Debates Down South: Should Darren McFadden have won a Heisman Trophy?
Ask any Arkansas fan and they’ll already have the answer to the question — should Darren McFadden have won a Heisman Trophy?
Um, does a big bag of a flour make a big biscuit? Yes.
That, however, didn’t matter to the Heisman voters when McFadden was the runner-up in 2006 and 2007. No player in nearly 60 years finished runner-up in consecutive seasons. Yet still, when McFadden decided to leave Arkansas a year early for the NFL, he left knowing that he’d never get to hoist the Heisman Trophy.
The goal today is to take a deeper look at that. I’ll break down the 2006 race that saw him lose to Troy Smith, as well as the 2007 race that McFadden lost to Tim Tebow. Each debate is one that’s been had at many a family gathering/cookout/barber shop/gas station across the South the last decade-plus.
So, let’s dig into this.
Why was/is this a debate?
It seems odd that someone so prolific — he’s 3rd in SEC rushing all-time and 2nd to Herschel Walker among 3-year players — never got the sport’s top individual honor. McFadden is, by any measurement, one of college football’s top players of the 21st century.
The interesting thing is that at the time, McFadden’s 2006 argument for why he should have won instead of Smith was relatively quiet, and it picked up steam over the years. Meanwhile, McFadden’s 2007 argument for why should have won instead of Tebow was a down-to-the-wire decision.
Just so that we don’t get confused, I’m going to try to separate the years because McFadden’s 2006 season shouldn’t have made a difference in his 2007 candidacy. They’re separate arguments and have to be treated as such. The 2007 voters would have been foolish to give McFadden the honor if their argument was based on some sort of “lifetime achievement” deal.
Let’s start with why the 2006 Heisman wasn’t a debate then, but it is now.
That year, at the time of the Heisman ceremony, totally belonged to Ohio State. The Buckeyes started the year at No. 1, and they clinched a 12-0 start by beating No. 2 Michigan in what was dubbed “The Game of the Century.” Smith, who was the senior quarterback on that undefeated team, lit up Michigan for 316 yards and 4 touchdowns. It was a Heisman moment if there ever were one.
McFadden, on the other hand, played in 2 games after Smith’s final pre-Heisman ceremony game, and Arkansas lost both. That included an SEC Championship defeat against Florida. If McFadden were going to become the first sophomore to win the award, he needed a louder finish than that.
Not surprisingly, Smith set a Heisman record with 91.6% of the votes, and he had the 2nd-largest margin of victory in the history of the award.
Easy enough, right?
That’s why there wasn’t a debate then. At the time, public support was overwhelmingly on Smith’s side. It wasn’t until people (at least for non-Arkansas fans) took a step back and realized we might have dismissed McFadden’s case too soon.
For what it’s worth, public perception on Smith changed when he was demolished by Florida in the National Championship. He was held to 4-of-14 passing for 35 yards and an interception while getting sacked 5 times in a blowout loss … to the same Florida team that played a far more competitive game against Arkansas in the SEC Championship. Again, that was after the voting so it was a moot point, but it did at least make some (myself included) take a closer look at the Smith vs. McFadden discussion.
Smith’s case aged worse than an avocado. Just look at the raw pre-Heisman numbers (amount of QBs who reached that mark in the 2019 season):
- 67% passing (12)
- 30 TD passes (16)
- 2,507 passing yards (65)
- 233 rushing yards (74)
But even at the time, Smith wasn’t in the top 5 in any major statistical category. Well, other than wins. Smith was a non-running quarterback who didn’t have a 300-yard passing game until that regular-season finale against Michigan, and he was the second-most lopsided Heisman winner ever! Crazy.
Let’s get back to McFadden.
At the time of the voting, he had 1,809 yards from scrimmage (that includes his passing numbers out of the Wild Hog). His 2006 numbers aged far better than an avocado, as many Arkansas fans know. Compare his year to how that stacks up now (amount of RBs who reached that mark before Heisman voting in the 2019 season):
- 1,588 rushing yards (7)
- 14 rushing TDs (18)
The difference is that only 4 Power 5 backs in 2019 had McFadden’s pre-Heisman rushing total and only 8 had at least 14 pre-Heisman rushing scores.
Another thing that aged poorly? The unofficial ban on sophomores winning the award. At that point, McFadden tried to become the first sophomore to win the honor. A year later, Tim Tebow became the 1st of 3 consecutive sophomores to claim the Heisman; 6 of the past 13 winners (nearly half) were sophomores or younger.
