unspectacular play on his behalf (although still INT free), Smith cannot afford another setback.  Braxton Miller faces two tough road games at Penn State and Wisconsin and another tough test at home to finish the year against Michigan.  If he and the Buckeyes slip up, he could fall a few spots in the voters’ minds.  Collin Klein faces four more ranked opponents, and if Kansas State slips up, you would have to think he slides a bit with his unspectacular statistics.  It would take a lot for Manti Te’o to claim the Heisman as a linebacker.  He needs Notre Dame to fend off the rest of their opponents, including # 9 Oklahoma and # 10 USC on the road, and he needs to pad those stats a bit more: perhaps a defensive TD, a few sacks, etc.  De’Anthony Thomas and Oregon have a few obstacles in their way to remain undefeated and propel Thomas towards the Heisman with three more ranked opponents and another tough road game on the schedule.  The same Stanford defense that shut down Matt Barkley will be an incredible test.  And Thomas has unspectacular numbers, with a poor showing tonight against Arizona State.

If West Virginia, Ohio State, or Kansas State wins out, I would imagine the QB of that program walks away with the Heisman Trophy this year.  However, if they all happen to lose, and the QB is a contributor towards that loss, Johnny Manziel has a clear path ahead of him to become the first freshman Heisman Trophy winner ever.  At the current pace, he is on his way towards 3,360 passing yards with 28 passing TDs and 1,352 rushing yards with 20 rushing TDs: very Tim Tebow-like statistics during the first sophomore Heisman Trophy winning season ever.  All "Johnny Football" has to do from here on out is mirror the 6 game stats he has compiled against Louisiana State University (LSU) – the # 8 scoring and # 3 overall yardage defense in the nation - this weekend; against Mississippi State – the # 15 scoring defense in the nation; and against Alabama – the # 1 scoring and overall yardage defense in the nation, not to mention # 1 in the BCS rankings.  If Johnny Manziel wins the Heisman, he will have earned it.  Here's hoping he puts the necessary pressure on the voters.