Tennessee's Heisman campaign for Eric Berry is off and running, and Volunteer fans are certainly excited about it. Sure, he may deserve it over the only other truly defensive player to have won it, but does he really have a shot?
History suggests that he does not. Defensive players generally don't win the Heisman, and teams with more than a few losses generally don't produce Heisman winners. But intangibles do often come into play, and if Berry has another great season in 2009 and Tennessee is at least a little better than people think, those intangibles could brew up a perfect scenario, one in which Berry brings it home.
Obstacle #1: Defensive players don't win the Heisman
The two-platoon system didn't really show up for good until the mid-1960s, and so most Heisman winners prior to that time were, technically speaking, both offensive and defensive players. However, based on the positions of players that have won since that time -- mostly quarterbacks and running backs -- it's safe to assume that even those players were selected primarily because of what they did on the offensive side of the ball.
There's really only been one true defensive player to have won the Heisman, and Tennessee fans know all too well who that was and when it happened. Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson beat Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning by 282 points in 1997, a season in which Woodson had eight interceptions and also played a bit as receiver and punt returner.
Woodson may be the only defensive player to have won the Heisman, but several have competed for it:
The fact that a guy like Dick Butkus never finished first indicates just how difficult it is for a defense-only player to win the Heisman, but the fact that Charles Woodson did win suggests that it can be done under the right circumstances.
Obstacle #2: Heisman winners generally come from the best teams
It is very rare for a player to win the Heisman if his team plays poorly the season of his campaign. In the BCS Era, only Tim Tebow has lost more than three games and still won, and his fourth loss came in the bowl game after he'd already hauled the trophy home.
In the history of the Heisman, 15 winners played on an undefeated team, 20 winners played on teams with one loss, and 27 winners played on teams with two losses. After that, there is a huge gap. Only seven played on teams with three losses, only five played on teams with four losses, and a losing team has only produced one Heisman winner in the history of the award (Paul Hornung, Notre Dame, 2-8 in 1956). Woodson's team went undefeated in 1997.
Anyone who's ever followed the Heisman race throughout the season knows, though, that there is more to winning than what position you play, what kind of season you have, and what kind of season your team has. Some Tennessee fans will concede that part of the reason Woodson won in 1997 was because Peyton Manning just couldn't beat Florida, but all will tell you that much of the reason was because the public was just plain tired of hearing about Manning all season. In addition to the burnout factor, there seems to be a mentality among voters that winning once is enough, as Archie Griffin is the only player ever to have won the award twice. Certainly, the position one plays, the stats one compiles, and the success of the team for which one plays are the primary factors, but other, more unwieldy factors such as performances in rivalry games and public opinion and momentum come into play as well.
Eric Berry's perfect storm
Eric Berry is strictly a defensive player, and all indications are that due to the defense installing a brand new scheme, the coaches will not allow him to dabble at other positions just to improve a very remote chance of winning the Heisman Trophy. In addition, his team is coming off a 5-7 season, and most reasonable predictions put the Vols at four losses or more this season. As a defensive-only player for a four-loss team, Berry is at best a long shot to win the Heisman.
But it's not entirely out of the question. Consider the following as variables that could contribute to a perfect storm in which Berry brings home the Heisman.
- Berry is Berry. Berry is already better than the one defensive player to have won. After only two seasons, he's a mere 15 yards shy of having the record for interception return yards. He's averaged six interceptions and 243 return yards per season. It's quite possible that he could exceed Woodson's Heisman-season eight interceptions, and if he does, he can rightly lay claim not only to the NCAA record but to the fact that he's better than the only defensive player ever to win the Heisman.
- Expectations for Tennessee. History suggests that a four-loss season for Tennessee doesn't necessarily ruin a Heisman-hopeful's chances. Plus, according to the early preseason polls, many national pundits aren't even expecting that, and if Tennessee can hit that mark or even actually manage another game better than that, it will be big news that will take on its own momentum.
It's the SEC. The SEC on ESPN. Now that the SEC and ESPN have partnered up, the SEC is going to be the most heavily publicized conference in the nation, no question. It's already shown that it's the best conference in college football, having won the last three national championships. It is primarily a defensive league. Why shouldn't the best defensive player in the best conference win the award for the best player in college football when winning that conference means you must have a great defense?
- The competition. It appears that the three front-runners for this year's race are Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, and Colt McCoy. Tebow already has a Heisman, and Tebow burnout is already beginning. Sam Bradford also has a Stiff-Arm already, and he just got his last season. If Florida has a better season than Oklahoma, how do you give Bradford two and Tebow one? Colt McCoy is the biggest danger for Berry's long-shot chances, I think, but if he and/or Texas have a subpar season that includes a loss to Bradford and Oklahoma, it would lead to an interesting dilemma for voters. How could you give a Heisman to McCoy if he lost to Bradford?
- The Story. And if another defensive player is ever to win the Heisman, this year with this player for this school would make a compelling storyline that would pick up momentum as the season progresses. Twelve years ago, one of the best QBs in history lost it to a DB, and this year, a DB from the same school evens the score.
Eric Berry for Heisman? It could happen.