Speaking of that …
Tebow’s 2007 Heisman marked the first time a sophomore ever won the Heisman. But at the time, it was a much closer race with McFadden. Tebow won by 254 total votes, but in combined 1st and 2nd-place votes, Tebow held a 691-646 advantage.
It was a debate then because Tebow set the SEC single-season touchdowns record by hitting that elusive 50-score mark while McFadden was widely considered the top returning player in America, and all he did was improve on his 2006 season. McFadden didn’t have to battle the quarterback on an undefeated team like he did with Smith because Tebow’s Gators were just 9-3.
Complicating matters then was that unlike in 2006 when he Arkansas struggled down the stretch, McFadden had a Heisman moment in the regular-season finale by leading the unranked Hogs to a win at No. 1 LSU. So why didn’t McFadden get the same treatment that Smith got for his pre-Heisman game? In Tebow’s final 4 pre-Heisman games, he racked up 1,460 yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns for a Florida team that averaged 51 points during a 4-0 finish (which all came vs. unranked teams).
It was a healthy debate then that created plenty of reactions. It’s still a debate because McFadden’s numbers held up well over time. Compare what he did (pre-Heisman) to other Heisman-winning tailbacks in the 21st century like Reggie Bush, Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry.
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If you average out the pre-Heisman numbers for Henry, Bush and Ingram, it’s 1,996 yards and 19 touchdowns. That’s almost identical to the 2,012 yards and 20 scores that McFadden had.
We look at that on the surface and say, yeah, McFadden was absolutely good enough to be in that group. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t competing against that group. He was competing against Tebow, who changed our thinking about quarterbacks.
More on that later.
What people said at the time
Man, there were some takes.
There was allegedly a “Pardon The Interruption” episode during the 2006 season in which Tony Kornheiser said that Brady Quinn deserved the Heisman and that he had “never heard of” McFadden (my SDS podcast co-host Chris Marler said he remembers that, and his word will have to do because I couldn’t find any audio of this insane statement).
In 2006, the overwhelming feeling was that Smith’s Michigan game clinched the Heisman. Teammates and Jim Tressel all campaigned for him and said that the game definitely proved he was “the best player in college football.” Keep in mind, that was said before McFadden played his final 2 pre-Heisman games.
There were plenty of people who crowned Smith’s career day, and said that Heisman was inevitable … including McFadden himself! In a Tampa Bay Times article that ran right before the Heisman ceremony, McFadden said that the honor belonged to Smith.
“Troy is a great player, so I feel like he deserves it,” McFadden said. “I’m going to cheer for him.”
McFadden also said how he was still in shock just to be in New York, and that he was surprised he was standing between guys like Quinn and Smith after his late-season run caught national attention.
Would the humble McFadden take that quote back if he could? Maybe or maybe not, but it does speak to the nature of him in this “just happy to be there” mindset with Smith inevitably set to win the honor.
As for 2007, a few things stood out when looking back at the conversation some had.
Unlike the previous year, McFadden didn’t sneak up on people. He came into the year as the best player in college football. And in atypical fashion, McFadden was one of the few players who lived up to the hype.
But even heading into that regular-season finale against LSU, it was interesting hearing someone like Archie Manning talk about McFadden on the CBS pregame show that day. There’s a clip of Manning waving his Heisman ballot (it actually looked legit) saying that the LSU game was going to be a major factor in determining whether McFadden should win the honor … but then Manning also said “he’s got 4 losses. That’s gonna go against him.”
(I’ll get to more on that in a bit.)
Manning added that Felix Jones had 1,000 yards and was a star in his own right, which was considered part of McFadden’s candidacy. The weird thing is that 2 years prior to that, Bush wasn’t punished for playing in a backfield with LenDale White, AKA the guy who had over 1,500 scrimmage yards and a whopping 26 touchdowns during Bush’s 2005 Heisman season.
It seemed like, at least looking back now, that McFadden was nitpicked to death. Take this column written after the regular season by Bleacher Report co-founder Zander Freund titled “why Arkansas’ Darren McFadden does not deserve to win the Heisman.” His argument was:
- The losses
- 9 of the last 10 winners played for a conference title
- McFadden was “limited” that year
Uh, at the time of the voting, McFadden had 351 touches for 2,295 yards (including kick returns) and 20 total touchdowns. That’s not “limited.”
Imagine writing that 3 days after watching what McFadden did to beat No. 1 LSU in Death Valley. That is, rack up 240 scrimmage yards and total 4 touchdowns (3 rushing, 1 passing). Hey, at least Houston Nutt knew what was up (sound on):
“We got that wood,” revisited: What Darren McFadden remembers about that moment after a triple-overtime win at No. 1 LSU pic.twitter.com/x7oKHadVaF
— Bo Mattingly (@SportandStoryBo) January 7, 2019
Color me shocked that Mark May and Lou Holtz were out of touch.
