Will 2015 End The Run of Quarterback Heisman Winners?



Bovada Sportsbook released its incredibly early, initial odds for the 2015 Heisman Trophy Friday, and one element jumping out is how light the top-half is on quarterbacks.

Of the 15 of 31 candidates included, eight play quarterback. That’s still more than half, of course. But consider three of the eight — Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett — are teammates at Ohio State.

Furthermore, given how quarterback-dominated the award’s been for more than a decade, the prevalence of running backs atop Bovada’s odds is a possible barometer for a changing landscape.

The last five Heisman winners are all quarterbacks, including 13 of 15. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is the most recent, beating out Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon despite the latter’s historic numbers.

Quarterbacks’ dominance of the most prestigious individual award in college football is indicative of the general perception at most levels of the sport. While those behind center are celebrated to the point of virtual reverence, running backs are treated as interchangeable.

Ironically enough, that’s a mindset that could help a running back’s Heisman case in 2015, but more on that in a moment.

Specific to the Heisman, quarterbacks are in position to put up gaudier numbers than their backfield counterparts. Take Mariota, who last season passed for over 4,400 yards and 42 yards, outstanding numbers on their own topped with another 770 yards and 15 touchdowns via the rush.

Even with Gordon running wild in 2014, including a 408-yard game, Mariota’s dual-responsibility simply gave him a sizable stat-book advantage. Such is the case for other recent quarterback Heisman winners Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel.

For this reason, I assumed any running back to break quarterbacks’ stranglehold on the Heisman would need to be not only an excellent ball-carrier, but also a threat as a pass-catcher. Oh, and playing special teams wouldn’t hurt, either.

Reggie Bush did all three on his way to the 2005 Heisman. He even threw for a touchdown.

But C.J. Spiller in 2009 became the first, and still only player in Div. I college football history to score a touchdown five different ways, trumping even Bush’s 2005 with a kickoff returned for a score.

And yet, Spiller wasn’t even invited to New York, let alone a Heisman recipient.

The word went to Mark Ingram; the wrong running back choice for the 2009 Heisman (Toby Gerhart was the right choice), but a running back nonetheless. Ingram’s also the last running back to join the illustrious club of Heisman winners, and his win points to another point any back chasing the award needs on his resume.

Playing for a championship-caliber team trumps multifaceted statistical output. That bodes well for the candidacy of Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott burst onto the national scene with three straight games carrying for over 200 yards, accruing nearly 700 for the postseason. And, he did so in a very no-frills way that stood out in an era of wide-open football.

Going back to an earlier point, perception of running backs shifted at some point in the last decade, but the 2014 season brought about something of a renaissance for the classic, every-down back in college football.

Because fans and pundits either forgot what such a back was like, or took it for granted, the performance of players like Gordon, Elliott, and freshmen phenoms Nick Chubb, Royce Freeman and Samaje Perine resonated.

That corps returning has a new-found, and any could be in the title hunt. Oregon’s Freeman was on the sideline opposite Elliott just this month, after all.

Certainly any number of quarterbacks could emerge to keep the Heisman winners a primarily quarterbacks’ club, whether it’s a 2014 standout like Trevone Boykin, Cody Kessler or any of Ohio State’s three stars, or someone dwelling in relative obscurity this offseason.

But seven months out from the 2015 season, the landscape looks to have shifted ever so slightly in favor of running backs.