A lot of times, the Heisman Trophy goes to the guy with the best stats. But a lot of other times, it doesn’t. A lot of other times, the Heisman Trophy goes to a guy whose numbers make you think “maybe you just had to be there.”
A lot of this has to do with the way football has evolved over the years or, in some cases, hasn’t. We’ve had an option quarterback win the Heisman in this century, and we’ve had some running backs win it with numbers that don’t jump off the page, either.
Of course, the Heisman Trophy is not a statistical award, and that’s what makes it fun.
John David Crow, Texas A&M Aggies, 1957
This happened 60 years ago, and we have to account for that when we analyze John David Crow’s Heisman Trophy-winning season. For one thing, he was playing both ways. We also have to account for Crow playing in just seven games that season. It’s amazing enough that a guy could win the Heisman after playing just seven games, but wait until you see the numbers.
Rushing yards: 562
Receiving yards: 62
Passing yards: 84
Crow intercepted five passes on defense, and was the star of a Bear Bryant team that was No. 1 in the polls after eight games (then lost its last three). So in context it makes some sense, but it’s safe to say nothing like this could ever happen today.
Gino Toretta, Miami Hurricanes, 1992
Toretta had a fine season in 1992, by 1992 standards. He completed 56.7 percent of his passes for 3,060 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a Hurricanes team whose only loss was in the Sugar Bowl, to Alabama, for the national title.
A fine year, yes. A season as a passer that would have been the eighth-best in the ACC, had it happened in 2017.
Things were different in 1992. Only six other players in the whole country threw for 3,000 yards that year:
- Jimmy Klingler, Houston, 3,818
- John Kaleo, Maryland, 3,392
- Drew Bledsoe, Washington State, 3,246
- Shane Matthews, Florida, 3,205
- Alex Van Pelt, Pittsburgh, 3,163
- Trent Dilfer, Fresno State, 3,000
But none of them finished the season in the top five, whereas Toretta was a highly productive quarterback of a team that was No. 1 for 12 weeks.
Troy Smith, Ohio State Buckeyes, 2006
In Smith’s defense, he threw for 30 touchdowns against six interceptions, and he completed 65 percent of his passes the year he won the Heisman. These are Heisman numbers.
But the yards are … not.
Smith threw for 2,542 yards and ran for 228 in 2006, for a total of 2,680.
Thirty-seven quarterbacks threw for more yards that year and 34 quarterbacks ran for more yards that year.
Smith’s 2006 season wasn’t extraordinary except that it happened the same year Ohio State had the nation’s No. 5 defense and went undefeated.
Mark Ingram, Alabama Crimson Tide, 2009
I’m not here to sneeze at 1,658 rushing yards, almost 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns, but Ingram led the country neither in rushing yards (that was Toby Gerhart with 1,871) nor yards from scrimmage (that was UTEP’s Donald Buckram) nor touchdowns (Gerhart, 29) nor yards per carry (Vai Taua, 7.).
Despite his superior numbers, Gerhart finished second in the Heisman voting to Ingram, mainly because Gerhart’s Stanford team went 8-5 and Ingram’s Crimson Tide won the national title.
Eric Crouch, Nebraska Cornhuskers, 2001
When you look at these numbers, you have to understand that Nebraska was still running the option in 2001, so Crouch’s numbers have to be evaluated with that in mind.
Rushing: 1,115 yards, 18 touchdowns, 5.5 yards per carry
Passing: 1,510 yards, 7 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 56 percent completions
That’s a total of 2,625 yards and 25 touchdowns, and by the standards of an option quarterback in 2001, they are excellent numbers that led Nebraska to an 11-2 record.
But the next five running quarterbacks to win the Heisman were Troy Smith, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel and (other than Smith) their stats are, um, quite a bit more impressive.
To take one example, in Newton’s 2010 season, he threw for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns, and ran for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns. Johnny Manziel’s 2012 season was even better.
Times have changed and there’s no good way to compare Crouch to Manziel, but we’re just looking at numbers here.
Tim Brown, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 1987
Hey, look, Tim Brown is one of the greatest wide receivers of all time. And 1987 was a long time ago.
Still, the year Brown won the Heisman (1987) he had 39 catches for 846 yards and three touchdowns. He also had 34 carries for 144 yards and a touchdown.
Clearly, the thing that won Brown the Heisman in 1987 was his three punt return touchdowns, because other than those, 1987 wasn’t even his best season at Notre Dame.
Steve Spurrier, Florida Gators, 1966
The Ol’ Ball Coach was once the Young Ball Player, but when you look at his passing stats, it’s hard to understand how Spurrier won the 1966 Heisman.
Spurrier had an unusually good completion percentage for that era (61.5), but he threw for all of 2,012 yards to go along with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He only had 66 rushing yards that year, too, so that wasn’t it.
The deal was, nobody was throwing for many yards in 1966. The national leader Arizona’s Mark Reed with 2,368 yards — Spurrier ranked 7th.
It took another four years for a quarterback to win the Heisman, when Jim Plunkett did it in 1970, throwing for 2,980.
Jay Berwanger, Chicago Maroons, 1935
Berwanger was the winner of the very first Heisman Trophy, awarded to him for his 477 rushing yards on 4.0 yards per carry during the 1935 season, along with 921 passing yards.
This doesn’t sound like much, especially when you consider that Chicago wasn’t even good that year, going 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the Western Conference.
Those 921 passing yards? They came on 25 completions, a rate of 36.8 yards per hookup. Apparently if you completed a pass in 1935, the odds of it going the distance were incredibly high. And yet, you probably wouldn’t be completing many of them, because the Heisman Trophy winner that year completed just 37 percent of his attempts.