Heisman History Repeating Itself?

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In the first November Heisman Top 10 aggregate of media and voter rankings, some interesting names stand out. This most recent list includes a defense-only candidate; a primarily defense and special teams player; and a Group of Five star.

Sure, the top three is populated with the prototypical Heisman contender: the starting quarterbacks of three national championship-chasing teams. But with Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen, Michigan defensive back and return specialist Jabrill Peppers, and San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey all in the mix, Heisman balloting might be evolving ever-so-slightly.

Well…evolving may not actually be the correct word here. Allen becoming the second defense-only finalist to reach New York in the last four years, or Pumphrey joining Jordan Lynch as non-power conference representatives would deviate from the norm of the previous two decades.

The current trend of Heisman voting, however, resembles an era from the late 1980s into the first half of the 1990s.

Vinny Testaverde claimed the Heisman in 1986; hardly a shocking revelation, given the numbers he registered for the national runner-up Miami Hurricanes. But the three finalists to appear alongside him at the ’86 award ceremony included a linebacker, Brian Bosworth; the star running back of a 6-5 Temple squad, Paul Palmer; and Gordie Lockbaum, the two-time Heisman finalist from Holy Cross.

Pumphrey’s current candidacy welcomes comparisons to Marshall Faulk, whose San Diego State records Pumphrey has smashed throughout his time on Montezuma Mesa. A parallel to Palmer is just as easy to draw.

Both put up mammoth statistics despite their diminuative frames. Both played for outspoken head coaches, unafraid to take aim at the sport’s power brokers and the lack of attention paid to unconventional standouts.

In 1985, Palmer’s Temple head coach, Bruce Arians, told The New York Times:

“If Paul was at Alabama right now, it would be Boo Boo and Bo [Jackson] on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a horse race for the Heisman.”

While Palmer didn’t appear alongside Bo Jackson for the 1985 ceremony, his stellar play proved too big to ignore in 1986.

Pumphrey’s rise is similar. He’s been a do-everything star for San Diego State his whole career, evolving from pass-catcher and change-of-pace option into the consummate, every-down back. His career before 2016 prompted SDSU athletics to promote his Heisman candidacy before the season.

“All we’ve got to do is get it to go viral on the internet. Everybody needs to see it,” San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said of a banner placed on SDSU’s campus this summer.

Should Allen get the invite to NYC, he’ll be the first defense-only player since Manti Te’o in 2012. Te’o’s invitation was the first for an exclusively defensive contender since 1992 when Florida State linebacker Marvin Jones joined a cast of finalists that included fellow unconventional choice Faulk.

A 20-year gap is rather astounding, especially considering defensive players finished among the finalists three times in a six-year span. Bosworth in ’86 and Washington defensive tackle Steve Emtman joined Jones in that run.

The ’92 points to an overall shift in voting. In 1993, Arizona defensive tackle Rob Waldrop put together a season worthy of a tux rental. He failed to finish in the top 10; ditto College Football Hall of Famer Tedy Bruschi in the 1994 season.

Te’o’s nomination and Allen’s rising star suggest a thawing on the long moratorium against defensive players. Should he become a finalist, he’ll be the third in seven years. Perhaps he’ll even win it, as Ndamukong Suh arguably should have in 2009. Mark Ingram was the safe, default choice as the best offensive player on an undefeated team; a common pattern that applies to Gino Torretta in 1992.

Before an injury late in the season, which coincidentally kept him from playing Torretta’s Miami Hurricanes, Faulk was the popular choice to win the award.

Though he fell short, Faulk became the third Heisman finalist out of the WAC in a seven-year span, joining BYU quarterbacks Robbie Boscoe and Ty Detmer. Detmer won the award in 1990, marking the last time a nominee from a non-power conference hoisted the hardware.

In the 20 years between Faulk’s nomination and the closure of WAC football, the conference produced two more finalists: Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan in 2007, and Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore in 2010.

The WAC’s spiritual successor, the Mountain West, has had only one finalist: Utah quarterback Alex Smith. The snubbed include TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, Boise State’s Moore in 2011 after the Broncos changed conferences, and Fresno State’s Derek Carr in 2013. Carr’s in good company; his brother, David, got similar treatment out of Fresno State and the WAC in 2001.

The 2000s were wholly predictable both in nominees and winners. It became a quarterback’s award — namely, a power-conference contender quarterback’s award — with just two running backs sprinkled in from 2000 through 2014.

In the 1980s, when non-conventional finalists like Palmer, Lockbaum and even Plymouth State running back Joe Dudek garnered support, Tim Brown emerged as the first wide receiver to win the Heisman.

Desmond Howard became the second four years later in 1991 — though his Heisman highlight moment came on special teams. Ditto fellow Michigan alum Charles Woodson in 1997, the only defensive player to win the award.

Peppers’ candidacy bears an uncanny resemblance to Woodson’s, whose win signified the last vestiges of that ’80/early ’90s voter mindset. Woodson beat the more obvious choice, Peyton Manning, and the unconventional nominee Randy Moss of Marshall.

Just how far beyond the norm Heisman voters are willing to deviate is an interesting question we’ll see play out in the next few years. Jackson’s unlikely to be caught this year, so 2016 does not appear to be the time for an unconventional Heisman winner.

But are we in the midst of an overall change in how the award’s evaluated, or merely a passing fancy, as we were some 20-30 years ago?