The award goes to "the most outstanding player in college football." But some Heisman recipients have won the award because of the voting process that is often influenced by unwritten rules that make age, wins and losses and position as important as individual dominance.
Saturday, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, made history by becoming the first underclassman to win the award in its 72-year history. But Tebow is not the first freshman or sophomore who should have won.
Let's take a look back at the past 20 Heisman winners and evaluate who won, and in some cases, who should have won.
1987Winner: Tim Brown, Notre DameWho Should Have Won: Don McPherson, Syracuse.
Brown was asked at the ceremony whether playing for Notre Dame helped him win the award -- and there's real reason to believe it did. He started the season strong (two punt returns for TDs vs. Michigan State) but finished with just 39 catches. Still, he was a landslide winner over McPherson, who won the Maxwell Award (given to the nation's top player) after leading the nation in passing and directing Syracuse to a perfect season.
1988Winner: Barry Sanders, Oklahoma StateWho Should Have Won: Sanders
There's no arguing about the greatest back at any level and the greatest individual season of all time. Sanders set 25 single-season records in 1988, including rushing yards (2,628), rushing touchdowns (39) and all-purpose yards (3,249). Second-place finisher, Rodney Peete of USC, received just 70 first-place votes to Sanders' 559.
1989Winner: Andre Ware, HoustonWho Should Have Won: Anthony Thompson, Indiana
Ware is the reason no Texas Tech, Hawaii or any other system quarterback will likely ever win the award. Ware put up gaudy numbers (4,299 yards and 44 touchdowns) in the Cougars' run-and-shoot offense, numbers that didn't look so impressive when David Klinger stepped in a year later and topped them. Thompson, the Maxwell winner, was more than worthy with 1,793 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns, but he finished 70 points back.
1990Winner: Ty Detmer, BYUWho Should Have Won: Detmer
Those 10,000 cloth ties, called Heisman "Tys," that BYU sent out did the trick, as Detmer became the WAC's first winner. You can make a case it should have been Notre Dame's Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, but the forefather to Reggie Bush and Percy Harvin was ninth in all-purpose yardage, while Detmer's numbers were too impressive to ignore. The junior passed for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns, while setting, or tying, 47 NCAA records.
1991Winner: Desmond Howard, MichiganWho Should Have Won: Howard
No one will forget the pose, but Howard had his Heisman moment when he hauled in "The Catch," a TD on fourth-and-inches against Notre Dame. Howard was the first wide receiver to lead the Big Ten in scoring, as he caught 61 balls for 950 yards and had 23 total TDs. His domination was backed up by his 1,574-point margin of victory over Florida State's Casey Weldon.
1992Winner: Gino Torretta, MiamiWho Should Have Won: Marshall Faulk, San Diego State
In retrospect, Torretta's win seemed to be a statement by voters of every bias that has haunted the award since; it went to a senior with decent numbers (3,060 passing yards, 19 touchdowns) on a major team that was in contention for the national title. But the right pick would have been Faulk, a sophomore who ran for 1,630 yards, including 299 vs. BYU, and scored 15 TDs.
1993Winner: Charlie Ward, Florida StateWho Should Have Won: Ward
The only winner to go on to play in the NBA, Ward led the Seminoles' no-huddle, shotgun "Fast Break" attack. He accounted for 31 touchdowns, including 27 passing, and had 3,536 yards of total offense, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He beat out Tennessee's Heath Shuler by 1,662 points, the third-biggest margin of victory.
1994Winner: Rashann Salaam, ColoradoWho Should Have Won: Ki-Jana Carter, Penn State
Granted, Salaam became the fourth back to top 2,000 yards and had 516 more than Carter, but Salaam did it with 100 more carries than Carter, who averaged 7.7 yards per attempt. Carter was part of an explosive Penn State team that won by an average of 26 points a game and was often sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter. Carter was at a disadvantage because he had Heisman competition from teammate Kerry Collins, who finished fourth.
1995Winner: Eddie George, Ohio StateWho Should Have Won: George
It was the closest voting in history at the time, as George edged Nebraska QB Tommie Frazier by 264 points. Had the voting been conducted after the bowls, in which Frazier ran for a then-QB record 199 rushing yards to give the Cornhuskers the national title and George's Buckeyes lost to Tennessee, it might have gone the other way. But George had the better regular season, which included a 314-yard performance against Illinois.
