Heisman Preview: Who will win using the modern formula?

Oregon's Marcus Mariota (left), Baylor's Bryce Petty (center) and Florida State's Jameis Winston would seem to fit most of the current Heisman Trophy-winning criteria. Is one of them the clear favorite for 2014?

In the age BJFF (before Johnny Manziel), the rules governing who could — and who couldn’t — win the Heisman Trophy were concrete.

But one redshirt freshman was followed by another in Jameis Winston and now we are forced to reexamine the path to the stiff-armed trophy.

Or are we?

Age restrictions were largely brought to an end — although a true freshman has yet to win — but a number of factors continue to influence the process in which we voters decide the game’s immortals.

In the current state of college football, the process of deciding a Heisman winner is to have clear answers to these five questions:

Anyone who has studied the Heisman, its history and its politics will tell you Jameis Winston is doomed. He may lead Florida State to a playoff berth, a national title and go off to a fine NFL career. But his days as the reigning Heisman winner are likely numbered.

Billy Simms couldn’t do it and neither could a laundry list that in the past few years has added Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram and Manziel to its ranks.

A second trophy has become impossible post-Archie Griffin because of the expectations and the backlash that come with being that defending winner. How else could Tebow lead Florida to the national title game in his first follow-up campaign, have more first-place votes than anyone else and lose largely because he was left off 152 ballots? How else could Manziel have a more impressive statistical season and finish fifth?

Clearly if two transcendent players couldn’t come close, the voting populace isn’t ready for another two-time winner. Winston is surely headed for a similar fate.


No positions hold more power in the annals of the Heisman than quarterbacks and running backs. They have resulted in 73 of the 78 wins and 19 of the last 20, save cornerback/return man Charles Woodson in 1997, making it the definition of a stranglehold.

Dig a little deeper though and it has become a one-position award in the 2000s, with passers claiming 12 of the last 14 victories, including each of the last four (all from dual-threat QBs) since RB Mark Ingram’s win in 2009.

Last season when Auburn’s Tre Mason and Boston College’s Andre Williams earned invites to the ceremony it could have been seen as a sign that the runners were making a comeback, but Williams was fourth and Mason sixth. That kept us without a RB in the top two since the Ingram victory.

There are plenty of exciting backs in this race — specifically Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon — but voters have and will be looking to the QBs first. But college football remains a quarterback-driven league, a trend that should once again define the pursuit of its most recognizable award.

The terminology is new as we put the Bowl Championship Series in our collective rearview, but the realities of the haves and have-nots in this race remains exactly the same.

Since the back-to-back seasons of Houston’s Andre Ware (1989) and BYU’s Ty Detmer (’90), no player from outside of the conferences that makeup the Power 5 (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC or Notre Dame) has been higher than San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk when he was second in 1992.

Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch provided a rare treat for those players, coming in third last season. But that only tied for the best finish in the last seven years outside of the sport’s power structure, tying Hawaii’s Colt Brennan from 2007.

So while Marshall’s Rakeem Cato, Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton and others will get touted as Heisman contenders, the Lynch treatment of an invite to New York may be the ceiling in this age.

For much of the BCS era, putting a team in one of the top-tier bowl games seemed an unwritten prerequisite. Eleven of the first 15 winners (counting Reggie Busch’s vacated ’05 victory) played in those games, but as the BCS’ time came to an end, so did that practice.

Three of the last seven recipients didn’t play in BCS games with Tebow (’07), Robert Griffin (’11) and Manziel (’12), which could be seen as proof that the stance of awarding the best player on one of the best teams had gone out the window.

But the other side of that is that with a more defined end game with a playoff, aren’t voters only going to become more entranced with the players putting their teams in contention for those spots? It’s not hard to imagine the postseason redefining the importance of being a household name (something that was partially marginalized with the come-out-of-nowhere wins by Cam Newton in ’10, Manziel and Winston).

Frosh Perspective

Those who start out on perceived playoff contenders and perform as such may be harder than ever to bypass. As the weeks are consumed with thoughts of how these candidates’ teams are going to be viewed by the selection committee, playoff contention will be all that the matters and the voting could be heavily influenced by that.

Of course there is no magical combination of numbers or a ceiling to hit that can guarantee a Heisman win.

Houston’s Case Keenum set the FBS career yardage record and got only seventh as a senior in 2011 and in all, 14 players have set that mark with only three wins. The last of those was Doug Flutie in 1984. Likewise, nine players left school as the all-time TD record holders, producing zero winners.

But there has become a level of numbers that we’ve come to expect from this recent run of dual-threat QBs.

Newton, Griffin, Manziel and Winton averaged 4,677 yards of offense and 47 total scores, with the high end there being Manziel and his 5,116 yards and Winston’s 4,276 the low.

While a player could rise from obscurity once again, the crop of players at the top of the heap (even with Ohio State’s Braxton Miller out for the season), should be more than enough to end the run of first-year players.

There are nine returning QBs in the ballpark of that aforementioned 4,677 yards and 47 scores — they are, in order of yards, Sean Mannion (Oregon State), Connor Halliday (Washington State), Bryce Petty (Baylor), Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Taysom Hill (BYU), Shane Carden (East Carolina), Winston, Taylor Kelly (Arizona State) and Cato.

Three of those players look to be the poster boys of teams in that hunt for the first four playoff berths with Mariota, Petty and Winston, and when you factor in the stigma of past winners, the smart money is on either Mariota or Petty taking the hardware.

But which one?

Mariota will meet all the modern day criteria, plus he has the added benefit of the Ducks’ schedule. Oregon’s Pac-12 slate includes three ranked teams (plus a potential conference title game) along with a September date with No. 8 Michigan State. Meanwhile, Petty’s Bears play just two ranked teams (No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 20 Kansas State).

It has been 44 years since a non-USC player won and that should all change with Mariota, who is in line to also end the award’s youth movement as its first senior winner in eight years.