Jimbo Fisher was going to have one of these players at quarterback eventually. He had had a bunch of good ones before this spring: JaMarcus Russell, Christian Ponder, and EJ Manuel all became first-round picks partly thanks to Fisher's coaching, but each has struggled in the NFL. None of those three QBs was as hyped or as ready as Jameis Winston was, and none possessed the same curve-breaking skills that Winston has, which turned a potential rebuilding year into a possible national championship.
Fisher's recruiting has brought pallets of talent to Tallahassee, and his offense, with its many deep routes, rewards a thrower who can make risky plays pay off. Winston is that, more than any Fisher QB before him, even if his eyes are sometimes too big for his stomach. Winston stepped into an ideal situation; FSU got its ideal match in Winston.
It didn't hurt that the rest of Florida State's 2013 schedule set up well for a Pasadena pilgrimage. The ACC is still a conference with one great team and a couple very good ones. Clemson was buried early by the 'Noles, while Miami, still on a long rebuild, couldn't keep up late. No other team, save Boston College, threatened FSU in ACC play, and Virginia Tech, which tried to play 2013 without an offense, never got to match its front four against FSU.
And the only team that would have threatened FSU in non-conference play, Florida, hosted Winston's crew in November as a 4-7 squad that was a husk of the team that rolled Manuel-led FSU in Tallahassee the previous year.
Winston ended up at the controls of a Porsche, with NFL talents surrounding him on offense and dotting FSU's defense. He had to avoid wrecking it on the Autobahn to win the Heisman, as every other contender fell away. We should have seen this coming — but some of us did at least predict he'd be a big deal.
Winston will probably lead Florida State to its third national title in a little over three weeks, and will probably enter the 2014 season as the prohibitive Heisman front-runner. But his 2013 year has a handful of lessons for college football fans, especially when it comes to the Heisman Trophy.
Look for new faces
Since 2007, when Tim Tebow won the Heisman, four of the seven players who have won the Heisman have done so in their first seasons as starting quarterbacks: Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, and Winston. And the three other winners have been new blood in one sense or another. Sam Bradford was the challenger to Tebow's throne in 2008; Mark Ingram was Alabama's first Heisman winner, which may have been his edge in a wild 2009 race; Robert Griffin III was Baylor's first Heisman winner, and was certainly the interloper in the 2011 race, with semi-establishment candidate Andrew Luck as his main competition.
It's easier for an athlete to be beloved before all the skeletons tumble out of his or her closet, and Winston didn't even make it through his first year of play before he was accused of a crime. The advantage of novelty, in an era that makes stars about as quickly as it breaks them down, is significant, and will continue to be as long as the Heisman is partly a popularity contest.
It is incredibly hard to repeat
Tebow, Bradford, and Manziel, by virtue of their youth, have all had the opportunity to repeat as Heisman winners. The closest any of the three of them came was Tebow's third-place finish in 2008, when his team was better, but his stats were less impressive and his competition much stiffer.
For much of the last four decades, the primary reason the Heisman Trophy had only been awarded to Archie Griffin twice was the paucity of underclassmen to win the award — few players even had a chance to repeat. That's no longer the case, with all five sophomores and freshmen to win doing so since Tebow and eight of the 18 juniors doing so since Desmond Howard in 1991.
Of the juniors to win the award, only Jason White and Matt Leinart returned to college for their senior years — White because he had a marginal professional future, Leinart because one more fun year at USC couldn't possibly ruin his NFL career — and neither really had a shot at repeating, failing to even end up as the runner-up.
Winston's going to have the best chance yet to repeat, but Manziel just had the best chance yet to repeat, and didn't do it.
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Winning matters more than anything else
When there are multiple players close for one spot, team wins is usually the deciding factor. Wins probably helped Ingram, key player on an undefeated Alabama team, beat Stanford's Toby Gerhart in 2009; Oklahoma's No. 1 ranking probably helped Bradford beat out Colt McCoy and Tebow in 2008. They certainly helped AJ McCarron, with a relatively pedestrian statistical case for the Heisman, finish second this year.
Losses are often disqualifiers. Teddy Bridgewater and Marcus Mariota disappeared after losses this year, and Andrew Luck was chased down by Griffin III in 2011 partly because Stanford lost to Oregon.
But winning is most often valuable as the thing that makes a case airtight, or close to it. Winston's sexual assault investigation and Newton's NCAA investigation are obviously very different things, with differing contexts and ramifications, but both presented similar "Is this guy on the up-and-up?" questions for voters. But both players were the leaders of their undefeated teams and won in runaway fashion, much like statistically impressive leader of undefeated Ohio State Troy Smith did in 2006, despite getting disserviced on dozens of ballots.
Position your team to win a national title, and do the most of any player on that team, and you will be in good shape to win a Heisman Trophy.
It helps to have an easy schedule
You can only play and beat the teams in front of you, and players have no control over the schedules they face, at least beyond their college choice. But I think it says plenty about the Heisman that, during the SEC's recent run of seven straight national championships, just four of the Heisman winners hailed from the SEC.
Part of the reason for that discrepancy, I think, is the rigor of the SEC. Tebow and Manziel both got SEC degree-of-difficulty bonuses, which helped forgive their losses, but their cases were built on statistical superiority and Heisman moments, and each was matched against a relatively weak field. Ingram got more of a bonus from being undefeated (and being from a school east of the Mississippi) than accruing his numbers against the SEC, and still only barely won.
