Why Small School Stars Should Be Given Fair Consideration for the Heisman

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistNovember 20, 2013

Can you name the last player from a non-power conference to win the Heisman Trophy?

Beyond that, can you think of the last small-school guy who finished in the top three of the Heisman voting?

The fact that these questions are difficult to answer makes a clear case that the Heisman overlooks athletes from smaller schools.

In case you were wondering, here are the answers:

  • The last non-power winner was BYU quarterback Ty Detmer in 1990. The Cougars won the WAC.
  • The last small-school guy to finish in the top three was Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan, who came in third in the voting in 2007. The Warriors went 12-1 that year and—like BYU in ‘90—won the WAC.

To paint a clearer picture, here is a list of the top five Heisman finishers from non-power conference programs since Detmer won in 1990.

Top-Five Heisman Finishers from Small Schools since 1990
19901Ty DetmerBYUWAC
19922Marshall FaulkSDSUWAC
20073Colt BrennanHawaiiWAC
19943Steve McNairAlcorn St.FCS-SWAC
19913Ty DetmerBYUWAC
20104Kellen MooreBoise St.WAC
20044Alex SmithUtahMountain West
20004LaDainian TomlinsonTCUWAC
19974Randy MossMarshallMAC
19934Marshall FaulkSDSUWAC
20015David CarrFresno St.WAC
19995Chad PenningtonMarshallMAC
Sports Reference/College Football

It’s interesting to note that, since the BCS came to power in 1998, only one small-school guy has finished in the top three. Beyond that, only five have finished in the top five.

There have been 15 Heisman ballots since 1998, or 45 top-three and 75 top-five finishers in the BCS era.

Of these, only 2.2 percent of the top three finishers and 6.7 percent of the top five finishers have hailed from non-BCS conferences.

This means that a non-BCS Heisman candidate has a 2 percent chance of finishing in the top three and less than 7 percent odds of finishing in the top five.

Furthermore, non-BCS stars have a 0 percent chance of winning the Heisman trophy.


What is the Heisman?

Here’s how the Heisman is defined in the Heisman Trust Mission Statement:

The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.

Though it has long been argued as to whether the Heisman should go to the best player on the best team, the most valuable player on a high-achieving team or the best overall individual player in the game, the actual definition of the award gives little concrete direction.

Subjective terms such as “outstanding”, “excellence”, “great ability” and “perseverance” give Heisman voters little objective criteria to go on.

In reality, a wide throng of football players could be considered “the outstanding college football player” based on a number of standards—statistical and otherwise.

Think about it this way: Should it be the top rusher, the top passer, the top rusher who is also the top student or the top passer who plays for a conference champion?

What has happened over time is that the lack of clear benchmarks in defining the Heisman have led to an unwritten voting culture that excludes smaller-school athletes.

This is less a conspiracy by “the man” to disrespect the “little guy” than a natural process.

Though you could make a case that the big-school guys deserve the tag “most outstanding” because they are playing the stiffest competition—or the best of the best—the FBS division consists of 125 teams, not just the 62 teams in the top five conferences.


Is There One Top Division or Two?

Perhaps the most compelling big-picture question in college football—one that touches controversies ranging from the BCS, the playoff, the Heisman, additional scholarship stipends and paying players—is: Should the FBS be split into two divisions?

Think about it this way: Are the University of Houston and the University of Texas playing for the same thing?

While the Longhorns have a legitimate shot at the BCS trophy (or the playoff moving forward), the Cougars, well, not so much.

On one hand, you have Texas that—according to USA Today—pulled in $163,295,115 in athletic department revenue in 2012. And, on the other, you have Houston, which reported $36,652,492 in 2012.

The additional $126,642,623 goes a long way in fielding a national championship contender, and it makes paying players a stipend or a salary far more realistic.

And if the two programs aren’t on an even playing field, playing for the same title, why would they share similar odds in the race for the top individual award in the game?