1996Winner: Danny Wuerffel, FloridaWho Should Have Won: Wuerffel
Wuerffel won a close race (189 points) over Iowa State's Troy Davis. Davis, the first player with two 2,000-yard rushing seasons, played for a 2-9 team, while Wuerffel directed the eventual national champs. Wuerffel's numbers were impressive with 3,625 passing yards and 39 touchdowns, including 401 yards and six TDs in the SEC title game.
1997Winner: Charles Woodson, MichiganWho Should Have Won: Peyton Manning, Tennessee
Voters may have gotten caught up in Woodson's do-everything exploits at corner, wide receiver and on punt returns. But while he did deliver some spectacular plays, Manning was spectacular the whole season. He passed for 3,819 yards, 36 touchdowns and had just 11 picks. Manning was likely the victim of lofty expectations and voters who were more excited about honoring a defensive player, rather than the most dominant one.
1998Winner: Ricky Williams, TexasWho Should Have Won: Williams
Forget everything that's happened since he left school; Williams was a force in college. He set a then Division I-A career records for career yards (6,279) and rushing touchdowns (73) and broke or tied 18 other marks. He was rightfully a runaway winner over Kansas State quarterback Michael Bishop.
1999Winner: Ron Dayne, WisconsinWho Should Have Won: Dayne
Basically, you can take every reason Williams won and understand why "The Great Dayne" was the only logical choice. He broke Williams' career-rushing record with 6,397 yards and won the award by 1,048 points over second-place finisher Joe Hamilton (Georgia Tech), earning 586 of 770 first-place votes.
2000Winner: Chris Weinke, Florida StateWho Should Have Won: Weinke
You could make a case for Oklahoma's Josh Heupel (3,392 yards and 20 touchdowns) or Purdue's Drew Brees (3,393 yards, 24 TDs), but Weinke threw for 4,167 yards and 33 touchdowns in a Seminoles offense that still ran the ball an average of 38 times a game. Yes, Weinke was the oldest winner ever at 28, but if we're ripping voters for guys being too young, how can a player be too old?
2001Winner: Eric Crouch, NebraskaWho Should Have Won: Rex Grossman, Florida
This is a classic career achievement/age vote. Crouch, a senior who had more than 1,000 yards on the ground and in the air, may have had his Heisman moment with a touchdown catch against Oklahoma, but Grossman, a sophomore, was great week-in and week-out. He had only one game in which he didn't throw for at least 300 yards (290 vs. Florida State) in finishing with 3,896 yards, 34 touchdowns and 12 picks.
2002Winner: Carson Palmer, USCWho Should Have Won: Palmer
Palmer easily beat Iowa's Brad Banks by 233 points in what was expected to be a much closer vote. Palmer was more than worthy of the award with 3,942 passing yards (1,369 more than Banks) and 33 touchdowns (seven more than Banks). Palmer backed up voters by beating Banks and the Hawkeyes 38-17 in the Orange Bowl, outdueling the runner-up with 303 passing yards to Banks' 204.
2003Winner: Jason White, OklahomaWho Should Have Won: Larry Fitzgerald, Pitt
Fitzgerald carried Pitt with a sensational season in which he caught 92 balls for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns -- but he was sophomore. White, who was at the controls of the Sooners offense, passed for 3,846 yards and 40 scores. White turned in a dismal performance vs. K-State in the Big 12 title game, but it wasn't enough to dissuade voters.
2004Winner: Matt Leinart, USCWho Should Have Won: Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma
The age bias in the '03 voting came back to haunt voters in 2004. White probably would have won had he not taken the award the year before. But even if he had won, White still would have been the wrong Sooner. Peterson, a true freshman, was the nation's best player in '04. He ran for a freshman-record 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns, but finished second to Leinart, who was the safe pick.
2005Winner: Reggie Bush, USCWho Should Have Won: Vince Young, Texas
The electric, all-purpose Bush was the sexy pick on the sexy team, but Young was simply out of this world. Bush earned 784 first-place votes to Young's 79 in a landslide victory, but while Bush benefited from a star-studded lineup that included Leinart and backfield-mate LenDale White, the Longhorns' success was largely on Young. Had the voting taken place after the Rose Bowl, the award would have been Young's.
2006Winner: Troy Smith, Ohio StateWho Should Have Won: Smith
There seems to be a growing number of fans who believe, in retrospect, Arkansas' Darren McFadden would have been the right choice here because Smith seems to be remembered for the debacle in the BCS title game against Florida instead of a stellar senior season. Smith passed for 2,542 yards and 30 touchdowns to win the award by 1,662 points, the second-largest margin of victory ever.