Anatomy of How to Win a Heisman Trophy

Lisa Horne@LisaHornePac-12 and Big 12 Lead WriterOctober 28, 2012

Dec 10, 2011; New York, NY, USA; A detail view of the 2011 Heisman Trophy awarded to Baylor Bears quarterback Robert Griffin III (not pictured) at the Marriott Marquis in downtown New York City.  Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE

Writing a football player's name in that coveted first spot on a Heisman ballot is a process that involves a lot of hand wringing, a lot of pressure and a lot of nit-picking over minute details. Why does one player get an overwhelming amount of first place votes while another player—who is seemingly out of the race—also capture first place votes?

In the end, a voter tries to avoid any bias toward one player but if he's a beat writer covering a specific team, he does have more observational data than a voter clear across the country. He votes for familiarity. 

Last year, national radio host Paul Finebaum's Heisman ballot had Trent Richardson first, Andrew Luck second and Tyrann Mathieu third. Robert Griffin III won the Heisman, Luck finished second, Richardson finished third and Mathieu finished fifth. 

The fact that Finebaum completely left the Heisman winner off his ballot, coupled with his very SEC-oriented radio show, could indicate a little bias. Maybe a lot. But he also made his ballot selections public while other voters did not—he was willing to take the heat for his selections. His transparency resonated well with most college football fans because at least they knew why he voted the way he did.   

A Heisman candidate's outstanding body of work during one season is the biggest factor in determining where he stands among his peers. But what if a voter can't decide between two or more players?  

This is when the voter goes through flip charts in his brain and starts using intangibles to break a tie—they aren't primary criteria but they can tip the scales in one player's favor.  

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I've listed some of the more common characteristics that voters may or may not consider when voting for a Heisman candidate. I've also given examples of some past Heisman winners—as well as this year's Heisman candidates—who best exemplify each of those characteristics, where appropriate. The more characteristics a candidate shows, the better chance he has of receiving more Heisman votes. 

This is an anatomy of how to win the Heisman.

A Strong Finish Over a Strong Start

Any performance that is strong throughout the year is ideal for a Heisman candidate, but a strong finish is an ideal attribute. The first six weeks of the football season are usually riddled with soft non-conference games that tend to inflate statistics. A candidate's eye-popping numbers against an inferior opponent aren't nearly impressive as a solid performance against an above-average team. 

Starting in mid-October, the competition is more difficult due to league play. There is also more of a connection between conference teams. A 100-plus yard performance by a running back is impressive, but if numerous other running backs in that same conference had similar performances against the same team, all of a sudden that number isn't that impressive.

A strong finish leaves more of a lasting imprint in a voter's memory.

Particularly strong finishers: Robert Griffin III (see video), Cam Newton, Mark Ingram, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Carson Palmer, Ron Dayne, Desmond Howard, Barry Sanders and Matt Leinart. 

2012 candidates who have continued a pace toward a strong finish: Kenjon Barner, Collin Klein, Braxton Miller, AJ McCarron, Manti Te'o and Marqise Lee.

A HIgh-Profile Game That Is Aired Nationally Is Ideal

Voters depend on the television networks for coverage and highlights of the week's games, but some teams don't get a lot of national coverage due to playing in a small media market or having a small national fan base. How many voters on the West coast have access to a MAC or SunBelt game? 

Network coverage can—in addition to giving a candidate high exposure—also influence voters. Having a nationally-recognized broadcaster like ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, a Heisman voter, mention a player's name as one of his Heisman candidates can have tremendous influence.

These Heisman winners shined in high-profile games: Tim Brown, Ty Detmer, Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson, Gino Torretta, Eric Crouch (see video below), Jason White, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Mark Ingram, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III.

2012 candidates who have shined in at least one high profile game: Geno Smith, Collin Klein, Johnny Manziel, Kenjon Barner, Manti Te'o, Braxton Miller, AJ McCarron and Seth Doege.

The Heisman Moment

The Heisman moment is broadly defined as a season-defining breakout performance or a game-changing play that sticks out most on a Heisman candidate's resume.

It can be an overall performance in a game or one specific play that makes a voter catch his breath. It's a vote-swaying moment when a candidate solidifies his standing in the voter's mind. 

Notable Heisman moments: Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Charles Woodson, Ty Detmer, Eric Crouch and Desmond Howard (see video).

2012 candidates who have already had one Heisman moment: Geno Smith, Collin Klein, Matt Barkley, Seth Doege, Kenjon Barner, Braxton Miller, Manti Te'o and Johnny Manziel.  

