Ranking the 10 Heisman Trophy winners of the 4-team Playoff era
And with that, the 4-team Playoff era is over. That is, as it relates to the Heisman Trophy.
Of course, the final 4-team Playoff will play out in a few weeks. A champion will be crowned and immortalized in the final year of this current era of college football.
We had 10 Heisman Trophy winners during the 4-team Playoff era. It’s worth remembering that the Playoff performance has nothing to do with the Heisman. Voting is finalized after the conference championship, so really, I’m just using the 4-team Playoff as a timeframe and not a metric.
At the same time, leading a team to a 4-team Playoff berth is something that the majority of the Heisman winners accomplished during this past decade. It helps the argument for an individual player, but it’s certainly not everything. Heisman winner Jayden Daniels proved that in 2023.
In ranking the Heisman winners of the Playoff era, I didn’t just default to team success, nor did I default to total touchdowns or yards gained. How clutch were they? Did they have a historic season at their position? How memorable were their feats?
All of that is factored into this ranking of the 10 Heisman winners of the Playoff era (this is only about those individual seasons and not about what they did throughout the rest of their college careers or what they did as NFL players):
10. 2022 Caleb Williams
Williams put up some gaudy pre-Heisman numbers (4,447 total yards, 47 TDs) and much like Jayden Daniels, he had to overcome a horrendous defense. So why isn’t he higher on this list? It’s not the Utah losses. Williams was actually plenty productive in those games before he got hurt in the Pac-12 Championship rematch. Against lesser competition in 2022, playing for a coach who cranked out more productive Heisman winners before him, what was really that memorable about Williams’ season? Putting up big numbers in a shootout win against 4-loss teams like UCLA or Notre Dame? There’s a reason why Williams felt like a somewhat underwhelming choice after the second Utah loss.
9. 2015 Derrick Henry
Henry was a cheat code, no doubt. What he turned into late in the season was a thing of beauty. In his last 6 pre-Heisman games against Power 5 competition, he averaged 209 rushing yards, including a 210-31 rushing yard advantage against Leonard Fournette in the pivotal LSU showdown. Henry averaged 45 carries in those final 2 pre-Heisman games to help Alabama lock in a Playoff berth. While Henry deserves a ton of credit for that volume and for eventually hitting 2,000 rushing yards — he was at 1,986 rushing yards pre-Heisman — against mostly SEC competition, there were plenty of people who didn’t feel he deserved to win the award because of the more versatile year that Christian McCaffrey had. Henry was a 1-dimensional player, and as great as that 2,000-yard feat was, we saw 10 instances of a Power 5 player reaching that in the Playoff era.
8. 2018 Kyler Murray
If I had a vote in 2018, I would’ve voted for Tua Tagovailoa despite the SEC Championship injury. I thought too much of Murray’s late push was a reaction to conference championship weekend. But Murray did have a remarkable season. Hitting 50 total touchdowns pre-Heisman is an absurd accomplishment, as is averaging 11.6 yards/attempt to best Baker Mayfield’s all-time NCAA record. Murray hit the 1,000-yard mark as a runner, though that came as a result of a 109-yard Orange Bowl showing after the Heisman ceremony. Murray was phenomenal, but his lone pre-Heisman game against a top-30 scoring defense was the 28-21 overtime win at home against Army. Plus, when the guy before you (Mayfield) and multiple guys after you (Jalen Hurts & Williams) accomplish similar feats, it’s hard to say that season is the best of the best.
7. 2014 Marcus Mariota
Mariota’s legacy will probably always have a “yeah, but” because he didn’t win a national title, nor did he quite live up to the hype as a No. 2 overall pick. Still, the guy was the rare preseason Heisman favorite who legitimately earned the award. That, in this era of the internet, is next to impossible. Mariota did that by racking up 52 pre-Heisman scores, 14 of which came from his legs (people forget that). Let’s not forget that Mariota’s brilliance came at a time when the Pac-12 still had national respect. That early-season loss to then-unranked Arizona looked bad at the time, but Mariota avenged that in the Pac-12 Championship with a 5-touchdown showing against the No. 8 Wildcats. In a strange way, it probably helped Mariota’s legacy that Oregon went into a funk after that. His only real knock is that he didn’t make some of the jaw-dropping plays that others on this did while revolutionizing the quarterback position.
6. 2021 Bryce Young
Here’s a question I’ve been asking for the last 2 years — is Young’s 2021 SEC Championship performance against that historically dominant Georgia defense the best individual showing of the Playoff era? You could argue that Deshaun Watson’s national championship performance at the end of the 2016 season is up there, and what that entire LSU offense did to Oklahoma in a Playoff semifinal game was unprecedented dominance. But given the circumstances — a Playoff berth on the line against arguably the best defense of the 21st century — I can’t argue against what Young did in his final pre-Heisman game. He also went into the ceremony with 46 pre-Heisman scores for an Alabama team that didn’t have some masterful play-caller like the Tide had with Steve Sarkisian. Young’s ability to keep plays alive was second to none. He’d be higher on this list if he was more dynamic as a runner beyond the line of scrimmage, but doing what he did against SEC competition at his size felt special.
