The Heisman Trophy is the most coveted individual award in college football. With thousands of players plying their trade across the country you really have to be something special to stand out. Realistically, you also have to be a quarterback or running back because almost every recipient played one of those two positions. Furthermore, the winner is highly likely to be one of the first picks in the draft and the most-watched rookie in the coming NFL season.
However, there are exceptions to every rule. Today we’re going to take a look at 30 of the best Heisman seasons in history. Not all of these players performed brilliantly in the NFL, but they were all magnificent at the NCAA level. Check out the list below via Yardbreaker.
30. Archie Griffin
Let’s kick off this list with the only man to win the Heisman Trophy twice. He achieved this unique feat in his junior and senior years in 1974-75. That’s quite the accolade to have on your CV but shows just how good Griffin was for Ohio State. He rushed for 1620 yards in his first year, his highest college total.
The running back was also the first player to start in four Rose Bowls. These feats are very difficult to replicate in the modern era because of how high the standards are. Furthermore, many players choose to opt out of college and enter the NFL draft early.
White has the dubious honor of being the only Heisman winner in history to fail in his pursuit of an NFL career. No team selected him in the 2005 draft after a series of serious knee injuries. Eventually, the Tenessee Titans selected him as an undrafted free agent, but he decided to step away from the sport.
However, that should take nothing away from his outstanding 2003 season. He threw for 3,846 passing yards with 40 touchdown passes in a scintillating year. Those numbers are up there with any on this list and hold up with any NCAA quarterback ever.
One of the most interesting stories on this list, Bush set a Heisman record that nobody wants. In sum, he was the first player to voluntarily forfeit the award after an investigation uncovered that USC had given him gifts and unfair treatment throughout the year.
However, the fact remains he was a supreme athlete, as he went on and proved in the NFL where he won the Super Bowl. He rushed for 1,740 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2005 as he ran towards Heisman glory. In the end, it didn’t blemish his legacy too much.
It’s easy to forget just how brilliant Griffin was because of all the injuries he suffered throughout his career. But when he broke out in 2011, he was superb. Griffin became the first Baylor player to win the Heisman Trophy as he posted outstanding numbers.
He threw for 4,293 passing yard and 37 touchdowns in an outrageous individual year. Those numbers saw him win all of the big prizes like the Davey O’Brien and Manning awards. Griffin III even found the time to complete his Master’s degree before making it to the NFL.
It’s almost always the offensive players who get all the glory. The overwhelming majority of Heisman Trophy winners are quarterbacks or running backs with the odd wide receiver thrown in. But Woodson’s brilliant 1997 for Michigan forced voters to buck that trend.
In sum, he became the first and only defensive player to win college football’s biggest award. Peyton Manning of all players was the blue-chip quarterback who missed out. Woodson was a brick wall as Michigan posted an unbeaten season.
Mariota breathed new life into the Oregon Ducks as he became their first Heisman Trophy winner in 2014. Furthermore, he had the honor of being the first Hawaiian to win the prestigious award. But it came as no surprise in a year where he won every major individual award on offer.
The Hawaiian was consistent and clinical throughout the year with 4,452 passing yards with 42 touchdowns. He was so good that when Oregon opened their new sports performance center in 2014, they named it after him.
Jackson’s Heisman year is arguably the most underrated on this list. After all, Lousiville posted a 9-4 overall record in 2015. It’s easy to look good when you have great players around you. Some will accuse us of recency bias, but Jackson looked great in a relatively mediocre team.
The fact that they fell short against a strong LSU team in the Sugar Bowl shows how Louisville lacked in some areas of the field. But Jackson led the way and added the Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards to his trophy cabinet. The youngest-ever Heisman winner was also the first player from Louisville to win any of the three awards.
In 2012, Manziel was the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. He definitely deserved it after a series of stunning displays for Texas A&M. First of all, he set the SEC record for total offense with 3,419 yards and 24 touchdown passes. Meanwhile, he rushed for 1181 yards and 19 touchdowns.
However, we all know that he melted down when he reached the NFL. The Cleveland Browns drafted him in the first round in 2014. But a series of off-field issues ultimately cost him his contract. He floated around Canada for a while but never got back to his college glory days.
Only the second Alabama player to take home the coveted Heisman Trophy, the running back was scintillating in 2015. He rushed for an SEC record 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns. His explosiveness was too much for most opponents to handle and Alabama got the most out of him.
In addition to the Heisman, he also won the Doak Walker Award for best running back in the nation. Henry is like a rampaging bull on the field but is also very intelligent when it comes to making the right moves. Furthermore, Heisman voters chose him ahead of major NFL stars like Christian McCaffrey and DeShaun Watson.
Testaverde had a superb 1986. He dragged his team kicking and screaming to the Fiesta Bowl. They lost that game to Penn State but went through the regular season unbeaten. A lot of that was down to Testaverde’s individual brilliance as he was an excellent quarterback.
