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March 9, 2020

Top 5 Best NCAA College Football Players that Never Won the Heisman Trophy

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Photo by Sports Illustrated

Named after football pioneer John W. Heisman, the Heisman Trophy has been awarded annually to the most outstanding college football player since 1935 (Tracy, New York Times). The award has had plenty of prestige and reputation behind it, but in the modern era, it’s become the Holy Grail of individual college football accolades. The winner is announced at a televised annual award ceremony hosted by The Heisman Trophy Trust in New York City, most frequently at the PlayStation Theatre, with millions of college football fans tuning in across the country. 

For any college football player, including the very top in the country, merely being nominated as a Heisman Trophy finalist is a tremendous accomplishment. However, earning a Heisman Trophy undoubtedly carries unparalleled, lifelong value. Though it’s often not the case because of how Heisman voting has trended the last few decades, the difference between the Heisman winner and runner-up could potentially have dramatic NFL Draft ramifications for players. When considering the history of NCAA college football, heavily invested fans will almost always recognize a Heisman Trophy winner by name, but the runner-up’s college football career is nearly always forgotten within a few years after graduation. With that being said, we wanted to go in a different direction with this LRT Sports Top 5 and take a look at the best college football players in NCAA history that never won the Heisman Trophy. 

We factored in a range of variables when coming up with the Top 5 greatest college football players that never made the Heisman Trophy list. First and foremost, we focused on players who dominated college football seasons but were somehow outdone by someone with an even more impressive year. We also put a lot of weight into the entirety of the player’s college football career; for example, starting at quarterback through four dominant seasons in the SEC would be weighed heavily. Finally, we gave some consideration to a player’s post-college/professional career standing, especially if they made it into the NFL Hall of Fame or won a Super Bowl title, etc. 

#5: Adrian Peterson, Running Back – University of Oklahoma

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First up on the LRT Sports Top 5 list is Adrian Peterson, running back for the Oklahoma Sooners. Peterson is well known for his impressive NFL career, which was almost exclusively spent with the Minnesota Vikings. However, there’s no question Peterson was also a superstar for the Sooners; he was the first freshman in NCAA college football history to finish runner-up in the Heisman voting (Latzke, Rivals.com). In that same 2004 season, Peterson was named a Unanimous All-American (Latzke, Rivals.com).  

The reality is Peterson’s rookie season with the Sooners was indisputably his best shot at winning the Heisman. As a rookie, Peterson broke multiple NCAA college football rushing records, including rushing for a conference-leading 1,925 yards, as well as leading the entire nation in carries, with 339 (Zinser, New York Times). Peterson ran for over 100 yards against eight different opponents, with his most impressive performance coming against Baylor, where he ran for 240 yards and scored three second-half touchdowns (Florio, ProFootballTalk). In addition to breaking many individual records, Peterson was the primary reason the Sooners went undefeated in the regular season and went all the way to the NCAA Championship Game, before getting blown out by the USC Trojans, 55-19 (Langford, Bleacher Report). In 2004’s Heisman voting, Peterson finished second with 154 first place voters and Matt Leinart, quarterback for USC at the time, came in first with 267 1st place voters (Burke, Sports Illustrated).

Of all the upcoming players on this list, Peterson’s second-place performance in that season would have been an all-but-guaranteed Heisman Trophy win in other years. Considering Leinart had his impressive year in terms of individual statistics, combined with being the starting quarterback for the National Champion USC Trojans, there was no chance of him not winning the 2004 Heisman Trophy.  

#4: Tommie Frazier, Quarterback – University of Nebraska

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Next on LRT Sports Top 5 list at #4 is Tommie Frazier, Quarterback for the University of Nebraska. Before diving into Frazier’s statistics and achievements, it’s important to note the Heisman has transformed into much more of an ‘MVP Award’ nowadays. Back in the 1990s, when Frazier played, a college football student-athlete’s future professional potential was an implied consideration for many voters (Reed, Sports Illustrated). Frazier’s style as a run-heavy option quarterback hurt his Heisman aspirations significantly, which is confirmed by his records and accomplishments, as well as those of his school’s football program’s results. 

Frazier missed several games in his time at the University of Nebraska from 1992-1995 due to a blood clot problem on his left side (Babcock, Athlon Sports Communications, Inc). Nonetheless, Frazier completed his collegiate career as a Cornhusker with a 45-4 record as a starter, with 5,476 yards of total offense and 79 touchdowns (Bell, Athlon Sports Communications, Inc.). His senior year was by far his most impressive, collecting the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, Quarterback of the Year and Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year in addition to a Consensus All-American selection. With all those impressive distinctions, he was also the Heisman Trophy runner-up to Ohio State running back Eddie George, in what’s continued to be the closest voting margin in Heisman history (Layden, Sports Illustrated). Moreover, the individual awards and career statistics aren’t why most college football fans – especially Nebraska Cornhusker football fans – agree he is one of the best NCAA College football players that never won the Heisman Trophy. Frazier led the Cornhuskers to back-to-back-to-back NCAA National Championships between 1993-1995, winning the national title the last two appearances in 1994 and 1995, as well as being named the game’s MVP in each (Layden, Sports Illustrated). In his most impressive season, when he was the Heisman runner-up to George in 1995, Tommie threw for 1,362 yards, 17 touchdowns, and four interceptions in addition to running the ball 97 times for 604 yards and 14 touchdowns (Layden, Sports Illustrated). 

