From the day Andrew Luck announced he was returning to Stanford for another year, right through the first 12 weeks of this season, the national consensus was that the 2011 Heisman Trophy was his to lose.
According to various voter straw polls, including the annually accurate
There are no established criteria for selecting the Heisman winner. The ballot simply tells voters to choose the "most outstanding player" in college football this season, and the electorate's interpretation of those ambiguous words seems to fluctuate by the year. Sometimes the winner is the guy with the gaudiest stats; sometimes it's the guy who produces the most memorable highlights.
The reason Griffin -- and not Luck, Trent Richardson, Montee Ball or Tyrann Mathieu -- will likely take home this year's trophy is because he's the rare player who embodies both.
"Some years the what trumps the how, some years the how trumps the what," said HeismanPundit.com's Chris Huston. "Griffin is kind of the perfect combination of both."
The "what" Huston refers to are a candidate's numbers. Griffin's unquestionably pop off the charts. His 192.3 efficiency rating would break the NCAA record if the season ended today. His 72.4 completion percentage would be the highest of any winner. Throw in 3,998 passing yards, 36 touchdowns to just six interceptions and another 644 yards and nine touchdowns rushing and you've got the most thorough incarnation yet of what Huston refers to as the "hyper-efficient" quarterback. Starting with Troy Smith in 2006, each Heisman-winning quarterback has posted a higher efficiency rating than the guy before him. Touchdown-to-interception ratios continue to widen (See chart).
No one could argue that Luck, who led his team to a second straight 11-1 mark and BCS bowl berth, had anything less than an excellent season. Playing in a more balanced, pro-style offense, he completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,170 yards, 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions. As a point of comparison, 1996 winner Danny Wuerffel had a 57.5 completion percentage, 39 touchdowns and 13 picks -- numbers considered groundbreaking at the time.
Yet when compared with Griffin's, Luck's number seem ... un-Heisman-like.
"The tolerance for interceptions has gotten lower," said Huston. "Andrew Luck threw nine interceptions, and people acted like he was the second coming of Gino Torretta -- wow, too many interceptions. Part of it is these systems that heighten quarterback numbers, but it's different than with [1989 winner] Andre Ware. With a lot of these systems, they don't inflate the yards, they inflate the completion percentages."
It's not like Griffin is dinking and dunking. As Huston notes, he has the highest yards per attempt (10.83) since 1991 winner Ty Detmer (11.08). Luck's, by contrast, is 9.38. "As great as Andrew Luck is at what he does, what most people saw for most of the season was play-action, roll out, throw to the tight end, first down," Huston said.
And yet heading into the final weekend of play, Luck was considered neck-and-neck with Alabama's Richardson according to most polls. Not until Griffin put an exclamation point on his season with a four-touchdown day in a 48-24 rout of Texas did he surge to the top of many ballots. And even then, it's probably not because voters were looking at his stat line for the first time.
As ESPN's "Heismanologist" Joe Tessitore notes: "With RG3, I don't think his campaign is necessarily based in numbers and gaudy stats. They simply back up what you're feeling. He backs up what I always say: That you should be able to feel and sense a guy's Heisman year. There are lots of guys this year that had very, very good numbers. He had more what feels like a Heisman season."
Tessitore is referring, of course, to those visceral "Heisman moments:" Desmond Howard taking a punt to the house against Ohio State; Reggie Bush zigzagging the field against Fresno State; Cam Newton leaving multiple LSU defenders on their bellies on a dash to the end zone.
Griffin arguably had three: The last-second field-goal drive to beat TCU on opening night, in which he caught a pass over the middle; his 34-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left to beat Oklahoma; and his domination of the Longhorns, complete with the "I think Baylor just won its first Heisman" postgame sound bite.
Luck has had his share of highlights the past couple of years, including a one-handed sideline catch and a ferocious tackle to stop an interception return. But in his two showcase games this season, he needed a USC fumble to beat the Trojans in overtime and had three unfortunate turnovers in a 53-30 loss to Oregon.
"It's not so much what went wrong with Luck," said Tesstiore. "It's what didn't happen."
The same could be said for the other candidates, all of whom had either the "what" or the "how," but not necessarily both.
Anyone who's watched Richardson streak down the sideline or level an oncoming defender knows how exceptionally talented he is. But his stats this season weren't particularly overpowering. His 1,583 yards would be the lowest of any Heisman winner since Archie Griffin in 1975. (Though this, too, is part of a downward trend for running backs.) Conversely, Ball's candidacy was based entirely on one jaw-dropping stat: 38 touchdowns, the most since Barry Sanders' 39 in 1988. Unfortunately, as Huston notes, "they were the most unspectacular 38 touchdowns in the history of college football. I'm not sure anyone can remember any of them."
And then there's the unique case of the Honey Badger. LSU cornerback Mathieu earned an 11th-hour trip to New York with some definitive Heisman moments: consecutive game-changing punt return touchdowns against Arkansas and Georgia, along with a fumble recovery and second dazzling return in LSU's SEC title game win. He's also the rare defensive player to boast tangible and remarkable statistics: 70 tackles, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He's made more impact plays than even Charles Woodson, the lone defensive Heisman winner in the two-platoon era.
Mathieu's candidacy presented two problems, however. One: He's not considered the best cornerback on his own team. (That would be SEC Defensive Player of the Year Morris Claiborne.) And two: He was suspended for a key SEC game against Auburn, reportedly for failing a drug test. "Had he not had the suspension," said Tessitore, "I think he would have finished second."
In the end, Griffin faced no such counterarguments. The closest would be that his team lost three games, including blowouts to Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. But Baylor's 9-3 mark was still its best finish in 25 years. The fact that Griffin was even considered shows how the Heisman electorate has evolved.
"A guy like Robert Griffin is someone I would have voted for 10 years ago and wouldn't have won," said Tessitore. "We can justify Griffin because he does have stats, but if you're a college football person, you know a Heisman winner when you see it. It doesn't have to be quantified.
"If you were to ask me what happened to Andrew Luck, that's where he fell short. Griffin's season feels like more of a Heisman season than Andrew Luck's."
On Saturday night, we'll get one last affirmation of that fact.