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College Football Top Non Heismans: Peyton Manning 1997

The Heisman Trophy is a unique award, its winners belong to a exclusive fraternity, almost like members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. There are a handful of great college football players who fell just short, for a number of reasons, of winning the Heisman. In the week leading up to the Heisman, I will build a case for a handful of players who may have been the best player that year and recognize their great seasons. You will not find Gordie Lockbaum or Steve McNair on the list, only Division 1A or FBS players. In my opinion considering players from the lower tiers of college football is like voting for a Triple A baseball player as the National League MVP. Also avoided are data mines, guys who put up pinball numbers against lesser competition; see Chang, Timmy or Keenum, Case.

1997 Peyton Manning: University of Tennesse

It really is a shame that Jason White and Troy Smith reside in the Heisman house while Peyton Manning is forever stuck in the basement room at the Maxwell. With great fanfare, Manning skipped his senior season to return in an attempt to lead the Volunteers to a national championship. Peyton started the year as favorite to win the Heisman and the Vols opened as the # 5 team in the country. Unfortunately, Tennessee and Peyton were done in by an early loss to Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators. Peyton and the Volunteers recovered and finished the season strong, running the table, culminating with an SEC championship victory over an Auburn team that finished the year ranked # 11. Over the course of the ’97 season, Peyton played a strong SEC schedule and played well against a high level of competition. In wins against eventual # 5 Georgia and # 11 Auburn, Peyton threw for over 340 yards, with 4 TD’s in both contests. Manning torched #25 Southern Mississippi (9-3 eventual record) for 399 yards and 4 TD’s. Against an undefeated #2 Nebraska, in the Orange Bowl, Manning and the Vols were beat up 42-17. For the season, Manning completed over 60% of his pass for 3819 yards, which was 3rd in the country behind Tim Couch and Tim Rattay.

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Spurrier and the Gators haunted Manning through his four years at Tennessee, who can forget Spurriers “you can’t spell citrus without U T” quip. The perception that Manning couldn’t win the big game probably started against Florida and followed him until he won the Super Bowl. Against Florida in 1997 Manning put up very good numbers against the top ranked (eventual #6) Gators, throwing for 353 yards and 3 TD’s but with two interceptions. Following the Gators loss, Manning played at a Heisman level, but his momentum as Heisman front runner never recovered.

Into the vacuum stepped Charles Woodson of the eventual national champion Michigan. Woodson was a terrific college player and is a Hall of Fame NFLer, but his candidacy took advantage of some biases that turned the tide in his favor. At the time there seemed to be, among the media, a call to elect a defensive player for the first time while Manning was punished for his loss to Florida. Woodson was the most visible player on a great team with a national following. Michigan rose through the rankings, also playing a difficult schedule, finishing with Ohio State. To be fair, while Manning’s team faltered against its biggest rival, Woodson took advantage of his big moments in the spotlight. In the rivalry game between #1 Michigan and # 4 Ohio State, Woodson had a terrific game, highlighted by striking the Heisman pose following a punt return TD. There is little doubt that Woodson was the best defensive player, collecting 8 picks, but that return was his only special teams TD. He finished the year with an 8.5 yd average on 33 punt returns. He added 11 catches for 231 yards, two receiving TD’s along with a rushing TD.

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I guess your call on the 1997 Heisman comes down to your perspective on sport. Do you value the player who consistently produces and puts his team always in a position to win or do you reward the guy who flashes brilliantly in the moment. In Woodson’s defense, he dominated his rivalry game, while Manning’s team lost his highly visible rivalry game. There really is no right or wrong call on the 1997 Heisman, both are all time greats, but I tend to favor the consistent producer. To me Peyton Manning was the best player week in and week out in 1997, and one of the best college QB’s of the past 40 years.

 Peyton Manning - 1997                                                                  Pass                     Year      School Pos  Cmp Att  Pct  Yds TD Int1997   Tennessee  QB  287 477 60.2 3819 36  11Charles Woodson  - 1997                                                  Rec.        Rush       Year     School  Rec Yds TD  Att Yds TD1997   Michigan   11 231  2    3  15  1
The vote, not a bad year, # 4 and # 5 weren't bad college players.                                                                                                  
Rk            Player       School          Class Pos 1st 2nd 3rd  Tot                               1    Charles Woodson       Michigan        JR    DB  433 209  98 1815                    2    Peyton Manning        Tennessee       SR    QB  281 263 174 1543 3    Ryan Leaf             Wash. ST        JR    QB   70 205 241  861 4    Randy Moss            Marshall        SO    WR   17  56  90  253        5    Ricky Williams       Texas            JR    RB    3  18  20   65  tables courtesy of http://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/