BY Steve Rudman 10:14PM 08/29/2010

No Win Saturday, No Heisman

History works against Heisman hopefuls who lose on Opening Day

The University of Washington is spending considerable coin touting quarterback Jake Locker as a Heisman Trophy candidate. A few weeks ago, the Huskies flew Locker east to meet with national media mavens, including representatives of ESPN, which influences the Heisman Trophy vote to a far greater degree than any other media entity.

A player of bountiful skills, both as a passer and a runner, Locker might indeed be the best college football player in the country. He is already being touted as the first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and will certainly wind up among the top 10 selections, barring an injury or unexpected pratfall.

But if the Huskies do not dispatch Brigham Young in their season opener on Saturday in Provo, UT — the Cougars have been installed as 3 1/2-point favorites — Locker can practically wave the Heisman goodbye.

In the modern era of the Heisman, which is to say the two-decade span of Heisman hype that coincides with ESPN making the award a garish TV production (since 1990), no player has won the Heisman Trophy if his team lost its opening game of the season.

Every Heisman winner’s team in this decade went 1-0 to start the season. Every Heisman winner’s team in the 1990s went unscathed in its season opener. The same is true for the 1980s.

In fact, no quarterback whose team lost its opener has won the Heisman in more than 50 years. And no player other than a quarterback whose team lost its opener has won the Heisman in 38 years.

You have to plod all the way back to 1972 to find an eventual Heisman winner whose team lost its lid litfter. That year, Johnny Rogers and Nebraska fell to UCLA by three points on the road to open the season. Didn’t seem matter to ESPN-less Heisman voters. Nebraska went undefeated the rest of the way and clobbered Oklahoma in one of the most famous Orange Bowls on record, with Rogers starring.

Since New York’s Downtown Athletic Club bestowed its first Heisman on Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago in 1935, only three other soon-to-be anointed Heisman winners have played on an team that failed to win its season opener – Vic Janowicz of Ohio State in 1950, Dick Kazmaier of Princeton in 1951 and Paul Hornung of Notre Dame in 1956.

Hornung is the only player in Heisman history to play on a losing team – the Irish went 2-8 – and still win the Heisman. But, of course, Hornung played at Notre Dame at a time when Grantland Rice still mattered and playing in South Bend meant a lot more than it does today.

What counts today is not so much the greatness of an individual player, but in identifying the player most responsible for the best team’s success, not really a brain-cramp assignment. That’s the recent Heisman tilt. In this decade, the Heisman has gone to an individual whose team played in the BCS Championship game seven out of 10 times.

ESPN factors heavily into the Heisman outcome. As the greatest influencer of Heisman voting, the cable network favors players to promote for the award who hail from the conferences with which the network has contractual arrangements. ESPN has no financial stake in the Pac-10.

Even if Locker makes collective jaws drop this season, as we suspect he will, he will do so in a conference largely ignored by ESPN.

Keep in mind that the greatest player in Husky history – DT Steve Emtman – could do no better than fourth in Heisman voting. The best offensive player in Husky history – Hugh McElhenny – finished eighth in the vote in his senior year (1951).

Also keep in mind that the Huskies must win early and often for Locker to have a shot at the award. If UW loses two or three games (and the Huskies are picked to finish sixth in the Pac-10), Locker has no chance at a Heisman, no matter how well he plays, or regardless of his impending draft status.

More simply, if UW drops its opener, as we have seen, Locker is probably out of the Heisman chase.


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