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The Retroactive Heisman: Who should have won every Heisman Trophy since 1990?

Going back 30 years to right the wrongs of past Heisman voting

The idea for this article has been in my head for years now and I’m reminded of it every time I see a picture of Jason White. I love awards, not only because I grew up parsing through statistics in my ESPN encyclopedia, but because each trophy represents a different zeitgeist of the sports landscape.

How does Eric Crouch win the Heisman with 7 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions? What happens if Dennis Dixon didn’t tear his ACL twice in the same season? Why was Troy Smith such a slam dunk Heisman winner if we all regret that 15 years later?

These are the questions I attempt to answer in this totally self-serious article that I’m definitely not writing because I’m bored and have no other content to produce.

2020 winner: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Retroactive winner: Smith

All season, I was prepared for someone else to win the Heisman. Non-QB contenders have zero margin for error — no bad games, no injuries, no loss of momentum. DeVonta Smith kept producing all season and somehow saved his best for last, posting 130 yards and 3 TDs in the semifinal, then 215 yards and 3 TDs in the first half of Alabama’s championship win.

2019: Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
Retroactive: Burrow

Joe Burrow should have won unanimously, if we’re being completely honest (he received 841 of 891 first place votes). He threw for 5,671 yards, 60 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions, all against SEC defenses. Admittedly, he had one of the best supporting casts imaginable — Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Terrace Marshall, etc. — but this is likely the greatest QB season in college football history.

2018: Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma
Retroactive: Murray

This one was destined for Tua Tagovailoa, but the smooth lefty struggled down the stretch with a deathblow performance (10/25 passing, 1 TD and 2 interceptions) against Mel Tucker and the Georgia defense. Kyler, meanwhile, was unbelievable as he had over 4,000 yards passing, over 1,000 yards rushing and 54 total touchdowns. Neither of these players won the National Championship, so there’s no hindsight bias in that way.

2017: Baker Mayfield, QB Oklahoma
Retroactive: Mayfield

Mayfield won in a landslide, racking up nearly ten times more first-place votes than second-place finisher Bryce Love. Mayfield season itself was remarkable, but it was also recognition of an unreal three-year run that rivals any QB in the sport’s history.

2016: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Retroactive: Jackson

Lamar won the people’s “September Heisman,” a la Denard Robinson in 2010, but he ultimately got better as the year progressed. Jackson had, and still has, an unrivaled combination of speed, elusiveness and passing ability. He was so dominant that no one cared his team wasn’t very good.

2015: Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Retroactive: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

Maybe the toughest call in this entire piece, this Heisman race was an endless debate of team success versus individual importance, with a touch of SEC-bias and voters not staying up to watch Pac-12 football. Derrick Henry led Alabama to a national title, and did so while putting up 2,221 yards and 28 TDs, but I don’t have a single memory of something he did, aside from standing next to Mark Ingram. McCaffrey, meanwhile, was a terror as a running back, receiver and returner. Not only did he break one of Barry Sanders’ unbreakable records, but he shattered the single season record for all-purpose yards, compiling 3,864 to Sanders’ 3,249. CMC also saved his best for last, torching Iowa for 287 yards from scrimmage and a punt return touchdown.

2014: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Retroactive: Mariota

Marcus Mariota was perfect in 2014. He was the master of Oregon’s high-octane offense, an efficiency monster, and could just as easily beat you with his legs as his pinpoint accuracy. Second- and third-place finishers Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper were good, but they have zero argument for this award, even after Mariota busted in the NFL. I do want to shoutout Scooby Wright, the Arizona linebacker who finished in the top-10 after an unreal season.

2013: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Retroactive: Winston

There’s nothing really nice to say about Winston, but before we knew his off-field issues, and before he was awful in the NFL, he was insanely good his freshman season. That Florida State team, one of the most stacked rosters in CFB history, went 14-0 and won the championship on a clutch Winston touchdown pass. The rest of this Heisman class was fairly weak, as A.J. McCarron somehow finished 2nd place.

2012: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Retroactive: Manziel

I wanted to troll and give Manziel’s Heisman to Collin Klein, but I couldn’t. Manziel dazzled with his one-of-a-kind playground style and beat a dominant Alabama team almost single-handedly. It’s probably worth noting wide receiver Mike Evans makes every QB look good (except Jameis) and posted the first of nine (!) consecutive 1,000 yard seasons in his college and professional career.

2011: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
Retroactive: Griffin

All due respect to Andrew Luck, who finished 2nd place in 2010 and 2011, he had no real shot at stealing this from Robert Griffin III. The Baylor QB dripped talent and swagger, was absolutely lethal with his speed and became a master of Art Briles’ spread offense. If there were any players I could magically give them a healthy pro career, Griffin might be my choice.

2010: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Retroactive: Newton

This has to be Cam Newton, even with my LaMichael James-colored glasses looking at the Heisman ballot. There are enough hyperboles when discussing Heisman winners, but Cam’s 2010 season was probably the most impactful single season this century. He won Gene Chizik a National Championship, who proceeded to go 11-16 in the next two seasons. That Auburn, by the way, had only a handful of NFL players, so it wasn’t like Newton was propped up like Winston and Henry.

