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Thursday, November 4
Updated: November 5, 3:37 PM ET
 
Crunching numbers on the Heisman trail

By Jonathan Sills
Special to ESPN.com

Pressure to quantify and bring more transparency to the selection of a national college football champion culminated a year ago in the creation of the Bowl Championship Series. The ranking of teams, once an informal journalist's survey intended to stimulate friendly debate among fans, has now been transformed into a labyrinth of national polls and mathematical formulae.

Peter Warrick
Peter Warrick was the early front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.

Despite these changes in the process for selecting the nation's best team, the process for choosing the nation's best college football player remains a black box. The media's weekly "Heisman watch" converges over just a handful of candidates (usually five, rarely more than 10), most of whom were declared front-runners during the preseason and are nearly impossible to dislodge as the season progresses. While all are clearly outstanding players, no semblance of a formula or even formal methodology accompanies their march toward the coveted bronze trophy.

Early in the season, the buzz centered around Peter Warrick, returning to preseason No. 1 FSU after putting up explosive numbers as a junior. Having bounced back from early setbacks, now Ron Dayne has taken much of the spotlight as he lumbers toward Ricky Williams' rushing record. Chad Pennington's Heisman stock rose with Marshall's ascendancy, while Trung Canidate has all but dropped off the ballot as Arizona's season fails to meet expectations.

Exactly what does it take to win the Heisman? Outstanding statistics? Performance against the nation's best? A well-oiled publicity machine? Is it time to bring more transparency to what some fans regard as "the most prestigious and significant award in the whole spectrum of amateur sports"?

That last quote is taken from the official website of the Heisman trophy, which also offers an explanation of the award's history and selection procedure. The award, first granted in 1935, is the invention of the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC), a prestigious private athletic club in New York City. The award is named after the club's first athletic director, and honors the "outstanding collegiate football player in the United States."

The task of selecting this player falls upon 921 voters -- 870 media representatives selected for their expertise and geographical diversity, plus the 51 still-living Heisman trophy winners. Six sectional media representatives are charged with selecting which colleagues will receive an official Heisman ballot. On this ballot, each "elector" indicates their first, second, and third choice for the award, with a first-place vote worth three points, a second-place vote worth two points, and a third-place vote worth one point. The player receiving the greatest number of points wins the Heisman Trophy.

From a simple polling perspective, the process for selecting the nation's best individual player differs significantly from how we decide on the country's best team.

  • No input from coaches. The DAC historically felt they would be prejudiced toward their own teams and reflect "traditional or regional bias".

  • Limited choices. Although there are many more players out there than teams, the ballot has only three slots, whereas most team polls let you rank the nation's top 25.

  • One-time voting. In the absence of any weekly polls, the media is left to speculate on the award's front-runners until the one ballot is cast.

    Exactly how these front-runners are determined is far from obvious. If the outstanding player in the nation deserves recognition for performance relative to his peers, why are most weekly capsules conspicuously missing Ladainian Tomlinson of TCU -- the nation's leading rusher, at 170.4 yards per game -- and Nevada's Trevor Insley -- comfortably the national leader in both pass receptions (11.9) and receiving yards (169.7) per game? If the DAC's criteria don't specify any bias by position, where are players like Penn State linebacker Lavar Arrington and Florida State kicker Sebastian Janikowski? While nowhere explicit in their charter, it's clear that Heisman voters tend to focus on offensive stars (quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers) from nationally ranked teams. And if they can manage to set NCAA records in the process -- as Ricky Williams did last year, and Ron Dayne will likely do this year -- well, all the better.

    If victories, offensive production, and strength of schedule are all explicit elements of the criteria for choosing the nation's best team, are they also fair criteria for choosing the country's best player?

    If so, why not have a "Heisman Trophy Series" to supplement the BCS?

    Even without the endorsement of the DAC, it would provide both more clarity for fans and better information for media reps to inform their Heisman voting at season's end. The Heisman Trophy Series could include a combination of media polls, coaches' polls, and thematical formula. I'd suggest the following quantitative criteria for ranking individual players:

    Mean-adjusted performance. For significant statistical categories, both offensive and defensive players should be evaluated on their performance relative to all other D-1A players. To compare players across positions, these stats could be adjusted for their distance from the national average on a standardized scale. This way, a cornerback with three more interceptions than his next peer could be fairly contrasted with a running back with 20 more yards per game than his closest competitor. The mean-adjusted performance could be calculated against current active players, historical averages or multi-year career stats.

    Strength of schedule. As with teams, individual performance should be evaluated in light of the competition it came against. A strength of schedule component similar to that used for the BCS could be applied to each individual's performance ratings.

    National combine. Why not pit the nation's most gifted individual players head-to-head in a uniform individual competition, seeing they'll have to do the same thing anyway prior to entering the NFL? The equalizing tests of speed and strength would allow better inter-positional comparison while providing a new off-the-field treat for fans.

    Would you support a Heisman Trophy Series? Or is the current mystery and hype that surrounds the selection process part of what makes the award truly unique?

    Editor's Note: Care to comment on this subject? E-mail Jonathan Sills at jwsills@alumni.princeton.edu and we'll print the best letters next month.





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