Heisman campaigns have changed. Used to be, Sports Information Directors would send out glowing press releases, life-size cutouts and odd knicknacks that wouldn't fit on a desk. Notre Dame changed Joe Theisman's name. The family pronounced it THEES-man, but the athletic department office quickly encouraged him to adapt it to rhyme with a certain bronzed trophy. Theisman didn't win though. Lost in 1970 to Jim Plunkett, who had a better season and a better back story. No fake girlfriends, but both of Plunkett's parents were legally blind.
In the age of ESPN and Fox Sports 1 everything is different. Heisman campaigns, such as they are, are much more organic, raised in the compost of 24-hour college football channels and highlight shows, with the stats and great plays shown to viewing audiences 5-10 times before the NFL takes the field on Sunday.
The last three Heisman winners, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton, didn't need an overt Heisman campaign. None of them were among the preseason favorites for the award. In fact, all three were relative unknowns when the season began, and built momentum for their trip to New York with fabulous play in September that just kept getting better. They amassed numbers and rolled to big wins, and by November of their respective trophy-winning seasons the unlikely hero seemed inevitable. Manziel was a redshirt freshman, not even a sure starter before the year began. Newton was a junior college transfer and one-year wonder, who languished behind Tim Tebow at Florida before leaving for a JC, landing at Auburn after a notorious bidding war.
Last years Heisman race was marred by the weird unraveling story of Manti Te'o and his imaginary girlfriend. It really isn't necessary for a Heisman hopeful to have a heartwarming Jim-Grey-at-the-Olympics story of adversity and heartbreak. What's most important are good stats for a contending team in a major conference, and playing running back or quarterback for a glamour school. Chris Huston, who writes the website heismanpundit.com spells it out much more specifically on his site. He has a permanent post called "The Ten Heismandments" which spells out how the Heisman is won, based on solid research over the last 40 years of the award.
Prominent among Huston's Heisman principles is "the player must be likable." Each region of the country has 145 Heisman voters, chosen among writers and experts on college football, plus all the previous trophy winners have a ballot. Heisman voters jealously guard the reputation of the award and its hallowed place in college football lore. Winners have to embody their ideal of the student-athlete and the appearance of character and personal appeal. With the coverage college football gets now they have to have the numbers, but they also have to have big plays in big games and big games on TV. It helps to have what Huston calls a "Heisman moment," a play that stands out with excitement and flair, a crucial moment in a big game, preferably on national TV.
Which brings the discussion to Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas. Both are legitimate Heisman candidates. They've accumulated good stats for the #2 team in the country. Each of them are on Heisman watch lists and straw ballots and on the cover of preseason magazines and mentioned as possible All-Americans. Every one of their games this year will be on television, and at least four of them will be marquee games that will provide the proper stage for a shining Heisman moment.
The Ducks will play Tennessee on ABC next week. They'll gain a big audience for their October 12th game in Seattle versus the Huskies, the home game against UCLA, and the rematch against Stanford. Arizona looks to be a good team this year; they could emerge in the crowded PAC-12 South, and that game, November 23rd in the desert, will be a showdown of high-powered offenses. The Civil War this year is on Friday, nationally in prime time on Fox Sports 1. A potential PAC-12 championship berth, if the Ducks earn one is another big stage, just a few days before ballots are due.
After two games, both Mariota and Thomas are on track to compete for a big role in the Heisman race. Neither is focused on it. But in Huston's straw poll last week, The Flyin' Hawaiian was third:
Total points, (with first-place votes in parentheses)
Keep in mind, these aren't the subjective opinions of fan bloggers, message board experts or armchair analysts, this is a poll of actual Heisman voters, a representative sample. Thomas is further down the list, but after scooting for 252 yards and 5 touchdowns in the first two weeks, the speedy all-purpose back is positioned to make a Heisman run if he continues to be productive. He's an especially intriguing candidate because he has the "wow" factor, the ability to make plays and moves that hardly anyone else in the game can duplicate. His 40-yard touchdown run in today's win over Virginia, tight-roping the sideline, outrunning three defenders who thought they had angles, is an example of how amazing and elusive he is, and how exciting.
As for Mariota, some Oregon fans are in a dither about his pass accuracy numbers and supposed regression, but that isn't remotely relevant to the Heisman discussion. He's winning. He's putting up decent stats, accounting for 6 touchdowns while passing for 433 yards and rushing for 235, going over 100 yards in both games.
While fans dissect every read option and incomplete pass, this is what Heisman voters will see regarding Mariota this week: the headline. Nationally, it reads,
De'Anthony Thomas, Marcus Mariota spark No. 2 Oregon's rout
They'll see the ESPN highlights and read the paper, which will tell them he accounted for 310 yards and three tds in a 59-10 win. Heisman voters are big-picture people.
Mariota will have better game as the season progresses. In one three-game stretch last year he had a 230 passer rating, 12 tds, and completed 80% of his passes. The highlight film runs help his case also, and he's already had two this year, tds of 71 and 46 yards.
Bridgewater and Boyd remain formidable candidates. Boyd led his team to a big, high-profile win over Georgia in week one. Bridgewater throws a beautiful ball, and he'll amass stats. His Louisville squad, 8th in the country right now, doesn't play a ranked team all season. He'll feast on the All-American Conference, and in games like Florida International and Temple he could practically name his number.
A Heisman would be huge for Oregon. It's one of the benchmarks of success that's so far eluded them, and it's a great recruiting tool. When Thomas was named the Sports Illustrated High School Player of the Week as a senior, he listed winning a Heisman as one of his goals. Players like him don't go to a school unless they feel they can achieve their goals there. Oregon is a hot, jazzy team among high school recruits, and landing that first Heisman and/or National Championship would turn that hotness up to 11.
@Duckbill The Sporting News' Ken Bradley ranked Mariota 4th after week one and said this:
"Why he’s here: On team with all kinds of playmakers on offense, Mariota is the Ducks’ most impactful. De’Anthony Thomas may turn more heads with his blazing speed, but Mariota—only a sophomore—can win games with his arm and legs. "
Mariota IS a Heisman candidate. Every poll and analyst says so. The completion % is 53% after two and will go on in the weeks to come, but voters aren't focused on that. 12 of the last 13 winners have been quarterbacks, and four of the last five have been dual-threat quarterbacks, starting with Tim Tebow.
@theduckforpresident @zduckfan @Duckbill @Dale Newton Watching back the tape I counted six drops, three times when Mariota wisely threw the ball away under pressure, and two screen passes that Virginia just blew up. Those are team failures, but fans always blame the quarterback, and jump on the statistics without looking at the whole picture.
@Duckbill @Dale Newton I hate to pick sides, but I gotta say that completion percentage isn't as relevant as dominating teams for the W. "We" collectively want MM's passing percentage to rise, and yes, I shook my head with every blown pass this weekend too, but wheels + TD's + headlines = Heisman interest.
Why? Because many Heisman voters do not watch the games, they read the headlines. I'd even go so far as to say "most" don't watch the games until later in the season, when the conference schedules heat up and guys like Mariota match wits against players like Skov and defenses like Stanford's.
Duckbill, you and I want Mariota to do better. Truth is, he's doing enough to win, and that's okay right now. Whatever our opinions, voting looks like this.