What would happen if you took all of the Heisman winners and tried to figure out which ones had the best of the best seasons?
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The Heisman is supposed to go to the player who had the best year, so throwing out everything else you know about many of the greatest college football players ever and only going by their Heisman winning years – and NOT taking into account how they did in the pros – here’s how they’d stack up.
This isn’t a ranking of the best players of all-time, just their particular seasons.
One key note – the information available now is night-and-day better than it was back in past eras. With the Internet, ESPN, on-demand stats, better television coverage, better direct marketing campaigns, and more sophisticated sports information departments, the Heisman voting is generally stronger than it was in the old days when you needed to either play for a powerhouse to be considered.
That’s why many of the older winners are further down the list – they weren’t necessarily the best candidates. However, that didn’t stop a few major mistakes in recent seasons.
There are several things to take into account about these rankings.
The Heisman ends up almost always going to junior or senior offensive skill players, and until recently, so many deserving freshman and sophomores since 1936 have missed out, and many deserving non-skill players haven’t been included in the fun.
Don’t forget the race factor before 1961 when Syracuse’s Ernie Davis won. Several African-Americans were deserving before Davis, but didn’t win.
Finally, don’t just go by statistics. Different eras meant different things to the numbers.
And finally, several players on this list had better seasons than their Heisman winning years, but they don’t count. For example, Army’s Glenn Davis would’ve probably ended up in the top three if either of the two seasons before his Heisman winning year were included. Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers was better in 1971 than he was in 1972 when he won the Heisman. Only the Heisman winning seasons count.
1. 1988 Barry Sanders, RB Oklahoma State
runner-up: Rodney Peete, QB USC
Sanders’ 1988 season ranks among the most dominant in the history of sports alongside Babe Ruth’s 60-home run 1927 campaign, Wayne Gretzky’s 92-goal season of 1981-1982 (and maybe his 215 point year in 1985-1986) and Jerry Rice’s 1987 season when he caught 22 touchdowns passes in 12 games. The backup to Thurman Thomas and an All-America kickoff returner the year before, Sanders exploded for 2,628 yards and 39 touchdowns. Throw in the bowl game stats, like the NCAA does now, and Sanders ran for 2,850 yards and scored 44 times. By himself, Sanders would’ve finished 14th in rushing among all 2010 teams.
2. 1976 Tony Dorsett, RB Pittsburgh
runner-up: Ricky Bell, RB USC
Dorsett didn’t just put up big numbers on the way to becoming the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader, he was amazing in the big games, leading the Pitt Panthers to the national championship averaging 215 yards per game over the final seven, and finishing with 1,948 yards and 23 touchdowns. During the streak he tore off a 224-yard day against Penn State before closing out with a record 202-yard performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Georgia.
3. 1981 Marcus Allen, RB USC
runner-up: Herschel Walker, RB Georgia
It had to be a really, really good season to be better than Herschel Walker’s best year. Allen was college football’s first 2,000-yard rusher with 2,427 yards (2,342 before the bowl) and 22 touchdowns in his tremendous senior season. He set 14 NCAA records and tied two others including most 200-yard games in a row with five. He also led the Trojans in receptions with 34 for 256 yards and a score.
4. 2010 Cam Newton, QB Auburn
runner-up: Andrew Luck, QB Stanford
Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007 as the first player to ever run for 20 touchdowns and throw for 20 scores in the same season, but Florida didn’t play for the national title. Newton led the nation in passing efficiency, ran for 20 touchdowns, threw for 28 scores, with just six interceptions, and finished first in the SEC and 15th in the nation in rushing with 1,409 yards … and he took Auburn to the BCS Championship.
Beyond the stats, the size, the speed, and the cool play under fire, rallying Auburn back from a 24-0 deficit against Alabama being the signature moment, make this among the greatest seasons in college football history. However, his all-timer of a year will always be attached to the controversy regarding his father and an alleged pay-for-play solicitation from Mississippi State.
5. 1982 Herschel Walker, RB Georgia
runner-up: John Elway, QB Stanford
Walker actually had a better season in 1981, but there was no way he was getting past USC’s Marcus Allen. In 1982, Walker ran for 1,752 yards and 17 touchdowns carrying Georgia to an SEC title and a shot at the national title. What’s more amazing is that he amassed those totals after running for just 20 yards in the season opener against Clemson hurt by a broken thumb. Even though he was playing in a cast, he ran for 124 yards against BYU and 143 against South Carolina. The cast came off and Walker went nuts averaging 183 yards per game over his final eight.