Remembering the Preseason Hype Around the Last 10 Heisman Trophy Winners
The last two Heisman Trophy winners have been redshirt freshmen. The winner before them played for (what then was) one of the most pitiable programs in the country, and the winner before him was a first-year junior college transfer.
No matter their respective pedigrees, none of those players were a favorite to win the Heisman the August before they did. They all may have been part of the discussion, but the hoopla around them was nothing compared to some of the other preseason candidates.
This marks a steep departure from the way things were at the beginning part of the last 10 years. Back in the early 2000s, it seemed preseason Heisman predictions actually came true. The players we backed in the summer stayed atop the board come winter.
How did we get to where we are today? It's hard to say for sure. But the origins and benefit of that parity is a discussion for another day.
Instead, let's relive the path we took to get here.
2004: QB Matt Leinart, USC
Heisman Hype (1-10): 9
Matt Leinart entered the previous season (2003) as a relative no-name tasked with the impossible job of replacing Carson Palmer.
He ended it after throwing three touchdowns to beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl—helping USC win the farce of a partial national title.
Thus, despite losing his top receiving options in Mike Williams (who foolishly pursued the NFL draft as a sophomore) and Keary Colbert, the strong-armed and -jawed quarterback entered 2004 as one of the favorites to repeat Palmer's glory and take home the Heisman.
Under the guidance of offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who was at the time considered an offensive savant, there was no reason to think Leinart would not post Heisman-caliber numbers.
The only reason he doesn't get a 10 on the hype scale is because the 2003 winner, Oklahoma QB Jason White, was returning to school that season and was considered the logical favorite.
2005: RB Reggie Bush, USC*
Heisman Hype (1-10): 9
Matt Leinart was returning for a shot at his second Heisman Trophy in 2005, but it was his teammate— electric all-purpose back Reggie Bush—whom many fancied the favorite before the season.
There was a reason for that.
Beyond just voter fatigue and the fact that no one had won two Heismans since the mid-1970s (Archie Griffin), Bush was perhaps the most popular player in the country—already donning the cover of multiple national magazines.
Leinart may have been the shaggy-haired, golden-boy quarterback, but Bush was the one you paid money to watch.
When you put up numbers like his at an esteemed position like "USC running back," sometimes that's the all-important factor.
*Heisman has since been vacated.
2006: Troy Smith, Ohio State
Heisman Hype (1-10): 8
Troy Smith came along at the perfect time.
Chris Huston of HeismanPundit.com ranked him third in the preseason rankings before the 2006 season—in large part because of his duality, his 2005 stats and the fact that he played for Ohio State.
But there was another reason, too. Smith, Huston felt, might benefit by being a similar player to former Texas quarterback Vince Young, whom many thought should have beaten Reggie Bush in 2004:
He is this year’s Vince Young in that he is a dynamic, multi-threat quarterback who is the undisputed leader and engine of his national title-contending team. Since the Buckeye’s are the preseason No. 1 and he plays for a traditional power, Smith has a nice starting point in this Heisman race. Any other year, he might be the front runner.
Smith could be both helped and hurt by Young’s amazing performance last season. On the one hand, he could benefit from those voters who now feel that Young was the deserving winner over Reggie Bush and that Smith is now the next best thing. Or, he could ultimately pale in comparison when voters put the two side by side in their minds.
Smith benefited just as Huston predicted, and he also played well enough to avoid any potential "paling in comparison" to Young. He was a wire-to-wire favorite who ultimately claimed the award during a 12-0 regular season.
Lucky for him, this award gets handed out before January.
2007: Tim Tebow, Florida
Heisman Hype (1-10): 7
After platooning behind Chris Leak for the 2006 Florida team that won a national championship, it was unclear—as it has been his whole career—whether Tim Tebow was an every-down quarterback, a situational quarterback or a party trick for use near the goal line.
At the college level, we found out quickly that he was an every-down quarterback—and a good one at that. He eradicated fears about his arm with 300 yards and three touchdowns against Western Kentucky in the season-opener—and never looked back.
"I think Urban (Meyer) wanted to showcase his arm and prove to the media and the people in the world that he was a great throwing quarterback," said receiver Andre Caldwell, per ESPN.com. "You can't ask for too much [more] from a first-year starter in his first game."
Tebow finished his sophomore season with more than 4,000 total yards and 50 total touchdowns, completing 66.9 percent of his passes and leading the country in adjusted passing yards per attempt.
He proved decisively that he was more than just a threat with his feet.
Tebow's Heisman was a tad surprising for that reason, which is why he checks in with only a seven on the hype scale.
He successfully avoided becoming the mid-2000s version of Blake Bell.