Position Matters

In the last 25 years; 16 quarterbacks, six running backs, two receivers and one corner back have won the Heisman. Clearly, the quarterback is in the most ideal position to win the Heisman because he usually touches the ball on every play his offense is on the field. The quarterback also has the most opportunities to score points because he touches the ball the most.

Running backs, if they are in a primarily run-first offense, will get a lot of touches but receivers are lucky to get 10 catches a game—even when receivers do catch the ball, the television camera is focused on the quarterback until he releases the ball.

The quarterback is also the man who is calling plays, making adjustments on the line and trying to avoid a sack while trying to find an open receiver. The quarterback is a multi-tasker under a lot of duress, and when he has solid performances every week, he gets the accolades. 

Heisman candidates in the right position to win the Heisman: Collin Klein, Geno Smith, AJ McCarron, Kenjon Barner, Johnny Manziel, Braxton Miller, Seth Doege, Marqise Lee and Matt Barkley. 

Everybody Loves a Winner

It shouldn't be part of the equation, but it appears to be a big factor: How did the Heisman candidate's team finish the season?

Of the 14 Heismans awarded (including Reggie Bush's returned Heisman) during the BCS era, nine of the Heismans were awarded to a player in the same season his team played for the BCS Championship (including vacated team appearances).  

Coincidence? Probably not.

Those nine Heisman winners got a lot of exposure from high-profile games, conference championships and their coaches giving them accolades during interviews. But there's also that underlying debate that, if a player is really deserving of the Heisman, shouldn't he be leading his team to a BCS Championship?

That shouldn't be a factor in determining a Heisman winner, but it appears to play some role with two notable exceptions: 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III (Baylor played in the Alamo Bowl) and 2007 Heisman-winner Tim Tebow (the Florida Gators' two BCS Championship appearances were for the 2006 and 2008 seasons). 

Heisman winners who played in a BCS Championship in the same season they won the Heisman: Cam Newton, Mark Ingram, Sam Bradford, Troy Smith, Reggie Bush*, Matt Leinart (see video of the "Bush Push" game one year after he won the Heisman), Jason White, Eric Crouch and Chris Weinke.

2012 candidates in good position to play for the BCS Championship: Manti Te'o, Collin Klein, Kenjon Barner and AJ McCarron. 

Avoid One Awful or Two Mediocre Performances

Nobody's perfect, but Heisman voters expect at least near perfection from his or her candidates.

But let's define perfection as not having a bad day or not having two or more sub-par performances. There have been some recent high-profile Heisman front runners whose sub-standard performance(s) will affect their placement on a Heisman ballot. 

Quarterbacks are most susceptible to dropping out of the Heisman race because their interceptions or bad decisions, especially at critical times, are highlight reel fodder. Sure, a running back will fumble the ball, but his fumble is more forgivable when he's decked by a 6-4, 260 pound linebacker. A quarterback—standing in the pocket with great protection—throwing into double coverage and getting picked is not so forgivable.

Having one bad game or two mediocre games will knock a candidate out of the race most of the time.

2012 Heisman candidates who have had a significant sub-par performance: Geno Smith, Seth Doege, Matt Barkley and Johnny Manziel. 

The Story

When running back Mark Ingram won the Heisman in 2009, everyone knew his story.

His father was a former star in the NFL but was in prison for bank fraud and money laundering charges and couldn't attend his son's Heisman presentation ceremony. Ingram won the 75th Heisman playing for a storied Alabama football program that, prior to 2009, had no Heisman trophies in its Hall of Champions.

Now that's a great story.

Heisman loves a great story, and although it certainly isn't a criteria for winning the Heisman, it does tend to help if a candidate has one. Overcoming personal tragedy, growing up in a disadvantageous situation, adopting certain values despite criticism over those values or overcoming an underdog label all endear a candidate to a voter. Feel good stories of the year are never overrated. 

Whether they were undersized, ridiculed, grew up under difficult circumstances, demonstrated community involvement or reinvented themselves, all of these Heisman winners had great stories: Cam Newton, Mark Ingram (see video), Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Charlie Ward and Barry Sanders. 

2012 Heisman candidates with a good story: Collin Klein, Manti Te'o, Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, Kenjon Barner, Braxton Miller, Marqise Lee and Seth Doege. 

Sharing the Spotlight

If a Heisman candidate is in a voting region with multiple Heisman candidates, there can be a negative impact. Voters in the six regions generally tend to be more familiar with a candidate in his or her own region, and thus, several candidates in the same region can split votes and prevent one candidate from winning it all. Likewise, having two candidates play on the same team can also cancel out both player's chances of winning the Heisman. 

