The 2009 Heisman Trophy Vote Missed The Mark

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Alabama football, for all its many All-Americans, NFL talents and national championship (real or conjured), never produced a Heisman Trophy before 2009. That factoid felt pertinent in the lead-up to the 2009 Heisman vote, which Crimson Tide running back Mark Ingram won by a historically narrow margin over Stanford running back Toby Gerhart. 

Gerhart’s runner-up finish began a streak of five second-place Stanford finishes over eight years, with Bryce Love becoming the fourth different Cardinal to be proverbial bridesmaid last season. 

Ingram’s statistical rushing output was inferior to Gerhart’s almost across the board, save one per-carry average: 1,542 yards (at the time of the Heisman vote) to 1,736, and 15 touchdowns vs. 26, with the benefit of an additional game. 

Gerhart wasn’t the only rusher with superior stats to 2009 Heisman winner Ingram; in fact, the Alabama running back finished the 2009 season ranked 10th nationally in yard-per-game production, and fourth in total yards on the ground. 

Ingram’s pass-catching bolstered his production somewhat, but not enough to finish any better than No. 16 in total all-purpose yards by season’s end. Not that all-purpose yards really meant that much to the 2009 Heisman race, mind you. Had it, one of either C.J. Spiller or Mardy Gilyard, two of the most exciting players in both that season and recent college football memory, would have been among the five in New York. 

Five is a perfect number of invitees to showcase at the annual ceremony, one thing the 2009 vote got right. The number of finalists isn’t decided arbitrarily, but I prefer a standard number every year. The telecast drags in years with three finalists, but more importantly, honoring a few additional players for their excellence is hardly a bad thing. 

So, the number of finalists in 2009 is one thing Heisman voters nailed. The exclusion of Clemson’s Spiller is downright shocking, though, considering the historic campaign he put together. 

Spiller rushed for 1,212 yards at a 5.61 per carry clip with 12 scores, caught for another 503 yards and four touchdowns, averaged a staggering 23.1 yards per punt return, and returned four kickoffs for touchdowns. That was more an all but two teams in FBS that season. 

Those four kickoff return touchdowns served as the mantle pieces for Spiller scoring touchdowns in five different ways: rush, reception, pass, kickoff and punt return. Before Spiller did it in 2009, only Reggie Bush in 2005 scored in five ways. Christian McCaffrey is the lone player to do so since. 

Spiller is the only one of the three not invited to the Heisman ceremony. 

As versatile as C.J. Spiller was for Clemson in 2009, Cincinnati’s Mardy Gilyard edged him by six yards for the FBS high in all-purpose production that season. Gilyard’s exclusion from the Heisman ceremony might be even more of a head-scratcher than Spiller’s in that Clemson finished the regular season with an unspectacular 9-4 record after dropping the ACC Championship Game to Georgia Tech. 

Cincinnati enjoyed a dream season, going 12-0 en route to the Sugar Bowl. Gilyard did just about everything for the Bearcats, catching 80 passes in the regular season for 1,150 yards and 11 touchdowns. He wasn’t used frequently in the run game, but maximized his opportunities with a 12.63-yard per carry average, and tacked on an additional touchdown on the ground. 

But the touchdown Gilyard scored on special touchdowns against Pitt might be the single most important in Cincinnati football history. 

Mardy Gilyard finished ninth in balloting that season, one of the more clear indicators that plenty of voters haven’t a clue of anything outside of the power-conference bubble. 

The fifth Heisman finalist in 2009 wasn’t invited on the strength of a remarkable season, but rather an apparent honor for past success. 

Tim Tebow is one of the greatest college football quarterbacks ever; let’s get that out of the way before proceeding. Tebow became the first-ever 20-20 touchdown scorer en route to the 2007 Heisman, and he was arguably better in 2008. Had Tebow joined Archie Griffin as the award’s only two-time winner in ’08, no one could reasonably object. 

Tebow’s third appearance at the Heisman ceremony was a lifetime achievement award, however. This happens from time-to-time in the Heisman vote — ballots in recognition of players who had great careers but not necessarily Heisman caliber seasons. A.J. McCarron rode his to runner-up in 2013, a year that — SPOILER! — will be chronicled in the coming days here at The Open Man. 

The 2009 campaign was indisputably the least impressive of Tebow’s three as Florida’s starting quarterback. He was good in 2009 — 18 passing touchdowns at the time of balloting with another 13 scores on the ground — but he wasn’t as spectacular individually as either Spiller or Gilyard. 

From fifth place to first, the 2009 Heisman vote all sorts of issues. 

Mark Ingram’s Heisman win fulfilled the common Heisman voting function of rewarding the “best,” or at least most visible, player on the best team. Second, Ingram’s win finally ended that surprising drought, bringing to Tuscaloosa an honor that previously resided at the University of Chicago, Yale and Princeton, among other modernly surprising places.  

Never mind Ingram wasn’t the best running back in the country — hell, plenty of folks following Alabama at the time claimed Ingram wasn’t the best running back on his team. The buzz for then-freshman (and 2011 Heisman finalist) Trent Richardson gained volume throughout the 2009 season. 

None of the preceding is an endorsement for Toby Gerhart winning the award, however. Perhaps more egregious than Alabama having never boasted a Heisman winner before 2009 is that a defense-only player has never hoisted the hardware. That’s a drought that should have ended with Ndamukong Suh. 

Suh was an absolute monster in 2009, a one-man wrecking crew who carried an otherwise middling Nebraska team within a questionably timed incomplete pass of winning the Big 12 Conference championship. His performance against Texas is about as close to a defensive player singlehandedly winning a game as you will ever see. 

The Big 12 Championship deflated Colt McCoy’s bid for the Heisman, but wasn’t enough to elevate Suh — who was outstanding all season prior to the title tilt — above fourth place. 

Suh finishing so far behind Ingram made clear to me an exclusively defensive player will probably never win the Heisman.