Will Oregon's Marcus Mariota break the Heisman Trophy record for victory margin?

By Zac Ellis
December 12, 2014

The voting process for the 2014 Heisman Trophy features 929 total voters. That electorate is divided between 870 media members, 58 former Heisman winners and one combined fan vote. The Heisman Trust requires each voter to keep his or her vote confidential, but with mere hours remaining until the 80th Heisman is awarded, there is little doubt which player will walk away with the trophy.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is the overwhelming favorite to win this year’s Heisman. Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon and Alabama receiver Amari Cooper will join Mariota as finalists, but the Heisman’s fate is effectively sealed. Gordon struggled in the Big Ten title in a 59-0 loss to Ohio State last week, and Mariota snagged every first-place vote this week in a number of online straw polls. The only question is how dominant Mariota’s finish can be.

SCHNELL: How Oregon's Marcus Mariota rose to football stardom

There are a couple of ways to measure success in the Heisman field. One is by overall point margin. Former USC running back O.J. Simpson holds the record for largest point margin (1,750 points) from the vote in 1968. Simpson also holds the record for the most first-place votes with 855. By those measures, Simpson’s Heisman campaign was one of the most successful in history.

But Simpson’s victory is also a bit skewed. The Heisman Trust had 1,200 registered electors in 1968 compared to today’s 929. That’s why percentage of first-place votes is a more accurate representation of a winner’s dominance. Simpson actually earned about 85 percent of the available first-place votes. That’s a nice haul, but it’s less than what other Heisman winners have produced.

Based on percentage of first-place votes possible, the top five winners are listed below. This does not include USC's Reggie Bush, who earned 87.8 percent of first-place votes in 2005 but later had his victory vacated by the Heisman Trust.

name year votes percent
Charlie Ward 1993 740 of 790 93.6
Troy Smith 2006 801 of 880 91.0
Desmond Howard 1991 640 of 738 86.7
Vinny Testaverde 1986 678 of 790 85.8
O.J. Simpson 1968 855 of 1,002 85.2

All five candidates swept the six voting regions when they won: North East, Mid Atlantic, South, South West, Mid West, Far West. In Simpson’s case, he swept five regions, as voting wasn’t expanded into six regions until 1977. During those five seasons no runner-up garnered more than 45 votes.

Mariota’s shot at engineering a similar finish might hinge on those regions. It’s a foregone conclusion that Mariota will dominate the Far West, which produced no other viable Heisman candidate. But Gordon could put up a strong showing in the Mid West and Cooper could do the same in the South. To top Ward’s historic Heisman margin, Mariota would have to perform very well in all six regions.

ELLIS: How does Marcus Mariota compare to past Heisman winners?

The current Heisman race also features three finalists who play different positions. Legitimate arguments exist for Mariota, Gordon and Cooper as the best in the country at what they do. But who is the best player overall? That’s a tough question to answer. However, Mariota is thriving in a Heisman era largely defined by dual-threat quarterbacks. Four running quarterbacks have won the trophy since 2007, and Mariota’s stats compare favorably to those four players

For Mariota to become the most prolific Heisman winner, he’d have to surpass Ward’s 93.6 percent of first-place votes. Let’s say 900 of this year’s 929 voters cast their ballots. That would mean Mariota needs around 850 first-place votes to become the most successful Heisman winner ever. With that haul, Mariota would flirt with Simpson’s record for total first-place votes (855).

Can Mariota make it happen? It’s a long shot, but not out of the question. On Thursday Oregon’s star won the Maxwell Award, the Davey O’Brien Award and the Walter Camp Player of the Year. On Friday he’ll accept the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. It’s clear Mariota has cemented himself as this fall's most decorated player, but we’ll see if he can replicate that dominance in Heisman ballots.


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