Monday, November 12, 2012

Evaluating The Heisman Trophy

With the distraction of the Presidential election finally and mercifully behind us, college football fans can focus on what’s truly important. And by “truly important,” I mean the Heisman Trophy. Let’s face it, a true fan might not know who the President is, but they can rattle off the names of the last 10 Heisman winners without stopping to catch their breath. After all, the Heisman’s all about recognizing the best player in college football … or is it?

I’d always naively thought that the Heisman was won on the field. A player’s performance over the course of a season should qualify him for -or disqualify him from- consideration by the Heisman voters. Here’s the problem; a player’s performance is only part of the equation. Because the Heisman is determined by popular vote, it’s little more than a beauty contest. However you might choose to describe it, the process of choosing the Heisman Trophy winner makes about as much sense as the BCS.

Sports information directors (SID) at BCS schools will often create campaigns built around a star they feel is worthy of Heisman consideration. In past years, these campaigns have come complete with promotional materials- pens, mouse pads, notepads, videos, etc.- designed to increase awareness and support. With so many FBS teams spread all over the country, it’s safe to assume that not all of the voters will see candidates play all of their games. Voters who live on the East Coast may not see West Coast teams play due to the time difference. And there you have the Heisman’s dirty little secret; some (perhaps most) voters will cast their ballot based on incomplete information.

I know; that sounds like the very definition of American democracy, doesn’t it?

Remember when former Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington’s likeness was displayed on a WAY larger than life banner in New York’s Times Square? It wasn’t because Oregon’s SID had extra money lying around and decided to do something to draw attention to the Ducks’ football program. Harrington was considered a Heisman candidate for about 20 minutes, and the SID wanted to do something different in the Heisman Committee’s backyard. An “A” for effort, to be certain, but Harrington’s performance on the field didn’t live up to the hype, and Heisman voters ultimately looked elsewhere.

I’m an idealist; I still believe the winner of Heisman Trophy should be determined by what happens on the field. Because of the nature of the award (the best player in college football), there are no uniform criteria. Because of this, voters cast their ballots for any number of reasons.

Compounding matters is the reality that voters end up comparing players who play different positions. Each position requires a unique and vastly different skill set. This creates an apples-and-oranges decision process. Why do you think most of the recipients in recent years have been quarterbacks? When’s the last time an offensive lineman won the Heisman? Quarterbacks win because they get too much credit when their team wins, and too much blame when they lose. Offensive lineman don’t win because … well, who wants to vote for a fat guy whose most notable skill is knocking people on their backside?

How does a voter determine if a linebacker is a better player than a quarterback? Or if a running back is having a better season than a wide receiver? With no uniform criteria, the process of deciding if Player A is more worthy than Player B is something that can’t be quantified. When something can’t be quantified you end up with what Heisman voters have created- a beauty contest.

The media (particularly ESPN) also plays a role in skewing the Heisman voting. As the season begins, ESPN analysts decide who will be worthy of consideration. Players not fortunate enough to attract attention are left to play themselves into contention … and hope that they get noticed. Many players worthy of consideration go unnoticed because they play for schools that don’t attract much media attention.

This season, the leader out of the gate was West Virginia QB Geno Smith. After starting the season looking as if he was going to be this year’s RGIII, Smith struggled and fell off the radar. Then it was Kansas State QB Collin Klein, whose performance for the 10-0 Wildcats has them at the top of the BCS food chain.
And then there’s Oregon RB Kenjon Barner, who may -or may not- be a leading contender. Barner, who dissected USC for 321 rushing yards (a school record) as the Ducks sprinted past the Trojans 62-51, hadn’t received much national attention before the USC game. That wasn’t because of sub-par performances; it’s because he rarely saw the field in the second half in the Ducks’ previous games.
Barner turned in a much more human 65-yard performance in the Ducks’ 59-17 dismantling of Cal. Did Saturday’s seemingly pedestrian performance kill Barner’s Heisman hopes? Who knows? Anyone who says they think they understand the process is delusional.

There’s still a ways to go before the ballots are due. Despite the hype, the Heisman Trophy is nowhere near what it’s advertised to be - an award that recognizes the best player in college football. It stretches credibility to think a voter can accurately compare and contrast performances of players with vastly different skills sets. I’d argue that the other, “lesser” awards that recognize the best player at each position- Davey O’Brien, Walter Camp, Walter Payton, Outland, etc.- are far better barometers. The Heisman Trophy? It’s raison d’ etre appears to be to function as a cash cow for New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. Everyone associated with the Heisman seems to make bank off it, particularly the winner. The two previous winners -Cam Newton and Robert Griffith III- laughed all the way to the bank.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating that the Heisman be eliminated (though I wouldn’t be disappointed). I hope Kenjon Barner wins the silly thing. It would be well deserved, and it would be a huge boost in visibility for Coach Chip Kelly and the Oregon football program. The Heisman may be a corrupt exercise in media hype, but if someone’s got to win it, few are more deserving than Barner.
While I’m on a roll, let me just introduce another name into the conversation - Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, or, as he’s known in Aggieland, “Johnny Football.” Manziel, a redshirt freshman, led the 15th ranked Aggies to a 29-24 upset of top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Alabama’s loss means that if Oregon wins out, they’ll likely be booking hotel rooms in Miami for the BCS Championship Game. If the Heisman Trophy were to be described as an MVP award, few would be more deserving than Manziel.
That said, I’d be happy to make a simple trade: Manziel gets the Heisman and the Ducks get the BCS Championship Game. I can’t imagine Ducks fans will be upset about Kenjon Barner not winning the Heisman if he gets to hoist the BCS Championship Trophy.

Jack Cluth is on Twitter. Follow him at @yuppieskum

Be sure to check out other great articles at Oregon Sports News.
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