The closest races in Heisman Trophy history

Profile Picture: Dan Halverson

November 28th, 2019

As national television, the internet, and social media increases the visibility of college football’s greatest players, it seems likely that Heisman races moving forward will continue to be won by a consensus selection among voters. As the national discussion evolves over the course of the season, regional stars are elevated into the national conversation and the importance of a player’s geographical location grows less and less important. The one exception to this, of course, is the West Coast, where late-night game starts have reduced viewers for those players in the Pacific Time zone.

Looking at the history of the Heisman, we see that regional voting blocks were very much fundamental to the election of winners. In fairness to all candidates moving forward, we can only hope such regional bias continues to diminish as top candidates receive the national recognition owed to them, but let’s look at the five closest races in Heisman history.

2009 – Mark Ingram of Alabama beats out Toby Gerhart of Stanford

The closest race in Heisman history, Ingram received 1,304 points to Gerhart’s 1,276. For a final season stat-line, Ingram had just 1,542 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Gerhart had 1,736 yards and 26 touchdowns. Ingram, however, played on an undefeated national championship winning team in the SEC, while Gerhart played on an underwhelming 8-4 Stanford team. Ingram won five of the six regions, with Gerhart only winning the West. Had Gerhart received just a bit more deserved recognition from voters east of the Mississippi, he undoubtedly won have won the award.

1985 – Bo Jackson of Auburn beats out Chuck Long of Iowa

In retrospect, the legacy of Jackson relative to that of Long makes it seem remarkable that this was such a tight race. Only to true lovers of the sport’s history and Hawkeye fans does Long’s name hold true reverence, but Jackson goes down in folklore for his unprecedented athleticism. Long threw for 2,978 yards and 26 touchdowns while Jackson ran for 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns. The 45 points difference in the Heisman voting could very well be contributed to the impressive athleticism that Jackson showed on tape that swayed voters into giving him first-place votes.

1961 – Ernie Davis of Syracuse beats out Bob Ferguson of Ohio State

For most, including this author, this was before our time. It’s worth noting, however, that Ernie Davis was the first African-American Heisman winner, and he changed the landscape and perception of college football through his dominant displays on the gridiron. Davis’ 15 touchdowns to Ferguson’s 11 were undoubtedly the difference-maker in this race.

1953 – John Lattner of Notre Dame beats out Paul Giel of Minnesota.

If you know anybody that recalls this race, ask them about it. You’ll learn more about how the game has changed than about these two players themselves. Lattner didn’t lead Notre Dame in any offensive categories but he was a three-way player who scored nine touchdowns, recorded four interceptions on defense, and averaged 40 yards per return on special teams. Lattner ultimately defeated Giel by 56 points.

2001 – Eric Crouch of Nebraska beats out Rex Grossman of Florida

The modern era of Heisman winners has been defined as much by winning as by success. Nebraska went 11-1 and made the national championship game behind Crouch’s offense. Crouch passed for only 1,510 yards and seven touchdowns, but he added 1,115 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. He also had one of the most memorable receptions in college football history (that I was in attendance for, I might add), with a quarterback throwback pass against Oklahoma that truly gave him a “Heisman moment”. While Grossman had a remarkable offensive season, the offensive dominance that Nebraska’s power running game displayed in starting 11-0 ultimately made the difference. Crouch won the race by 62 points.