Split vote victims: Rex Grossman (Florida) and Ken Dorsey (Miami) had 708 and 638 votes respectively while Eric Crouch (Nebraska) won the 2001 Heisman with 770. Matt Leinart won the 2004 Heisman with 1,325 votes while Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson (see video) had 997 and his teammate Jason White had 957. In 2002 Big Ten-based voters were split between Brad Banks (Iowa) and Larry Johnson (Penn State)—Banks tallied 1,095 votes, Johnson tallied 726 votes while Carson Palmer (USC) won with 1,328 votes. 

Possible split vote victims for 2012 Heisman candidates: Marqise Lee and Matt Barkley (team), Seth Doege, Johnny Manziel and Collin Klein (region). 


Part of the criteria for a Heisman voter's selection of a candidate is integrity.

While the definition of integrity is open to interpretation, it usually is considered to be character-oriented. Does the player follow the rules? Has he been suspended? Does he represent the student-athlete in a positive light?

The Heisman doesn't crown its winner as the best player in college football, it crowns him as the most outstanding player in college football. An outstanding athlete isn't necessarily the best athlete, but it does conjure up other characteristics that make him such an outstanding football player.

Displaying great leadership skills, being well-received from his teammates, showing class both on and off the field as well as a little bit of humility all are bonus points for a Heisman candidate. Coming across as arrogant, a loose cannon or disrespectful to teammates or media members can give a voter reason to pause.

Heisman winners displaying integrity: Charlie Ward, Tim Tebow (see video), Mark Ingram, Robert Griffin III, Jason White, Eddie George, Ty Detmer, Barry Sanders and Tim Brown.

Heisman candidates displaying integrity: Collin Klein, AJ McCarron, Matt Barkley, Braxton Miller, Johnny Manziel and Manti Te'o. 

Heisman Marketing

Last year, Baylor put together a brilliant marketing campaign in which they sent out player cards of Robert Griffin III to Heisman voters. The cards highlighted his stats and included praises from noteworthy sportswriters.

It's key to note that past Heisman winners and some retired sportswriters also have a vote and some are well into their twilight years. These voters they may not be able to watch the games or they may no longer have an active interest in the process—they, as well as some lazy voters, may make their choices based on word of mouth. Or a marketing material.  

So far, I've only seen Heisman campaign material from one school: Kansas State. 

A picture of Collin Klein—showing numerous bruises and boo-boos—is on the front of a tri-fold piece of literature with an actual adhesive bandage sealing the tri-fold. It's brilliant, attention-grabbing and encapsulates everything about Klein.

Marketing material doesn't sway a voter but it does achieve one thing: It keeps that candidate's name in front of a voter.  

Timing of Vote

Most savvy Heisman voters know to hold on to their ballots until the last minute, because in a close race, one candidate may have a late or second Heisman moment in the last week of football. A front-runner usually isn't affected by early ballot submissions, but a player still trying to make his case is, especially if his Heisman moment comes after ballots have been submitted. 

So where does this leave the 2012 candidates?

If the Heisman voting started today, Matt Barkley, Seth Doege, Johnny Manziel and Geno Smith would probably not finish near the top due to sub-par performances. Barkley's Heisman moment came against Colorado, a team that given a lot of Heisman moments to its opponents'  Heisman candidates. Manziel, Smith and Doege had at least one sub-par performance that will stick in voters' minds.

There's opportunity for them to make a spectacular comeback, but right now, they are not front runners.

The Front Runners

Collin Klein: Seven points

Braxton Miller: Six points

Manti Te'o: Six points

Kenjon Barner: Six points

AJ McCarron: Five points

Marqise Lee: Three points

Obviously, there is room to collect more points in some categories such as having a high-profile game, having a Heisman moment or finishing strong. If a voter is leaning heavily toward Collin Klein but also has Manti Te'o as a top candidate, Klein's perceived advantage may or may not weigh heavily on his mind. 

So who looks like the Heisman winner right now?

Klein is the front runner while Miller, Te'o and Barner are the ones charging at Klein. Te'o has the biggest hill to climb by virtue of the fact that he's a defensive player, but he's also got an opportunity to make a huge impression against USC. His sportsmanship, class and Heisman moment against Oklahoma will also impress many voters. 

Klein has already proven to be a Heisman favorite by playing well in two high-profile games, having a Heisman moment and being on a team with a good shot at the BCS Championship. 

McCarron plays for Alabama, and that alone will curry favor from the southern region, but there's so much talent on his team that he may have a difficult time establishing some separation from his talented teammates. 

Barring injury, illness, or catastrophic performance, Collin Klein, as of today, is your 2012 Heisman winner.