What Makes a Heisman Winner?

By Tim Sever

Reading Time: 7 minutes


The Heisman trophy is the most prestigious individual award in all of college football. It measures personal greatness and adds to a program’s prestige; top schools brag about how many Heisman winners they have produced. With that being said, what qualifies a player as a Heisman winner? What boxes need to be checked off? After researching the topic, there seems to be a pretty clear formula to becoming a Heisman winner.

Coaches recruit players whom they believe to be the top talent in each high school class. If this holds true, then the top talent should attend the best schools, who should in turn become the future Heisman winners. Since recruiting rankings are a relatively new service, there is only data provided from 2000 on. The last 14 Heisman winners have graduated high school since 2000, giving a relatively small data pool to analyze as high school prospects. While you might expect Heisman winners to be top of the line recruits, that does not always hold true. There have been as many 3 star recruits to win the Heisman as 5 star recruits since 2000. This essentially means as many mid-tier prospects have won as many Heismans as the top tier guys. The narrative that top high school players go on to college greatness is especially untrue recently, with the last two Heisman winners (Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson) both being 3 star recruits in high school. In fact, Baker Mayfield is the lowest nationally ranked player out of high school to win the Heisman, ranked as the 1,029th best player in his high school class. The average and median star value of a Heisman winner as a high school prospect is four stars, which is pretty high. Heisman winners are not usually unheard of players such as Mayfield, they are usually somewhat established recruits that are pursued by top programs. Since Mayfield’s ranking is such an outlier, it is more beneficial to discuss medians rather than means with the data. The median national ranking for a future winner is 152 with a median positional ranking of 7. This furthers the idea that Heisman winners are not out of nowhere, they are respected recruits. Generally speaking, the Heisman winner has a 50% chance of falling somewhere in the 2-12 range of position rankings. Since most Heisman winners are almost always QBs or RBs, looking at the top 12 of each of these will most likely give you a future Heisman winner. There has not been a non-QB/RB winner since Charles Woodson in 1997, making it safe to assume that being a QB or a RB plays a huge part in winning the Heisman trophy.

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Not only does a player have to be a solid recruit, but most of the time the player has to play for a premier program. For the purpose of analyzing the data, we will only be considering the “Modern Era” of college football, starting from 1982. This year was picked because a lot of conference reshuffling was done along with the implementation of most current NCAA policies. Since 1982, there have been 36 Heisman Trophy winners. All but three of these winners play for programs that are now in a Power Five conference, with the only exceptions being Andre Ware (Houston), Ty Detmer (BYU) and Tim Brown (Notre Dame, which is recognized as a top program). All but three of the winners’ teams played in a major conference at the time the award was given. The exceptions were Brown, Doug Flutie for Boston College, and Vinny Testaverde for Miami. Miami and Boston College have since joined major conferences and are now part of the ACC. Not only does the player’s school have to be apart of a major conference or at least be a well known program, but it also has to be successful in the particular year. On average, a Heisman winner’s team has gone 11-2 since 1982, with the worst record being 8-4 and the best being 14-0. The only two players to overcome 4 loss seasons are Bo Jackson and Lamar Jackson, both of whom put up historic numbers in their given years. So, unless you put up one of the greatest statistical seasons in college football history, having four losses eliminates you as a contender. Furthermore, on average, a Heisman winner’s team is ranked 6th in the AP Poll at the end of the season. The only player to overcome an unranked season was Bo Jackson with Auburn, and they dropped out of the then AP Top 20 in the final week of the season. For a player to truly be Heisman worthy, his team has to generally be ranked from 2nd-8th at the end of the season. Eight players’ teams have finished number 1st in the AP Poll. As you can see, team success is a huge part of a valid Heisman candidacy. Not only does the award demand personal greatness, but also greatness on a team level. This is another reason why Heisman winners tend to play for the top teams in the country, as discussed earlier. These programs have more talent at their disposal to win games which in turn gives a player Heisman hopes. It makes sense when you think about it. Is a RB going to run for over two thousand yards without a great offensive line? Is a quarterback going to throw for 40 TDs if his wide receivers are terrible? Probably not.

