Jord is back, and he’s been poring over the history of the Heisman Trophy. What can we learn from the award’s past? And how can we use past winners to predict the winner of the Heisman in 2021?
Before I started watching college football, I knew little about the Heisman award. Any recipient will always be known as a Heisman Trophy winner, but it has never been a clear indicator of a successful NFL career. Let’s dive into the history of the Heisman Trophy.
What is the Heisman Trophy?
The Heisman Trophy is awarded to the most outstanding football player in each college football season. It was created in 1935, but not given its famous name until 1936 after the passing of its namesake John Heisman. The award is made out of cast bronze, is 13.5 inches tall and weighs 45 pounds. It was designed by Frank Eliscu, and modelled after running back Ed Smith (Eliscu’s former high school classmate).
Selecting a Heisman Trophy winner
Since the naming of the award in 1936, any college football player is eligible to receive the award. The vote is held on the first Monday in December and ballots are counted the following Monday. The announcement of the finalists comes on the same day. Three parties ultimately decide the Heisman Trophy winner each year. The first group is sports journalists (870 of them in total) with 145 votes across 6 regions of the USA.
Previous winners (57 of them as of January 2021) also cast a vote for their preferred Heisman winner. These two groups vote for the top three players of that college football season. The 1st place player on their ballot card gets 3 points, 2nd place 2 points and 3rd place 1 point. The final group that is eligible to vote is college football fans. Fans vote online and the data collected by ESPN, who then allocate one paltry Heisman Trophy vote to the winner of the poll. All votes are then calculated before the winner of the ultimate prize in college football is announced. The successful player is then announced as the Heisman Trophy winner live on ESPN the following Saturday.
Notable Heisman Trophy winners
The first ever winner of the award was won by Yale ‘End’ (today’s parlance would call him a wide receiver) Larry Kelley in 1936. In 1962 halfback Ernie Davies of Syracuse became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. The only player in the award’s history to win it twice was Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, who claimed the award in both 1974 and 1975. Charles Woodson also stands out in the record books. Woodson is the only primarily defensive player to win the award whilst playing at Michigan in 1997. In 2016 and 2017, we had two QBs take the award whilst making history. In 2016, Lamar Jackson became the youngest Heisman Trophy winner at 19 years and 338 days old. The following year, Baker Mayfield became the first ever walk-on player to win the Heisman.
Since the Heisman Trophy came into being, 86 athletes have held the bronze statue Over time, trends became visible. Let’s see what factors could determine which outstanding college football players become a Heisman Trophy winner.
The most prominent trend is position. Out of the 86 winners, a whopping 91% have been either quarterbacks or running backs. 51% played college football at the RB position and 40% at QB. From 2000 to 2020, 17/21 winners have been QBs. Just 3 were RBs and 1 WR. That’s an 81% success rate in the 21st Century at the QB position. That should not come as a surprise: without a decent signal caller on your offense, your team is likely to struggle. The QB position is the hardest in all of sports – elite college football quarterbacks are handsomely rewarded for reaching the pinnacle of the game.
On rare occasions, one player at a different position can defy the odds, like Alabama running backs Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry in 2009 and 2015 respectively. Both players reached around 2000 scrimmage yards on their way to the Heisman Trophy. Ingram and Henry were the focal point of their respective Crimson Tide offence.
Wide receiver DeVonta Smith was the latest winner of the award, the first non QB or RB to claim the award since Charles Woodson in 1997. He also became the first receiver to hold the Heisman Trophy since Desmond Howard in 1991. Smith had a remarkable year, posting 1,856 receiving yards and breaking the all-time SEC career record for total receiving TDs. A certain quarterback who you may have heard of named Trevor Lawrence might (I emphasise might) have changed history if he had competed in the 3 games he missed. Lawrence had Heisman Trophy winning numbers before Covid-19 kept him from competing in all regular season games.
Incredibly, Lawrence would have been the first Clemson Tiger to win the Heisman Trophy. He finished second, and Clemson’s wait for a winner continues. The QB trend could have continued had coronavirus not disrupted the 2020 college football season, and the quarterback position remains the powerhouse when searching for a Heisman Trophy winner.
Class and Age
When diving into what class the winners came out of, you might be fooled by the numbers. From 1935 to 1999, we had 52 Seniors win the Heisman Trophy, compared with just 13 Juniors. From 2000 to the present day, it has become tighter: Senior classmen constituted eight winners, compared with seven Juniors. In the 21st Century, we have also seen four Sophomores and two Freshmen Heisman Trophy winners. 60 Senior winners from a possible 86 seems to suggest that college football players can expect to wait to be considered for the award.
In recent years, winners have come from various classes. Although Freshmen and Sophomores are still less likely to lift the Heisman Trophy, it is more possible than ever before. It is worth noting however that the two Freshmen winners redshirted their first season in college football, and so no true freshmen have won the award.
Barring Jameis Winston’s big margin victory in 2013 as a Sophomore, the other five non Senior/Junior winners were involved in close contests where a Junior or Senior finished in second place. Although the times are changing, the overall trend still points to the players in their third and fourth years of college football.
Of the last 15 winners, only four have come from outside the SEC and Big 12 conferences (two winners played in the ACC, and the Big Ten and the Pac-12 conferences enjoyed a solitary Heisman Trophy winner each). Before that, winners came from across college football. It is no surprise that just under half of the last 15 winners have come from the SEC, the strongest conference of recent times. When a Big XII player wins the Heisman Trophy, he is more than likely the quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners.
What we can determine is that most Heisman Trophy winners have steered their teams to their conference Championship Game final, or the College Football Playoff final post-2014. 14 of the last 20 winners had led their team to either one of the above games. Today, the four teams contesting the College Football Playoffs are known before the Heisman Trophy winner is announced. This does not mean that you can’t win it if you don’t make the playoffs. It just means you have to have a stand out season, like Lamar Jackson did in 2016.
Some have claimed a ‘regional bias’ when it comes to Heisman Trophy finalists. It is said that Pac-12 players have missed out on winning the award, due to the fact voters from the east coast and central states do not see as many west coast football games due to time zone differences and lack of television coverage. Toby Gerhart, Christian McCaffrey, Bryce Love and Andrew Luck all finished second in their respective pursuit of the Heisman Trophy.
Past Heisman Trophy winners have hailed from a variety of high schools across America. When it came to recruitment ratings, the data only goes back as far as 2003. In that time, only 3-5 star rated prospects coming out of high school have won the Heisman Trophy. However, there is little evidence to say that one rating dominates over the others. Put simply, a 3 star recruit shouldn’t give up their dream of lifting the Heisman by the end of their time in college football.
The 2021 Heisman Trophy winner is…?
In an upcoming series of articles, I’ll be breaking down individual candidates that have a fighting chance of scooping this year’s prestige award. With a bit of luck, we may be able to guess the winner before December.
Author’s Note: all calculations made above include 2005 winner Reggie Bush. His victory was officially vacated after it was alleged that he received gifts during his college football career. This contravened NCAA regulations. Bush officially forfeited his 2005 Heisman award in 2010. He is still a Heisman Trophy winner in my eyes, and for the purposes of this research, his 2005 award counts towards the numbers you see above.