2009: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
Retroactive: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska

When Ndamukong Suh finished fourth place in Heisman (fourth place!!), it was a signal that no defensive player would ever again win the award. He was the best and most impactful player in the country — nowhere was this more evident than his 4.5-sack performance against Texas in the Big XII championship. Ingram was good, as were Toby Gerhardt and Colt McCoy, but they weren’t better than Suh.

2008: Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma
Retroactive: Bradford

In an incredible three-way battle with Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford was just as deserving then as he is in hindsight, even if he lost to both Texas and Florida that season. Rather than discussing Bradford’s excellent, it’s more fun to highlight the three-way battle for the Big XII that season. Oklahoma lost to Texas, who lost to Texas Tech (on Michael Crabtree’s touchdown), who lost to Oklahoma (in a blowout I watched with my diehard Sooners family). Each team had only one loss all year and the head-to-head tiebreakers were all screwed up, so the Big XII nominated Oklahoma as their South division champion, not without controversy. They blew out Missouri, then got beat down by Florida in the National Championship, all while Texas beat Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

2007: Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
Retroactive: Dennis Dixon, QB, Oregon

Tim Tebow deserved this Heisman, whatever, but Dennis Dixon should have won it. The Oregon QB was the leading Heisman contender before he hurt his knee against Arizona State, then fully tore his ACL two weeks later against Arizona. The Ducks were ranked #2 in the country — 2007, btw, had 9 teams ranked #2 during the season — before losing their final three games without Dixon.

2006: Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State
Retroactive: Colt Brennan, QB, Hawaii

Before Joe Burrow’s Heisman campaign, Troy Smith had the record for largest margin of victory. It’s puzzling to see why in retrospect. Smith was terrific all season, playing mistake-free football while leading the Buckeyes to an undefeated regular season — that is, until he was dreadful in the Buckeyes’ blowout loss to Florida in the national title. Maybe it’s hindsight bias, or maybe it’s the nostalgia fans have for Darren McFadden and the late Colt Brennan, who were absolutely electric in their own ways that season. McFadden twice finished second in Heisman voting, but he faded down the stretch while Brennan (5,915 total yards and 63 TDs) carried Hawaii to their greatest ever season. Also in consideration: Calvin Johnson, the freak receiver who had 76 catches (Georgia Tech completed 174 passes the entire season) for 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns. If he had a better quarterback, and maybe an offense that threw the ball before 3rd down, he could have built serious momentum.

2005: Reggie Bush, RB, USC
Retroactive: Vince Young, QB, Texas

Reggie Bush was stripped of his Heisman win for receiving improper benefits from his agent, but it’s naïve to think any Heisman-caliber player isn’t getting bag money. Regardless, it’s widely agreed upon that if Heisman voting was done after the National Championship, Vince Young would have won following his iconic Rose Bowl performance.

2004: Matt Leinart, QB, USC
Retroactive: Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma

In one corner, we have the California dream quarterback, the handsome lefty with the poise and accuracy to find his ridiculous assortment of weapons. In the other, we have a Texas boy who is a grown man at just 18-years-old, running through the entire Big XII. Yes, the Trojans blew out the Sooners in the National Championship, and therefore Leinart is probably deserving, but Peterson was an unreal talent who did things no one has ever done at his age.

2003: Jason White, QB, Oklahoma
Retroactive: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Pittsburgh

We have finally arrived to the worst Heisman outcome in the last 30 years. Jason White was good, whatever, but he was more of a system QB than all-world talent. Larry Fitzgerald, on the other hand, did everything in his power to carry the Pitt Panthers on his back, hauling in touchdown after touchdown in double- and triple-coverage. No one deserves a retroactive Heisman more than Fitz.

2002: Carson Palmer, QB, USC
Retroactive: Palmer

Carson Palmer was excellent all season and deserves the award, but that comes with the caveat than Colorado running back Chris Brown would have won if he stayed healthy. Despite missing the final two games against Nebraska and Oklahoma — the former he had 6 TDs against the season before — Brown finished with 1,841 yards and 18 touchdowns. He almost certainly would have surpassed 2,000 and 20, respectively, and given the Buffaloes a better shot in the Big 12 Championship (which he missed) and the Alamo Bowl (during which he was still hurt).

2001: Eric Crouch, QB, Nebraska
Retroactive: Either Rex Grossman or Ken Dorsey, but not Crouch

I wasn’t following college football in 2001, but even then 4-year-old me was confused that Eric Crouch won the Heisman despite throwing 7 touchdowns and 10 interceptions that season. Yes, I know he was an option QB, but in his final four games, he threw zero (0) touchdown passes to five (5) interceptions, and averaged 84 yards rushing per game. He also lost to Colorado 62-36 in the home finale, didn’t qualify for the Big XII Championship, and his Huskers were demolished by Miami in the BCS Championship. I don’t care if Rex Grossman or Ken Dorsey gets this award, but it shouldn’t be Crouch. (Nubs fan, don’t say I’m blinded by bias, because I argue for Suh and Tommie Frazier in this article.)