Now that we know a player generally has to be a well-known recruit and also play for a successful team, what does a player have to do statistically to ensure a viable candidacy? To start, being a quarterback is great, being a running back is good, and being anything else is pretty tough. The only non-QB/RB winners since 1982 are Tim Brown (WR, Notre Dame 1987), Desmond Howard (WR/Punt returner, Michigan 1991), and Charles Woodson (DB/Punt returner, Michigan 1997). Tim Brown earned the nickname “Touchdown Timmy” in his time at Notre Dame, having success as a rusher, receiver, and kick returner. He was widely recognized as the most dangerous player in college football at the time. Desmond Howard hauled in 61 passes for 960 yards and a ridiculous 19 TDs. He also ran for 165 yards and two TDs while racking up another two TDs in the return game. Finally, Charles Woodson totalled 43 tackles and 7 interceptions on the defensive side of the ball. He also saw time as an effective punt returner and receiver, totalling 165 receiving yards and a TD. Woodson’s Heisman is largely attributed to his versatility, rather than his statistics, which had not been seen in decades. It also did not hurt that Michigan went undefeated that season.

On the other hand, the Heisman is more realistic for a running back, but still an uphill climb nonetheless. Since 1982, there have been 11 running backs to win the award, which works out to be about 30.5% of winners, however there have only be 3 running backs to win since the year 2000. Clearly an RB has better chances than some other skill position or defensive players. This does not mean that it is easy for a running back to win the award. Analyzing the data from the 11 running backs who have won this award since 1982, on average a Heisman running back rushes for 2006 yards and 23 TDs, also while totalling 205 receiving yards and 1 TD. Before we decide how impressive those numbers really are, we should look at the stats a QB has to put up to win the award. Since the data is extremely skewed due to the effect of dual threat QBs, I decided to use the median for the statistics. A Heisman winning QB usually throws for around 3,670 yards, 33 TDs, and 9 interceptions at about a 64.75% completion percentage. They also run for about 211.5 yards and 4 TDs. However, the rushing stats are less important unless the QB is a dual threat type player like Lamar Jackson. So given all of these stats, who is harder to win the Heisman for? In the 2017 NCAA Football season, four QBs met the passing requirements (that is over the yardage and the TDs, and under the picks), and two met both the passing and rushing requirements (one of them being Heisman winner Baker Mayfield). This system does overcompensate for these stats, as those four/two have to have outperformed the average Heisman winning QB. For running backs in 2017, only one RB (Rashaad Penny) achieved the rushing stats, and he failed to reach the receiving stats. In 2016, four quarterbacks met the criteria while no running backs did (Heisman winner Lamar Jackson did not reach the passing stats but overperformed in the rushing stats). Finally in 2015, four quarterbacks and one running back achieved these criteria. While this is a small sample size, you get the point. Given the statistical output a Heisman requires, quarterbacks are much more likely to win the award, because the statistical requirements are less strict. If a player is able to reach these lofty statistical goals, there is about a 15% chance that this player wins the award, going back seven years. If you include players that narrowly missed the thresholds in the last seven campaigns, that percentage spikes to 27%. Going back to 2011, 4 out of the 7 winners have reached these thresholds, with the other three either narrowly missing them or making up for them in some way. For example, Johnny Manziel and Lamar Jackson made up for slight shortcomings in the passing game with dual threat capabilities.

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Given all of this information about past winners, who is in the best position to win the trophy this year? Obviously, Alabama’s star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is a frontrunner along with Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray. Tua and Kyler both check off every single box that is required of a legitimate Heisman favorite. As a high school recruit, both were the number one 5-star dual-threat QB in their class. There isn’t a better team to play for in terms of team success than Alabama for Tua. Oklahoma is also having a great season, with both teams earning a spot in the playoff. Finally, the statistical dominance is also there for Tua. His stats are even more impressive when considering he has sat large chunks of most second halves this season. With the reduced playing time, Tua still has a solid yardage total and is among the country’s leaders in TDs, all while throwing only a few interceptions. Kyler Murray’s statistics may be even more impressive, as he adds a rushing component as well. In conclusion, Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray look to be well on their way to capturing the Heisman for either the Crimson Tide or the Sooners this season, and perhaps a National Championship as well.

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