With those all-around statistics, it seems quite outrageous that Frazier never won a Heisman Trophy, as he would be a long shot favorite by today’s standards. But as we stated from the onset, Frazier’s situation goes to show the evolution of the factors considered by voters. 

#3: Deion Sanders, Cornerback – Florida State University

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Coming in at #3 on LRT Sports Top 5 list is “Prime Time” Deion Sanders, frequently considered the best cornerback and one of the best overall defensive players in football history. “Neon Deion” played for the Florida State Seminoles from 1985-1988; roughly ten years before Charles Woodson became the first defensive player in NCAA history to win the Heisman Trophy, beating Peyton Manning in his most impressive statistical collegiate season in 1997 (Chappell, USA Today). 

Let’s make one thing clear: the only reason Deion Sanders is not a Heisman Trophy Award winner is because this award is explicitly dominated by running backs and quarterbacks, with very few exceptions. Sanders embodied the definition of a physical specimen; he played varsity football, baseball and track & field at Florida State (Donnelly, Newsday). After putting his primary focus on football in his sophomore year, Deion was selected as a third-team All-American in 1986, then a consensus All-American cornerback in both 1987 and 1988 (Sexton, New York Times). Deion was named the recipient of the Jim Thorpe Award in 1988. Sanders finished his career as a Seminole with 14 interceptions with 3 of them coming in bowl games, including his interception with 5 seconds left in the 1989 Sugar Bowl, securing Florida State’s 13-7 win over Auburn. Unsurprising given he was a track star, Deion also returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown, breaking Fred Biletnikoff’s 99-yard interception return record (Unnamed Writer, ESPN). His raw athleticism also made him a standout punt returner; in 1988, Sanders led the nation in punt return yard average and broke Florida State’s school record for career punt return yards (Unnamed Writer, ESPN). Legendary head coach Bobby Bowden said Prime Time was his “measuring stick for athletic ability” (Donnelly, Newsday). 

Though Sanders went on to be an eight-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl Champion and both an NFL and NCAA HOF inductee, somehow he never finished higher than eighth in Heisman Trophy voting (Price, Sports Illustrated). 

#2: Peyton Manning, Quarterback – University of Tennessee

Photo by Sports Illustrated

The second-best player that never won the Heisman Trophy on the LRT Sports Top 5 list is Peyton Manning, legendary quarterback from the University of Tennessee and now a shoo-in to be a first-ballot NFL HOF inductee. Manning’s NCAA career was largely similar to his NFL career, which can concisely be summarized with one word: dominating. Peyton led the Tennessee Volunteers to 39 wins in the 45 games he started, an 87% winning percentage as a starter (Keefer, Indystar). He also finished his career with 11,201 passing yards and 11,020 career total yards (Stine, Bleacher Report). So why was Manning never able to win the Heisman, despite starting nearly four full, statistically dominant seasons as a QB in the SEC? Manning’s Heisman credentials were severely plagued by his team’s inability to defeat their SEC-rival Florida Gators; Peyton lost to the Gators as a Volunteer all three times they faced off (Higgins, The Commercial Appeal). Clearly key game performances and your team’s ability to win at the highest level can make all the difference, as Manning finished second in Heisman voting after his historic 1997 season to Charles Woodson, the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophy, but more importantly an indispensable part of the Michigan Wolverines 1997 National Championship roster. 

Considering the historical weight of factors that traditionally go into selecting the Heisman Trophy winner, it’s safe to say most would agree Peyton should have won the 1997 Heisman Trophy Award. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to phase him after he graduated, as Manning was selected 1st overall and famously went on to become one of the greatest football players in NFL history. In addition to his 14 Pro Bowls, 5 NFL MVP Awards and two Super Bowl Championships, Manning holds the NFL record for most career regular-season passing touchdowns, most passing touchdowns in a season, most passing yards in a season and many others (Pro-Football-Reference). 

#1: Vince Young, Quarterback – University of Texas

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The best college football player that never won the Heisman Trophy on the LRT Top 5 is Vince Young, Quarterback for the Texas Longhorns until the Tennessee Titans drafted him in the 2006 NFL Draft. From looking at the totality of Young’s NCAA football career, it’s impossible to find a more highly qualified player who never won this coveted award. He’s seemingly achieved everything a Heisman Trophy winner historically needed, leading his team to the top of college football rankings, dominating NCAA national stats, and garnering a lot of positive name recognition. While the opposite generally holds true in the NFL, elite dual-threat quarterbacks usually are preferred in the NCAA. Young was a true dual-threat. In his final 2005 season at Texas, where Young finished second in Heisman voting, he threw for 3,036 yards and ran for 1,050, in addition to scoring 38 total touchdowns (Iyer, Sporting News). Young’s 2005 season with the Longhorns was the first time in NCAA history any quarterback passed for at least 3,000 yards and rushed for at least 1,000 (Stine, Bleacher Report). If you add that incredible historic feat to Young’s performance in his final game as a Longhorn, the 2006 Rose Bowl where almost all college football fans remember him scoring the game-winning touchdown with time expiring, a large number of college football experts believe if Heisman voting happened after that game, Young would have emerged victorious over Bush (Schmidt, FanSided). 

Edited by Caroline Kurdej

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