In the end, Griffin was the no-brainer choice. He set the NCAA record for pass efficiency, registered 3,998 passing yards and 644 rushing yards, led last-second wins over ranked TCU and Oklahoma and was the overwhelming force behind Baylor's best season in decades. He was truly the most outstanding player in the nation this season. Ball's 38 touchdowns are also outstanding. No. 3 was a tough choice because of Luck's lesser production, but the numbers are a product of the offense he plays in. Watch him, and you know how good he is.
RG3 didn't make my preseason Watch List for SI or SI.com. Guess who feels like a fool now? Nobody was more consistently captivating this season than the Baylor star. He led the Bears to their second nine-win season and the first in 25 years and he set the NCAA pass efficiency record along the way. If a candidate's viability is based on his value to his team, it's hard to find anyone with a better argument than Griffin, who offset a Bears' defense that allowed 477 yards per game by producing 386 of his own, second nationally. He was an easy choice over Richardson, who sits second on my ballot after navigating the most difficult slate of any contender -- he faced eight top 50 defenses -- and tied the single-season SEC record with 20 rushing touchdowns. But no one had more touchdowns than Ball. With a mind-boggling 38 total scores, the Wisconsin back heads to the Rose Bowl needing one to equal Barry Sanders' single-season record. That chase couple with his nation-leading 1,759 rushing yards ultimately gave Ball the edge on my ballot over Luck -- whose November included a blowout loss and five picks in four games -- and Mathieu -- who for all his game-changing ability hurt his chances in my mind when he failed a drug test.
It's been two years since I graduated from the Heisman Watch to college football editor, and I did not miss writing the Watch at all this season. This year's race became an unsolvable puzzle. Montee Ball? Matt Barkley? Andrew Luck? You can make a case for them as easily as you can make a case for the three on my ballot. In the end I used my longtime criteria to split the hairs: seasonlong excellence and performance in big games. Translation: I care about what you did against Louisiana Tech, but I care more about what you did against Louisiana State. No one played bigger on the biggest stages than Mathieu. Even though he's not even the best cover corner on his own team, the Honey Badger had game-changing efforts in wins over Oregon, Arkansas and Georgia and played exceptionally against Alabama. But like my 2009 pick, Ndamukong Suh, Mathieu won't win the Heisman because there are too many shortsighted and/or lazy voters who won't consider defensive players, and that's an injustice. Richardson ran like a Mack truck all season and very nearly beat No. 1 LSU by himself, and Griffin was a dual-threat sensation who lifted the Bears to their best season in decades. Both would be deserving of the Heisman, but my vote goes to the Honey Badger.
As it does annually, my vote came down to how I chose to interpret "Most Outstanding." I was a Luck guy until late in the evening on Nov. 19th, when Griffin produced not one but
Instead of debating the semantics of "most outstanding" versus "most valuable," 2011 Heisman voters had the luxury of selecting a player who bridged the divide. Griffin was a remarkably efficient big-play threat who wowed viewers from a Week 1 opener against TCU to a Championship Saturday shredding of Texas. His candor and flair endeared him to the public, and his production made him a Waco legend. Ball's production was otherworldly, but his 38 touchdowns seemed less remarkable to some because he shared a backfield with fellow Heisman hopeful Russell Wilson and because Wisconsin churns out productive backs on a yearly basis (though of course not quite THIS productive). Mathieu, meanwhile, may not be a pure cover corner, but he made game-changing plays in LSU's most important contests. He was arguably this year's version of "the best player on the best team," -- though don't tell Tigers punter Brad Wing I said that.
Picking Richardson over Griffin was a tough call. The award goes to the nation's most outstanding player and there's no doubt that both players were outstanding for their respective teams. While it's true that Richardson had considerably more talent around him, he was easily the most dominant running back in the nation and was nearly impossible to bring down with one defender. You can't ask for much more from Griffin. He carried Baylor and his numbers were eye-popping. But the Bears didn't play the same caliber of competition as Alabama and Griffin wasn't under the microscope every week like Richardson was. I gave the nod to Richardson -- by a hair. As for Luck, he entered this season as the overwhelming favorite and had several opportunities to pull away from the pack, but his performances at the end of the season weren't Heisman-worthy.
There's no set criteria for determining the Heisman winner. Are we choosing the most valuable player, or the best (or sometimes, the best-marketed)? In RGIII, we got both. I was in Waco on Sept. 2 when he lit up TCU. It was a spectacular performance -- 359 yards, five touchdowns -- and it felt like a career night. Then he kept doing it. In the most wide-open Heisman race in years, Griffin rose to the top late, but that's not really right. He was special all season as he lifted Baylor from doormat to extremely dangerous; most of us just noticed it late. He's the best pick in a field crowded with worthy candidates. (Oh, and the very occasional RGIII trading cards sent by the school were a nice touch.)
This year was tough. If a voter ranks Griffin, Mathieu, Ball, Alabama tailback Trent Richardson, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck or USC quarterback Matt Barkley first on his ballot, he would have a completely valid argument for his choice. Unfortunately, I had to pick three. Wisconsin tailback Ball had a fantastic season, scoring 38 touchdowns and never scoring fewer than two in a game. He was the best player on a very good offense, but he appears on fewer ballots because the school promoted quarterback Russell Wilson for the Heisman. LSU cornerback Mathieu made the biggest plays in the biggest games. His strip/scoop/score helped beat Oregon, and his punt returns for touchdowns helped put away Arkansas and Georgia. Yes, Mathieu got himself suspended. Yes, I originally planned to leave him off my ballot. Then I thought about it. Could I penalize Mathieu for making the fake version of the real mistake I made a few times in college? As for the winner, I have a simple selection process. If I were drafting a college football team based only on this year's performances, who would I pick first? This year, that player is Griffin. His numbers (3,998 passing yards, 36 passing TDs, six INTs, 644 rushing yards, nine rushing TDs) are outstanding, but one statistic shines brightest: 9-3 at Baylor. The Bears, who hadn't won eight or more games since 1991, were 9-3 because of Griffin. If Griffin played in Austin, Tuscaloosa or Norman, they'd probably be building a statue of him. He'll have to settle for a small replica of New York University fullback Ed Smith.
No one played at a more consistently high level from the beginning to the end of the year than Luck. He faded a bit late, but not nearly as badly as some have said. It's telling that in his supposedly "bad" game, against Oregon, he threw for three touchdowns and led the offense to 30 points. Luck's stats don't do justice to the technical precision with which he played the position because Stanford never really asked him to cut loose, and no one in the country was more individually responsible for his team's success -- not even Griffin, probably the most entertaining Heisman candidate. Griffin elevated his team as well, but Baylor was 9-3 to Stanford's 11-1. Against its toughest opponent Oklahoma State, Baylor trailed 49-3 at one point, which is a major stain on Griffin's résumé. Richardson had a fine year with impressive stats, but I don't think he was asked to carry his team to the same extent as Luck or Griffin.