Marcus Mariota Wins The Heisman: Sameness and Singularity Converge In A Special Season

There are many storylines attached to Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy victory on Saturday night in New York.

Dale Newton of Bloguin’s Oregon site, The Duck Stops Here, placed the event in a University of Oregon context.

TSS contributor Ryan Palencer wrote about the meaning of the occasion for Mariota’s home state of Hawaii.

The absence of Jameis Winston from the list of 2014 finalists, despite his enduring presence as the best crunch-time player in the sport, raised some Heisman questions our editorial team discussed. 

You might take away a specific idea or memory from the 2014 Heisman Trophy race, adding it to the many colors and tones which always comprise a Heisman competition. My main thought on the 2014 season when seen through the prism of the Heisman is this: While Mariota’s Heisman upheld several familiar Heisman trends, it simultaneously undercut others.

The meaning of that double reality is as follows: College football — not just in the playoff race, but also in the search for the newest Heisman winner — possesses an infinite capacity to surprise its fans and pundits. An explanation of this statement is necessary, but it’s not a long or complicated one.

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Last year, six finalists were brought to New York for the Heisman ceremony, twice the total of this year’s group. In that group of six from 2013, one could not find the star quarterback of a Big 12 team (one which would have been similarly snubbed in a four-team playoff race, much like this season). Bryce Petty of Baylor was not invited to the Big Apple.

In that group of six last year, one could not find the Pac-12’s best skill player, Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey. One could not find the West’s best quarterback, Derek Carr of Fresno State.

If you looked at the 2013 Heisman finalists and where they did (and didn’t) hail from, you would have sworn that a bias against Western teams and Big 12 teams existed, and that if you weren’t a USC star, you didn’t get favorable treatment in the Heisman balloting.

Then came this season, showing us how unique every college football campaign really is.

On one hand, this season upheld the trend in which a Big 12 quarterback didn’t get a plane ticket to New York. Trevone Boykin came of age as a quarterback and stood at the center of TCU’s rise to prominence. This did not translate into a reward in the big city and a chance to see some sights in the media capital of the world. Boykin can relate to what Petty went through last year, giving TCU and Baylor fans a point around which to unite.

What did the 2014 Heisman race also affirm? It upheld the general flow of the award over the past 15 years, in which a quarterback on a team still alive in the national title hunt is selected for the award. Counting this Mariota win, nine of the past 15 Heisman winners have been quarterbacks on teams playing in the BCS championship game or (this year) the playoff.

Mariota’s win also affirmed the primacy of quarterbacks in the 21st-century portion of the Heisman’s history: Since the year 2000, only two non-quarterbacks have had their names called on Heisman night: running backs Reggie Bush in 2005 and Mark Ingram in 2009. Amari Cooper gave it a good run this year, but no receiver has claimed this trophy since Desmond Howard in 1991. (Michigan is quite the trend-destroyer in Heismans, with Charles Woodson in 1997 being the last defensive player to win the award.)

More perspective on the centrality of quarterbacks in the 21st century of the Heisman’s existence can be found in this stat: The last time running backs went back-to-back in the Heisman was in 1998 and 1999, with Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne claiming the award.

You can clearly see that Mariota’s Heisman continues a long run, one that has seldom been interrupted. It’s a sport for quarterbacks — it’s not 1981 anymore.

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Yet, while upholding conventional wisdom in so many ways, Mariota’s Heisman contradicts history in several others.

First and foremost, Mariota is the first non-USC Pac-12 quarterback to win the award since Jim Plunkett of Stanford in 1970. By the time Don Draper and Mad Men finish their series run, they might last just long enough to see Plunkett’s Heisman (though one doubts that Matthew Weiner will include a Heisman reference in the episodes he has left).

Mariota is also the first quarterback from the Mountain or Pacific time zone to win the award since Ty Detmer of BYU took home the trophy in 1990. That’s roughly a quarter of a century — not nearly as long as the 44 years separating Mariota and Plunkett, but still a long time by any reasonable measurement.

Just when you thought a player’s Heisman odds were severely limited due to geography or a specific university affiliation, that notion got smashed. Just when you thought a certain player’s window of opportunity had been reduced to a one-inch sliver, the particulars of a college football season created a window as wide as one you’d find in a loft apartment looking out over the city of Chicago (perhaps the one that sold for $17 million a few days ago).

College football is endlessly fascinating in that fashion. This sport possesses an uncanny knack for upholding establishment power in one breath and giving other parties a chance to register special accomplishments in the next.

The Big 12 quarterbacks that are being snubbed (Petty and Boykin) can only look to 2011, when a Big 12 quarterback — not even one on a national title contender — won the award: Robert Griffin III.

Running backs such as Melvin Gordon might think the Heisman lies outside a running back’s reach. Yet, Ingram’s victory in 2009 showed that all things are possible.

In 2012, Johnny Manziel’s win broke down the barrier for freshmen, something Jameis Winston confirmed in his 2013 Heisman season. Manziel and Griffin managed to keep the Heisman out of the reach of title-game-bound players in 2011 and 2012.

Just when you think you’ve figured out this award, it throws a curveball in some way… even while it enables other trends to remain entrenched.

Marcus Mariota is your 2014 Heisman winner — you can choose to view this moment through the prism of stasis… or change.

That’s the beauty of college football and its waves of constantly fascinating seasons.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |

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