What would happen if you took all 86 Heisman winners and tried to figure out who were the most worthy and who had the best seasons in their respective campaigns?
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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 factoring in how they did in the pros – here’s how their respective winning seasons would stack up.
This isn’t a ranking of the best players of all-time. It’s a ranking of how good each Heisman-winning season was compared to the rest of the field, and put into a historical sense.
There are several things to take into account with all-time Heisman rankings.
– The information available now is night-and-day better than it was 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 – 2020 finish behind DeVonta Smith aside – far, far stronger than it was in the old days.
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, too.
– Historically, the Heisman almost always went to junior or senior offensive skill players – underclassmen winning the thing is relatively new.
– Race was a massive deal, especially before 1961 when Syracuse’s Ernie Davis broke through and won. Several African-Americans were deserving before Davis, but didn’t win.
– Don’t just go by statistics. Different eras meant different things to the numbers.
– Who was the signature player in each season? That’s always debatable, but a whole lot of older winners got the Heisman because it was their turn, and not necessarily because they were the biggest stars of the season or had the best campaigns.
– 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.
And finally, all of these players were amazing, all of them are legends, and all of them are key parts of the history of college football. There’s no ripping on the players here – it’s all about the worthiness of the win in their respective seasons.
And with that …
86. 1967 Gary Beban, QB UCLA
runner-up: O.J. Simpson, RB USC
The strangest of all Heisman victories, Beban only threw for 1,359 yards with eight touchdown passes and eight interceptions. His one shining moment came on national television completing 16 of 24 passes for 301 yards with two touchdowns and an interception against USC. There was one problem … UCLA lost thanks to a scintillating performance from Trojan star RB O.J. Simpson.
Simpson led his team to the national title thanks to a historic 64-yard touchdown run against the Bruins to finish with 1,543 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns. Beban did run for 11 scores on the season, but he only gained 227 yards.
85. 1953 Johnny Lattner, HB Notre Dame
runner-up: Paul Giel, HB Minnesota
Call this one for the Notre Dame hype machine. Lattner didn’t even lead the Irish in passing, rushing, receiving or scoring. He was a great all-purpose player and a fantastic defensive back, but his close win over Minnesota’s Paul Giel is among Heisman historians’ all-time arguments.
84. 2001 Eric Crouch, QB Nebraska
runner-up: Rex Grossman, QB Florida
Had Florida’s Rex Grossman been a senior and Nebraska’s Eric Crouch been a sophomore, and not the other way around, it would’ve been a Grossman landslide. Crouch had a great year rushing, but his claim to the honor was a touchdown catch to seal a win over Oklahoma. Grossman threw for fewer than 300 yards once, 290 in the win over Florida State, and in the team’s biggest games he threw for 362 against Tennessee, 464 against LSU and 407 against Georgia.
83. 1971 Pat Sullivan, QB Auburn
runner-up: Ed Marinaro, RB Cornell
Sullivan was a fine passer, but he was known more for being a great winner and leader, getting Auburn to a 9-0 start. However, he had his worst performance in the biggest game of the year, throwing for only 121 yards with two interceptions in a 31-7 loss to Alabama. On the year, he threw for 2,262 yards and 21 touchdowns with 13 picks, and he ran for 66 yards and two scores. He won partly because he was tremendous the year before – he had a better 1970 season.
82. 1992 Gino Torretta, QB Miami
runner-up: Marshall Faulk, RB San Diego State
Torretta’s name has become unfairly become synonymous for players who win the Heisman when voters can’t decide on a candidate. He threw for a solid 3,060 yards and 19 touchdowns with seven interceptions before the Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama, but it helped that he was a senior, and San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk and Georgia’s Garrison Hearst weren’t.
81. 1956 Paul Hornung, QB Notre Dame
runner-up: Johnny Majors, RB Tennessee
Either you could say Hornung won because of the Notre Dame name, or you can just call him a victim of circumstance as he was a great player on a lousy team. The only Heisman winner from a losing team, he only ran for 420 yards and racked up 1,337 yards of total offense. However, stats don’t measure quite how good he was on an awful team.
80. 1947 Johnny Lujack, QB Notre Dame
runner-up: Bob Chappus, HB Michigan
Sort of the early version of Gino Torretta, Lujack won the Heisman as the signature player on a ridiculously talented team. Along with being one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the first half of the 20th Century, he was also known for being a top tackler.
79. 1975 Archie Griffin, RB Ohio State
runner-up: Chuck Muncie, RB California
One of the great Heisman debates, Griffin won his second straight award despite only rushing for only four touchdowns – Pete Johnson took carries and stats away rushing for 1,059 yards and 26 touchdowns. Cal’s Chuck Muncie ran for 1,460 yards averaging 6.4 yards per carry with 13 touchdowns. Worse yet, Griffin had his only non-100-yard day against Michigan with a 46-yard performance. The Buckeyes still won and went off to the Rose Bowl where they lost to UCLA – Griffin ran for 93 yards.
78. 1958 Pete Dawkins, RB Army
runner-up: Randy Duncan, QB Iowa
Dawkins was the leader of a mighty Army team that went 8-0-1. He ran for 12 touchdowns and was a decent kick returner, but he primarily won the Heisman for being the American ideal. He was smart, good-looking, and the top player for the high-powered Army team.
77. 1959 Billy Cannon, HB LSU
runner-up: Rich Lucas, QB Penn State
Cannon was the heart and soul of the 11-0 LSU team … in 1958. He was good in 1959, remembered for a legendary performance in a 7-3 win over Ole Miss, but he won the Award off the year before. Had he won it in 1958, Cannon would be much, much higher on this list.
76. 1964 John Huarte, QB Notre Dame
runner-up: Jerry Rhome, QB Tulsa
Huarte had a good season leading the Irish to a 9-1 record, but it was nothing special, only completing 57% of his passes for 2,062 yards and 16 touchdowns.