With the beginning of football season drawing nearer, it's not long before we start talking about the Heisman. (In fact, with most of the preseason magazines already out there, the conversation has begun.) Given history, the chances are about as good that someone will get the award who doesn't deserve it as they are that it will go to the player who is truly the best in college football.
The SEC itself is littered with a number of players who should have gotten the Heisman. Peyton Manning is the most obvious. A good case could be made for Champ Bailey. Darren McFadden almost certainly should have gotten the award in 2006.
But the biggest case of highway robbery I can remember in my life didn't involve an SEC player. It came one year earlier than McFadden's snub, when Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy instead of Vince Young. (And despite what the official history of the award says, it was given that year and Bush did win it. We all watched him accept it and everything.)
The reason for that is not for the same reasons the award was later vacated -- breaking rules, etc., though that would grounds enough for protest. Instead, it was because Bush didn't earn it on the field. And when you look at things on a game-by-game or overall basis, instead of looking at just two of Bush's games, it isn't even all that close.
Sure, it's easy enough to make a case that things were a close call if you look at the season totals. But Bush spent his season ringing up his totals against some pretty bad defenses, while Young actually played a fairly strong field.
Against the seven top 50 defenses he faced, Young failed to pass for more than 230 yards in a game once -- in the 70-3 annihilation of Colorado, in which he threw just 17 passes. He averaged almost 10.4 yards per attempt and, despite having all of his sacks counted against him, rushed for an average of 4.8 yards a game. Again, this is against the top 50 defenses in the country.
Reggie Bush also had some good games against top 50 defenses. He averaged 9.2 yards per carry against them -- again, he didn't have sacks counted in that total. But, at least by Heisman standards, he had some flat performances in that group. (In fairness, so did Young.)
Bush gained just 82 yards on 17 carries against Cal -- a 4.8-yard average that's not bad but not exactly Heisman-worthy if your case for the Heisman is based on being a running back. In fact, take away the Fresno State game and he gained 7.3 yards a carry. That's a pretty significant drop-off.
But where the difference really shines through is against top 30 defenses. Young played three of them, averaging a so-so 3.7 yards on the ground but also keeping his per-attempt average at a pretty good 9.6 yards in the passing game. He also had seven touchdown passes in those three games, passing for at least 230 yards in all of them.
Here is the total yardage Reggie Bush gained against the top 30 defenses in the country in 2005:
Southern Cal did not play a single Top 30 defense in the 2005 season until, of course, it met Texas in the Rose Bowl. (Which is not included here because the Heisman is awarded before the bowls. For some reason.)
But season totals matter a lot -- as long as you look at them in perspective.
Against 12 defenses averaging a ranking of 51.5, Vince Young ran for 850 yards and nine touchdowns on 136 carries -- again, some of which were sacks; Young passed for 2,769 yards and 26 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, completing 182 of 285 attempts (or just a shade shy of 64 percent).
Against 12 defenses averaging a ranking of 79.8, Reggie Bush carried for 1,658 yards and 15 touchdowns on 187 carries, had 383 yards and two touchdowns receiving and 570 yards and a touchdown on 41 total kickoff or punt returns.
Where Reggie Bush shined, to an extent, was in two games. Bush did make mincemeat of Fresno State's defense, which was ranked 38th, running for 294 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, and against UCLA, running for 260 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. The Bruins, let's keep in mind, were ranked 113th in total defense in 2005.
But the Heisman is not supposed to be given to a player who had two good games. Bush took the cliche that they remember what you do in November, which is a ridiculous way to decide an award for overall excellence in the first place, to its most absurd extent.
Why did Reggie Bush really win the Heisman Trophy? I'm not aware of anywhere that archives preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists, but I'm pretty sure you would find Bush at the top of most of them. For much of the year, Bush gave voters little reason to follow that instinct -- he was certainly good in many of his games, but not Heisman great against a pretty weak defensive schedule.
But once Bush had two breakthrough games to end the season, it gave voters an excuse to rally around the consensus. It justified the attention that Bush had received before the season, and with ESPN running a series of SportsCenter segments about whether that year's Southern Cal was the best team in the history of the sport (really), the hype about the Trojans was at an all-time high. Combine that with the misguided notion that the Heisman should go to the best player on the best team (it's not an MVP award), and it was no wonder that Reggie Bush won the trophy.
In the end, Bush won the Heisman in 2005 because he was supposed to. Which, no matter what the prize, is about the worst reason to give an award of them all.
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