This year’s Heisman race has been atypical, to say the least.
Usually at this time of the season, the identity of the winner is pretty clear. But this year’s race has been so unsettled, it’s hard to say with any certainty what’s going to happen.
Let’s recap how we got here.
The season started out with Braxton Miller of Ohio State as the front runner. He got hurt and missed three games. That elevated Marcus Mariota of Oregon to the front runner spot. He looked strong for a while, but his production tapered off a bit, along with his team, in early November (possibly due to injury). As a result, Florida State freshman Jameis Winston became the leader, but now he’s involved in a rape investigation and it’s possible that felony charges are pending as the Heisman voting deadline of Dec. 9 approaches.
The field of candidates below these three has ebbed and flowed. Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville ceased to be a serious candidate when his team lost to UCF in October. Tajh Boyd of Clemson lost his shot when his team was shellacked by Winston’s Florida State squad. Aaron Murray of Georgia fell of when injuries sapped his team’s strength. Bryce Petty of Baylor looked to have a chance but his candidacy was wounded (though perhaps not mortally) when Oklahoma State routed the Bears a couple weekends ago. The slow and steady runner in the race, AJ McCarron of Alabama, lost his prime attribute — his role as the quarterback for a team going for an unprecedented third-straight national title — when Auburn beat the Tide on Saturday. Boston College’s Andre Williams lost his chance to put an exclamation point on his superb season when he was injured against Syracuse, limiting his output against the Orange to just 29 yards. Derek Carr of Fresno State’s fabulous season was marred by his team’s late loss to San Jose State. Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois continued his remarkable run, but has failed to catch fire at the national level. And, yes, Johnny Manziel was the latest victim of Heismandment No. 9, long may it live.
The major issue hanging over the race is the investigation of Winston. Since he is unlikely to be charged before the Heisman ballots are due, voters are going to have to think long and hard about whether or not to give him the benefit of the doubt. One of the ironies of this race is that the more unsettled it becomes, the more it likely benefits Winston. After all, spurning the FSU freshman is easier to do if there is a consensus alternative to choose from. For about 30 minutes on Saturday, it looked like McCarron might emerge as that guy — and he still might — but Bama’s loss clouds that possibility. So who is that consensus alternative now?
Complicating this analysis a bit is the fact that a few games still yet to be played can sway the race one way or the other. Lynch has a chance to become college football’s first 2,000 passer/2,000 rusher if he has a huge rushing performance in the MAC title game. If he does that, he might give voters wavering over Winston a viable alternative, which may result in denying Winston the trophy (that it would then go to Lynch seems to be a long shot, but stranger things have happened).
Winston himself plays Duke in the ACC title game, affording him another chance to pad his already-considerable production. Baylor takes on Texas, which means Petty has one more shot to impress voters. And Miller will be featured in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State. While Miller won’t win the Heisman, he (and Lynch and Petty) could determine its outcome by sucking away votes that might otherwise go to other contenders.
How the regions shake out will determine the winner. We have a good idea who might win the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South and Southwest, but who will win the Far West and MidWest?
The results of this year’s voting could look very much like it did in 2001 (Eric Crouch) and 1962 (Terry Baker). In those years, the victor won by small margins with a point total in the realm of 700 points or so. As many as five contenders below them gained significant enough support to either win a region or depress the winner’s support in a region or two. In Crouch’s case, he won the Heisman despite winning just one region while the runner up, Rex Grossman, won two. We could also see a situation like 1994, when the Heisman Trust decided to invite six finalists to the awards ceremony as a result of significant strength by numerous candidates down the list. Whatever the case, I suspect at least five finalists are in the cards for this year’s ceremony.
There are several outstanding candidates to choose from in this race. As usual, the player who enough voters deem had the most outstanding season will win the trophy. Figuring out who that player will be requires an understanding of what voters look for when making their choice. However, as a Heisman voter myself, I am truly conflicted in this matter. I really have no idea what my final ballot will look like.
Anecdotal evidence suggests I am not alone in this outlook and that’s why this year’s ceremony could be the most suspenseful and dramatic of all time.