Upon first watching college football in the 1980s, long before the Internet changed our lives for the better, I didn’t have a single thought about the Heisman Trophy during September or October.
I essentially waited until November for Sports Illustrated, The Detroit News (hometown paper) or ESPN to regale me with the four or five best candidates for the sport’s most prestigious individual award — even though few writers/TV talking heads had an established criteria for Heisman differentiation.
Best player from the strongest conference? The quarterback from the top-ranked team? The nation’s most gifted running back? The best player to pay his dues for three or four years — since the Heisman almost always went to upperclassmen?
As such, few corners of the country freaked out about Herschel Walker’s thumb injury in August 1982, and how it affected his performance in UGA’s September mega-clash with Clemson — pitting the previous two national champions. Or how an on-campus motor-scooter accident nearly curtailed Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde’s dream season, circa 1986.
Back then, people just waited for the best candidate to separate from the pack before Thanksgiving. Pure and simple.
These days, however, curiosity kills the cat nearly every weekend, in terms of perpetually perusing the so-called Heisman watches and treating a star playmaker’s candidacy like an EKG reading (wild shifts of momentum every Saturday).
Which brings us to the case of LSU tailback Leonard Fournette: Heading into the Nov. 7 slate of games, Fournette had successfully rushed for at least 150 yards and one touchdown in his first seven outings — with staggering totals of 1,352 yards and 15 touchdowns. By all accounts, every other Heisman hopeful was playing for second place.
But then Fournette encountered a major roadblock last Saturday, namely the vaunted Alabama defense, and ended up with a pedestrian 31 yards (zero receiving) and one score in LSU’s 30-16 loss — a defeat that momentarily knocked the No. 9 Tigers out of College Football Playoff contention.
In that quick span, Fournette’s Heisman narrative has radically shifted from “runaway recipient” to “tentative clubhouse leader,” perhaps feeding into the mythology that a true Heisman Trophy winner never appears mortal during his finest season.
But that’s not always the case. History dictates this to be true.
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Here’s the breakdown of Heisman winners since 1999 (excluding Southern California tailback Reggie Bush, who vacated his trophy in 2005), classifying their most notable, single-game clunkers into two groupings:
2014: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota
CLUNKER: 276 yards passing, two TDs in a regular-season loss to Arizona
SKINNY: Mariota accounted for 5,224 total yards (4,454 passing) and 57 total touchdowns over 15 outings — including a revenge rout of Arizona in the Pac-12 championship — and subsequently led the Ducks to the College Football Playoff title game. Clean resume from beginning to end.
2013: Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston
CLUNKER 159 yards passing, two TDs in a win over Wake Forest
SKINNY: The amazing Winston might have been a wire-to-wire front-runner as a freshman, using his college debut against Pittsburgh (25 of 27 passing for 356 yards and five total touchdowns) as a springboard for his first — and only — Heisman award. For the year, which culminated with the Seminoles capturing the national title, Winston tallied 4,057 yards passing and 44 touchdowns (four rushing).
2011: Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III
CLUNKER: 106 yards passing (168 total), three TDs in a 66-42 victory over Texas Tech
SKINNY: A minor concussion knocked Griffin out of the high-scoring affair against the Red Raiders. Outside of that blip, the Baylor star would account for 4,992 total yards (4,293 rushing) and 47 touchdowns — highlighted by seven games of at least four touchdowns.
2010: Auburn quarterback Cam Newton
CLUNKER: 254 total yards (209 passing), two TDs in a win over Ole Miss
SKINNY: For his Heisman campaign, Newton absurdly amassed 4,327 total yards (2,854 passing) and 50 touchdowns (30 passing), while leading unbeaten Auburn to the BCS national championship. But his true Heisman candidacy didn’t gather steam until Game No. 4, upon rolling for 334 total yards and five touchdowns against South Carolina. After that, Newton was an unstoppable force against SEC foes, racking up multiple touchdowns in every game — including the two outings of zero touchdown passes. The ground numbers were similarly stellar, with Newton rushing for 150-plus yards against Arkansas State, South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, UGA and LSU.
