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Here’s how hard it is to be a Heisman finalist from a non-power conference

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The list of potential winners is tiny, and the list of potential finalists isn’t much bigger.

Dallas Cowboys vs Oakland Raiders - October 2, 2005
If this guy can’t win the Heisman from outside a power conference, nobody can
Photo by Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary

You know some of the candidates for the Heisman Trophy this season, like USC QB Sam Darnold or Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. They’re prominent offensive players who should rack up big numbers in the national spotlight.

But a preseason favorite doesn’t always win. Sometimes, players like Lamar Jackson of Louisville come from outside the top-10 preseason candidates. Others, like Johnny Manziel, come out of practically nowhere.

But even the surprise candidates aren’t so much of a surprise, if you know what you’re looking for. I took a look at voting data over the last 25 years and found a few trends to help narrow down the crowded list. Here’s what top candidates had in common.

First, and most obvious, you need to play for a power-conference team.

Over the last 25 years, over 90 percent of all top-five Heisman finishers came from power conferences (or Notre Dame). We’re including Big East programs here, like Miami or West Virginia, since they were power-conference programs at the time. In fact, only one non-power, BYU QB Ty Detmer in 1990, has won since the 1960s (Houston QB Andre Ware won it in 1989, but the Cougars were in the SWC).

Just 13 non-power players cracked the top five in Heisman voting since 1992. That list includes some of the greatest ever, like San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk (who did it twice), Marshall’s Randy Moss, Steve McNair (who did it from I-AA Alcorn State), and TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson. It includes Fresno State’s David Carr and Utah’s Alex Smith, who were No. 1 picks in the NFL draft, and Boise State’s Kellen Moore, who won more games than any other college QB ever. That’s the standard.

If you’re not in a power conference, you’re probably nowhere near the Heisman

Year Non-powers in top five Team Finish
Year Non-powers in top five Team Finish
1992 Marshall Faulk San Diego State #2
1993 Marshall Faulk San Diego State #4
1994 Steve McNair Alcorn State #3
1995 None - -
1996 None - -
1997 Randy Moss Marshall #4
1998 None - -
1999 Chad Pennington Marshall #5
2000 LaDamian Tomilson TCU #4
2001 David Carr Fresno State #5
2002 None - -
2003 None - -
2004 Alex Smith Utah #4
2005 None - -
2006 None - -
2007 Colt Brennan Hawaii #3
2008 None - -
2009 None - -
2010 Kellen Moore Boise State #4
2011 None - -
2012 None - -
2013 Jordan Lynch NIU #3
2014 None - -
2015 Kennan Reynolds Navy #5
2016 None - -

Only Faulk came particularly close, finishing second behind Miami QB Gino Torretta in 1992. Just two others, Hawaii QB Colt Brennan in 2007 and Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch, cracked the top three.

Since Tomlinson cracked the top five from a 10-2 TCU in 2000, every other non-power Heisman finalist has been on a team that’s won at least 11 games.

If you’re not in a power conference, the standard is to be the QB or RB on a truly elite team and put up amazing statistics. If you’re lucky, you’ll then finish, like, fourth.

And you have to be a QB or an RB, because barely anybody else gets close.

Charles Woodson of Michigan was the last non-QB or RB to win, back in 1997. QBs and RBs have also dominated the lists of players who even got close. Of all top-five finishers since 1992, 88.8 percent have been either QBs or RBs, and 96 percent were offensive players.

Unless you play running back at Alabama, you should just be a QB. We haven’t had a non-QB/non-Alabama-RB win since USC’s Reggie Bush in 2005, and before that Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne in 1999. And all Dayne did was set the career rushing yardage record.

You need to be on a very good team.

Excellent players from average teams do not come close to the Heisman. Of all top-five finishers from the last 25 years, 88.8 percent played on teams that won at least nine games, and 93.6 percent played on teams that won at least eight games.

The two big exceptions? Faulk’s San Diego State teams that finished 5-5-1 and 6-6, and RB Troy Davis of Iowa State, who cracked the top five in 1995 and 1996 despite his teams winning a combined five games. He ran for 2,000 yards in each season.

Heisman winners tend to come from title contenders, but star players on surprise teams can win.

The average final AP Poll ranking for the Heisman winner over the last 25 years? 4.8. In that time period, a player on a team that finished outside the AP Top 10 has only won four times.

The top five is pretty chalk too. The average final AP ranking among top-five finishers over the last 25 years? 8.51. It’s unusual for a player to get close if he’s not on an elite team.

Last year, Jackson won on the lowest-ranked team in the final AP Poll in 25 years, but by the Heisman voting, Louisville was ranked 15th, slightly ahead of its preseason expectations.

The others to win from outside the top 10? Ricky Williams in 1998, when the Longhorns finished 15th, Tim Tebow in 2007, when the Gators finished 13th, and Robert Griffin III, whose 2011 Baylor Bears team finished 13th. However, Texas and Baylor surpassed their preseason expectations, which is the key.

If you’re looking for a dark horse candidate for this season, that means you’d want to look at prolific offensive options for teams that aren’t expected to win 10 games or so, but could.

A couple potential long shots: Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson and West Virginia QB Will Grier, who have strong returning offenses, manageable schedules of defenses, and teams that could surprise with 10 wins.

What does that mean for this year?

The non-powers have plenty of really good QBs, like Wyoming’s Josh Allen (who’s earning NFL draft buzz), USF’s Quinton Flowers, BYU’s Tanner Mangum, or Western Kentucky’s Mike White. Plus, it’s possible that the actual best player in college football, Houston DL Ed Oliver, comes from outside the Power 5.

Of that list, only Flowers is likely to be on a team good enough to crack 11 wins or so, but the Bulls could go the entire season without playing a ranked team, so he’d have to really crank up his statistics to be a finalist. Oliver’s position makes him basically ineligible. Nobody else stands a chance of attending the ceremony, barring a surprise run to a New Year’s Six bowl.

This is probably even more proof that the Heisman can’t measure the “best player in the country.”

The best QB or RB from a top-10 program isn’t always the actual best player. The best player in college football in 2009, was, in my opinion, pretty clearly Nebraska DL Ndamukong Suh. I’ll argue that 1996’s best player was Ohio State OL Orlando Pace all day long.

The voting format often makes it impossible to award the best player in the country. Lots of voters who are not paid to stay up and watch Pac-12 football probably are not going to do so, after all.

So if you want to holler that Oliver is the best player in the country, go ahead. You might be correct!

But as to who might actually win the award? That’s a much more boring question.