Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon had just rewritten the record books. Last season, on a November afternoon in a 59-24 blowout over Nebraska, Gordon carried the ball 25 times for 408 yards—an average of 16.3 yards per carry—and four touchdowns. His total yardage set a single-game Football Bowl Subdivision record.
Yet, Gordon's chances of winning the Heisman Trophy didn't go up at all following that performance.
The reason? Two words: Marcus Mariota.
The Oregon quarterback was having a banner year, leading the nation in passing efficiency (a 181.75 passer rating) and accounting for dozens of touchdowns throwing and running. It was a foregone conclusion that, barring a dramatic turn of events, Mariota would be the 2014 Heisman winner.
It didn't matter that Gordon was on his way to leading the country with 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground. Mariota would go on to win the Heisman in one of the biggest landslides in history.
"If it had been any other year, Gordon probably could have won," said Bryan Fischer of NFL.com, a Heisman voter.
But Gordon didn't. This is the life for the non-quarterback in today's Heisman race. Even record-breaking performances aren't always enough.
So what is enough then?
The Heisman race is a series of politics, formulas and zero guarantees. "Chris Huston [who runs Heisman.com] believed there were certain benchmarks that had to be hit," Fischer explained. "Certainly, players on teams like USC or Florida State had an inherit advantage."
That's because the Trojans and Seminoles have large fanbases and are on television on a weekly basis. There's a large spotlight waiting to be occupied with the next "Heisman moment."
"Do you play for a good team?" asks Zac Ellis of Sports Illustrated, another Heisman voter. "Do you have good numbers? Do you come up big in big games?"
Those questions apply to all positions, not just quarterbacks. If a non-quarterback can answer "yes" to all of those answers, they may—with an emphasis on may—have a chance to win the Heisman. But only if they follow the other rules:
Historically, running backs—or positions of the running back variety—have won the most Heisman most often. However, the days of three yards and a cloud of dust are largely over.
Quarterbacks have dominated the race as the game has evolved. Starting with Florida State's Chris Weinke in 2000, quarterbacks have won 13 of the last 14 Heisman awards. (Note that those numbers omit former USC running back and '05 winner Reggie Bush, who was removed from the website's list of winners following an NCAA investigation into the program.)
Getting even more specific, five of the last eight winners fell under the dual-threat quarterback category. In the eyes of a Heisman voter, there's tremendous value in a player who touches the ball on every single play and can score in a variety of ways. "They bring the most excitement to the table," said Fischer.
|Heisman Winners (2000-14)|
|2000||Chris Weinke||Florida State||QB||Sr.|
|2006||Troy Smith||Ohio State||QB||Sr.|
|2011||Robert Griffin III||Baylor University||QB||Jr.|
|2012||Johnny Manziel||Texas A&M||QB||Fr.|
|2013||Jameis Winston||Florida State||QB||Fr.|
As a result, non-quarterback Heisman contenders have to get versatile. Even then, it's a long shot. Only two wide receivers have ever won the Heisman: Notre Dame's Tim Brown in 1987 and Michigan's Desmond Howard in 1991. Both contributed on special teams.
Running backs need to get involved in the passing game; on the opposite end, it doesn't hurt if wide receivers get involved in the running game. Both, ideally, must make an impact in the return game on special teams.
Stats aren't everything in a Heisman race, but they are meaningful all the same. The whole idea is that offensive skill players must show they can impact the game in a way comparable to a quarterback.
"There's been a realization that quarterback is the most important position to a team's success," Fischer said. "It' the glamour position. They're the first ones to touch the ball. They're the ones passing it to the receivers and handing it off to the running backs."
What does that mean for a player like Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott or Georgia running back Nick Chubb? The two are currently at 6-1 and 8-1 odds, respectively, to win the Heisman next season, according to Odds Shark.
Unless there's a down year for quarterbacks, they'll have to get more involved somehow. Last season, Elliott caught 28 passes for zero touchdowns, and Chubb recorded only two receiving touchdowns.
Those two players might be elite every-down backs who will go on to have lengthy pro careers, but their Heisman chances (and the chances of all the players like them) realistically go up in one of two ways:
They do more, or quarterbacks do less. Perhaps a little bit of both doesn't hurt.
"A lot of it, if you're a running back or wide receiver, is out of your control," Ellis said. "You need a little bit of help with quarterbacks dropping out."
Play Defense? Forget About It
How improbable is it that a defensive player will win the Heisman? "I don't want to say it's impossible," Fischer said, "but it's going to be extremely difficult."
There has been a defensive Heisman winner before: Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. However, Woodson did a little bit of everything for the Wolverines. True defensive players like Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in 2009 or Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o in 2012 have come close, but they couldn't get enough winning votes.
Chances are, a true defensive player has one of the slimmest chances of ever winning the Heisman. "If Jadeveon Clowney can't win it, I'm not sure anyone can," Ellis said.
"True game-changers on defense are hard to find," added Fischer.
Even the defenders with the most eye-popping stats are herded into the same group as their other 10 teammates on the field. The ability to stand out is far more difficult, especially when your job doesn't involve scoring points on a regular basis.
Being versatile may help on offense, but it certainly hasn't shown to help on defense. Washington linebacker/running back Shaq Thompson was a crucial two-way player for the Huskies last season, scoring two touchdowns as a running back and four on defense. Yet he didn't finish in the top 10 of the final Heisman voting.
Want to have a chance at actually winning the Heisman? Move from defense, because it's not happening. It's unfortunate, to be sure. Who's anyone to say that the best player on the field every week isn't on defense? "But quantifying that is harder for voters," said Ellis.
It's All In The Timing
In theory, the Heisman is supposed to be an award given for the most accomplished season. As Ellis notes, though, "fair or not, it can be about timing."
Case in point: former Auburn running back Tre Mason. In 2013, Mason was having a solid season with 1,317 regular-season rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. In the SEC championship game, however, Mason exploded with 304 yards and four touchdowns.
Two days later, he was announced as a Heisman finalist. "Now, this is just a hunch, but I think Auburn running back Tre Mason might have just earned his trip to New York on Saturday night in the SEC Championship," Tom Fornelli of CBSSports.com wrote. "Because I had not heard his name mentioned as a candidate until that game."
He was right. "The Heisman is about the spotlight," Ellis said.
Historically speaking, timing can be the backbone for the "Heisman moment." Doug Flutie's Hail Mary against Miami (FL) in 1984, which basically invented the Heisman moment, took place in late November.
Timing can also work to a player's advantage if he has a bad game. Take Oregon's regular-season loss to Arizona last year on Oct. 2. In that loss, Mariota had two fumbles, one of which effectively sealed the upset in the fourth quarter.
Would the outcome of last year's Heisman race have been different if those two fumbles and the loss occurred in the Pac-12 championship game rematch with the Wildcats? Perhaps not, but Mariota certainly wasn't hurt by the fact that it came in the fifth game.
To his credit, Mariota rebounded after that game and went on to have a historically great season for the Ducks. Still, Heisman voters were sure 2014 was Mariota's year early on.
"The narrative can be more important than the numbers alone," Ellis said.
For non-quarterbacks, that's a tough statement to hear, especially when you follow the rules.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.