That game made 2007 such a close race, and understandably so. Unlike in 2006, McFadden’s closing argument was as strong as it could have been. The problem was, he went against Tebow, who had just rewritten the record books. Perhaps his losses (3) prevented him from running away with it.
Or, as McFadden knew all too well, maybe Tebow’s sophomore status was a key deterrent in him waltzing to a Heisman. Urban Meyer even told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel in the lobby prior to the Heisman announcement that he was unsure about whether Tebow would win “because of the sophomore thing.”
What a weird, dumb precedent we once set.
The worst take you can have about this debate
I’ll be honest. I think we already got that courtesy of Bleacher Report.
But for now, just focus on the 2006 race with Smith and McFadden. The worst take is one that I was admittedly guilty of having at the time.
“Troy Smith deserved to win the 2006 Heisman because of what he did against Michigan.”
I’m going to make a comparison and I want you to stick with me. For all of my fellow true crime podcast listeners, this will be right up your alley. For the rest of you, well, just trust me.
This is like when the police are investigating a murder. They have a dead woman, and they also have a divorced husband who, by all accounts from members of the woman’s family, was not over the breakup. He also doesn’t have an alibi for where he was the night that the murder occurred. He’s an easy suspect for the police to build a case against. Maybe he’s even awkward in the interview with them. The police make an arrest because they believe they have their guy.
Here’s the problem, though. They don’t have any DNA connecting the divorced husband to the crime. They don’t even have a weapon, or any legitimate motive other than “he was upset that they weren’t together anymore.” The police only followed those initial leads, and they built a strong case against him. Once he was awkward in the interview without an alibi, it confirmed their suspicions and they didn’t look back.
Is that really enough evidence to convict him of murder? Or was that just an easy narrative to follow that would prevent them from having to start from scratch?
That’s kind of how I felt voters reacted to Smith after the Michigan game.
For what it’s worth, that was by no means my way of bashing the criminal justice system in our country. I do, however, think that like in most forms of life, shortcuts happen and they can be costly. If you took the shortcut of believing that Smith was easily the best player in college football after the Michigan game, I fear that you didn’t look closer at the scene of the crime. Er, Smith’s résumé.
You missed how Michigan marked only the 2nd top-20 defense he faced all year, and he was awful in the other instance against Penn State. On that day, Smith was 12-of-22 for 115 yards with 1 TD pass and 2 interceptions, and 3 rushes for 18 yards. But the Buckeyes’ defense played at an all-world level that day — as it did for most of the year with the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense — and had a pair of pick-6s in a 21-point 4th quarter to run away with the win. Antonio Pittman’s 124 rushing yards and a score also helped Ohio State overcome Smith’s struggles.
Smith was the default suspect because he (usually) made throws when he needed to, and he was the unquestioned leader of the dominant No. 1 team in America. It didn’t matter that he never hit 50 rushing yards vs. a Power 5 team that year, or that the Michigan game was just his first 300-yard passing game of the year (I said that earlier but I still can’t get over it).
Had the police taken a closer look at another suspect (McFadden), they would have seen that in his 4 games against top-20 defenses, he averaged 126.3 yards from scrimmage. Those who were convinced that Smith was the guy because of his role in winning the “game of the century” probably didn’t care to see the following week when McFadden had 222 yards from scrimmage to LSU. Or they did and they said “well McFadden’s team lost so obviously he can’t win now.”
Yes, because it was totally McFadden’s fault that after he ripped off an 80-yard touchdown in that game to get Arkansas within 5, LSU took the ensuing kickoff back for a 92-yard score to essentially put the game away. Right.
That leads me into the worst take to have about the 2007 race.
“McFadden’s losses should have prevented him from winning the Heisman.”
I understand you can’t play on a crappy team and just rack up stats en route to the Heisman. There has to be some sort of a cutoff. Apparently that year, it was at 3 losses. Why do I know that? Well, Tebow had 3 losses to McFadden’s 4.
What was the difference between 3 and 4 losses, you ask? I don’t know. McFadden played in the Cotton Bowl for No. 24 Arkansas while Tebow played in the Capital One Bowl for No. 9 Florida. They never played head-to-head, and in terms of common opponents — they actually had 7 — Florida had a +1 advantage on Arkansas, though the Hogs did win at eventual-national champ LSU while the Gators lost there in a classic showdown. Florida was 2-2 vs. Top 25 teams and Arkansas was 2-3 vs. Top 25 teams.