The young star passed for 2,557 yards and 26 touchdowns as he shot his way towards the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien Awards. He then played for a variety of teams across 21 seasons in the NFL.
Ward was Florida State’s first-ever Heisman Trophy recipient. The quarterback had an outrageous 1993 college season. First, he threw for 3032 yards as well as 27 touchdowns. He also rushed for 339 yards as he consistently delivered all over the field.
However, the Davey O’Brien award winner was also one of the select few who did not play in the NFL. After refusing to play in the NFL unless a team picked him in the first round, he pursued a career in basketball and joined the New York Knicks. But he lasted for 11 years in the NBA so it was a success.
One of the best freshman quarterbacks in college history, Winston was a standout in 2013. He threw for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns in his Heisman Trophy winning-year. In short, there aren’t many players that burst onto the scene like Winston did because they normally take time to physically adapt.
However, Winston had no such problems as he won basically every individual honor available and became an All-American. Meanwhile, He helped Florida State to a national championship. To sum up, he had the perfect debut year both as an individual and a team player.
A powerhouse of a running back, Dayne was legendary for the University of Wisconsin. He demonstrated his raw athleticism over and over again as he substituted style for substance. Once he took off there was no stopping him as he rampaged through the best defenses.
Dayne took home the Heisman Trophy in 1999 after a stunning individual campaign. He finished the season with 2,034 rushing yards, including 200 in the Rose Bowl, as well as 20 touchdowns. He still holds several records and is one of the greatest NCAA players of all-time.
Only the second sophomore in NCAA history to win the Heisman Trophy, Bradford had an insane 2008. The Sooners’ quarterback was also a local boy. His arm was like a sniper rifle throughout the season as his school’s offense took fire.
Bradford threw for 4,464 yards and 48 touchdowns in an inspired campaign. Meanwhile, he also helped the Sooners to their third conference championship in a row. Bizarrely, he was also the first player to win the Heisman without getting the most first-place votes. Tim Tebow had nine more but Bradford was way ahead on second-choice picks.
One of the oldest legends on this list, Campbell was the first member of the Texas Longhorns to bring home college football’s most prestigious individual honor. He helped his team finish the regular season undefeated with a majestic showing against Texas A&M.
Campbell rushed for 1,744 yards and 19 touchdowns throughout the season. However, the Longhorns fell short against Joe Montana’s Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. But he still showed enough throughout 1977 to bring home the Heisman Trophy. A worthy winner.
Sometimes it only takes one moment to become a legend. That’s exactly what Flutie did with his famous ‘Hail Flutie’ touchdown pass against Miami. Flutie’s Boston College trailed to Miami 45-41 with just six seconds left, but Flutie was there to save the day.
He unleashed a stunning pass that helped his school steal the game in one of college football’s most iconic moments. This sealed Flutie as the recipient of the 1984 Heisman Trophy and Davey O’Brien Award. But he also left school as the NCAA’s all-time leader in passes. Flutie was consistently brilliant.
2006 was a glorious year for Smith. He didn’t really have any like that when he was in the NFL. Some people will scoff at him being on this list, but he earned his place through his college accomplishments. A Heisman and Davey O’Brien Trophy winner, his exploits for the Ohio State Buckeyes were legendary.
He threw for over 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns as he blew all of his Heisman rivals out of the water. In the end, Smith claimed 87% of the vote. However, his appalling display in the BCS Championship game set the tone for his time in the NFL.
Over the course of three years with the Texas Longhorns, Williams established himself as one of the greatest college football players of all-time. The running back still holds and shares over 20 records and he was unstoppable on the playing field. But 1998 was his defining year.
He became the second Longhorns player ever to win the Heisman Trophy after a magnificent campaign. Williams rushed for 2,427 yards and 30 touchdowns. Furthermore, he broke the 200 yards mark in five separate games on his way to glory. In sum, he was like a freight train.
Howard set all kinds of records on the way to claiming the Heisman Trophy. A great wide receiver and kicker, he starred for Michigan in 1991. Furthermore, he broke the voting points record as he obtained almost 88% of the first-place votes. That’s domination.
He scored 23 touchdowns in a brilliant year but the incredible fact is that he was a late bloomer. Howard originally found it very difficult to find minutes on the playing field and credits school counselor Greg Harden with changing his life. It’s a very inspirational story.
Wuerffel’s career path shows that college success doesn’t always translate to a majestic NFL career. He won the Heisman Trophy after his outstanding exploits with the Florida Gators but went on to become one of the worst draft busts of all-time.
The quarterback passed for 3,625 yards with 39 touchdowns in 1996. Furthermore, he didn’t just achieve individual glory because he helped lead the Gators to their first championship. Meanwhile, the college Hall of Famer broke all kinds of conference and school records throughout his NCAA career.
