Even a year after a Baylor quarterback won the Heisman -- beating out the eventual No. 1 overall draft pick and a running back from would-be national champion Alabama -- the 2012 Heisman race is shaping up to have one of the most non-traditional fields the award has seen.
The Heisman can be a predictable honor. In most cases, Heisman contenders play offensive skill position for national championship contenders or traditional powers.
That trend is changing beyond Griffin. Two defensive players have been finalists in the last three years. A sophomore won the award for the first time in 2007. And two more sophomores won thereafter.
Taken on their own, all these unique Heisman contenders aren’t rare anymore, but 2012 could have a historically unique Heisman field.
THE FRESHMAN: Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel
After last week’s performance in the 29-24 upset of No. 1 Alabama, Manziel has moved from the fringes of the Heisman debate to a potential frontrunner along with Collin Klein. His 379.4 yards of total offense per game outpaces the SEC record held by Kentucky’s Tim Couch in 1998, and his 1,014 rushing yards are second only to Cam Newton among SEC quarterbacks. The closest a freshman has come to winning the Heisman was Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson, who finished 328 points behind USC’s Matt Leinart. Since World War II, only five freshmen have finished in the top 10 of voting -- Peterson, Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick (third in 1999), San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk (ninth in 1991), Florida’s Emmitt Smith (ninth in 1987) and Georgia’s Herschel Walker (third in 1980). As a redshirt, though, Manziel’s candidacy as a freshman contender has a bit of an asterisk. And he may not be the only redshirt freshman to finish in the top 10 of Heisman voting, as Oregon redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota makes a push late in the season.
Last freshman winner: None
Related: Manziel vs. Klein Heisman comparison
THE FIRST-TIMERS: Kansas State’s Collin Klein, Oregon’s Kenjon Barner.
Two of the last three Heisman winners -- Griffin for Baylor and Mark Ingram for Alabama -- became their schools’ first Heisman winners. From 2001-08, five schools won Heisman trophies. And those programs (Florida, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Nebraska) all had multiple Heisman winners prior to the 2001. Oregon has been more or less a regular in the Heisman voting since ’01 with LaMichael James, Dennis Dixon and Joey Harrington all finishing within the top five, none higher than third. The closest Kansas State has come to the Heisman was 1998 when Michael Bishop finished second to Texas’ Ricky Williams, and that was by a then-record of 1,563 points. With Klein the presumed frontrunner this season and Mariota a freshman, both schools could notch Heisman winners in the coming years.
Last first-time winner for a school: Baylor’s Robert Griffin (2011)
THE LINEBACKER: Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o
Defensive players are at a disadvantage for the Heisman from the get-go. They don’t show up in highlights nearly as often as an offensive skill players. Their statistics aren’t readily available in a standard box score. And even some of those numbers -- such as subjective tackle stats -- are vulnerable to skepticism. It takes a big-play defensive player dominating in big games to crack the club of Heisman finalists. Think of LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu in 2011 and Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh in 2009. Michigan's Charles Woodson is the last defensive player to win the award in 1997, but like Mathieu, he was a standout kick returner. If Te’o cracks the Heisman top five, he and Suh will be the only purely defensive players to do so since 1991.
Last defensive winner: Michigan’s Charles Woodson (1997)
THE RECEIVER: USC’s Marqise Lee
The most stunning part of Lee’s race for the Heisman may not be that he’s a wide receiver. It’s that he likely has outpaced the preseason Heisman frontrunner on his own team -- and a Heisman frontrunner in quarterback Matt Barkley who is connected directly to his success as a receiver. In a span of two weeks, Lee produced the top two of the top four single games in terms of all-purpose yards with 469 against Arizona and 408 yards against Oregon, though both were losses. Lee is more than two decades removed from the heyday of receivers in the Heisman voting: From 1987-91, two receivers won the Heisman (Michigan’s Desmond Howard and Notre Dame’s Tim Brown) and a third (Notre Dame’s Raghib Ismail) was a runner-up. Since 1991, only one receiver earned more than 300 points in the balloting. Pittsburgh’s Larry Fitzgerald was a narrow runner-up in 2003 by 128 points for the Heisman to Oklahoma quarterback Jason White.
Last wide receiver winner: Michigan’s Desmond Howard (1991)
THE SANCTIONED: Ohio State’s Braxton Miller
Ohio State’s choice to play in a bowl last season -- a loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl -- may have cost the Buckeyes the postseason this year. Even worse, it’s a decision that may end up costing Ohio State a Big Ten title and a BCS championship game appearance. However, there’s no NCAA rule against a player from a sanctioned team winning the Heisman or any other postseason awards. Last season, USC’s Matt Barkley finished sixth in the voting despite facing the final year of a bowl ban. Moreover, a player has won the Heisman after being punished personally for NCAA violations. Ohio State’s Troy Smith won the award in 2006, a year after he was suspended for receiving $500 from a booster. Miller was not implicated in the NCAA scandal that forced Jim Tressel to resign two years ago, so the closest parallel to Miller may be Houston’s Andre Ware. The Cougars quarterback remains the only player to win the Heisman from a team banned from the postseason and television appearances.
Last winner from a school on probation: Houston’s Andre Ware (1989)