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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
After a year in the Navy, Young returned in 1946 and led Illinois to the Rose Bowl, where he
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.