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Friday, December 7, 2012
Subjectivity is Heisman's beauty

By By Kevin Gemmell
ESPN.com

When Johnny Manziel or Collin Klein or Manti Te'o accepts the Heisman Memorial Trophy on Saturday night, the Twittersphere will go nuclear with 140-character pot shots at college football's most prestigious award.

The Heisman has become a joke, they'll say. The Heisman is a popularity contest, they'll write. The Heisman is all hype, no substance, they'll pound with their thumbs. It's all numbers, all narrative, all stats, all about the best player on the best team, all about regional bias, etc.

Johnny Manziel
Could Johnny Football buck history and be Heisman's first freshman winner?

And you know what? They are right.

And wrong.

Because the very nature of the award -- much like the very nature of college football -- is rooted in opinion and subjectivity without rules or parameters to guide the voters.

The problem -- if a problem does in fact exist -- lies in the very definition, which states that the Heisman will be "awarded to an individual designated as the outstanding college football player in the United States."

That's awfully open-ended. And when 928 people are left to interpret ambiguity as they see fit, 928 people will have differing opinions. And that, in itself, is a microcosm of college football.

Poll the 928 voters in this year's balloting process and you'll get 928 differing value systems for how they cast their top three; 928 ways to interpret stats; 928 ways to lend weight to team success; 928 takes on the best-player-best-team school of thought. All 928 are right -- in their own minds. The other 927 might not concur.

Is that a problem? Or a thing of beauty? Is it chaos theory run amok or finding a common solution amid the chaos?

Notre Dame's Manti Te'o
As a defensive player, Manti Te'o is the rare exception to the Heisman rule.

Picking the "outstanding" player in college football is no easy task. And it's getting harder and harder as the game evolves. The introduction of the spread offense into college football was a game-changer on the field and for the postseason awards. In the fantasy football culture we live in, video game numbers are no longer shocking -- they are expected.

It's a very different award than it was when the first one was handed out in 1935. Chris Huston, who runs the fantastic website Heismanpundit.com, pointed out to me earlier this week that we are in a Golden Age for the Heisman because information is more readily available than ever. Even 20 years ago, voters were forced to scan box scores to find out information about the candidates. Today, highlights are simply a mouse click away. Mailers and postcards have been replaced by tweets and email blasts; Times Square billboards replaced by YouTube.

But even with a more informed electorate, the very nature of the process -- the pure subjectivity of it all -- leaves it open to criticism. (Not unlike a certain postseason selection process).

Surely there had to have been some years when the outstanding player was a defensive player -- at least more than once in the past 50-plus years. Without question, the outstanding player some years was a lineman. There had to have been at least one since two-way lineman Leon Hart won in 1949.

The NFL draft isn't a perfect gauge of whether Heisman voters got it right. But it's a decent measuring stick. Per ESPN Stats & Information, since 1966, 31 of the 44 Heisman winners were drafted in the first round and 10 were taken No. 1 overall. Two were second-rounders. Eric Crouch was a third-rounder. Charlie Ward and Jason White went undrafted.

Teams will draft according to need -- and the most "outstanding player" doesn't always fit that need. Which, of course, seems ironic. Who couldn't use the most "outstanding player" in all of college football?

Though running backs have nabbed 40 Heismans compared with 30 for the quarterbacks, the QBs have made a big push in recent years with five of the past six and 10 of the past 12 going to the signal-callers (not including the vacated 2005 Reggie Bush winner). That shouldn't be surprising given the sheer number of total yards quarterbacks have recently produced.

Collin Klein
Would Collin Klein be in New York if Kansas State lost four games this season?

And let's face it -- quarterbacks are exciting. When you pop on "NCAA 2013," no one says "I can't wait to play as Star Lotulelei and take on a double-team." But the metrics don't exist to compare him to Manziel. Which is a shame by the way, because Lotulelei (No. 3 on Mel Kiper's Big Board) might be the outstanding player in college football.

And let's take Notre Dame's Te'o. Kudos to the voters for finally bringing a defensive player into the fold. But look what it took to get him there: He had to be on a traditional power that went undefeated. If Notre Dame is 8-4, I'm guessing he's not in New York this week. Which is a shame, by the way, because he might be the outstanding player in college football.

And that also leads us to USC wide receiver Marqise Lee -- the Biletnikoff winner and maybe the most dominant skill-position player in college football. But as USC's season tanked, Lee's Heisman hopes went with it. His numbers certainly qualify him -- and if he had identical numbers on a 9-3 or 10-2 USC team, he'd be a finalist. Which is a shame, by the way, because he might be the outstanding player in college football.

At the same time, voters want to know that the numbers a player produces count for something. Lee had a lot of catches -- but those catches didn't equal enough wins. Of course, he doesn't control that. But it still counts as a check against him.

Voters gravitate to trends, digestible statistics and neatly organized categories. A good narrative and nickname doesn't hurt either. Some give more weight to late-season heroics rather that evaluating a complete season. Others look for the "Heisman Moment," whether it exists or not.

So get your thumbs ready. Because when subjectivity is the lone determining factor, the pot shots can't be far behind.