It was perhaps the greatest Heisman field in the history of that award. It included a generational quarterback and a guy everyone thought would be. It had the most talented receiver the game had ever seen. It had the most productive rusher college football had ever seen. And Twenty years ago today the award for the “most outstanding player in college football” finally went to a primarily defensive player. He was just that good.
In 1997, two-way stars like Tom Harmon were a thing of the past or it was something “cute” that guys like Gordie Lockbaum did in D2 football. As Warren Sapp correctly pointed out a few years earlier, the bronzed Heisman statue has a player carrying the ball, not swatting it down.
Charles Woodson challenged that paradigm. You didn’t need to be a senior anymore to win the award. You didn’t need to be a quarterback or a running back, either. The trophy is engraved thusly: “The outstanding College Football Player In The United States.” The instructions given to voters are to choose…
The outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.
It doesn’t say anything about being an offensive MVP; but that was the paradigm. Paradigms had changed before in the history of this award—it used to be so Domer biased that QB Paul Hornung won it in 1956 while going 2-8 and throwing 13 INTs to 3 TDs (Jim Brown finished third). It says outstanding.
Woodson was. Leave aside the highlight reel and look at the effect he had on that defense. Michigan’s D spent most of that season in a Cover 1 with the free safety either shaded over the side opposite Woodson, or running around in a robber. Students made a shirt (now available on the MGoBlogStore) that noted “75% of the Earth is covered by water, the rest is covered by Woodson.” They weren’t far off. Ask any coach if he thinks he could get away with this:
Back in 1997, few in America believed the 1,000 voters had finally figured out what that truly meant, especially when they had a nice, easy senior career candidate who “deserved” it for turning down the NFL and virtually repeating his 1996 performance.
Granted, it was Michigan-Michigan State. The battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. The battle for state bragging rights. Nothing more needed to be said, though if you checked out the articles folder above you’ll note there wasn’t any shortage of things being said from the beginning of the year. Michigan was undefeated. Michigan State was in its 3rd season under Nick Saban, and was demolishing opponents, rising as high as 11th in the country one week before hosting their biggest rival.
Problem was, the fever-pitched build up for this game took somewhat of a hit when the Spartans unexpectedly lost, 19-17, the week before to Northwestern. That meant #5, and 6-0 Michigan would now be playing #15, and 5-1, Michigan State. Not exactly the marquee national matchup that the networks had been anticipating but it didn’t stop ESPN’s College Gameday from paying a visit to East Lansing.
"It's going to be tough," Michigan quarterback Brian Griese said, remembering that his last visit to East Lansing was a 28-25 loss. "Their fans are going to be loud and they're going to be ruthless. It's the state championship," Griese went on. "Before you can go on to win the Big Ten championship, you've got to win the state championship."
Lloyd didn't have a countdown clock for this game, nor was there any more than the usual bulletin board material. But Carr did have a sweatshirt, as Angelique Chengelis reported in the Detroit News:
Hanging on a mirror that each Wolverine player could not avoid seeing was a sweatshirt that read the ugly score and the uglier words.
"It said '28-25, Spartans beat Wolverines,'" U-M safety Marcus Ray said. "It was taped up there all week and we saw it. We just wanted to come up to Lansing and win this game."
Last week I did the thing you're not supposed to do: I got into an argument with a Tennessee fan about conference strength. Actually it started as a conversation about how cute my 1-year-old dog is but all conversations with SEC fans are really conference strength conversations. Before the inevitable deterioration into Woodson-Manning (which is particularly impossible with him because he knew Peyton in school and has an incredible story about how nice of a guy Peyton Manning was) I thought to test his assertion that the SEC has been dominant, except for 2005, since Bear Bryant's day.
Attempting to debate this, I stumbled onto sports-reference.com's SRS statistic. It stands for "Simple Rating System" and was borrowed from the NFL guys. What it represents is how much that team should beat an average team:
So every team's rating is their average point margin, adjusted up or down depending on the strength of their opponents.
