Preseason Heisman Watch: The issues that will shape the 2014 race
Winning the Heisman Trophy is among the toughest tasks in sports, but claiming a second trophy is another challenge entirely. Only one player in history, Ohio State running back Archie Griffin (1974-75), has taken home the award twice. The Heisman effect can be bittersweet, as it cultivates near-unreachable expectations for the next time a winner takes the field.
During the past 10 seasons, four Heisman winners returned to college after bringing home the trophy: Oklahoma’s Jason White, USC’s Matt Leinart, Florida’s Tim Tebow and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. None finished better than third in the next year’s race. Even for college football’s best players, reaching the sport’s peak is historically a one-time trip.
However, the only two-time Heisman winner isn’t convinced that he’ll be the last one.
“I’ve said for a long time that there is going to be another two-time Heisman winner,” Griffin told SI.com in October. “Since they have started giving it to freshmen and sophomores, it’s possible there could be a few two-time winners. It’d be very difficult to do, but I know there will be another two-time winner. There’s no question about that.”
Could 2014 be the year in which Griffin’s prediction comes true? Regardless of the history, that is how the Heisman Watch sees it. The table is set for Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston to hoist the trophy again this December in New York.
Can Winston realistically repeat?
Winston’s situation is similar to what Manziel faced last season. Texas A&M’s star won the Heisman as the first redshirt freshman in 2012 before entering 2013 with a major target on his back. Heightened expectations surrounding Manziel paved the way for Winston and others to build their own Heisman campaigns. Though Manziel’s production didn’t suffer dramatically last year, it didn’t help that the Aggies went from a 10-2 record at the time of Heisman voting in 2012 to 8-4 in 2013.
Winston will undoubtedly face the same level of expectations, if not worse. His Seminoles won the national championship last season, and because of the program’s weaker ACC schedule, Winston’s shot at another Heisman is low without at least a playoff berth for Florida State.
But what ultimately matters is how Heisman voters judge Winston. Will voters yearn for game-breaking plays at every snap? What if the Seminoles emerge as a playoff team, but Winston’s production dips below last season’s 4,057 passing yards and 40 touchdowns? Winston could theoretically fail to match his 2013 numbers but still be considered the best player in the country.
Perhaps more important is whether Winston can keep the focus of his Heisman conversation on the field? The Heisman Trust mission statement still includes the word “integrity” in the very first line, and off-field allegations surrounding Cam Newton, Manziel and Winston have sparked a new debate over the character of Heisman winners. This time around, voters will have to decide whether Winston deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Despite the heightened scrutiny, the cards aren’t stacked entirely against Winston. Florida State opens with a primetime matchup against a beatable Oklahoma State team. The ‘Noles’ biggest games of the season thereafter -- Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida -- are in Tallahassee, save for a Thursday night trip to Louisville. Florida State returns 13 starters from the ACC’s best offense and defense last season. History may say otherwise, but the Heisman is Winston’s to lose.
Is the QB trend here to stay in the Heisman race?
Are non-quarterbacks forever outliers in the Heisman race? Though quarterbacks (32 trophies) haven’t won the most Heismans in the award’s history -- that would be running backs with 38 trophies -- 12 of the last 13 winners have been signal-callers. But that doesn’t mean non-quarterbacks have been completely absent from Heisman consideration.
Auburn running back Tre Mason and Boston College running back Andre Williams both reached New York as finalists in 2013. USC receiver Marqise Lee finished fourth in the voting in 2012. The last non-quarterback to win the Heisman was Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009, only five seasons ago. The Heisman remains an all-but-exclusively offensive award, so running backs and wide receivers stand the best chance among non-quarterback candidates.
That’s why the 2014 season could feature a number of viable non-quarterback candidates. Georgia running back Todd Gurley might be the best of the bunch, as he would have contended for the trophy last year if he’d stayed healthy. But other rushers like Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and South Carolina’s Mike Davis also have the talent to snap the quarterback trend.
It’s worth keeping an eye on wide receivers like Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Alabama’s Amari Cooper, as well, but only two pass-catchers have ever won the Heisman: Notre Dame’s Tim Brown (1987) and Michigan’s Desmond Howard (1991). A productive wide receiver usually means a productive quarterback, as well, which doesn’t bode well for wideouts in today’s race.
Could another freshman claim the Heisman?
There’s a big difference between a true freshman and a first-year starter who’s been on campus for a year. Yes, Manziel and Winston technically became the first freshmen to claim the Heisman Trophy, but they were also redshirt freshmen at the time. Both players enjoyed a year on campus before winning the trophy. To arrive on campus in the summer and win the Heisman in December is another thing entirely.
Some think Manziel and Winston are the closest we’ll come to a first-year Heisman winner.
“A true freshman, even if he came in the spring, it’s still very challenging to be able to just instantly come in and play at that high a level,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit told SI.com this month. “It just doesn’t seem practical or realistic to me for expect a true freshman to ever have a chance at winning it.”
In fairness to Winston, the quarterback was a highly touted commodity before he took the field last season. This year, it’s hard to pinpoint any freshmen candidates garnering that kind of hype.
LSU running back Leonard Fournette might be the freshman class’s best shot at the Heisman. The 6-1, 230-pound Fournette is a physical specimen who is expected to immediately impact the Tigers’ offense, as coaches and players have raved about his talent. The good news is Heisman voters have never been more open to casting ballots for underclassmen. This season, however, the Heisman race appears to boast a much deeper crop of juniors and seniors.