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There is the oft-quoted "no-freshmen rule," the once perennially maintained "no sophomore rule," and who can forget about the still relatively young "no defensive player rule" that seems to be hardening every year? And while Tim Tebow's 2007 season went a long way to challenging how we view the criteria for winning the Heisman trophy, one unofficial guideline it won't be making a dent into is the idea of a non-BCS conference player winning the award. Not a single non-BCS conference player has won the award since the introduction of the BCS conference formula a decade ago, and despite a few close finishes conventional wisdom still tells us that a player from the Mountain West, Western Athletic, or other non-"power" conference can't match up with the best of the best from the Big 10 or SEC.
So is this idea of another unofficial Heisman "rule" all but barring the voters from choosing a non-BCS conference player really becoming a reality, or does a more competitive and egalitarian college football landscape offer up hope for players from the five non-BCS conferences? To find the answer we would be remiss not to look at the examples of some of the most promising non-BCS Heisman candidates over the past few seasons, dissecting both what they did right and where they fell short in an effort to arrive at an understanding of what exactly a non-BCS conference player would have to do to win the award. For the purposes of this article I would like to focus on the cases of three specific players. Boise State running back Ian Johnson, former Hawaii Quarterback Colt Brennan, and former Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe have all been potential Heisman candidates at one point or another during the 2006 or 2007 college football seasons, and provide an excellent starting place for assessing if and what it would take for a player from a non "power" conference to win the award. In addition to these three players, the case of former Utah quarterback Alex Smith, who finished fourth in the voting in 2004, will also be taken under consideration.
Having identified the major non-BCS conference players who've had the opportunity to compete for the award in recent seasons, let us first examine what they did to earn themselves a place in the discussion. Their candidacy, it would seem, came to be largely based on two factors; an overwhelming statistical showing over the course of the season, as well as an ability to lead their team to a BCS bowl game and into the top 15 or 10 teams of the college football rankings. These two factors are of primary importance to the non-BCS Heisman trophy candidate, who must achieve one or the other (but preferably both) to even enter the discussion of having a viable candidacy. A further explanation of each is as follows.
Statistically Speaking: A must for any Heisman trophy winner but a point of special emphasis for non-BCS conference players, Heisman trophy candidates must present a resume chalk full of statistical accomplishments to realistically be considered for the award. I say especially important for non-BCS candidates because of the stigma attached to the competition level in non-BCS conferences. Whether a point of fact or fiction (or perhaps something in between) the perception is the reality, and to compensate for playing against "lesser" competition non-BCS candidates must transcend respectable statistics and move into the realm of truly gaudy or insane numbers. In the case of our models all did just that. Colt Brennan threw for 4300+ yards with over a 70% completion percentage in 2007, Ian Johnson ran for over 1700 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2006, and Garrett Wolfe scampered to 1900 rushing yards and over 2000 total yards that same year.
Busting the BCS: A player's candidacy cannot often rely on statistics alone, a point similarly applicable for many BCS conference Heisman hopefuls who fall short of winning the award. Yet where a BCS conference player's ability to put a team in contention for the National Championship often determines who ends up on the short list for consideration, a non-BCS conference player's ability to direct his team to a BCS bowl game often functions in the same manner. Both Colt Brennan and Ian Johnson had much of their candidacies staked on that ability, as did Utah's Alex Smith in 2004. Garrett Wolfe's case, a lone exception, will be discussed further down, but suffice to say that more times than not a non-BCS player will need to fulfill this function to end up in New York come December.
Having outlined these so-called "primary factors," we now turn our attention to an increasingly important set of "secondary factors" which ultimately make or break the ability of a non-BCS conference player to both sustain a candidacy and to carry it through to a point where actually winning the Heisman becomes a real possibility. These factors are (complete with examples from our aforementioned past candidates) as follows.
Weak Field: Ideally, Heisman voters are looking for the key offensive player on the dominant team in the country. Yet in a year of increased parity (like last year) or in a year where the statistical accomplishments of that leading offensive player are marginalized, who do the voters turn to? The answer could be to a dominant non-BCS conference player, especially one who leads his team to a BCS bowl game. A strong field on the other hand is the kiss of death for a non-BCS conference player. This is what undid Alex Smith's chances in 2004, when even a dominant statistical season (he threw for a 7:1 TD-INT ratio) and BCS bowl appearance weren't enough to overtake Matt Leinart's resume of leading the Trojans to the National Title.
Statement Game: Heisman trophy commentators have long identified a "statement game" as vital to a player's candidacy, usually defining such a game as one in which the player in question leads his team to a defining, nationally-significant win over a quality opponent while putting up solid, if not all together gaudy statistics. The fact that there are two factors within this particular criterion is important, because for non-BCS conference players it has almost been exclusively one or the other in recent memory. Wolfe had a huge statement game where he proved he could run against even a solid BCS and nationally contending defense when he ran wild on Ohio State, but his team fell short against the Buckeyes. While a solid outing against a Top 25 team will prove to many NFL scouts that a player has what it takes to make it to the next level, only leading a team to an upset win in a statement game will convince the Heisman voters to take a non-BCS conference player's candidacy seriously.