Mayfield is the only walk-on player in history to win the Heisman Trophy. That should tell you how good he was for the Oklahoma Sooners after arriving from Texas Tech without a scholarship. He scorched opposition teams as the Sooners won the Big 12 Conference, but lost to Georgia in the Rose Bowl.
He threw for 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns in one of the best college quarterback seasons in history. One of the most notable aspects of his year was his sniper-like accuracy as he hit over 71% of his throws. Those are some outstanding numbers and he won many individual awards.
There was an outstanding class of quarterbacks in 2018, but Murray stole the show with the best passing efficiency rate in college history. Nobody expected him to explode onto the scene in his Heisman-winning year after Baker Mayfield departed. But that’s exactly what he did as the Sooners went all out in the Big 12.
In the end, they lost the Orange Bowl to Alabama but Murray was outstanding all year as they won the conference championship. He threw for 4,053 yards and 40 touchdowns in the same year the Oakland Athletics tried to lure him to MLB. But football is his destiny and he’s now a rising star with the Arizona Cardinals.
The New York Mets’ Tebow had a scintillating college career with the Florida Gators. First of all, he was the first quarterback to run for 20 touchdowns and throw for 20 in a breathtaking Heisman year. He set all kinds of records on his way to individual glory in 2007.
This outstanding young quarterback also brought home the Davey O’Brien Award as the accolades kept coming. It wasn’t just one year of brilliance either. Tebow helped his team beat the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2008 championship game. A phenomenal talent.
We’ve avoided going too far back with the entries on this list because the standard of football began to increase drastically from the 1980s onwards. But we’ve made a high-profile exception in the case of the infamous O.J Simpson. Before he became the center of controversy in the courtroom, he starred on the playing field.
Another player who came very close to winning the Heisman Trophy the year before he actually did, Simpson was brilliant in 1968. The USC Trojans star dragged his team kicking and screaming to the Rose Bowl final where they eventually lost out to Ohio State. Yet he still rushed for 1,880 yards and 232 touchdowns in a record-breaking year.
Walker came very close to winning the Heisman Trophy during an outstanding 1981 season but had to wait another year to claim the individual prize. With Marcus Allen out of the picture, the legendary University of Georgia running back proved his worth to the nation.
First of all, bear in mind that Walker played most of the year with a broken thumb. Then consider that he rushed for 1,752 yards and 16 touchdowns. Those are outstanding numbers. It’s remarkable to imagine him fully healthy because he would have been even better.
Newton took the road to Auburn University after the Florida Gators threw him out. It was worth the journey because he delivered the Tigers’ their first-ever National Championship. Football is amazing because one player can transform a college team or NFL franchise. That’s what the future NFL MVP did.
In his single season with Auburn, Newton delivered on every front. First, he threw for 2,854 yards with 30 touchdowns. This massive on-field contribution led to him winning the Heisman Trophy. Furthermore, Newton was also the 2010 SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
One of the greatest players in Raiders history, Allen spent a total of 15 years in the NFL, spending his final five seasons with the Chiefs. However, it all began at the University of Southern California, where Allen starred for the Trojans. In 1981, he won the Heisman Trophy after a superb season.
Allen proved unstoppable on the playing field as he rushed for 2,342 yards. He also contributed 22 touchdowns in an excellent individual season. USC retired the future Super Bowl winner’s number 33 jersey in recognition of his greatness and contribution to the school.
One of the University of Pittsburgh’s greatest ever players, Dorsett was excellent for the Panthers in 1976. The running back was lightning quick and opposing defenses couldn’t stop him. Overall, he rushed for 2,150 yards as he ran towards a host of individual awards like the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell Award.
Meanwhile, he helped his school to a national title and broke the NCAA rushing record with a grand total of 6082 yards, a total that stood for 22 years. When he departed Pittsburgh, the school retired his jersey. This was a massive landmark because Dorsett was the first player from the college to receive this honor.
Sanders had a magnificent Heisman Trophy season in 1988. The Oklahoma State running back was brilliant all season as he put up outstanding numbers. After sitting behind Thurman Thomas for a season, Sanders took full advantage of being the Cowboys’ main man when the opportunity came.
He rushed for 2,628 yards and 39 touchdowns throughout a glorious campaign. Furthermore, Sanders’ stat line still holds up today. There’s no doubt that his athletic qualities would have blossomed in the modern era. Finally, the Detroit Lions’ legend was a Pro Bowl selection in each of his 10 seasons in the NFL.
On paper, Burrow is one of the greatest Heisman Trophy winners of all-time. The former LSU standout was phenomenal in 2019. Almost all of the voters agreed with Burrow achieving over 90% of the vote. In sum, it was no surprise after a year where he completed 4,715 passes with a record-breaking 77.9% completion rate.
Following his miraculous season, Burrow entered the 2020 draft where the Cincinnati Bengals nabbed him as the first overall pick. This young man has an exciting career ahead of him. However, if he can emulate his success at the college level in the NFL, he’ll be onto a winner.