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8 times Heisman winners faced runner-ups, and how each changed the story

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The Heisman is a regular season award, and Kyler Murray again proved he was the right choice. But what about the other Heisman winner vs. runner up we’ve had in bowls?

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Alabama v Oklahoma Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In 2018, we had the rare treat of seeing the two top vote-getters in the Heisman race go head-to-head during bowl season.

The Kyler Murray-Tua Tagovailoa Heisman race was so close. Murray won it, but Tagovailoa got more voting points than any runner-up in history. Their Heisman duel led up to their actual dual in the Orange Bowl, which Alabama won, 45-34.

Before (and early in) that game, you could see a narrative approaching. If Murray struggled against a great Bama defense, and Tagovailoa torched a bad OU unit after dealing with multiple injuries, talk radio would light up about who really deserved the award.

Instead, Murray squelched all that with three magnificent quarters. Tagovailoa was brilliant in his own right (24-27, 318 yards, and four touchdowns), but Alabama’s win was a total team effort.

Murray was the whole damn reason the Sooners came back to make the game compelling. Despite a slow start, his 417 yards of total offense and three touchdowns (out of OU’s 471-yard output as a team) were stunning.

It’s fair to call it a draw between the two at the very least, and if the tie goes to the runner, Murray’s Heisman win still holds up just fine.

But what about if we did that with all the other Heisman 1 vs. 2 bowl rematches as well?

Let us relitigate those.


Winner: RB Reggie Bush, USC*
Runner-up: QB Vince Young, Texas

Bush’s 2,541 voting points were the second most ever. His 784 first-place votes were fourth most all-time, way ahead of Young’s 79. Bush’s own teammate Matt Leinart was the reigning Heisman winner and probably took a few of his votes, especially regionally. That’s the reason Bush didn’t win by even more points.

But this game is Exhibit A for anyone who thinks the Heisman shouldn’t be awarded before the bowls. In early December 2005, it would have been laughable to suggest that Bush shouldn’t have won the award. The dude did all this:

-vs. No. 24 Oregon: 20 carries for 122 yards, three catches for 43 yards

-vs. No. 14 Arizona State: 17 carries for 158 yards, one catch for 4 yards

-vs. No. 9 Notre Dame: 15 carries for 160 yards, four catches for 35 yards, and a push so famous it was named after him

-vs. rival UCLA (right before the Heisman vote): 24 carries for 260 yards

-He did this while sharing carries with another all-world back (LenDale White, who rushed for 1,302 yards that year). And in his last two games before ballots were due, he rushed 47 times for 554 yards.

But their Rose Bowl meeting for the national title changed things. Bush had 177 yards on 19 touches (and an unfortunate lateral that led to a turnover), and Young had a transcendent and historic night that ended like this:

That certainly woulda been a Heisman Moment if the award were voted on in January. I’d argue Young might have won if we did the thing in January 2006.


Winner: QB Matt Leinart, USC
Runners-up: RB Adrian Peterson and QB Jason White, Oklahoma

Leinart won it somewhat comfortably, but just 40 points separated Peterson at No. 2 and White at No. 3. White even got more first-place votes than Peterson.

The OU guys were fortunate the award was given out when it was: before the Orange Bowl in which they played USC for the national title. The Sooners were outclassed that night. White threw three picks, and USC held Peterson to 88 yards on 27 touches.

Leinart’s 51 percent completions weren’t awesome, but his five touchdowns were. Bush — who finished fifth in the voting and got 118 first-place votes — wasn’t even the best running back on his own team that evening. LenDale White was.

If you give the award out in January, Leinart wins by an even wider margin.


Winner: QB Carson Palmer, USC
Runner-up: QB Brad Banks, Iowa

Palmer won with a decent vote total: 1,328 points, against 1,095 for Banks. He also outplayed Banks in their Orange Bowl meeting. Banks’ performance was more or less average compared to the rest of his season. But he only scored one touchdown, and that likely would have dinged him in January voting.

There’s also the matter of his Hawkeyes getting blown out. Iowa didn’t score an offensive touchdown until the last minute of the game, when it was already down 28.

It’s Palmer’s award no matter what.


Winner: QB Chris Weinke, Florida State
Runner-up: QB Josh Heupel, Oklahoma

One of the closest Heisman races ever would have given you a similarly close January vote. In reality, Weinke won by just 76 points.

Neither QB really wowed in a truly ugly title game. The Sooners won 13-2, with their vaunted offense held largely punchless.

A January ceremony would have been fascinating. It probably would have swung back in Heupel’s direction, because OU’s win would have been a trump card, as ugly as it was.


Winner: RB George Rogers, South Carolina
Runner-up: DL Hugh Green, Pitt

Rogers didn’t do a ton in the Gator Bowl, and his Gamecocks got blown out. Green had five tackles in the matchup and didn’t do much of note either.

The wild card here: Herschel Walker. The UGA freshman finished third in the vote total, but not a distant third, due to 107 first-place votes. (Rogers had 216, Green 179.) In Walker’s bowl game, he damn near singlehandedly won the national championship. His Dawgs beat Notre Dame 17-10, and they needed every one of his 150 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Georgia QB Buck Belue was 1-for-12 through the air in the game.

Would January Heisman voters have broken precedent and sided with the freshman Sugar Bowl MVP Walker? Through a contemporary lens, I’d say yes. But 1980 was a different Heisman voter landscape. At that point, even juniors didn’t often win the award.


Winner: RB Archie Griffin, Ohio State
Runner-up: RB Anthony Davis, USC

There’s no way to get around it: Archie Griffin’s blowout Heisman win would have been even more laughable in January. The Buckeyes didn’t beat the Trojans in the ‘74 season’s Rose Bowl, but Davis didn’t have a chance to state his case either way. He left with an injury early.

And that brings us to 2018.

It will be Tua vs. Kyler for a shot a national title and also for the mythical Reitigated Heisman on sports radio throughout the country.

If any matchup has a chance to swing sentiment about who should have won the award, it’s probably this one. It is already the first matchup that went into Heisman day with actual intrigue in a long time. Why not give it some more drama after the fact?