Entrenchment: In the cases of both Johnson and Wolfe, one of the main problems with their respective runs at the Heisman trophy was the relative unknown position of their candidacy before the season started. While Johnson met both sets of primary criteria during the 2006 season in that he posted a statistically respectable season while helping to lead his team to a BCS bowl victory, he was in no way identified as even a longshot for the trophy before the season started. Likewise, while Garrett Wolfe was known as the MAC's top back and perhaps to some a darkhorse for the trophy, he was not a "contender" before the year started. Like non-BCS teams fighting for preseason poll positioning, a non-BCS Heisman hopeful must do the same. Colt Brennan actually accomplished this with an insane 2006 season, but failed on a number of accounts to reinforce those expectations as the 2007 season continued. The lesson here is simple; while any non-BCS conference player can be counted among the top ten candidates as the season continues, only the player who has been labeled as a serious contender before the season begins can actually capitalize on the momentum to actually win the trophy.
No Letdown: In the case of the "letdown performance" let us take a look at Wolfe's 2006 campaign. Despite playing on a team with no feasible chance at making it into a BCS bowl game, Wolfe literally forced critics to consider his case by posting one of the most statistically overwhelming starts to a season by a running back in the history of college football. He ran for over 150 yards in each of the first six games of 2006, and through the first half of the season accounted for 1342 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. People speculated on the likes of a 2500 yard rushing season, with some predicting that Barry Sanders' single season rushing record of 2628 falling before season's end. Unfortunately for Wolfe his statistical dominance stalled through the second half of the year, and he finished with "just" 1900 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground. All-American type numbers for sure, but four consecutive sub-100 yard games against MAC competition took away any chance he had for the Heisman. While it would be presumptuous to say that Wolfe would have won the Heisman had he continued his first-half tear, the lesson is still applicable regardless of whether or not the small but speedy running back walked away with the trophy. A non-BCS conference player in pursuit of the Heisman absolutely cannot afford to have a letdown performance, let alone multiple letdown performances against conference competition. Such was also the case with Hawaii's Colt Brennan in 2007, as he tossed five picks in a regular season game against an Idaho team which failed to defeat an FBS team that year.
Face of the Program: Now, on to the more "political" factors for trophy positioning. A non-BCS conference player, just like his BCS counterpart, must be the face of his particular football program to have a viable shot at winning the award. Look no further than the example of Ian Johnson in this matter. Only after the Fiesta Bowl and his subsequent on-field marriage proposal was Johnson really identified as the face of Boise State, a distinction which quarterback Jared Zabransky held prior. One could certainly make the case Johnson was the dominant offensive player on the 2006 BSU team, but because Zabransky was identified as the leader of the offense Johnson's candidacy never really took the shape it could have.
Marketing Ability/Following: For a variety of reasons any Heisman candidate is going to have to be marketed effectively, but perhaps just as important is the development of a national following of support for his campaign. This includes an active and well regarded fan base that is, above all, nationalized. In the case of all of our models this proved to be an undoing cause for their campaigns, as even the zeal of their regional followers was not enough to convince voters from other sections of the country to cast enough first place votes for them. For a non-BCS conference player to win the award in the future, they will almost certainly need to come from a school with a rich tradition, has a well regarded alumni base, and holds a following of non-alumni and non-student fans. This is an incredibly limiting factor and at the present only encompasses a few non-BCS conference schools.
Taken alone, any of these factors can insert a given player into the Heisman discussion, with two or three of the above factors perhaps even garnering a player a trip to New York City as a finalist. However, only by meeting all of the identified factors (including the secondary factors) do I realistically believe a non-BCS player can win the Heisman Trophy. This of course is no small task, but it should not be regarded as impossible either. While I know some scoff at the notion of it ever happening now that the BCS formula is in place, one must also remember that we analysts and fans long scoffed at the prospect of a sophomore winning the Heisman trophy, a position gone the way of the dodo bird thanks to Tim Tebow's amazing 2007 season.
So, do any non-BCS conference players have a shot at the trophy in 2008? According to Chris Huston, author of the distinguished website Heismanpundit.com, both Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour and BYU quarterback Max Hall are legitimate "darkhorses" for the trophy, although neither made it on his short list of viable preseason candidates. Phil Steele, likewise, fails to identify a non-BCS conference player on his eight-player list of preseason favorites, and lists only LeFevour on his second-tier list of contenders.
While I hold a deep respect for the opinions of both of these men, I can't help but consider the case for Max Hall when looking over the lessons of recent non-BCS conference players. While nothing is assured until the season is actually over (much less begun) it appears as though Hall has a better chance than LeFevour at this point. Why exactly do I say that? Well, you'll just have to tune in later this week, as I make the case for not only Hall's consideration as a Heisman finalist in '08, but as a player with a feasible opportunity to win college football's most coveted award.
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