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Andy Wittry | | March 6, 2018

Examining Heisman Trophy winners' seasons before they won

  Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the 2017 Heisman Trophy after finishing third in 2016.

In the midst of college football's bowl season, one of the many storylines – especially for fans whose teams have completed their seasons – is identifying the frontrunners for the 2018 Heisman Trophy. Sure, the first regular season games won't be played for roughly another nine months but it's fun to speculate.

But what if we can look at past winners – more specifically what past winners accomplished in the season before they won the Heisman – to see if there's a familiar career arc for the award's winners. Are most Heisman Trophy winners breakout players or were they previously Heisman Trophy finalists who got even better?

RELATED: Behind the versatility of QBs Kelly Bryant, Jalen Hurts

Here is a look at the Heisman Trophy winners since the start of the BCS era with a comparison of their production in the season before they won the Heisman and the season when they won the award. The statistics below do not include bowl or playoff games since the Heisman is awarded prior to the start of bowl season.

There's also a category for whether the player's team made the BCS National Championship or College Football Playoff, as well as the record of each player's team entering bowl season.

Season Player Year Before Heisman Heisman Year BCS/CFP? Pre-Bowl Record
2017 Baker Mayfield 3,669 passing yards, 38 TDs, 8 INTs 4,340 passing yards, 41 TDs, 5 INTs Yes 12-1
2016 Lamar Jackson 1,613 passing yards, 10 TDs, 8 INTs; 734 rushing yards, 9 TDs 3,390 passing yards, 30 TDs, 9 INTs; 1,538 rushing yards, 21 TDs No 9-3
2015 Derrick Henry 895 rushing yards, 10 TDs 1,986 rushing yards, 23 TDs Yes 12-1
2014 Marcus Mariota 3,412 passing yards, 30 TDs, 4 INTs; 582 rushing yards, 9 TDs 3,783 passing yards, 38 TDs, 2 INTs; 669 rushing yards, 14 TDs Yes 12-1
2013 Jameis Winston Redshirted 3,820 passing yards, 38 TDs, 10 INTs Yes 13-0
2012 Johnny Manziel Redshirted 3,419 passing yards, 24 TDs, 8 INTs; 1,181 rushing yards, 19 TDs No 10-2
2011 Robert Griffin III 3,195 passing yards, 21 TDs, 8 INTs; 591 rushing yards, 8 TDs 3,998 passing yards, 36 TDs, 6 INTs; 644 rushing yards, 9 TDs No 9-3
2010 Cam Newton Junior college 2,589 passing yards, 28 TDs, 6 INTs; 1,409 rushing yards, 20 TDs Yes 13-0
2009 Mark Ingram 702 rushing yards, 12 TDs 1,542 rushing yards, 15 TDs Yes 13-0
2008 Sam Bradford 2,879 passing yards, 34 TDs, 7 INTs 4,464 passing yards, 48 TDs, 6 INTs Yes 12-1
2007 Tim Tebow 357 passing yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT; 430 rushing yards, 7 TDs 3,132 passing yards, 29 TDs, 6 INTs; 838 rushing yards, 22 TDs No 9-3
2006 Troy Smith 1,940 passing yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs; 545 rushing yards, 11 TDs 2,507 passing yards, 30 TDs, 5 INTs Yes 12-0
2004 Matt Leinart 3,229 passing yards, 35 TDs, 9 INTs 2,990 passing yards, 28 TDs, 6 INTs Yes 12-0
2003 Jason White 181 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs (Injured) 3,744 passing yards, 40 TDs, 8 INTs Yes 12-1
2002 Carson Palmer 2,567 passing yards, 13 TDs, 12 INTs 3,639 passing yards, 32 TDs, 10 INTs No 10-2
2001 Eric Crouch 1,101 passing yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs; 971 rushing yards, 20 TDs 1,510 passing yards, 7 TDs, 10 INTs; 1,115 rushing yards, 18 TDs Yes 11-1
2000 Chris Weinke 3,103 passing yards, 25 TDs, 14 INTs 4,167 passing yards, 33 TDs, 11 INTs Yes 11-1
1999 Ron Dayne 1,279 rushing yards, 11 TDs 1,834 rushing yards, 19 TDs No 9-2
1998 Ricky Williams 1,893 rushing yards, 25 TDs 2,124 rushing yards, 27 TDs No 8-3

Former USC running back Reggie Bush had the 2005 Heisman Trophy vacated.