2000: Chris Weinke, QB, Florida State
Retroactive: LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, TCU

This is definitely a fuzzy part of my college football knowledge, but I do know LaDainian Tomlinson averaged 196 and 2 TDs, and rushed for a record 305 yards against UTEP, as the Horned Frogs went 10-1 in the regular season. Yes, it was in the WAC, but it’s LaDainian Tomlinson, so we know it wasn’t a fluke.

1999: Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin
Retroactive: Dayne

When someone has over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, they are deserving of Heisman love. When that player has also just set the college football all-time records with 7,125 yards and has 71 career touchdowns, it’s an easy pick. If there was a hipster pick here, it would be Peter Warrick, the receiver who carried Florida State’s offense, but he was arrested (over some b.s.) and lost all support after his two-game suspension.

1998: Ricky Williams, RB, Texas
Retroactive: Williams

Dayne’s 71 rushing touchdowns would have been an all-time record, but Ricky Williams ran for 27 scores to up his career mark to 72. In terms of single-season dominance, career accomplishments, and pure talent, there are few if any running backs more deserving than Ricky. There was no real competition for the ‘98 Heisman, but second place finisher Michael Bishop was ahead of his time and would have been lethal in today’s college football.

1997: Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan
Retroactive: Woodson

The last defensive player to win the Heisman, Charles Woodson had to be an all-world defender, an elite returner and an occasional receiver to bring home the award. The voting was close between him and Peyton Manning, while Marshall receiver Randy Moss finished in 4th place after compiling 96 catches, 1,820 yards and 26 touchdowns.

1996: Danny Wuerffel, QB, Florida
Retroactive: Wuerffel

Danny Wuerffel, the perfect QB in Steve Spurrier’s championship-winning spread offense, barely edged out running back Troy Davis, whose Iowa State team went 2-9 on the season. Maybe Davis would have won if his team didn’t suck, but Wuerffel had a huge impact on the game when the spread was still counter-cultural. (Of note: it’s wild that Orlando Pace finished in 4th place as an offensive tackle.)

1995: Eddie George, RB, Ohio State
Retroactive: George

It’s been boring giving the retroactive Heisman to the real Heisman all these years, but voters in the ‘90s were much more dependable than in the ‘00s. Eddie George was as dominant as anyone in the decade, but it’s a shame Tommie Frazier never won the award. Maybe the coolest Nebraska player ever — not a high bar, I know — Frazier was a master of the triple option and led the Huskers to the championship in his senior year. This team was loaded of course, with Ahman Green and Lawrence Phillips running behind a roided out offensive line, but Frazier was the conductor of everything.

1994: Rashaan Salaam, RB, Colorado
Retroactive: Salaam

On maybe the best Colorado team ever — certainly the most talented offense they’ve had — Salaam stood out as a force of nature, powering through defenses again and again and again. He finished the season with 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns, which was 516 more yards and one more score than second-place finisher Ki-Jana Carter. Maybe Steve McNair deserves more attention as the greatest FCS player ever, but I would never argue against Salaam.

1993: Charlie Ward, QB, Florida State
Retroactive: Ward, but shouts to Heath Shuler and wearing #21 as QB

The ultimate three-sport athlete, Charlie Ward was twice drafted by the Brewers and Yankees, quarterbacked the Seminoles to a national title and enjoyed a 12-year career in the NBA. He was the runaway Heisman winner, besting Tennessee’s Heath Shuler, who deserved credit for wearing #21 as a QB.

1992: Gino Torretta, QB, Miami
Retroactive: Marvin Jones, LB, Florida State

Here, we have an all-world talent at linebacker competing against a relatively weak Heisman class. Gino Torretta was good, but is a bottom-tier Heisman-winning QB. Marshall Faulk was very Marshall Faulk in 1992, but was better and more productive in 1991 and 1993. Garrison Hearst was amazing at Georgia, but didn’t set the world on fire as much as other Heisman-winning running backs. Marvin Jones, however, has a 47-minute highlight reel of him blowing up running backs. He was one of the all-time great defensive talents and, sure, Hearst probably deserves it more, but I’m fine giving it to Jones in a toss-up Heisman year.

1991: Desmond Howard, WR, Michigan
Retroactive: Howard — but shouts to Steve Emtman

Considering the cultural resonance of Desmond Howard winning the Heisman, you kind of have to give it to him, regardless of him deserving it or not. After some quick research, it appears he was deserving, as he went crazy with 23 total touchdowns, including his iconic punt return. The only other player who should be considered is Steve Emtman, the GOAT of Washington football, who had a Suh-like season to lead the Huskies to the national title.

1990: Ty Detmer, QB, BYU
Retroactive: Eric Bieniemy, RB, Colorado

Heisman winner Ty Detmer threw for an unbelievable (at the time) 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns, but also threw 28 interceptions and was awful down the stretch as BYU was walloped by Hawaii and Texas A&M in their final two games. Eric Bieniemy, meanwhile, put up 1,787 yards and 17 touchdowns and led the Buffs to the National Championship. I wouldn’t argue too much if you wanted Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, as long as you agree there was a real penalty on his would-be punt return touchdown in the Orange Bowl.