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Heisman Hijinx: Who was the biggest Wildcat snub?

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Last week, in the wake of the release of EA Sports NCAA Football 13, we discussed which former Heisman Trophy winner we'd most like to have had playing for K-State instead of the team he played for. This week, we raise the question of which player who DIDN'T win the Heisman SHOULD have.

On a national level, it's pretty obvious that the debate on this one comes down to two guys. OJ Simpson was beaten out for the 1967 Heisman Trophy by UCLA quarterback Gary Beban, and Jim Brown non-sensically lost out in 1956 to Paul Hornung of Notre Dame, who'd faceplanted to a 2-8 regular season. That's the easy argument to get into (and Brown's the bigger snub, and We All Know Why), but frankly we just don't care about that. Instead, you get to read jonfmorse and AhearnAlley argue over which K-State player was most improperly snubbed when it came time to hand out the ol' stiffarm trophy.

jonfmorse: To me, this answer is less obvious than the answer to which Heisman winner I wish we'd had, but it's still a pretty secure answer for me, and it involves the same guys. In 1998, Ricky Williams had a fantastic season, and won the trophy. It was not a "bad" selection by any means, at least in the sense that there's nothing about Ricky's 1998 season that screams "How on earth did this guy win the Heisman Trophy?" He'd broken the season record for rushing touchdowns, he'd broken the career rushing yardage mark, he'd been a human highlight reel.

Of course, Williams also only managed 43 yards on 25 carries when K-State annihilated Texas 48-7 in Manhattan in September. He was outrushed that day by K-State quarterback Michael Bishop (and K-State running backs Eric Hickson and Marlon Charles, too). Texas limped along, relatively speaking, to a 9-3 campaign which included losses to UCLA and Texas Tech, and a near-loss to not-very-good Oklahoma State.

Bishop, on the other hand, led K-State on an absolute rampage through the Big 12. For the entire regular season, no unranked team came within 32 points of the Wildcats. There was a close call early at then-#14 Colorado (who turned out to not be that good in the end), the 10-point win in Lincoln over Nebraska, and a six-point win at then #19 Missouri. Note those games were all on the road (edit: except Nebraska), and more importantly, they weren't losses.

It's almost forgotten now, but heading into the week of the conference championship games, Bishop and Williams were widely considered to be pretty close in the race for the Heisman. Had K-State maintained that 15-point fourth-quarter lead in the fourth quarter, Bishop quite probably would have won the trophy.

But then came The Fumble, and then The Second Overtime, and everything came crashing down. Bishop finished second to Williams when the ballots rolled into New York, and that was all she wrote. My contention is that Bishop lost the Heisman on one single play, a miscalculation that cost both him and his team dearly, and that perhaps we shouldn't be handing out trophies based on one little case of butterfingers. Especially when the runner-up out-performed the winner head-to-head.

AhearnAlley: First of all, I don't want to take anything away from Michael Bishop's 1998 season. It was incredible, and I had a lot of fun watching it right up until... until... those things that Jon already mentioned. That being said, there's another guy that deserved the Heisman a little more, and he's a 5-foot-7 running back who has certainly been overlooked -- literally and figuratively -- more than once in his life. Obviously, I'm talking about Darren Sproles.

Do you know how many players in the Big Ten, ACC, Pac-10, SEC and Big 12 have matched Sproles' 1,986 yards since he did it in 2003? Only J.J. Arrington, the Cal running back who had the bad luck of doing it in a year that featured Adrian Peterson, Cedric Benson and Reggie Bush having much flashier seasons for much better teams. Along similar lines, it's hard to argue for Sproles as a Heisman winner if you look at it as a popularity contest, which history unfortunately seems to show that it is to a certain degree. But if you really wanted to give the trophy to the best collegiate football player in the country, Sproles is one of just two guys who could have gotten it, and the other guy is not Jason White.

In reality, Sproles lost the Heisman early in the season when he was held under 100 yards twice as K-State lost three games in a row. In fact, he may have lost it when KSU lost to that green team I don't even want to name, because that was the last time I cried while attending a sporting event. But in Sproles' defense, his quarterback that game was Jeff Freaking Schwinn, and Roberson threw five interceptions in the other two games. Then in the following seven games against Big 12 competition, he averaged more than 170 yards per game. Add in a 175-yard performance in a season-opening 10-7 win over Cal, and it's pretty much impossible to argue Sproles didn't step up when it mattered most (we
even get to omit the 38-yard game against Ohio State, since it came after the Heisman presentation).

Jon, I'm sure you knew when you mentioned the Bishop-Williams head-to-head comparison that I would counter with the Sproles vs. Jason White game. Here's a quick refresher: Sproles posted 323 total yards and a TD to White's 298 yards and 2 interceptions. I would contend White was an above-average player who was erroneously rewarded for excelling on a ridiculously talented offensive football team. The one player who should have seriously challenged Sproles for the award was a guy named Larry Fitzgerald, but no Big East player has won the award since Gino Torretta
in 1992 and no wide receiver has won it since Desmond Howard in 1991.

jonfmorse: I was sure you were going to bring that up, because it certainly does underscore the point that Sproles was a more deserving candidate than the guy who actually won the award. Jason White was quite patently not the best college football player in America in 2003. What I did not expect, however, was that you'd walk right into mentioning the guy who really should have won in 2003. Yes, he was a Big East player and a wide receiver, and yet Larry Fitzgerald probably should have won the Heisman over Sproles. (Heck, do a google search for "heisman snubs" and it's on every top ten list out there.)