This generally works for the NFL because of relative schedule parity. But it proved useless for comparing college football teams and conferences over history because they lacked that. I'll explain why, but first lets apply SRS averages of the conferences since 1964 to our debate, which demonstrates… that I just totally screwed myself:
Well yeah, but we admitted this: until Penn State joined and some of the dreks got their acts together it really was the Big Two-Little 8. Let's see mostly Michigan-Ohio State against Alabama et al.:
It stayed pretty even except when Michigan wasn't good. There's a reason for that: Michigan (35 times) and Ohio State (33) teams account for over two thirds of Big Ten's 100 representatives from the last 50 years. Alabama teams are counted 28 times, with Florida (18), Tennessee (15), Georgia (12), Auburn (11) and LSU (11) all ahead of the next Big Ten team, which is Penn State (8). Until the '90s, the bottom half of the Big Ten sucked way worse than the bottom half of the SEC, according to SRS:
What really happened here: the SEC teams were playing easier schedules until the Big Ten caught on and started scheduling bodybags, and then things were even until the Big Ten started actually sucking. I explain, after the jump.
[The jump, after which I explain, as I just explained]
Nosie. Boise announced their big nonconference game… and it's against Virginia Tech, which you will note is not Michigan. M is still casting about for a reasonable opponent to open the 2010 season. Options are getting thin on the ground.
Ok, let's talk about this again. Tennessee is pushing Eric Berry for the Heisman, which isn't going to happen unless Tennessee is way better than everyone expects they'll be but fine. I enjoy quixotic Heisman campaigns of all stripes and miss the defunct blogger version of the Heisman—even if it handed its lone trophy to Colt Brennan—because defenders and the occasional lineman featured.
Unfortunately, ESPN's Chris Low—the SEC version of Rittenberg—took the opportunity to launch a broadside at Charles Woodson's '97 win, which is for my money one of the few times the award has managed to make any goddamn sense. The reasoning, as you might expect, is flimsy and insular. A brief fisk:
The Heisman Trophy has been a dirty word on Rocky Top ever since Peyton Manning was jobbed of college football's most prestigious individual award back in 1997.
How does one get "jobbed" out of an award where people are handed ballots and asked to vote on who they think is the best player? Were there chads?
I'm not one of those conspiracy theorists…
This phrase is always followed by the author suggesting and supporting a conspiracy theory.
… but there sure seemed to be a movement by some in 1997 to keep Manning from winning the award.
See? "I'm not one of those conspiracy theorists" is a phrase that always means its opposite. There should be a word for that.
Part of it was his being forced down everybody's throats for four years, and part of it was the fact that he was winless against Florida.
Never mind that he delivered Tennessee its first SEC championship since the advent of the league championship game, was the driving force behind the Vols' remarkable 45-5 run from 1995-98 and threw for 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns his senior season.
Q: What does Tennessee's '98 national title season have to do with Peyton Manning? Chris Low A: Something. Sane Person A: Not a goddamn thing.
He was saddled with the label of not being able to win the big one -- and despite his enormous talents -- became that guy some voters took glee in voting against.
Dude, the award purports to reward the best player in college football, and against Florida Manning threw two interceptions, one an 89-yard pick-six, and saw his team fall behind 33-14 before Manning managed a meaningless garbage time touchdown. He'd been outplayed by Doug Johnson. That opened the door. The New York Times on Manning after the Florida game: "A Heisman candidate? Yes. A hands-down winner in the fall? Please."
Then Woodson bashed through it by dominating Michigan's season-ending showdown against Ohio State by intercepting a pass, setting up one of Michigan's touchdowns with a long reception, and doing this:
One player failed, and another did not. It's harsh to say Peyton Manning "couldn't win the big one" but it's not a stretch to claim that Charles Woodson blew him out of the water in both teams' most important games of the season.
How else do you explain 93 of the 921 electors that year not even having Manning on their ballots?
I'm not sure where Low's getting his numbers, as the official site has vote counts that disagree with his accounting. There are 815 first-place votes accounted for of 921 electors, leaving 97 ballots without Manning. Woodson was left off 75. As Low's amply demonstrated here, "never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity" may be a general-purpose axiom but it goes double for sportswriters.