Newton, of the four SEC Heisman winners since 2006, had the case that was closest to bulletproof, but also played the toughest schedule. 2010 Auburn played six games against teams that finished the year with nine or more wins before the Heisman ceremony — 2007 Florida, 2009 Alabama, and 2012 Texas A&M played four each, and one of the Aggies' foes was Louisiana Tech.
On the other hand, 2013 Florida State has played just three potential nine-win teams to date. In addition, its four non-conference games have come against FBS teams that are 4-8 (Nevada), 4-8 (Florida), and 1-11 (Idaho) — and an FCS school (Bethune-Cookman) that may have been better than Idaho. 2006 Ohio State played just three nine-win teams, too, and saw one team that finished with a winning record after September. 2010 Baylor played four nine-win teams pre-Heisman, losing to two of them, but the Bears' bad defense helped RG3 rack up stats.
2008 Oklahoma is the outlier here. The Sooners played the hardest schedule of a team with a Heisman winner by my nine-win metric, facing seven nine-win teams before the Heisman went to Bradford. And they set the offensive records Florida State is chasing without the benefit of, say, putting 80 points on Idaho, having scored more than 60 points against their last five pre-BCS National Championship Game opponents — four of them nine-win teams.
Putting together a case like Bradford's is rare, but every Heisman winner is going to have numbers at least partially inflated by his good team thoroughly outclassing a few bad teams. Winston getting Florida State's 2013 schedule helped immensely, more than any Heisman winner has been helped by his schedule since Smith, because it helped make him a statistical dynamo and a leader of an unbeaten team without posing a lot of the risks to his candidacy that other teams have faced.
The rest of the team matters a lot, too
Winston had a lot of help from the rest of FSU's roster, which aided him more than the Seminoles' schedule did. FSU might end up with three 1,000-yard receivers if it blows out Auburn; running backs James Wilder and Devonta Freeman will both play in the NFL, as will tight end Nick O'Leary. The Florida State line gave up 29 sacks, but it also kept Winston upright often enough for him to bomb away on secondaries.
And that was just the offense. Florida State's defense crushed offense after offense in 2013, only really letting up against Boston College, which helped Winston enjoy the undefeated FSU record and the halo that comes with being the quarterback of a dominant team, while Groza Award winner Roberto Aguayo added three-pointers that stretched margins of victory.
And Winston is fortunate to have good offensive help, but not great offensive help. The former makes him look like the straw that stirs the drink, while the latter made Matt Leinart susceptible in 2005.
A defense typically helps a Heisman candidate more if it is bad, though. Manziel benefited greatly from having to clean up the Texas A&M defense's messes in 2012; Baylor's awful defense let RG3 work a lot of magic in 2011; Auburn's 2010 defense kept Newton in a lot of games into the fourth quarter; Florida's 2007 defense made Tebow scoring as many touchdowns as he did almost a necessity.
Ingram's 2009 is probably the best example of a good defense helping a Heisman candidate. Alabama rarely had to deviate from its run-first strategy, thanks to a defense that kept the Crimson Tide from having to come from behind, which meant more carries for Ingram. Winston didn't benefit from the same effect. In fact, though he got an undefeated record and the winner-leader bonus from his defense, that same defense probably prevented him from going over 4,000 yards and 40 passing touchdowns.
There's only one surefire way to win the Heisman
The formula for being absolutely certain of a Heisman victory? Quarterback + statistical greatness + undefeated team + weak field.
That's why Troy Smith has the largest margin of victory in Heisman history, according to analysis from StiffArmTrophy.com's Kari Chisolm, why Newton had the ninth-largest margin of victory in 2010, and why Winston was a shoo-in — and had the fifth-largest margin of victory — this year.
The Heisman has been swinging toward quarterbacks and passing games of late, in keeping with the evolution of football. Only a bizarre 2009 season — in which two Heisman-winning quarterbacks were competing for the award for the first time ever, only for one to get hurt and the other to have a statistically underwhelming year — and Reggie Bush's dazzling 2005 season have broken the QB hegemony on the award this century.
This year made non-quarterbacks' plight more obvious. Andre Williams was on his way to having one of the greatest seasons in history for a running back before getting hurt, but finished a distant fourth to Winston. McCarron, a top-flight game manager, was well ahead of Williams, as was Jordan Lynch, a running back in disguise. Tre Mason, despite putting one of the greatest games by a running back in recent memory at the top of voters' minds and making it to the BCS title game, finished behind Manziel.
And it's not going to get easier for non-quarterbacks. QBs enjoy special protections from referees and don't split snaps or targets like running backs do. They're always in the public eye, and don't need gimmicks like Charles Woodson did to stay prominent.
The Heisman basically requiring full health from candidates (Braxton Miller getting virtually no love should be evidence enough of that) is another good sign for superior pocket passers — especially ones like Winston, who at least have the mobility to avoid big hits. Running around like Manziel and Lynch do, or like Tebow, Newton, and Griffin did, is nice, and makes for big plays — but consistent dominance does more for a Heisman candidacy than one spectacular moment.
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