To help digest the information above, we have broken down the Heisman Trophy winners since the start of the BCS era into several categories that describe their status in the season before they won the award. Some players were Heisman contenders the year before they won the honor, some were known talents at the collegiate level and some can be categorized as simply starters or backups. Other players sprung onto the scene after redshirting, spending the year prior at a junior college or bouncing back from an injury.

Heisman contenders

  • Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
  • Matt Leinart, QB, USC
  • Ricky Williams, RB, Texas


Three of the last 19 Heisman Trophy winners finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting the season before they won the award. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who won the Heisman this season, finished third in 2016 (and fourth in 2015). Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart and former Texas running back Ricky Williams placed sixth and fifth, respectively, in the seasons before each took home the trophy.

Leinart actually threw for more yards and touchdowns in 2003 than 2004, when he won the Heisman. Williams had an impressive junior season, rushing for 1,893 yards and 25 touchdowns, but he was even better as a senior, running for 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns.

College stars

  • Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
  • Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
  • Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma
  • Chris Weinke, QB, Florida State
  • Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin


This category is admittedly subjectively defined but the five players listed above didn't finish in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy voting in the season before they won the award but each was much more than a run-of-the-mill starter at his position in the year leading up to his Heisman campaign.

For example in the 2013 regular season and Pac-12 Championship game, former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota threw for 3,412 yards and 30 touchdowns, and rushed for 582 yards and nine touchdowns. But he got even better the following season, improving his passing yards (3,783 – 10.8% improvement), passing touchdowns (38 – 26.7%), rushing yards (669 – 14.9%) and rushing touchdowns (14 – 35.7%) in Oregon's first 13 games.. Such is the common thread among these players. They were already accomplished and established talents but then elevated their games to earn the Heisman Trophy.


  • Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
  • Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State
  • Carson Palmer, QB, USC
  • Eric Crouch, QB, Nebraska


This category is pretty self-explanatory. These players were starters the season before they won the Heisman but didn't necessarily put up numbers that would blow you away. Lamar Jackson threw for 1,613 yards and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:8 in the regular season as a freshman. Derrick Henry split carries with T.J. Yeldon in Alabama's backfield in 2014 but Henry was the team's leading rusher.


  • Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
  • Tim Tebow, QB, Florida


Mark Ingram and Tim Tebow significantly improved their production to become Heisman Trophy winners. Ingram was clearly Alabama's second fiddle at running back in 2008, running the ball 143 times to Glen Coffee's 233 carries. Coffee finished the season with 1,383 rushing yards and Ingram had 728. Coffee went to the NFL and Ingram exploded in the 2009 season, more than doubling his production on the ground and entering the Heisman Trophy presentation with 1,542 rushing yards as the Crimson Tide's lead back.

Tebow was Florida's second-leading passer and rusher in 2006. He was 22-of-33 passing for 358 yards and five touchdowns with 89 carries for 469 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Tebow led the Gators through the air and on the ground in 2007, racking up 3,286 passing yards, 895 rushing yards and 55 combined touchdowns. His backup that season? Some guy named Cam Newton, who we'll touch on below.


  • Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
  • Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M


Since the start of the BCS era, two Heisman Trophy winners redshirted the season before they won the award. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Florida State's Jameis Winston won the Heisman in back-to-back seasons as redshirt freshmen.

Junior college

  • Cam Newton, QB, Auburn


Newton spent two seasons at Florida before transferring to Blinn College in Brenham, Tex., where he threw for 2,833 yards, ran for 655 and had 39 total touchdowns in one season with the Buccaneers. Newton then enrolled at Auburn, where he led the Tigers to an undefeated season and a national championship in the 2010 season, when he took home the Heisman Trophy.


