How BCS Era Turned the Heisman Trophy into Glorified QB Award

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistJune 20, 2014

USA Today

This year will mark the 80th anniversary of the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious award in college football. The honor is meant to go to "an individual designated as the outstanding college football player in the United States," as it says on the Heisman website.

We don't know how old that text is, but a more modern description might as well say, "the best quarterback, unless none of them are any good," as that's what the Heisman seems to have become: another trophy for the top college passer.

It hasn't always been this way.

Running backs are still the most common winner since the first trophy was awarded in 1935, taking home the honor 39 times, with quarterbacks getting the second-most awards at 33. But 19 of those QB wins have come since 1984, when Boston College's Doug Flutie ended a streak of 12 straight Heismans won by rushers.

In some years the Heisman voting is so weighted toward quarterbacks they represent the only position invited to the awards ceremony, as was the case in 2008.
In some years the Heisman voting is so weighted toward quarterbacks they represent the only position invited to the awards ceremony, as was the case in 2008.Kelly Kline/Associated Press

It's been even more lopsided since the BCS era began in 1998.

While Texas' Ricky Williams and Wisconsin's Ron Dayne won as running backs those first two years, after that it's been almost exclusively quarterbacks.

Only Reggie Bush (2005) and Mark Ingram (in 2009) have prevented the last 15 years from completely morphing the Heisman into the Davey O'Brien Award—an honor specifically for quarterbacks—and only Bush's came in a year when there were legitimate Heisman contenders who threw the ball.

(Worth noting: Bush's Heisman was vacated by the Heisman Trust in 2010, a side effect of NCAA violations against USC for impermissible benefits received by Bush during his time in school. Because of that, technically, quarterbacks claimed every Heisman from 2000 to 2008.)

And it's not even that quarterbacks just happen to be finishing first in the Heisman balloting. That position pretty much has stuffed the ballot box to the point that 65 percent of the players to finish in the top five in any given year since 1998 have all hailed from the same position, as the chart below shows.

Heisman Performance By Position (BCS Era, 1998-2013)
PositionWinnersRunners-upTop-5 Finish
Running back4421
Wide receiver013
Defensive tackle001
Heisman Trophy Web site

How did this happen? A few theories deserve to be discussed.

First, there's the concept that the running back position has been devalued. This would lend itself to a trickle-down effect from the NFL, where teams aren't going out of their way to draft running backs early. This past draft saw the first rusher go late in the second round, the second year in a row without a first-round pick used on that position.

Running backs have never been the marquee choice in the draft, and it's been 19 years since Ki-Jana Carter went No. 1 overall, but even current and former pro players are acknowledging the position just doesn't have the sizzle it had before. Former NFL great LaDainian Tomlinson said as much to Sporting News' David Steele:

Think of the kid who's starting out playing football now—kids want to play wide receiver. Back in the day, you wanted to play running back because you wanted the ball … That's going to be the norm from now on.

With the best young athletes looking to be in a position other than running back, it stands to reason that the best rushers in college won't end up being good enough to be considered the top overall player in the country.

But a better explanation might be one that involves the past dictating the future.

Since the Heisman quarterback dominance began in 2000, predictions related to who would win the award have been heavily skewed toward passers.

Other positions get thrown into early "watch lists," while running backs, wide receivers and even a few defensive players get mentioned each year as contenders, but by and large the majority of players who get early hype for the Heisman are quarterbacks.

Don't believe it? Then check out the preseason Heisman short lists from Sporting News,, National Football Post (via Yahoo Sports), Heisman Pundit and Sports Illustrated, to name a few, for the 2014 season. The majority of the "contenders," "front-runners" or "favorites," depending on how they're being categorized, are quarterbacks.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 14:  Jameis Winston, quarterback of the Florida State Seminoles, poses with the trophy during a press conference after the 2013 Heisman Trophy Presentation at the Marriott Marquis on December 14, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by J
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

And while reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and UCLA's Brett Hundley appear on all of them, the emphasis on quarterbacks is prevalent. So much so that Jacob Coker—who backed up EJ Manuel and Winston at Florida State, hardly ever playing, and is now in a competition to win the starting job at Alabama after transferring—is on Sports Illustrated's list of potential Heisman candidates.

Even Chris Huston, author of the Heisman Pundit website, limited his 25-person watch list to players who have actually achieved something in college.

These early lists aren't meant to be considered gospel, as breakouts can (and will) emerge as the 2014 season progresses. But odds are most of those who get added to the roster of legitimate contenders will be quarterbacks, something we must resign ourselves to accepting as the Heisman moves closer and closer to being a quarterback-only award.

It's almost like we enter each year assuming a quarterback will win the Heisman, because that's how it's been lately and nothing indicates that should change. The BCS era is to blame for this, especially if you look at how games have been played during that time span.

Bleacher Report's Amy Daughters compared offensive stats from before the BCS and during, and it wasn't surprising to see that the numbers have gone way up. And even less startling was how much quarterbacks had to do with the offensive boom:

The number of 3,000-yard quarterbacks doubled from 1987 to 1997 and then tripled from the beginning of the BCS until 2007.... Proving that the bar is being pushed up even further is the fact that there were zero 4,000-yard passers in 1987 and 1997, but there were six in 2007 and nine in 2013.

At the same time, running back production increased at only a fraction of the rate of quarterback output.

Is there any sign this will stop? The BCS era has come and gone, with the College Football Playoff replacing it and giving us our first legitimate tournament to determine a national champion. But that new system isn't likely to have an effect on the Heisman and who it's handed down to, since the CFP games all occur weeks after voting is over and the trophy is locked away in the winner's trophy case.

Not a fan of the Heisman being a glorified quarterback award? As long as college football continues to trend toward passers being as important as they are, it's not likely to change.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.


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