Who Is the Best Heisman Trophy Winner of the Last 20 Years?
Comparing Heisman Trophy winners from year to year is something college football fans love to do, but it’s difficult to do in a scientific way. The most obvious factor complicating things is the impossibility of comparing running backs, quarterbacks, cornerbacks and other positions to each other.
And even if you try to compare quarterbacks to the other quarterbacks who have won the award, you run into issues. The most obvious issue is the eras that the quarterbacks played in — you can’t compare Baker Mayfield’s passing numbers to Roger Staubach’s.
And even if you try to contain the comparison to just one era, you’ve got problems there, too. Jason White and Tim Tebow only were separated by a few years, but they were separated by light-years in playing style. White, with two surgically reconstructed knees, couldn’t move in the pocket. Tebow, with average passing ability but the toughness and speed of a running back, ran as much or more than he passed it.
So how would you even begin to rank Heisman winners? Well, I gave it a shot, but I limited it to the BCS/College Football Playoff era. This helped me when determining team success as there was a clear national championship game and a clear hierarchy of bowls.
To try to eliminate bias, I developed a formula. It’s not a scientific formula, but it did help me to make some choices I wouldn’t otherwise have made. Here is the criteria for the formula.
Number of times voted top 5 in Heisman Trophy voting: 2 points for each nomination
Team success in year won: 5 points for national championship win, 4 points for reaching national championship game, 2 points for BCS/New Years Six Bowl win, 1 for reaching BCS/NYS Bowl, 1 for other bowl win, 1 for conference title
Percent of Heisman vote: Above 90 percent (5 points), above 80 percent (4 points), above 70 percent (3 points), above 60 percent (2 points)
Other major awards: 1 point each
So for each player, I show you what my formula ranked them and I show what I ranked them before the formula. For the final ranking, I used a combination of the two.
#20: Eric Crouch
Formula ranking: 19
My ranking: 20
A dynamic running quarterback, Eric Crouch was the point man for Nebraska’s triple option offense that dominated the Big 12 in the last 1990s. Crouch rushed and threw for over 1,000 yards in 2001 en route to winning a close Heisman Trophy vote.
He’s one of one three quarterbacks to rush for over 3,000 yards and pass for over 4,000 in a career.
#19: Chris Weinke
School: Florida State
My rank: 19
A former minor league baseball player, Chris Weinke is the oldest Heisman Trophy winner in history. He was a 28-year-old senior when he threw for over 4,000 yards and led the Seminoles to their third consecutive national championship game. They lost that game to the Oklahoma Sooners, but he was the quarterback when they won the title in 1999.
18. Carson Palmer
My rank: 18
Carson Palmer was the starting quarterback for USC for five different seasons. His injury in 1999 cost him most of the year, so he used his redshirt.
His experience and passing ability helped him lead the Trojans to an Orange Bowl in 2002. That season, he threw for almost 4,000 yards and won the Heisman.
#17: Mark Ingram Jr.
Position: Running back
My rank: 15
Alabama might claim more national championships than any other school in college football, but before Mark Ingram Jr., they never had claimed a Heisman Trophy winner.
Ingram won the closest vote in Heisman history, barely beating Stanford running back Toby Gerhart.
Ingram also led Alabama to the national title that season, defeating the Texas Longhorns.
#16: Ron Dayne
Position: Running back
My rank: 16
Including bowl games, Ron Dayne is the all-time leading rusher in college football history. He took that record from Ricky Williams the year after Williams earned the top spot.
Dayne was the bruising running back behind the massive Wisconsin offensive line that ran right through the Big Ten at the end of the 1990s. Dayne put up 2,000 yards in his freshman and senior seasons, carrying the ball 1,220 times for the Badgers in his career.
His Heisman season ended with Dayne winning his second consecutive Rose Bowl MVP award.
#15: Troy Smith
School: Ohio State
My rank: 17
It’s a little unfair to Troy Smith to be ranked this low, but when it comes to memorable Heisman seasons, his campaign ranks pretty low.
However, when he was leading Ohio State to the 2007 BCS National Championship Game, there was no one better than him in college football. Smith won the Heisman with 91.65 percent of the vote, second only to Reggie Bush in vote percentage. Technically, with Bush’s Heisman vacated, Smith is the highest vote-getter ever.
So why is he so forgotten?
His numbers just don’t stack up to other winners. For example, he passed for 2,000 less yards than 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford did in his Heisman-winning season.
