It’s Heisman Trophy time! In advance of the upcoming announcement, we wanted to scientifically determine how the voters choose the winner. Using our combined expertise in analytics — one of us has a Ph.D. in political science (with a focus on complex systems) and the other was a stats consultant for a professional team — we discovered an amazingly simple formula for becoming a Heisman Trophy winner. We couldn’t keep this newfound knowledge to ourselves, so we thought we’d share our findings with all the college football players out there so they can plan accordingly.
Using the top 10 in the voting each year since 1998,1 we analyzed 191 Heisman nominees to figure out what tends to separate the winner from the rest. Then, we applied it to this year’s likely hopefuls to see how they’d fare.2
Here’s our foolproof plan for Heisman glory:
(Note: We intentionally jury-rigged some of these rules and thresholds to perfectly explain the past winners in our sample. We know, we know: It’s not exactly statistically kosher for making future “out of sample” predictions — and may or may not violate rules of “basic scientific inference.” But it’s fun! And regardless of our playful cherry-picking, we still might learn something about the selection process along the way, in spite of ourselves.)
Step 1: Be a QB or an RB.
Players eliminated: 35
Players remaining: 156
Who it knocks out this year: Ed Oliver, Houston
We found that only eight positions have ever been among the top 10 nominees for a Heisman, and only two — quarterback and running back — have won since 1998. (The others to make a top 10 all-time are DB, DL, LB, TE and WR,3 plus exactly one OL.) Voters’ hard-and-fast dedication to QBs and RBs hasn’t always been as rigid; several receivers and tight ends won the award in previous eras, and Charles Woodson won as a defensive player in 1997.4 But for the most part, you aren’t winning the Heisman unless you’re a QB or an RB, particularly in recent seasons. (Sorry if rushing or passing just isn’t your thing.)
Step 2: Be part of a Power Five conference (or Notre Dame).
Players eliminated: 27
Players remaining: 129
Who it knocks out this year: McKenzie Milton, UCF; Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Of the 11 conferences represented among our 191 players, only five — not coincidentally, the current Power Five conferences of 2017 (so, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) — plus Notre Dame5 were actually home to a Heisman winner. In order to find a Heisman recipient from a non-power conference, you’d have to go back to 1990, when Ty Detmer of Brigham Young (which played in the WAC) took home the award. Although some minor-conference stars have come vaguely close over the past decade — in our sample, Northern Illinois’s Jordan Lynch and Hawaii’s Colt Brennan each finished third — it’s extremely unlikely that one would have a season spectacular enough to offset the voters’ preference for big-program stars.
Step 3: Be on a team that has three or fewer losses.
Players eliminated: 21
Players remaining: 108
Who it knocks out this year: Bryce Love, Stanford; Lamar Jackson, Louisville; Khalil Tate, Arizona
Unfortunately, winning the Heisman isn’t just about individual excellence. The award disproportionately goes to players on the top teams in the country. Since 1998, 32 percent of Heisman winners have been on a team that was undefeated going into its bowl game, and 26 percent were from a team with just one loss. Meanwhile, no player on a team with more than three losses has won the award. That’s bad news for two of this season’s finalists — Stanford’s Bryce Love and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, each of whom plays for a four-loss squad. The good news, Bryce and Lamar, is you can tell your grandkids it wasn’t your fault.
Step 4: Run for 15 or more touchdowns (if you’re a QB).
Players clinched: 6
Players eliminated: 24
Players remaining: 78
Who it knocks out this year: Nobody.
The Heisman loves quarterbacks — they’ve won 14 of the 19 trophies handed out since 1998 — but not always for their passing skills. When a running QB has an especially great season, the voters are quick to show him some love: Of the seven historical QBs with 15 or more rushing TDs (among those we haven’t already eliminated), six — Marcus Mariota, Eric Crouch, Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow — ended up winning the Heisman. And the seventh — Kansas State’s Collin Klein — had the bad fortune to produce his season the same year Manziel pulled off the feat with better overall numbers.6 We’ve avoided the guideline this year, though; no remaining QB on our list came close to 15 scores on the ground, since Lamar Jackson was eliminated in Step 2.7 But the broader life lesson remains: It isn’t about personal accomplishment, it’s about how good you are compared with everyone else.