5. 2017 Baker Mayfield
In Lincoln Riley’s first season as a head coach, Mayfield was masterful. He set the NCAA record for yards/pass attempt and he became the first former walk-on to win the Heisman. The Ohio State game was as clutch as it gets, and Mayfield was so good that he accomplished the challenging feat of winning the award as an established 4th-year starter. Mayfield had a quarterback rating of 200.2 vs. teams who finished ranked in the AP Top 25, which is No. 2 in the Playoff era only to 2020 Mac Jones. But he’s not higher on this list because TCU was the only top-25 scoring defense he faced pre-Heisman, and the other quarterbacks on this list were bigger threats with their legs. Splitting hairs? You bet.
4. 2020 DeVonta Smith
I know, I know. It was a pandemic season. Nobody played any defense. I hear you. But Smith looked like an All-Pro receiver playing against high school kids. He was the first receiver to win the Heisman in nearly 3 decades because he flipped it into overdrive once Jaylen Waddle went down. In those 6 post-Waddle games before the Heisman, Smith averaged 159 receiving yards and he hit at least 170 yards in 4 of those 6 contests. He also racked up 13 receiving scores in that stretch alone. Heading into the Heisman, Smith had an average of 137.4 receiving yards against an SEC-only schedule. He had 5 pre-Heisman games with at least 140 receiving yards and multiple touchdowns for an Alabama team that destroyed almost everyone it faced. Smith was the best player on every field he stepped on, which was why he even overshadowed a historically efficient season from his quarterback.
3. 2023 Jayden Daniels
You’re gonna tell me that I’m being a prisoner of the moment. Fine. I’m gonna tell you to look beyond the 3 losses, wherein LSU’s defense allowed at least 42 points, and look at just how remarkable Daniels was. He currently has the best quarterback rating ever for an FBS player (208), he hit 50 touchdowns in just 12 games and he averaged more total yards/play (10.7) than any player in the Playoff era. Only 4 Power 5 players have ever had 40 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions or fewer in a season, and Daniels (along with Bo Nix) is set to join that club. Mind you, he’s a 1,000-yard rusher who is No. 2 in the SEC in that department. None of those other guys hit 700 pre-Heisman rushing yards.
If you want to find a negative for Daniels, it’s that he lost the 2 biggest games on his schedule. Jordan Travis indeed outplayed him in the second half of the season opener in Orlando, but Daniels “losing to Alabama” was also the byproduct of him taking a violent hit and getting knocked out of the game in the 4th quarter. He’s worthy of being on the shortlist for best Heisman winners of the Playoff era.
2. 2016 Lamar Jackson
As much as any sort of ranking or comparison is about the numbers, sometimes, you just have to see a guy play to understand how incredible he is. That’s Jackson. In 2016, he was the human highlight reel. The things he did with his legs were unlike any we’d ever seen from a quarterback at the Power 5 level, perhaps except Michael Vick (the Syracuse hurdle is the play I always think of from that 2016 season). But yeah, the numbers were on his side, too. Jackson became the first quarterback to ever record 30 touchdown passes and 20 rushing scores pre-Heisman ceremony, and he did so without needing to play in a conference championship game (Cam Newton got there but after the national championship). Oh, and he did that as a 19-year-old to become the youngest Heisman winner ever. Jackson did all of that playing with a weak offensive line, and he didn’t have the superstar receivers that others on this list had.
If you can’t appreciate the greatness of Jackson because he had 3 pre-Heisman losses, sorry. That’s on you.
1. 2019 Joe Burrow
Where should we start? How about the fact that in 13 pre-Heisman games, Burrow racked up 51 total touchdowns and 5,020 yards of offense (don’t forget about those 16 receiving yards). He had a 48-6 pre-Heisman TD-INT ratio and averaged 10.7 yards/attempt for an LSU team that dominated in ways that we had never seen. Burrow was so in control that no LSU opponent possessed the ball in the 4th quarter with a chance to take the lead. Mind you, that was with a schedule that included 5 top-10 foes pre-Heisman and 7 including the Playoff. Against teams that were ranked in the final AP Top 25, Burrow had a 27-2 TD-INT ratio. No other quarterback in the last 15 years had more than 22 TD passes in those spots (2020 Mac Jones and 2022 Stetson Bennett IV were the only other QBs with at least 20).
What Burrow did would’ve been the stuff of legend if it happened against a Group of 5 schedule. The fact that he lit up a schedule that grueling will stand the test of time.