2008: Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford
CLUNKER: 255 yards passing, four total TDs in a victory over Kansas State
SKINNY: Bradford had very few lulls during his Heisman campaign, amassing 4,720 yards passing and 50 touchdown passes in 2008 (55 total touchdowns), while leading the Sooners to the BCS title game. However, the lone clunker against Kansas State entailed a wretched completion rate of 40.6 percent.
2007: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow
CLUNKER: 236 yards passing (minus-15 rushing), three TDs in a loss to UGA
SKINNY: Tebow likely stands as the most accomplished player of this Heisman survey, helping the Gators claim national championships as a freshman and junior. Sandwiched between that, Tebow took Heisman honors as a sophomore, accounting for 4,181 total yards (3,286 passing) and 55 total touchdowns. Curiously, Tebow had middling numbers for Florida’s three losses in 2007, averaging only 241 total yards and 2.8 touchdowns.
2004: Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart
CLUNKER: 242 yards passing, zero TDs in a win over UCLA
SKINNY: It’s hard to be too critical of Leinart (3,332 yards passing, 33 TDs in 2004) for his middling outing. For the ’04 clash of Los Angeles rivals, Trojans tailback Reggie Bush would absurdly notch 277 total yards and two touchdowns against the Bruins; and the previous week, Leinart carved up Notre Dame for 400 yards passing and five touchdowns.
2001: Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch
CLUNKER: Zero rushing/passing touchdowns in a top-3 win over Oklahoma
CAVEAT: Crouch’s 63-yard receiving TD against the Sooners represented his so-called ‘Heisman moment’
SKINNY: The 2001 season made it for easy for people to hate on the Heisman, or at least its criteria. In that hallowed victory over No. 2 Oklahoma, Crouch tallied only 186 passing/rushing/receiving yards in Nebraska’s springboard victory; and yet, a simple pass/catch to the wide open quarterback was seemingly enough to clinch the award. For the season, Crouch (18 rushing TDs) had more interceptions than passing touchdowns; by comparison, the next four quarterbacks on the Heisman scoreboard — Florida’s Rex Grossman, Miami’s Ken Dorsey, Oregon’s Joey Harrington and Fresno State’s David Carr — had an average touchdown-to-interception ratio of 32-to-9. Making matters worse, Colorado crushed Nebraska by 26 in the regular-season finale, a rout that booted the Cornhuskers from the Big 12 title game … but curiously kept ’em in the BCS championship hunt. In the title game, Miami mauled Nebraska by 23 points (it wasn’t that close); and frankly, the Hurricanes probably had eight to 10 better players on their roster than the actual Heisman.
2000: Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke
CLUNKER, PART I: 185 yards passing, one TD in a win over North Carolina State
CLUNKER, PART II: 221 yards passing, two TDs, three INTs in a victory over Louisville
SKINNY: Back in 2000, if the sports world only knew that Purdue’s Drew Brees (third in Heisman voting) and TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson (fourth in Heisman voting; 2,158 yards rushing) would eventually be first-ballot picks for the Pro Football Hall of Fame … maybe, just maybe the 28-year-old Weinke wouldn’t have been the Heisman selection. Sticking with the hindsight theme, if Heisman voters could have known Weinke and the Seminoles — who averaged 39.3 points during the regular season — would muster only two points in the BCS championship … then maybe, just maybe running back Damien Anderson (2,063 rushing yards, 23 TDs) would have become the first Heisman winner in Northwestern history.
1999: Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne
CLUNKER: 88 yards rushing, one TD in a loss to Michigan
SKINNY: Sixteen years ago, there were whispers that Dayne’s 1999 Heisman candidacy bore the look of a lifetime achievement award and not a worthy seasonal triumph. But that’s a ridiculous notion, considering Dayne notched the hallowed marks of 2,000 yards rushing and 20 total touchdowns for a second time (freshman/senior campaigns). What’s more, Heisman voters shouldn’t have felt shame for siding with Dayne — over Drew Brees, Joe Hamilton (Georgia Tech), Michael Vick (Virginia Tech) and Chad Pennington (Marshall) — simply because the dream year coincided with setting the all-time NCAA record for career rushing yards (7,125).