The same reason that Houston’s schedule won’t qualify as “difficult enough” to make a national championship is precisely why it won’t send a guy to the Heisman podium either.

It’s not that the Cougars aren’t as good or aren’t as worthy...it’s that the system is set up in a way that doesn’t give them the same chance as Texas or even Baylor.


The Heisman and the BCS: Equally Elitist?

In the same way that the BCS has benevolently tendered small schools a BCS bowl bid from time to time, the Heisman voters have given a gracious nod to the small-school star athlete.

The mentality and approach is eerily similar between the two. Yes, wasn’t Northern Illinois (12-1, ranked No. 16 in the nation) lucky to get that BCS Orange Bowl bid in 2012?

It’s the best they could have ever hoped for, because, you know, a MAC team isn’t going any further, right?

In the same way, wasn’t Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore fortunate to have received enough votes to be No. 4 in the 2010 Heisman voting?

Sure, that guy was good, but wasn’t it such an honor to be mentioned in the same breath (well, almost) as studs like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and LaMichael James?

The truth is, Heisman voters let the little guy show up in New York City but not win the trophy—just like the BCS lets small schools show up to the dance but not win homecoming queen. 


The Proof

The number one argument as to why non-BCS-school guys deserve a legitimate shot at the Heisman trophy is that—as athletes—they are just as good.

While this could be proven by stacking up Heisman candidate stats from small schools versus winners from larger schools, this approach has a flaw.

Yes, again, it’s like the BCS: The small-school stats (yards, touchdowns, wins, losses) were earned against “easier” opponents, while the big-school stats were ground out against the dreaded “big boys.”

To make the point that these little-school guys—the ones who didn’t, don’t and won’t win the Heisman—are as good as the big winners, take a look at this.

NFL Draft: Heisman Winners vs. Top Small-School Finisher
YearWinnerPickTop FinisherPick
1998R. WilliamsTEX5D. CulpepperUCF11
1999R. DayneWIS11C. PenningtonMAR18
2000C. WeinkeFSU106L. TomlinsonTCU5
2001E. CrouchNEB----D. CarrFRES1
2002C. PalmerUSC1B. LeftwichMAR7
2003J. WhiteOK----B. RoethlisbergerMIA11
2004M. LeinartUSC10A. SmithUTAH1
2005R. Bush*USC2D. WilliamsMEM27
2006T. SmithOSU174C. BrennanHAW186
2007T. TebowFLA25C. BrennanHAW186
2008S. BradfordOK1Nate DavisBALL----
2009M. IngramALA28K. MooreBSU----
2010C. NewtonAUB1K. MooreBSU----
2011R. GriffinBAY2C. KeenumHOU----
2012J. ManzielTAMU???J. LynchNILL???
Sports Reference/College Football

Despite the drop-off since 2008, not only have the small-school guys done remarkably well overall in the NFL draft, they’ve also done well in their pro careers.

Here are some stats to chew on: The big-school guys hold only a 3-2 advantage in No. 1 overall picks since 1998 and have had only one less guy go undrafted.

What’s most impressive is that, where the Heisman-BCS guys have had eight first-round draft picks, the top finishers from small schools have had, well, eight.

And remember, the BCS guys have all been Heisman winners, while the guys on the other list didn’t have bronze trophies on their resumes and were from schools like Central Florida, Marshall and Miami (of Ohio, not the one in Florida).

Beyond this, look through the list and consider how each of these guys fared in the pros. Heisman winners like Dayne, Crouch, White and Tebow bombed out, while Tomlinson, Roethlisberger and Culpepper soared.

And then there is Case Keenum, who has risen from the ranks of the undrafted to a starting job in the NFL.

If the true test of ability for football players is success at the “next” level, the small-school Heisman candidates have fared just as well, if not better, than the Heisman winners from big schools.


Statistics courtesy of the Heisman Trophy, Sports Reference/College Football and College Football Data Warehouse.


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