On Saturday night, quarterback Cam Newton will become Auburn's first Heisman Trophy winner since Bo Jackson 25 years ago. He'll do so, however, in far more convincing fashion.
The week of the 1985 Heisman ceremony, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story endorsing Joe Dudek, a running back for Division III Plymouth (N.H.) State, over favorites Jackson and Iowa quarterback Chuck Long. "Long hasn't had the best quarterback season in the land," and "Jackson hasn't had the best running-back season," wrote Rick Reilly. Jackson, Reilly wrote, had pulled himself out of losses to Tennessee and Florida due to injuries. Long accounted for no touchdowns and threw four interceptions in games against Michigan and Ohio State. Jackson ended up edging Long 1,509 to 1,464 in the closest Heisman vote in history.
Fast forward to 2010, when Newton's coronation is a foregone conclusion. You'd be hard-pressed to find a reasonable football follower who doesn't consider Newton the most dominant player in the land this season, and arguably in many seasons. He's both the nation's pass-efficiency leader and the SEC's rushing leader. He's accounted for 49 touchdowns. Likely the only thing preventing Newton from breaking the record for most lopsided victory is the handful of voters opting to leave him off their ballots in protest over his and father Cecil's more dubious off-field distinctions.
With all due respect to LaMichael James, Andrew Luck and Kellen Moore, Newton blew away the Heisman field this year. The question is: How does his dominance compare to that of past Heisman winners? It's always hard to compare players from different eras and different positions. In general, quarterbacks' statistics keep trending up (wasn't it only three years ago when we thought no one would ever better Tim Tebow's Heisman numbers?), while running backs' numbers keep trending down (James led the country in rushing this year averaging 152.9 yards per game; 1994 winner Rashaan Salaam averaged 186.8).
The following is not an attempt to quantifiably prove the "best" Heisman winner or to suggest that Player A was "better" than Player B. NFL success or failure doesn't enter the equation, nor does production from other seasons. This is about measuring each winner's season-long performance, both in historical context and in comparison with his competitors for that year's trophy, to rank the most dominant Heisman seasons (Reggie Bush included) from Bo (1985) to Cam (2010).
1. Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State (1988). To this day, no one has approached Sanders' staggering 11-game totals: 2,628 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns. Both remain FBS records. The closest running back that year, Indiana's Anthony Thompson, had 1,546 yards and 26 TDs. Sanders earned 559 first-place votes to runner-up Rodney Peete's 70.
2. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn (2010). If the season ended today, Newton would break the NCAA record for pass efficiency (188.1). He threw for 2,589 yards, ran for 1,409 and accounted for 49 touchdowns (including one receiving). Newton's 307.5 total yards per game isn't significantly higher than Luck's (290.8), but Newton has accounted for 18 more touchdowns and beaten six ranked opponents compared to one each for Luck and Moore.
3. Tim Tebow, QB, Florida (2007). Production-wise, Tebow's season holds a slight edge over Newton's. Tebow accounted for more total yards (321.6) and touchdowns (51) while posting a nearly identical 29-to-6 TD-to-interception ratio (Newton: 28-to-6) and a slightly lower passer rating (178.8). The difference: Tebow led his team to a 9-3 record, not a 13-0 mark, and had a more comparable peer in Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, that year's No. 1 passer.
4. Ricky Williams, RB, Texas (1998). In setting the NCAA career rushing record at the time, Williams dashed for 2,124 yards (193.1 per game) and 27 touchdowns. The next-closest running back, Miami of Ohio's Travis Prentice, averaged 162.5. The next-closest vote-getters, quarterbacks Michael Bishop (Kansas State) and Cade McNown (UCLA), led their teams to 10-win seasons but were sub-60 percent passers.
5. Reggie Bush, RB, USC (2005). Though Bush's since-forfeited win over Texas' Vince Young was incredibly lopsided (Bush earned 91.8 percent of possible points), both players could have made this list's top five. Bush led the nation in all-purpose yards (222.3 per game), ranked third in rushing yards (1,740) and scored 19 touchdowns (16 rushing, two receiving, one punt return). He averaged an incredible 10.2 yards per touch.
6. Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma (2008). The staggering numbers: 4,464 passing yards, 48 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His pass efficiency rating (180.8) set an NCAA record. He led the Sooners to the national title game and spearheaded an offense that scored an NCAA-record 702 points. On the downside, he was hardly a runaway winner versus Tebow and Colt McCoy. (Tebow gained more first-place votes, 309 to 300.)
7. Charlie Ward, QB, Florida State (1993). In an era before the spread-option, Ward set a new standard for dual-threat quarterbacks. He notched 3,371 yards of total offense, averaged 5.2 yards per carry, threw 27 touchdowns against just four interceptions, posted six 300-yard games and ranked fourth in pass efficiency (157.8) in leading the 'Noles to their first national title. Fresno State's Trent Dilfer put up better passing numbers but finished ninth.
8. Vinny Testaverde, QB, Miami (1986). His passing stats -- 63.4 completion percentage, 2,557 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions -- might seem modest by today's standards, but they marked incredible accuracy at the time. In fact, Testaverde's 165.8 passer rating would not be topped by any Heisman winner for another 10 years. It's a good thing the voting was held before the Fiesta Bowl, where Penn State intercepted him five times.
9. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State (2006). Smith led the Heisman race from about the third week of September and finished with the second-most lopsided victory by percentage (91.6 percent of possible points) in Heisman history. He ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency (167.9) and posted a 30-to-5 TD-to-interception ratio, but threw for a modest 2,507 yards in Ohio State's run-heavy offense.
10. Rashaan Salaam, RB, Colorado (1994). Salaam blew away the competition that year, rushing for a national-best 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns. When remembering that season, we usually think of Salaam and runner-up Ki-Jana Carter of Penn State on roughly equal footing, but Carter rushed for 516 fewer yards (albeit averaging an absurd 7.8 yards per carry). Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair finished third.
11. Danny Wuerffel, QB, Florida (1996). He threw for 3,625 yards, including a staggering 10.1 yards per attempt, 39 touchdowns and 13 picks. His 170.6 passer rating was the fourth highest on record at the time (he'd set the record the year before), though second that season behind BYU's Steve Sarkisian. Iowa State running back Troy Davis (2,185 yards) was a relatively close runner-up, but Wuerffel led an 11-1 team; Davis' Cyclones went 2-9.
12. Chris Weinke, QB, Florida State (2000). The '00 Heisman came down to a two-man race between Weinke and Oklahoma's Josh Heupel. The latter got the last laugh with a victory in the national title game, but Weinke was far more productive during the regular season. He threw for 4,167 yards, 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, good for second nationally in pass efficiency compared with 14th for Heupel and 25th for finalist Drew Brees.
13. Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn (1985). With all due respect to Reilly, Bo was a perfectly deserving winner. He rushed for 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns, and while Michigan State's Lorenzo White went for more yards (2,066), he did so on 141 more carries. Jackson averaged 6.4 yards per carry. Iowa's Long (65.8 percent completions, 2,978 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs) was a legitimate No. 2, but not as close as the vote indicated.
14. Matt Leinart, QB, USC (2004). Leinart had a very good season (2,990 yards, 28 touchdowns, six interceptions) in leading the Trojans to a 13-0 record and national title. But he was not head and shoulders above other quarterbacks like Utah's Alex Smith (who finished fourth) and Cal's Aaron Rodgers (not a finalist). A more truly dominant performer was the runner-up, Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, who ran for 1,843 yards.
15. Desmond Howard, WR, Michigan (1991): The lasting image of Howard will always be his punt return/Heisman pose against Ohio State, but Howard also led the nation in receiving touchdowns (19), ranked second in punt returns (17.4 per kick) and seventh in all-purpose yards (159 per game). Runner-up Casey Weldon did not have gaudy numbers. BYU's Ty Detmer arguably had a better season than the year prior, but finished third.