2012: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel
CLUNKER, PART I: 233 total yards (173 passing), one TD in a loss to Florida
CLUNKER, PART II: 303 total yards (276 passing), zero TDs in a loss to LSU
SKINNY: With two early-season struggles against top-notch defenses, it’s fair to ask how Manziel’s Heisman horse even got out of the barn that freshman year. The answer comes in three parts: a) Manziel was a statistical marvel in his first go-round with the Aggies, rolling for 5,116 total yards (3,706 passing) and 47 touchdowns. b) Texas A&M’s landmark upset of Alabama, which stalled the Crimson Tide’s pursuit of a national championship, was the signature victory of that college season. c) Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o finished second in the Heisman voting, speaking to the overall lack of dynamic offensive candidates.
2009: Alabama running back Mark Ingram
CLUNKER: 51 total yards, zero TDs in a win over Auburn
SKINNY: Ingram had a built-in excuse for the occasional clunker during that Heisman season: Trent Richardson, who would become the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, had the chops of an All-SEC back even as a freshman. Consequently, Richardson topped Ingram in the ’09 version of A War In Dixie, with the latter rushing for only 30 yards against Auburn. Interestingly, Stanford’s Toby Gerhart (2,028 total yards, 28 TDs) easily outdistanced Ingram (1,992 total yards, 20 TDs) in the vital categories of rushing yards, total yards and touchdowns that season. He also had a stronger finishing kick, averaging 161 rushing yards/2.6 touchdowns in his final seven outings. And yet, Ingram edged Gerhart by 28 national votes to close the deal.
2006: Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith
CLUNKER: 145 total yards (108 passing), zero TDs in a win over Illinois
SKINNY: On the whole, Smith was a worthy Heisman recipient as a senior, passing for 2,542 yards, 30 touchdowns and just six interceptions. But there were some bumps along the way, as well, with Smith failing to hit the eminently reachable threshold of 200 yards passing in three straight games. The low point entailed a 108-yard passing day against the Illini, with the top-ranked Buckeyes squeaking out a close-shave victory.
2003: Oklahoma quarterback Jason White
CLUNKER: 298 yards passing, zero TDs in the Big 12 title game
SKINNY: Can you believe it? Back in the 2000s, a non-champion power from the Big 12 twice got throttled by 26-plus points in its final pre-bowl game … and still reached the BCS championship! The first time involved Nebraska in 2001 (documented above); the latter featured the 2003 Sooners, who were crushed by Kansas State in the conference title game (35-7), but still had enough BCS-computer mojo to play for a championship one month later. It was a surreal occurrence, considering LSU (SEC champs) and Southern California (Pac-10 champs) both had superior one-loss resumes (read: no 28-point drubbings). Regarding the Heisman, White (3,846 yards passing, 40 TDs) bore the look of a worthy recipient, accounting for multiple touchdowns in his first 11 games. The end result wasn’t pretty, though, with the quarterback tallying zero scores in the Sooners’ season-ending defeats to Kansas State and LSU.
2002: Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer
CLUNKER: 186 yards passing, one TD in a loss to Kansas State
SKINNY: During the heyday of the Pete Carroll era, Southern California took pleasure in loading up the non-league schedule with big names before conference play began. In 2002, the Trojans impressively opened with Auburn, Colorado (not a Pacific Athletic Conference member at the time) and Kansas State in September, falling only to K-State among the trio. Palmer had a particularly rough day against the Wildcats, completing just 18 of 46 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown. On the plus side, Palmer hadn’t yet become a Heisman front-runner, meaning he wasn’t an easy target for those executing weekly award watches. And that was fortuitous timing, since Penn State tailback Larry Johnson (2,087 rushing yards, 20 TDs) and Miami tailback Willis McGahee (1,753 rushing yards, 28 TDs) both enjoyed monster campaigns — as the third- and fourth-place finalists in the Hesiman voting.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.