(Note: The statistics we used for historical candidates were through the end of the bowls, which isn’t ideal — but hey, you work with what you’ve got.8 But because we believe in fairness, we prorated this year’s candidates’ stats for an extra game going forward. You’re welcome!)
Step 5: Meet some basic statistical thresholds (if you’re a QB).
Players eliminated: 28
Players remaining: 50
Who it knocks out this year: Nobody.
Although a player’s statistics aren’t perfectly correlated with his chances of winning the Heisman, there is a bare minimum level of output you have to meet in order to seriously contend for the award. For quarterbacks, those numbers are mostly associated with passing (surprise!), but they can be augmented slightly with rushing. No QB left in our sample won the award with worse stats than:
- 30 passing TDs
- 1 rushing TD
- 11 interceptions
These qualifications cull the list of historical hopefuls considerably, narrowing it down to quarterbacks who were highly productive rather than marginal candidates who survived the previous cuts by being on a good team from a big conference. All of 2017’s remaining QB contenders passed those benchmarks with flying colors, though, so, sadly, this step doesn’t help us zero in on a winner for this year.
Step 6: If you’re a QB, have fewer team losses than the other QBs.
Players clinched: 1
Players eliminated: 12
Players remaining: 37
Who it knocks out this year: Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State; J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
As we mentioned earlier, Heisman voters are all about QBs who just win, baby. So at this stage, we reshuffle every signal-caller who hasn’t yet been eliminated and keep only the passer whose team lost the fewest games heading into its bowl (using total touchdowns as the tiebreaker). There is one exception to this rule: If a QB with more losses registered 5,000 or more yards of total offense in a season when no other passer cracked 4,000, that quarterback leapfrogs everyone to win the Heisman.9 But it’s a rare exception, invoked only once in our sample: When Robert Griffin III (whose Baylor Bears lost three games) got the hardware over Andrew Luck (one loss). Talk about tough Luck.10
Step 7: Meet some not-so-basic statistical thresholds (if you’re an RB).
Players eliminated: 15
Players remaining: 22
Who it knocks out this year: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin; Saquon Barkley, Penn State; Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
Even though they do win sometimes, Heisman life is hard for running backs. Because voters want so desperately to give the award to a QB, the statistical bar a ball carrier needs to clear in order to qualify for the award is pretty high. In our sample of seasons since 1998, no RB won the Heisman with fewer than:
- 1,980 yards from scrimmage
- 16 rushing TDs
Those are extremely lofty standards that few running backs can match. None of our remaining running backs met those requirements this season,11 which leaves us with only one clear Heisman favorite for 2017.
Step 8: If no QBs are left, the RB wins. If a QB remains, he wins.
Players eliminated: 10
Players clinched: 12
Players remaining: 0
Who it knocks out this year: Nobody.
Who it clinches the Heisman for this year: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
The final step is a little chaotic. First, you check if any quarterbacks are left after pruning down the list based on statistics and team losses. If there’s a QB who survived all of the checkpoints above, that player wins the Heisman. (Congrats to Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, tonight’s likely winner!) If there is no QB left over, the trophy goes to the running back who cleared all of the statistical benchmarks from Step 7. The one exception: If the remaining QB had fewer than 4,000 passing yards and 40 touchdown passes, and a surviving RB eclipsed 2,200 yards from scrimmage on a team with zero or one losses, the Heisman goes to the running back. (This gets us Reggie Bush over Brady Quinn in 2005 and Derrick Henry over Mayfield in 2015 but preserves Carson Palmer’s win over Larry Johnson in 2002.)12 For running backs, you gotta be in peak form to knock off a qualified QB.
And that’s all there is to it! It’s just that simple. Follow the eight steps above, and you’re guaranteed to be holding the Heisman on a December night in New York City. (Until something unexpected happens — in which case we’ll tweak the rules to make it fit. Science!)