  • Jason White, QB, Oklahoma


White likely would've appeared in a different category but an ACL injury ended his season in his second game in 2002. After appearing in seven games and attempting 113 passes in 2001, White threw just 34 times in the 2002 season. However, he bounced back to lead Oklahoma to an appearance in the Sugar Bowl in the 2003 season, when he won the Heisman.

2018 Heisman Trophy outlook

If we can learn anything from the career trajectories of the last two decades of Heisman Trophy winners, here are a few takeaways. Roughly half the time the recipient was a starter in the season prior to winning the award – ranging from a above-average starter to a star. Roughly a third of the time the winner won't be on the Heisman radar, due to one of a variety of reasons, including the player suffered an injury in the season prior, he didn't play at the FBS level the year before due to him taking a redshirt year or spending a year at a junior college, or the player was a backup who saw limited snaps.

Then, every so often a player will accomplish the difficult task of entering a season among the Heisman favorites – after finishing among the top vote-getters the year before – and living up to the hype and expectations by winning the Heisman.

As we look ahead to next season, let's first take a quick look in the recent past. Three of the top-10 vote-getters in the 2017 Heisman Trophy voting were seniors and five were juniors, which means Wisonsin running back Jonathan Taylor (who finished sixth) and UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (eighth) are the only top finishers who will definitely return to college next season.

Of course, team success either consciously or subconsciously plays a role among voters in who wins the award. The 19 Heisman Trophy winners since the start of the BCS era have played on teams that have averaged 11 wins entering bowl season. In 12 out of the last 19 seasons the Heisman Trophy winner's team has been in contention for the national championship, either qualifying for the BCS National Championship or College Football Playoff, so when drafting a short list of players who could win the 2018 Heisman, emphasis should be placed on players whose teams can reach double-digit wins and contend for the playoff.

Using the same categories utilized above, here is a breakdown of potential 2018 Heisman candidates, along with each player's 2017 stats prior to playing in any bowl games. Of course, some of the players listed below may choose to pursue a professional future after this season.

Heisman contenders

Bryce Love, RB, Stanford: 1,973 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns (2nd in 2017 Heisman voting)

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: 3,489 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, 6 interceptions; 1,443 rushing yards, 17 rushing touchdowns (3rd in 2017 Heisman voting)

Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: 1,134 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns; 594 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns; 2 kickoff return touchdowns (4th in 2017 Heisman voting)

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin: 1,847 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns (6th in 2017 Heisman voting)

McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF: 3,795 passing yards, 35 touchdowns, 9 interceptions; 497 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns (8th in 2017 Heisman voting)

Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn: 1,320 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns (9th in 2017 Heisman voting)

College stars/Starters

Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona: 1,289 passing yards, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions; 1,353 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns

Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn: 2,827 passing yards, 17 touchdowns, four interceptions

Kelly Bryant, QB, Clemson: 2,678 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions; 646 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns

Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama: 2,005 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, one interception; 768 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State: 1,364 rushing yards, seven touchdowns

Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State: 3,228 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, eight interceptions; 431 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns

Sam Darnold, QB, USC: 3,787 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

Ronald Jones II, RB, USC: 1,486 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns

Will Grier, QB, West Virginia: 3,490 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia: 2,173 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, five interceptions


D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia: 597 rushing yards, three touchdowns

Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State: 565 passing yards, four touchdowns, one interception


Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon: 1,750 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, three interceptions; 166 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns (Missed five games with fractured collarbone)

Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State: 1,782 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, 11 interceptions; 984 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns (Suffered dislocated ankle in regular season finale)

Kamryn Pettway, RB, Auburn: 305 rushing yards, six touchdowns (Missed eight games with shoulder injury)

Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State: 210 passing yards, one touchdown, two interceptions (Suffered season-ending knee injury in season opener)

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