16. Eddie George, RB, Ohio State (1995). In a loaded year for running backs (five averaged more than 150 yards), George put himself over the top with a school-record 314-yard day against Illinois. He ran for 1,826 yards (6.0 per carry) and 23 touchdowns. With hindsight, one might declare runner-up Tommie Frazier the more dominant player, but he averaged a modest 156.5 total yards in Nebraska's triple-option offense.
17. Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan (1997). While Tennessee fans will never get over Peyton Manning's snub, there's no disputing the impact Woodson had on the '97 season. He was the most important player for the AP national champions. However, it's surprising to look back and see that he didn't lead the country in interceptions (seven) and that his famous punt return touchdown against Ohio State was his only one of the season.
18. Andre Ware, QB, Houston (1989). Ware is one of the most widely mocked selections, and largely responsible for the "system QB" stigma that's plagued subsequent Run and Shoot passers, but he didn't have a lot of competition. Indiana running back Thompson, the runner-up, had an impressive 1,793 yards and 24 touchdowns. But it's hard to argue with 4,699 passing yards (an NCAA record) and 46 touchdowns (second).
19. Carson Palmer, QB, USC (2002). Palmer exploded over the second half of the season, finishing with 3,639 yards, 32 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Runner-up Brad Banks of Iown finished with a slightly higher passer rating, but attempted just 294 passes (compared to 489 for Palmer). But Nos. 3 and 4, Penn State running back Larry Johnson (2,087 yards, 20 TDs) and Miami running back Willis McGahee (1,753 yards, 28 TDs), had solid arguments, too.
20. Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (1999). Dayne's coronation was seen largely as a career achievement award at the time (he'd just set the NCAA career rushing record). While he rushed for an impressive 1,834 yards, it still put him second in that department behind finalist LaDainian Tomlinson. But the most dominant player in the country that season was unquestionably Virginia Tech freshman Michael Vick, who finished third.
21. Jason White, QB, Oklahoma (2003). White's otherwise spectacular season (3,744 yards, 40 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was tempered by a 35-7 loss to Kansas State in his last regular-season game. He finished seventh in pass efficiency behind Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Leinart, among others. Meanwhile, runner-up Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh set an NCAA sophomore record with 22 receiving touchdowns.
22. Tim Brown, WR, Notre Dame (1987). Brown, who had 39 catches for 844 yards, wasn't the undisputed top receiver that season (South Carolina's Sterling Sharpe had similar numbers), but his three punt return touchdowns put him over the top. Some of the most impressive players that season (Pitt running back Craig Heyward, Oklahoma State running back Thurman Thomas) did not finish in the top five. Holy Cross running back Gordie Lockbaum was third.
23. Ty Detmer, QB, BYU (1990). Detmer earned acclaim for knocking off No. 1 Miami the second week of the season and put up indisputably gaudy passing numbers (65.6 percent completions for 4,869 yards and 38 touchdowns). But he also tossed 24 interceptions playing primarily inferior WAC foes. However, the rest of the field was fairly weak. Notre Dame's Raghib Ismail, the runner-up, ranked ninth nationally in all-purpose yards.
24. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama (2009). With all due respect, Ingram was the definition of "best running back or quarterback for the No. 1 team." As Heisman winners go, his season was not overly spectacular, rushing for 1,542 yards (118.6 per game) and 15 touchdowns. Runner-up Toby Gerhart of Stanford ran for 1,736 and 26 scores. The most dominant player in the country that year was Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
25. Gino Torretta, QB, Miami (1992). Torretta's selection remains mystifying to this day. Though he'd won 23 straight games as the Hurricanes' starter, he ranked as the nation's No. 19 passer that season, completing 56.7 percent of his passes for 3,060 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Among the more dominant performers that season: San Diego State running back and runner-up Marshall Faulk (163 yards per game).
26. Eric Crouch, QB, Nebraska (2001). It's mean to say, but Crouch was easily the least impressive winner of the past 25 years. The option quarterback ranked 46th in the country in total offense (218.8 yards per game), rushing for 1,115 yards and 18 touchdowns while completing 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,510 yards, seven touchdowns and 10 picks. He won in large part due to a touchdown catch on a trick play to beat then-No. 2 Oklahoma.