If the straw polls are to be believed, the 77-year-old Heisman Trophy will get its first-ever freshman winner on Saturday night. The freshman barrier has existed for so long that you can understand why some won't believe Johnny Manziel can win the award until he's actually up on stage at the ceremony.
"Hopefully, they don't rob him like they did me," Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson told the Associated Press when asked about Texas A&M's quarterback. "I hope he wins."
With Johnny Football poised to make history, the oddity is not that a freshman will likely win on Saturday -- he's been anointed as the favorite for weeks -- but that one has never won before. Manziel had a fantastic year. He set an SEC record with 4,600 yards of total offense, throwing for 3,419 and rushing for 1,181. He produced 43 touchdowns (24 passing, 19 rushing) and was sensational in a 29-24 upset of top-ranked Alabama. But he's hardly the first freshman to take the sport by storm. In 1980, Georgia running back Herschel Walker became a similarly celebrated sensation with his powerful running style and his huge games against top-flight opponents. He came in third in Heisman voting. Oklahoma's Peterson ran for nearly 2,000 yards as a freshman; he was the runner-up.
And they were two of only three freshmen before Manziel (the other was Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick) to even finish in the top five.
"They're saying a freshman shouldn't win it," Walker told the Wall Street Journal. (Note: It's unclear who "they" are.) "I was nominated as a freshman, and I'm going to tell you, that's a bunch of crap."
Mind you, with the exception of brief exemptions during World War II and the Korean War, the NCAA did not allow freshman eligibility in football until 1972. So it's not like Manziel is carrying the torch for every player who ever entered college. But he's about to achieve something that 40 years worth of freshman players could not.
"Herschel Walker was of an era where [voters] just wouldn't do that. It wasn't going to be given to a freshman," said ESPN Heismanologist Joe Tessitore. "... So you had an era where freshmen were ineligible, then you had an era where nobody would vote for a freshman, and then you had just a few freshman that could even be in the picture."
A victory on Saturday will not mean Manziel had the best freshman season in college football history. Rather, he came along at a time when the Heisman electorate has finally evolved enough to embrace nontraditional candidates (in fact, a linebacker, Notre Dame's Mant'i Te'o, is Manziel's biggest challenger), and he produced the perfect combination of gaudy stats and highlight-reel moments to capture voters' imaginations. In doing so, he's poised to take the final step that so many others before him could not.
Below is a look back at 10 freshmen before Manziel who were most deserving of the stiff-arm statue.
1. Michael Vick, QB, Virginia Tech (1999). Bursting on the scene as a redshirt freshman, Vick carried the undefeated Hokies to the BCS championship game while leading the nation in pass efficiency (180.4, a freshman record) and dazzling opponents with his running ability. Looking back at these highlights, it's hard to believe his season rushing total was a modest (by today's standards) 585 yards.
Heisman voters were impressed enough to vote Vick third, the highest-ever finish for a freshman at the time. But the award went to senior Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne, who broke the NCAA career rushing record that year. Chances are Vick would have won the Heisman had the vote taken place after his electrifying Sugar Bowl performance against Florida State.
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma (2004). The highly touted recruit wasted no time living up to his billing. Peterson rushed for at least 100 yards in all 12 of the Sooners' regular-season games, including his eye-popping 225 yards on 32 carries in a 12-0 Red River victory over Texas (his Heisman moment). He also racked up 249 yards on 33 carries against Oklahoma State and 240 yards on 32 carries at Baylor. Oklahoma completed a 12-0 regular season and clinched a berth in the BCS championship game with a 42-3 rout of Colorado in the Big 12 title game. In that contest, Peterson ran for 172 yards and three touchdowns.
Peterson finished the regular season with 1,843 yards and 15 touchdowns, finishing second to USC quarterback Matt Leinart in the Heisman vote. Teammate Jason White finished third and may have cost the running back some points. The voters were somewhat validated by that year's Orange Bowl, however, in which the top two vote-getters met head-to-head. Leinart threw for a season-high five touchdowns, while Peterson was held to a season-low 82 yards in a 55-19 USC rout.
3. Herschel Walker, RB, Georgia (1980). "My god, a freshman!" was Georgia broadcaster Larry Munson's legendary call when Walker plowed over Tennessee's Bill Bates for a 16-yard touchdown in the Bulldog star's college debut. It served as the breakout moment in what would become the greatest freshman season the sport had ever seen. Walker helped lead the Dawgs to a 12-0 season and deliver longtime coach Vince Dooley an elusive national championship by rushing for a then-freshman record 1,616 yards.
As any Georgia fan of a certain age will tell you, Walker was robbed of the Heisman (though he'd eventually win one in 1982). He finished third behind South Carolina running back George Rogers and Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green, both of whom were seniors. While Rogers ran for more yards (1,781), Walker had a bigger impact and bested Rogers head-to-head in a 13-10 victory on Nov. 1, a game in which Walker rushed for 219 yards. Walker went on to gain 150 yards and two touchdowns in Georgia's 17-10 Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame.