Now, don't get me wrong. I think you can make the argument that Darren was more deserving than Fitzgerald, and am am absolutely positive that had Darren won the award there wouldn't be a great deal of hue and cry over Fitzgerald having not won it. And yet... at least with Michael Bishop, his candidacy was evolved enough that he received the invitation to New York. In 2003, the Downtown Athletic Club elected to only invite four players, because not only didn't Sproles finish second, he was so far off the pace in fifth that they didn't deem it necessary to have him fly in. Now, I may be getting into the briar patch with this, but I do think there's a certain amount of weight we have to place on whether enough people even thought a player was worth voting for at all. In Darren's case, no matter how much we might insist he deserved to win the thing, a lot of people didn't even have him in their top three. You also hit the nail on the head as to why, as Sproles didn't produce yards in a crippling losing streak. Not his fault, I agree; not relevant to
voters, unquestionably. Bishop, at least, was in the discussion from day one to ballot day.

AhearnAlley: The Heisman's website says the award should go to "an individual who deserves designation as the most outstanding individual in the United States." Even with its unnecessary repetition and penchant for large words, that definition says nothing about playing for the best team, or winning football games, or being a household name. Over the years, though, it's become impossible to argue that those have become qualifications, and that's what hurt Darren Sproles. Bishop got plenty of deserved attention for his play, but he also got lots of attention for being the best player on the best team in the Big 12. Sproles didn't get that until it was too late.

As for those other guys who got the invite to New York, one was Eli Manning and the other was Michigan running back Chris Perry. Eli probably deserved to be there (he had a higher completion percentage and more yards per game than White) but there's no doubt his last name gave him a huge advantage. Despite scoring two more touchdowns, Perry had 32 more attempts and more than 300 fewer rushing yards than Sproles, so it's hard to imagine he got to New York based on anything else other than the name on the front of his jersey. That was pre-Appalachian State Michigan, and they made it through the regular season with a 10-2 record.

Finally, I've thought it through, and I'm going to pull it out at the risk of ridicule: Sproles beats Bishop in the Eye Test. Part of that is the fact you simply don't expect to see what he does from a guy so small, but he's always been the much more versatile player, as evidenced by his record of success in the NFL, compared to Bishop's short stint as
New England's Hail Mary Specialist.

jonfmorse: Once again, everything you say is perfectly accurate, but with the exception of their own definition none of it is exactly relevant to "who should win the Heisman". The problem is that you're now directly comparing Sproles to Bishop, and that's not a comparison you can make in terms of who should have won in either 1998 or 2003. (As such, I'm not even going to address your last paragraph, true statement though it may be.)

Sproles was, in my mind, absolutely more deserving of the award than White or Perry or Manning, so we don't even have a debate there. The question that has to be answered here is this: was Sproles more deserving than Fitzgerald, and was Bishop more deserving than Williams? If the answer to both questions is not the same answer, then we have our answer by default. If the answer to both questions is "no", then which was closer to their respective competition? If both questions are "yes", which outdistanced the competition further?

To that, I'll close my entire argument with this, then let you wrap up: I think the answer to the two questions is "I'm not sure whether Sproles or Fitzgerald deserved it more" and "Bishop should have won". As such, Bishop is the bigger snub in my mind, even if one accepts the premise that Sproles deserved to win the award more than Bishop did.

AhearnAlley: Well played, sir. I feel as if we've peeled away the layers of a figurative onions to finally get to the one central question you (correctly) asked (I believe the answer to your first two questions is yes). And yet, I still can't quite grasp the logic that brings you to your final conclusion. As you mentioned before, Ricky Williams had a phenomenal season, and it's worth mentioning that outside the K-State game he excelled on the national stage, racking up 163 yards against UCLA, 150 against a stout Nebraska defense, and 259 to beat A&M in a Thanksgiving game which saw him break multiple NCAA records, helping him leave a decidedly different final impression on voters than our Wildcat hero.*

*The Wikipedia entry on the Big 12 championship game was clearly written by a diehard K-State fan, as it doesn't even include the word "fumble" and lists only Bishop's impressive first half numbers. It also notes that KSU would win the North in 2000 and 2003 in the very first paragraph, and reminds readers that K-State was #1 in the coaches poll. I like it.

Larry Fitzgerald, by comparison, didn't break any NCAA receiving records that I'm aware of, with the exception of that amazing 18 games with a touchdown streak. In his only two games against ranked opponents, he had a rather pedestrian (by his standards) 8 catches for 108 yards against Virginia Tech and then was held to just 3 catches for 26 yards in a 14-point loss to Miami, and his 18-yard TD catch came in garbage time. That was his last game of the regular season, so not exactly a great lasting image for voters, either.

To recap, all of the guys mentioned had incredible seasons. But Williams and Sproles finished strong and played some of their best football against the big boys. Bishop and Fitzgerald faltered down the stretch, which has to count for something, though once again I still think Bishop deserved the '98 Heisman. However, now that we've got the whole picture, it seems rather clear to me that the gap between Sproles and Fitzgerald was larger than the one between Bishop and Williams.

This post was sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 13. Check out the video for the game below.

EA SPORTS NCAA Football 13 TV: "Son" (via EASPORTS)