Most years Peyton Manning would have been a slam dunk. He'd be a more deserving winner than 80% of the guys who actually got the trophy. But he had the misfortune to run up against the only compelling (primarily) defensive player in the history of the award. I'm sure a few people were swayed by the idea it was cool to vote for a defender, but it's not like he was undeserving. That's what grates about every Tennessee bitch: they all assert, directly or in-, that Woodson didn't deserve it and the '97 Heisman was a sham and a fraud. Well, whatever. Scoreboard.
BCS bowls were a candle in the wind. Yeah, I follow Charlie Weis on Twitter. I also follow Rich Rodriguez, but Rodriguez hasn't posted anything in months, which is probably wise. Weis still hasn't gotten the concept of self-contained 140-character thoughts—needs to do some self-scouting there—but does provide awesome biographical details:
Got home even later than that last night returning from Chicago, where I saw a concert at Wrigley Field.
Some google sleuthing reveals these guys to be the target of Weis' concert-going affections:
Which lol perfect. Both appear to be on the same strenuous diet of porkfat ice cream that Weis is, too.
Secret cabal postponement. The coaches poll's plan to go dark—complained about in this space earlier—has been delayed. The heroes are the same bunch of villains that got us in this mess:
The return to a lack of transparency upset BCS officials more than what was originally known. There are indications that the change could be a deal breaker, going forward, in the coaches poll's inclusion in the BCS.
In this, at least, the rabble and the Powers That Be are united. If the BCS was ticked off this year they're not likely to be less ticked off if the coaches poll attempts to pull this stunt in the future; I expect we'll see the secret cabal stuff quietly shelved and put next to Hated Rule 3-2-5e on the Shelf of Horrible College Football Ideas.
Spread origins and expansion. It seems like I link 80% of Smart Football's posts, but I blame Chris Brown for making everything so interesting. This latest exchange is more relevant than stuff about four verticals so it avoid the sidebar. Post the first concerns late Northwestern coach Randy Walker's adoption of the Rodriguez spread and what he brought to it:
what Rodriguez showed them was less a new way to attack the problem of good defenses but more just a new way to think about attacking the problem. Rodriguez showed them the shotgun and the zone read stuff they were doing at Clemson and had done at Tulane, but the reason it clicked for Wilson and Walker is that they realized that they could run all their old stuff -- the zones, the power, counter, option, etc -- all from spread sets.
And this was probably the great leap forward for the spread. Indeed, if you look at what Rodriguez was doing at Clemson, a lot of it is there in terms of the zone read, but a lot of it too was just Woody Dantzler running around. It was Walker that took the idea of "spread-to-run" and "zone-read" and systemized it.
The incessant linking must have garnered Chris a number of consistent Michigan readers, because he followed up that post with another one defending his sort-of demotion of Rich Rodriguez from spreadfather to spread… uh, something else.
Really? I try not to tread too heavily on the premium sites' information. I'll freely link to headers and free articles, and will summarize the general feel for a recruit on the interwebs, a feeling that usually starts with posts from insider-type people and then flows outwards onto message boards here and elsewhere. But I rarely lift quotes directly from premium articles*, and even then it's usually to pull something awesome out like Brandon Herron calling Texas Tech "a box surrounded by dirt."
The Free Press has no such qualms anymore, I guess, as they've grabbed Barry Every and Scott Kennedy's brief, premium evaluations of the Elite 11 quarterbacks and posted the Devin Gardner bits. Is this uncool? I kind of think so since the only reason you'd send people to the Elite 11 is to get people to pay for the assessment of their commited QB.
FWIW, Gardner killed it, with Every asserting he was one of the top two quarterbacks in attendance:
"He may not be as big or fast as current Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, but he is a close second. I am torn between him and Bolden as to who I would take to build a college football team around."
State fans go "doh" in unison here.
*(The one major exception to this was when ESPN's player evaluations were behind a paywall; I'd usually pull out a few sentences of a three-paragraph scouting report when putting up a commit post. I figured they'd take the tradeoff of links and exposure for ESPN Insider, and they soon opened up their evaluations to the general public anyway.)