#14: Derrick Henry
Position: Running back
My rank: 14
If you could build the perfect running back for the Alabama offense in a factory, you couldn’t build anything more perfect than Derrick Henry. An absolute monster in the backfield — standing 6-foot-3 and weighing almost 250 pounds — Henry was fed a steady diet of handoffs during his Crimson Tide career. Henry carried the ball 26 times a game, wearing down the opposition with his power and speed.
He led Alabama to a national championship in 2015 and won the Heisman Trophy.
Henry is Alabama's all-time leader in rushing yards after breaking Shaun Alexander’s record.
#13: Sam Bradford
My rank: 13
The leader of the highest scoring offense in FBS history, Sam Bradford led an Oklahoma team that scored over 60 points in nine different games. However, in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game, Bradford’s high-powered offense was held to only 14 points by the dominating Florida defense.
He was the second sophomore to ever win the Heisman, but injuries in his junior season prevented him from attempting to repeat as the winner.
#12: Jason White
My rank: 12
Perhaps one of the more forgotten Heisman winners due to his complete lack of an NFL career, Jason White was a great quarterback on some dominating Oklahoma teams in the early 2000s.
It might come as a surprise, but White was a Heisman finalist twice and could have won it for a second time in 2004 if he didn’t split votes with teammate Adrian Peterson.
Playing on two surgically reconstructed knees, White orchestrated the Sooner offense exclusively from the shotgun formation. Though Oklahoma never won a national title with him at quarterback, the Sooners did go to back-to-back BCS National Championship Games in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
#11: Matt Leinhart
My Rank: 13
It’s hard to quantify Matt Leinart’s ability as a quarterback. He played with one of the most talented offenses in college football history, with the dynamic Reggie Bush and the bruising Lendale White in his backfield. The best description of Leinart is that he was the conductor of the USC symphony.
He was a really good quarterback, but some will discount his abilities due to the talent around him.
Others will overrate him, pointing out his Heisman trophy and his Top 5 Heisman finish in 2005.
Suffice to say, Leinart was a great quarterback for an incredible team, but far from the greatest Heisman winner of all time.
#10: Lamar Jackson
My rank: 10
There is no way to evaluate Jackson without eliciting critics. If one uses the “eye test,” you would say Jackson belongs in the top 3 of Heisman winners, but when you look at his opponents and his performances in big games for his teams, you see a different player.
In his two-plus years as a starter at Louisville, he only beat one ranked team. That win was a complete domination of then-No. 2 Florida State. Jackson accounted for five touchdowns, and Louisville won 63-20. He wrapped up the 2016 Heisman in September after that game.
But in other games against ranked teams in the next two seasons, Jackson and his team struggled.
Regardless, Jackson was an entertaining and dynamic player and deserves a ton of credit for winning the Heisman while playing for Louisville.
#9: Robert Griffin III
My rank: 6
Perhaps the most unexpected honoree ever, Robert Griffin III is the only Heisman winner from Baylor. He won the trophy by taking Baylor to heights they had never reached before, punctuated by a huge upset over No. 5 Oklahoma.
Griffin III was a track star, and his speed was a weapon that opposing defenses had no answer for, but his arm and ability to create plays made him almost impossible to stop.
It’s hard to overstate how impressive it is to win the Heisman while playing for a school that isn’t considered a “Blue Blood.”
#8: Ricky Williams
Position: Running back
My rank: 9
One of the greatest running backs in college football history, Ricky Williams held the record for most yards in a career for one season before Ron Dayne broke it.
Williams had a great first three seasons at Texas, but his senior season was one for the record books. He was unstoppable, rushing for 300-plus yards in two different games, including a 350-yard effort against Rice.
Williams finished the season with over 2,300 yards and 29 touchdowns and won the Heisman with 85 percent of the vote.
7. Johnny Manziel
School: Texas A&M
My rank: 5
Johnny Manziel is so polarizing a figure that half of the people reading this will be screaming that he’s grossly underrated at No. 7 while the other half will be declaring he belongs much further down.
When you remove all the outside distractions, the things that cloud your judgment of Manziel’s playing ability, and you just focus on what “Johnny Football” did on the field, there’s no denying one thing: The kid was unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Watching Manziel play was the equivalent of drinking five Red Bulls and a large coffee. The sheer energy, speed and creativity that Manziel would inject into every single play was unbelievable.
