SEC's Heisman dominance likely to continue

December 11, 2012

Certain trends develop slowly over time, like moving glaciers. They are only noticeable when viewed through the long-term lens of history. 

The SEC’s recent dominance in the Heisman trophy is not one of those. Like a giant meteor, that impact was immediate and jarring. 

For 72 years from 1935 when the trophy was first awarded until 2007, only seven SEC players took home the Heisman: Frank Sinkwich (Georgia, 1942), Billy Cannon (LSU, 1959), Steve Spurrier (Florida, 1966), Pat Sullivan (Auburn, 1971), Herschel Walker (Georgia, 1982), Bo Jackson (Auburn 1985), and Danny Wuerffel (Florida, 1996). They are legends, their names and likenesses prominent in the stadiums where they played.

But the conference was far from dominant. During that same period one school, Notre Dame, had as many Heisman winners as the entire SEC. 

Then in 2007, the meteor hit. Beginning with Tim Tebow, the first sophomore to win the award, and ending with Johnny Manziel, the first freshman, the SEC has won four of the past six. For those who would rather not do the math, that is the difference between winning 10 percent of the Heisman trophies before 2007 and winning 67 percent of them after. 

There are all sorts of conspiracy theories for this rise. Demographics shifts are a prime target. The advent of the Internet and teleworking has allowed more Heisman voters to live in the South now than a decade ago, when a sports writer was chained to his editorial desk.  And the voters themselves are younger, without the built-in prejudices against sophomores, freshmen, or junior college transfers.

There is also the advent of smart phones and social media, which makes any play and player watchable from anywhere in the world. No more is Notre Dame the only school team assured of having every game televised.  Now even Vanderbilt fans can watch their teams’ every down.

But the Heisman is more than marketing and getting out the vote: at the end of the day you have to perform. It should come as no surprise that the conference with seven consecutive BCS Championships has had the best performers during that same period of time. 

Success breeds success, and with big-time recruiting smashing all the old geographical boundaries – remember, Alabama running back Mark Ingram was from Grand Blanc, Mich. – it is no wonder that the best players flock to the winningest teams.

There is also the money, not for the players directly, but for the facilities where they play, practice, train, watch film, and hang out with their teammates. The SEC is worth billions, and much of that money funnels directly into facilities that attract the best athletes from around the country. 

That same financial windfall allows those players to be mentored by the best coaches who come to the SEC with seven-figure contracts and more specialized assistants than many NFL teams. So, a naturally raw talent like Johnny Manziel can transform in one redshirt season into the best player in college football. 

The trend will likely even out in future years as the sample size increases. No one seriously believes that SEC players will win 48 of the next 72 Heisman trophies. But they will probably win more than seven. 

Like the aftermath of a meteor strike, that landscape has changed forever.