History could be made on December 8th, as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel might become the first freshman to take home the Heisman Trophy. Whether it has been lack of production, lack of luck, or just bias against freshman exhibited by the voters, no freshman has finished higher than second place (and that didn’t happen until 2004). In fact, until Tim Tebow won the award in 2008, a sophomore had never won it.
Contrary to the results, college football has seen some worthy Heisman candidates in its 76 years of existence. Many players have appeared to be on the brink of breaking the stigma, only to be stopped short of college football immortality. In no particular order, here are the most deserving.
1. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma (2004)
I will continue to maintain that Adrian Peterson’s 2004 season was one of the most dominant I have ever seen. It was more the way he ran over hopeless defenders than it was the statistics that he put up, though he did manage 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns. Peterson led an Oklahoma squad to a 12-0 record before losing to USC’s Matt Leinart (the actual winner in 2004) and Reggie Bush in the national title, a win that would later be vacated.
As I mentioned above, Matt Leinart was the voter’s choice in 2004, and probably the most valid one on this list. Leinart threw for 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns compared to just six interceptions as he also led his team to a 12-0 record. Leinart was a saving grace to the voters who did not want to vote for a freshman, a luxury that the Heisman committee does not enjoy this season.
Both players clearly had statistically dominant seasons, but it was Peterson who was the more electrifying, more physical, and more deserving player.
2. Hershel Walker, Georgia (1980)
For Walker, part of the reason that he did not win was just bad luck. One day after the ballots were due, he turned in a 205 yard, three touchdown performance against in-state-rival Georgia Tech. Walker finished the season with 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns to go along with a 12-0 record and an SEC championship.
The actual winner for this season, South Carolina’s George Rogers, also had an excellent season. He put up numbers that were very similar to Walker’s statistics, 1,781 yards and 14 touchdowns. All things considered, the two appear to be fairly equal. But when taking into account that Roger’s team finished just 9-4 on the season (including a loss to Walker’s Georgia Bulldogs), the edge should have gone to Herschel Walker.
Walker actually finished third in the 1980 voting, before getting second place in the 1981 Heisman race and finally winning the Trophy in 1982.
3. Michael Vick, Virginia Tech (1999)
Michael Vick had a tremendous freshman year in 1999, racking up over 2600 total yards and recording 21 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Vick also racked up an astonishingly high 11.4 yards per attempt. To put it in perspective, this year’s freshman candidate Johnny Manziel has just 8.55 yards per attempt. He also led his Virginia Tech squad to an undefeated record before losing to Florida State in the national championship game. It could be argued that Vick revolutionized the quarterback position, as dual threat QB’s such as Vince Young, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and others have followed his path over the past decade.
That year’s actual winner, Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne, rushed for over 1800 yards and 19 TD’s. Those are admittedly solid numbers, but when compared to Vick’s statistics and unbelievable athleticism, Vick probably would have won had he not been a freshman.
When considering all three of these past candidates, one thing is apparent: The player who beat out the unfortunate freshman also had a great season. In the case of Johnny Manziel, this is not the case. Johnny Football’s competition includes Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o and Kansas State QB Collin Klein. While Te’o is the backbone of the nation’s #1 ranked team, his individual statistics have taken a hit over the last four games. And while Klein spent most of the season in the driver’s seat, getting blown out by a mediocre Baylor team hurt his chances of winning significantly.
Johnny Manziel has impeccable timing. There is no doubt in my mind that Manziel would have lost last year’s Heisman trophy race with the exact same statistics; the voters had an upper classmen to vote for in Robert Griffin III. But going up against a declining quarterback and a linebacker? Now the freshman has a fighting chance.