He played on pure instinct, and when it worked, it was stunning. He led Texas A&M to a massive upset of No. 1 Alabama, and his signature play was a perfect microcosm of his entire career. With the ball on the 10-yard-line, Manziel took the snap and attempted to scramble but ran into the line. The ball popped out of his hands into the air. He caught it, rolled out of the pocket and found a wide-open Ryan Swope in the end zone.
The Johnny Manziel experience was a must-watch one every time he stepped on the field.
#6: Jameis Winston
School: Florida State
My rank: 7
Jameis Winston had one of the best debut seasons in history, winning the Heisman Trophy, ACC title and national championship as a redshirt freshman. He did it all as a 19-year-old, becoming the youngest player to ever win the Heisman.
Blessed with size, athleticism and a cannon of an arm, Winston doesn’t appear to ever have been scared of anything in his life. This lack of fear helped him in the national championship game when he took the snap with less than 20 seconds left and his team down by four. Winston kept his cool and found Kelvin Benjamin for the winning touchdown pass.
He played the 2014 season at Florida State as well, taking them back to the College Football Playoff but losing to Oregon.
#5: Marcus Mariota
My rank: 8
The only Heisman Trophy winner in Oregon history, Marcus Mariota made a career of creating jaw-dropping plays out of nothing.
His scrambling ability was legendary, but he was more than just a running quarterback. Mariota was a great passer who knew how to make use of all of the fast and talented receivers and running backs he had at his disposal.
He took Oregon to the national championship game by destroying Jameis Winston’s Florida State 59-20. They lost the national championship game to Ohio State, but Mariota is still without a doubt the best player to ever play at Oregon and one of the most unique players in the history of college football.
#4: Tim Tebow
My rank: 4
Tim Tebow did not fare well in my formula due to the emphasis it placed on team success, but this is unfair to Tebow. In his Florida career, he won two national championships, one when he was used only in special packages as a freshman and then another when he was a starter as a junior.
However, his Heisman came in what was Florida’s worst season during his tenure. They finished the 2007 season 9-4 with a loss in the Capital One Bowl, but Tebow was still recognized as the best player in college football.
He belongs so high on this list because of his overall body of work as a college football player. Tebow was one of the most iconic players to ever play the game. He was a fullback playing quarterback with legendary toughness. His leadership skills were recognized all over the country, sometimes seeming to will his team to victory.
Over a decade after winning the Heisman, Tebow now is the world’s most famous minor league baseball player. His sustained popularity shows what an incredible player and person he was as a Florida Gator.
#3: Cam Newton
My rank: 3
Cam Newton had the greatest one-and-done season in college football history. After being kicked out of Florida, Newton spent one season at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, where he won the NJCAA title before heading to Auburn. He was only at Auburn for one year, but what an epic year it was.
His combination of size, strength, speed, arm strength and leadership ability helped Auburn to an undefeated national championship-winning season. He won the Heisman over Andrew Luck with 81 percent of the possible votes. Newton led the Tigers on a game-winning drive over the Oregon Ducks in the national championship game.
He then declared for the NFL draft, meaning he never lost a game at Auburn, won the Heisman and the national championship all while breaking records left and right.
Newton’s dominance in that one season remains the stuff of legend.
#2: Baker Mayfield
My Rank: 1
The only player to ever be a top 5 vote-getter in the Heisman voting three years in a row, Baker Mayfield left an imprint on college football that will last forever. He’s also the only walk-on to ever win the award. He walked on at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
The polarizing quarterback won three straight conference titles at Oklahoma, where he transferred after his freshman year at Tech. He led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff twice, losing both times in the semifinal game. Mayfield rewrote the record book at Oklahoma and set the NCAA record for passing efficiency in a season in 2017, breaking his own record that he set in 2016.
Mayfield’s reputation as a trash-talker may have made him famous, but his play on the field earned him the Heisman and the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
#1: Reggie Bush (Vacated)
Position: Running back
My rank: 2
It’s unfortunate that one of the most exciting, memorable, electrifying and game-changing players in college football history is technically no longer a Heisman Trophy winner. Bush’s trophy was taken away after he was found to have received improper benefits while at USC.
But that doesn’t take away from what he did while there. Bush was a running back by position, but he really did everything. His most dangerous use was as a kick returner. He was a "SportsCenter" Top 10 staple with his returns that would take him back and forth all around the field. It was like watching a video game. The way he changed directions and juked defenders out of their cleats was a joy to see.
USC won the 2004 national championship, and they returned to the title game in 2005 but lost to the Texas Longhorns.
The NCAA may want to erase Bush from history, but his amazing play is indelible.