4. Clint Castleberry, RB, Georgia Tech (1942). A 5-foot-9, 155-pound local sensation, Castleberry captured the nation's attention (mainly by capturing the East Coast newspapers' attention) with his sizzling speed in Tech's victories over reigning powers Notre Dame and Navy. He threw for a touchdown in a 13-6 win in South Bend, and he had a 95-yard interception return against Navy.
A knee injury slowed him in the Ramblin' Wreck's final two games, including during a season-ending 34-0 loss at Georgia, whose quarterback, Frank Sinkwich, eventually took home the trophy. Castleberry came in third. Sadly, Castleberry was called to duty the following year and died while serving as a fighter pilot in World War II.
5. Buddy Young, RB, Illinois (1944). A top-five finisher in the 1944 Heisman race, the diminutive 5-5, 163-pounder blew past opponents with his blazing speed. Young, who also won NCAA championships in the 100- and 220-yard dash, averaged 8.9 yards per carry and tied Red Grange's 20-year record by collecting 13 touchdowns. Ohio State quarterback Les Horvath won the award, with Young coming in a distant fifth.
After a year in the Navy, Young returned in 1946 and led Illinois to the Rose Bowl, where he scored two touchdowns in a 45-14 win over UCLA. Young went on to become one of the first black players in pro football and had his number retired by the Baltimore Colts.
6. Tony Dorsett, RB, Pittsburgh (1973). This was only the second year of full-time freshman eligibility, and it showed, as the Panthers' star was completely ignored in the Heisman race (he came in 11th) despite finishing second in the nation with 1,586 yards and earning All-America honors. Dorsett, who would go on to break the NCAA career rushing record (6,082 yards) and hold it for 22 years, signaled his emergence by rushing for 265 yards against Northwestern and 209 against Notre Dame.
Penn State running back John Cappelletti won the award that year, giving the most famous acceptance speech in Heisman history (he dedicated the award to his 11-year-old brother, who was battling leukemia). On the field, however, Dorsett ran for more yards (1,522) and averaged more yards per carry (5.5 to 5.3).
7. Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (1996). As a senior in 1999, Dayne would rush for 2,034 yards, average six yards per carry and score 20 touchdowns en route to his landslide Heisman win. It's hard to believe, but he actually performed even better as a true freshman, when he rushed for 2,109 yards, averaged 6.5 yards per carry and scored 21 touchdowns. His yards and carries (295) set NCAA freshman records. Dayne did not get his first start until the fifth game, but once he did, he exploded, rushing for 297 yards against Minnesota, 289 at Illinois and 339 in the Badgers' regular-season finale at Hawaii.
Dayne's back-loaded season may have hurt him, as he played at a time when many voters still cast their ballots early. It was also a loaded year for running backs. While Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel won the trophy, at least four other rushers -- Iowa State's Troy Davis (2,185 yards), Florida State's Warrick Dunn (1,179), Texas Tech's Byron Hanspard (2,084) and Northwestern' Darnell Autry (1,386) -- all finished ahead of Dayne.
8. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech (2007). A redshirt freshman, Crabtree also failed to crack the top 10 despite delivering a seemingly astonishing season. He led the nation in all three major statistical receiving categories -- catches (134), yards (1,962) and touchdowns (22) -- all NCAA freshman records. In the Red Raiders' late-season upset of No. 3 Oklahoma, he caught 12 passes for 154 yards and a score. Crabtree won the Biltenikoff Award and earned consensus first-team All-America honors.
No player realistically had a chance to best 2007 winner Tim Tebow (51 total touchdowns), but it's remarkable in hindsight that Crabtree gained no traction while Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel and Hawaii's Colt Brennan were named finalists. UCF running back Kevin Smith even got more votes. Crabtree, who may have fallen victim to the perception that Mike Leach's pass-heavy offense inflated his stats, came in fifth the following year.
9. Marshall Faulk, RB, San Diego State (1991). Faulk began his college career with a flurry, rushing for a then NCAA-record 386 yards and seven touchdowns against Pacific in his second game. He went on to gain 1,429 yards (7.1 per carry) and score 21 touchdowns, and he totaled 201 yards receiving. However, injuries (a collapsed lung and fractured ribs) caused him to miss three games in the middle of the season. Faulk played just nine games in 1991 but led the nation in rushing yards per game (158.8).
Faulk finished ninth in the voting, despite earning first-team AP All-America status. The injuries likely cost him a few spots, though it would have been difficult to crack the top five. (Michigan receiver Desmond Howard took the trophy.) A year later, Faulk finished as the runner-up to Miami quarterback Gino Torretta. He finished fourth in 1993 before turning pro.
10. Emmitt Smith, RB, Florida (1987). Smith reached the career 1,000-yard mark in just seven games, the fastest of any player in college history at the time. In his first college start, he carried 39 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns as the Gators upset No. 11 Alabama, 23-14. He would go on to run for 173 yards against Mississippi State, 184 against LSU and 175 against Temple en route to a 1,341-yard season.
Like Faulk, Smith finished ninth in the voting as a freshman, behind such running backs as Michigan State's Lorenzo White, Pittsburgh's Craig "Ironhead" Hayward, Oklahoma State's Thurman Thomas and UCLA's Gaston Green. (Notre Dame receiver Tim Brown took home the trophy.) After an injury-plagued sophomore year, Smith came back to finish seventh in 1989.