But he was also a blue-chip recruit coming out of high school and playing for an Urban Meyer offense that just won the national title and had Percy Harvin, Caldwell, Louis Murphy and Cornelius Ingram as weapons. It's not like this success came out of nowhere.
2008: QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma
Heisman Hype (1-10): 6
Sam Bradford was not a Heisman favorite in 2008—he didn't even appear on the August Top 10 at HeismanPundit.com—but he was right on the periphery of being so after throwing for 3,121 yards, 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2007.
However, that season ended on an ugly note. West Virginia trampled Oklahoma by 20 points in the Fiesta Bowl. Even though the defense was more culpable than the offense, it was unclear if Bradford's team would be good enough to win him the award.
In hindsight, that was stupid.
Oklahoma is Oklahoma, and they were still coming off an 11-2 regular season and a trip to a BCS bowl. Of course they would be good enough for Bradford to win the Heisman—the offense in particular, with Juaquin Iglesias, Jermaine Gresham and Manuel Johnson all returning to catch passes.
We didn't know he'd throw for 4,700 yards and 50 touchdowns, but we did know he'd be one of the better QBs in the country.
2009: RB Mark Ingram, Alabama
Heisman Hype (1-10): 3
Nowadays, we know better.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Mark Ingram looked better than Glen Coffee at times in 2008, but he did not look quite like a future Heisman winner. And even though Alabama was on the precipice of a national championship, the Crimson Tide were not quite the dynasty they are today—at least not until the end of that season.
So there's a reason Ingram's name went unmentioned in the August straw poll at HeismanPundit.com, and there's a reason people were somewhere between awed and impressed when he rushed for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns on an undefeated football team.
Ingram didn't come out of nowhere, but he still snuck up on us.
2010: QB Cam Newton, Auburn
Heisman Hype (1-10): 4
No one was quite sure what to expect from Cam Newton when he arrived at Auburn in 2010.
Was the talent there? Definitely.
He was 6'6" and could move and make every throw. He was also the No. 3 overall player on the 247Sports JUCO Composite—one year after transferring out of Florida.
But Auburn was just 13-12 the previous two seasons, so even if Newton panned out perfectly, the Tigers seemed at least one year away.
No one could have foreseen the extent of his dominance, which is why a very similar player—a player one might now call a poor man's version of Newton—was the August favorite at HeismanPundit.com.
But Terrelle Pryor was never, truly, in the same class as Newton.
2011: QB Robert Griffin III, Baylor
Heisman Hype (1-10): 4
Robert Griffin III proved in 2010—the season before his Heisman run in 2011—that he had recovered well from a torn ACL in 2009, combining for more than 4,000 yards of offense and 40 touchdowns.
What he didn't prove, however, was that Baylor could be taken seriously as a team in the Big 12 and the country.
After starting the season 7-2, Griffin's Bears lost their final four games by an average of 23 points, sputtering into the finish and dashing what semblance of Heisman momentum RGIII may have had.
Because it was clear that he could post big numbers, Griffin was at least on some people's radar before the season. But he didn't show up on the August straw poll at HeismanPundit.com, and it wasn't until his Week 1 breakout against TCU that people truly fell in love with him.
2012: QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Heisman Hype (1-10): 2
Even after he did, Texas A&M was supposed to get crushed in its transition from the Big 12 to the big, bad SEC. Manziel could pan out better than anyone expected, and he would still have been lucky to lead his Aggies to a winning record against their schedule.
Before the 2012 season, there was Matt Barkley and then everybody else. A few weeks in, it was Geno Smith's award to lose. In hindsight, knowing what we know now, that sounds hilarious—but it's the truth.
Manziel was not on anybody's radar—save anyone who saw him play at Tivy. And even they must have been skeptics.
No freshman had ever won the Heisman, redshirt or not, and this baby-faced 5'11" drink of water would not be the first.
That is...until he was.
2013: QB Jameis Winston, Florida State
Heisman Hype (1-10): 6
The glass ceiling was shattered by Johnny Manziel in 2012. A freshman had won the Heisman. So Jameis Winston entered 2013 a realistic-if-not-trendy sleeper to follow in his footsteps.
He was not a favorite, but no first-year starter ever was or ever will be.
Still, after his performance in the FSU spring game—a performance so good Clint Trickett promptly transferred to West Virginia—it was clear that Jameis was not your average redshirt freshman quarterback.
He was closer to Manziel than the next best thing.
This helps explain the ranking given to Winston by Zac Ellis of SI.com, who grouped the Seminoles QB with other young starters such as Brett Hundley of UCLA, Trevor Knight of Oklahoma and Devin Gardner of Michigan on the fourth tier of preseason Heisman candidates.
At the time, he was nothing but a promising dark horse.