In other words, the team success of each program really wasn’t that different. We’ve seen running backs on non-national title teams win the award. Ricky Williams was on an 8-3 Texas team when he won the 1998 Heisman. Ron Dayne and Barry Sanders both had multiple losses and were out of the national title hunt before they won their respective Heismans.
And here’s what nobody really brought up when talking about Arkansas’ losses hurting McFadden — he averaged 144 yards from scrimmage in those games. Meanwhile, the Hogs’ woeful passing game averaged 148.5 yards and 5.7 yards per attempt in those losses. Oh, and Arkansas had a pedestrian No. 55 scoring defense. Call me crazy, but McFadden doesn’t seem like the reason Arkansas lost 4 games.
Thing I didn’t know/forgot until revisiting this debate
One, I can’t believe it was only 13 years ago that we were still figuring out of we could really decided that a — dare I say — sophomore could be named the best player in America. That’s like when you find out that Ireland finally decided divorce was legal in 1995.
I always knew this was a thing that held back guys like Herschel Walker early in his career. But I usually associated that as a trend from before I was born (1990) and not something that existed when I was a senior in high school (2007). The ESPN quote from Meyer about “the sophomore thing” just blew me away. It was a major hurdle to get over, and from the sound of it, McFadden really didn’t feel like he was robbed as a sophomore in 2006.
Another thing I was reminded of? That Gus Malzahn went from legendary high school coach to the Razorbacks first-year offensive coordinator back in 2006 when the Wild Hog was born. If you didn’t come to the edge of your seat when McFadden set up for a pass out of that formation, you weren’t human:
Was it a fad offense that eventually defenses caught up to? Absolutely. Would I have loved a scenario in which Malzahn came to Arkansas instead of Chad Morris in 2018 and we could’ve seen him run some modern variation on the Wild Hog? You bet.
Where do I stand on the debate?
By now, you can probably figure out where I stand on this — McFadden deserved to win the 2006 Heisman.
I say that despite having very distinct memories of watching Smith light up Michigan at my buddy’s house while playing poker and thinking, “just give him the Heisman now.” I may or may not have but definitely did bet $20 on Ohio State to beat Florida in the national championship, which was far more money than I should have risked as a high school senior.
If we actually looked at McFadden’s entire body of work from that 2006 season, we would have seen that surpassing 1,800 scrimmage yards and doing all the different things he was asked to do in that offense, McFadden was college football’s best player. We wouldn’t have been consumed by the fact that in between the Michigan-Ohio State game and the Heisman ceremony, McFadden’s team lost twice. We would have instead looked at the fact that he averaged 162 scrimmage yards in those games, and the Hogs would have been a vastly different team without McFadden.
Smith was really solid that year, but would Ohio State really have been a much different team with someone else at quarterback? Ohio State was No. 45 in the country in passing with a quarterback who finished the year with 204 rushing yards.
I’d like to think that if the same race happened now, we’d take a closer look at it. I’m not convinced we would, but I am convinced that there’s no chance Smith rolls to the 2nd-most lopsided Heisman win ever if this plays out in 2020.
There are some Arkansas fans in 2020 who I’ve seen say that McFadden should have won 2 Heismans. I’ll be honest, I sort of rolled my eyes at that before I really dug into this. My lazy response was, “that’s such a homer take.”
I’ll tell you what. It’s not totally crazy. I could make a strong argument that the 2007 Heisman should have gone to McFadden, too. Some would argue that the LSU game should have been the “Heisman moment,” especially when Tebow lost there earlier in the year. I’m not particularly crazy about that because then it factors team success a bit too much, and it also magnifies 1 specific game when we should be looking at the entire body of work.
To surpass 2,000 scrimmage yards with 20 touchdowns (at the time of the voting) is nothing short of ridiculous. Not even Herschel Walker did that (he only had 11 games instead of 12 and came 25 yards short). Against that competition, that was no small feat. The fact that McFadden’s year held up so well compared to the likes of Bush, Ingram and Henry certainly helped his case over time.
But I’d still give a tiny, tiny edge to Tebow.
That’s not just because “I can’t imagine a world in which Tebow never won the Heisman.” The 50-touchdown thing was incredible. He changed the way we thought about the quarterback position with what he did that year. Tebow becoming the first FBS player to ever run and pass for 20 touchdowns apiece was an incredible accomplishment, especially to do so in a year in which the SEC had 5 teams finish in the top 15, including the national champion.
Tebow would have gotten my vote then, and he’d get it now, but not until I went through a painstaking process of second-guessing myself (which is what I did). For my money, it’s truly one of the best Heisman debates of the 21st century.
At least it aged far better than the non-debate of the 2006 race.