Before 2012, the issue of the best freshman in college football history may have been a two-horse race.
Herschel Walker and Adrian Peterson were prodigious running backs and Heisman finalists, each of which with a case for the award. Walker set a freshman record for rushing (later broken by Peterson) and won a national title.
During the last two seasons, though, the debate may have changed with Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston. The pair of quarterbacks broke through the glass ceiling for freshmen, winning the Heisman in back-to-back years. While Manziel may deserve a nod for electrifying play and record-breaking numbers, Winston supervised one of the most dominant seasons in college football history en route to a national title.
The case for the top freshman in college football history remains a fun debate, but we have to give the nod to someone — at least until the next barrier of a true freshman Heisman winner is broken.
1. Jameis Winston
School: Florida State Year: 2013
Winston checked every box during his redshirt freshman season, leading the Seminoles to a national championship and winning the Heisman Trophy in a rout. The Seminoles were rarely challenged en route to their third national title, scoring a record 723 points in 14 games. Winston passed for 4,057 yards with 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while leading the nation in passing efficiency.
2. Johnny Manziel
School: Texas A&M Year: 2012
There was a time when Johnny Football was not a phenomenon. That time didn’t last long. In his first season, Manziel led an upset of No. 1 Alabama, shattered the SEC’s total offense record by nearly 800 yards, twice broke the SEC single game total offense record by and became the first freshman, redshirt or otherwise, to win the Heisman trophy.
3. Herschel Walker
School: Georgia Year: 1980
If Heisman voters were as open minded at the start of the ‘80s as they are today, Walker may have joined Archie Griffin as a two-time winner (or more). Walker finished third as a freshman in 1980 behind South Carolina running back George Rogers and Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green. Walker earned the biggest prize by leading the Bulldogs to the national title. The Heisman would wait until his junior season.
4. Adrian Peterson
School: Oklahoma Year: 2004
Peterson was the best hope to be the first freshman to win the Heisman since Herschel Walker. Peterson set freshman records with 1,925 rushing yards and 339 carries, both of which are still standing. Peterson finished second for the Heisman, the best finish for a freshman to date, but he split the vote with teammate Jason White.
5. Michael Vick
School: Virginia Tech Year: 1999
Frank Beamer had built the Hokies to respectability, but the national breakthrough didn’t come until Michael Vick suited up in 1999. Vick led the Hokies to the BCS title game against Florida State. Vick was the forerunner for dual-threat quarterbacks that are no common. The redshirt freshman passed for 2,035 yards and rushed for 682.
6. Marshall Faulk
School: San Diego State Year: 1991
Faulk earned consensus All-America honors in 1992-93 but his rookie year was no less impressive. He rushed for 1,429 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman, including a career-year 7.1 yards per carry.
7. Ron Dayne
Dayne’s journey to becoming the all-time leading rusher in college football history got off to a rousing start. Dayne rushed for a career-high 2,109 yards* and 21 touchdowns as a freshman.
*at the time, the NCAA did not recognize bowl games in yearly records. Thus, Dayne’s 1996 rushing total stands as 1,863 before his 246 yards in the Copper Bowl against Utah, making Adrian Peterson the freshman record holder as far as the NCAA is concerned.
8. Michael Crabtree
School: Texas Tech Year: 2007
Even in Mike Leach’s Air Raid, Crabtree was an outlier with production. Crabtree led the nation in receptions (134), receiving yards (1,962) and touchdowns (22) on the way to going two-for-two on Biletnikoff Awards and consensus All-America honors in his career.
9. Maurice Clarett
School: Ohio State Year: 2002
Before an unfortunate finish to his college career, Clarett was a sensation as a freshman. He rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns on the way to an undefeated season and a national title for the Buckeyes.
10. Dre Bly
School: North Carolina Year: 1996
Bly became the first freshman to earn consensus All-America honors after intercepting 11 passes in 1996. His 11 picks remains tied for the fourth-most in a season.
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