Yes, it’s time.

Time it is to revisit one of the most heated college football debates of the past 30 years — Peyton Manning or Charles Woodson for the 1997 Heisman Trophy?

Do Tennessee fans already have their mind made up about this subject? Does the sun set in the West? Yes and yes.

Some people clicked on this link without any intention of having a realistic discussion about this. I get that. I also get that unless this column is an overwhelming “Peyton should have won the Heisman and it wasn’t even close,” my mentions aren’t going to be pretty. That’s the kind of debate this was and is.

The goal of today’s discussion is to understand what and why we got the debate we did, and also perhaps I’ll come to a conclusion of my own.

So, yes, it’s time.

Why was/is this a debate?

This debate was unique in every way. We had a defensive player against a senior quarterback, which is atypical in itself. But in terms of star-power, there has never been a Heisman ceremony that star-studded. Woodson and Manning were the headliners who stole the show, but the fact that Randy Moss and Ryan Leaf were part of that group made it an all-time Heisman ceremony (they combined for 29 Pro Bowls and 3 no-doubt Hall of Fame inductees).

But at the time, the debate was Woodson vs. Manning. And that, my friends, was not an easy thing to break down.

If this were Manning vs. Leaf, we’re not talking about this discussion. In some ways, comparing a quarterback to a cornerback is an apples to oranges comparison. Two players in completely different regions of the country who excelled doing completely different things made this argument more subjective than others.

Separated by just 272 points, Woodson edged Manning in one of the closer races we’ve seen in the past 30 years. In a weird way, what Woodson and Manning did on the NFL only solidified the debate. Both were top-4 picks in the 1998 NFL Draft, both were yearly Pro Bowl invitees, both won a Super Bowl (Manning won 2), both retired in 2015 and both will have a bust in Canton in 2021 when they’re eligible.

This was and is a debate because accepting the fact that Manning, who was the best player in Tennessee history and was one of the best college quarterbacks ever, didn’t win a Heisman doesn’t sit right then and depending on who you ask, it doesn’t sit right now.

What people said at the time

Let me start with a plug that I used as a resource to break this down. If you haven’t, you should totally check out Chris Low’s 2017 oral history on this Heisman race. It’s awesome. He talked to everyone for it. Seriously. I’m going to cite quotes in that story several times in this section.

Manning entered the 1997 season as the prohibitive Heisman favorite. You know how that usually goes. Those players get picked apart and they rarely win the award. For Tennessee fans, the fact that Manning turned down a chance to be an obvious 1st-round pick to come back for his senior year was special. For voters, it essentially meant that Manning’s margin for error was that much slimmer.

(Steve Spurrier joked that Manning came back because he wanted to become the first SEC quarterback to ever start in 3 consecutive Citrus Bowls.)

Manning was the preseason favorite because he was returning for a team that finished in the top 10 in 1996 thanks to his banner season. But there were 2 major turning points for the Heisman race.

Turning point No. 1: The Florida game

The entire college football world knew that Manning had yet to beat Florida going into that game … and they sure as heck knew it after, too. Manning’s Vols lost in a top-4 showdown in Gainesville, which dropped his record to 0-3 against Florida.

It’s somewhat of a miracle that Manning still had 353 passing yards and 3 touchdowns that game. Florida’s defense swarmed him. Go back and watch. He was running for his life. They swarmed Manning so bad that he was forced into 2 interceptions, one of which was returned 89 yards for a touchdown by Tony George. In Low’s piece, George admitted 20 years later it was “bittersweet” that his interception sort of screwed Manning out of the Heisman.

But at the time, there wasn’t the feeling that Manning had lost the award. It was, however, a demerit that opened the door for someone else to emerge.

Turning point No. 2: Woodson erupts against Michigan State

How does a defensive player assert himself as a serious Heisman contender? He does what Woodson did against Michigan State. Woodson had 2 interceptions in a 23-7 win at No. 15 Michigan State, who was coached by a certain Nick Saban. It wasn’t just the numbers, though. Woodson made a 1-handed interception for the ages:

To this day, I don’t know if I’ve seen a more physically impressive interception than that. Unreal.

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said that if people didn’t think Woodson was a serious Heisman contender then, that day proved he was for real. Manning’s former Tennessee teammates and even Spurrier pointed to that game was the beginning of the media making the case for Woodson.

From that point on, there was a popular question that kept surfacing — could a defensive player really win the Heisman? It was a fair question considering we had seen just 4 defensive players finish in the top 4 of the Heisman vote in the previous 30 years. Only one of them (Hugh Green in 1980) finished in the top 2 and if we’re being honest, a certain Georgia freshman named “Herschel Walker” was more deserving of that finish.

So yeah, people started to discuss if Woodson was going to be the first primarily defensive player ever to win the Heisman. That prompted the “well, actually” crowd.

Well, actually, Woodson wasn’t just a defensive player. He played receiver, he ran jet sweeps, he returned punts and he even completed a 28-yard pass against Wisconsin.

At the time of the Heisman voting, Woodson’s numbers were:

  • 44 tackles
  • 7 interceptions
  • 4 tackles for loss
  • 1 sack
  • 11 catches for 231 yards and 2 TDs
  • 3 rushes for 15 yards and 1 TD
  • 1 punt return TD
  • 28 passing yards

Woodson, in every way, was a football player. To simply call him a cornerback didn’t feel right. Legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson was quoted in Low’s story as saying “he was the most impactful player in college football, and that’s why I voted for him.” Jackson did that after calling Woodson’s final pre-Heisman game … and after he called Manning’s win against Auburn in the SEC Championship.

What did Woodson do against the No. 4 Buckeyes with Michigan vying for its first national title in 49 years? He went off. He intercepted a pass, he returned a punt for a touchdown and he even had a 37-yard grab to set up a Michigan touchdown, all of which led to a 20-14, Rose Bowl-clinching victory.

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said before the Ohio State game, he thought Manning had the award locked up, but that Woodson’s performance would at least make it closer. It turned out to be the exact closing argument that he needed. It didn’t matter that Manning won 2 games after Woodson’s finale, including a 30-29 win against Auburn in the SEC Championship.

Apparently the hay was already in the barn for Woodson, not Manning.

The feeling, however, was still that Manning would win. His Tennessee teammates had a watch party for the ceremony and didn’t even consider the possibility of him not winning. Moss assumed it was Manning’s award even when they were in New York, though he thought Woodson deserved it.

It was actually Moss who nudged Woodson after the announcement came in:

As you can see from that video, there’s still such a divide. Guys like Moss and Ed Reed both believed the award should have gone to Woodson. Reed actually said Woodson deserved it because “he didn’t need his teammates” like Manning (one could argue that defensive linemen getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks helped Woodson make an interception or 2).

But in Tennessee and in many places across the South, Manning’s loss was met with disbelief. Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist said that “the award had been diminished.” Tennessee fans still call it the “Heistman” Trophy and claim like Paul Finebaum, that the award lost its legitimacy when Manning didn’t win it.

This quote in Low’s piece from former Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Teague said it all:

“We were well-stocked, food- and drink-wise (back at Tennessee). It never crossed my mind, not for one second, that he wasn’t going to win. We were just there to watch him get it. It was a party. When it went down, it was just a stunned silence. A few guys stood up and threw something. But, really, it was just kind of quiet.”

Interestingly enough, Manning didn’t publicly share that sentiment. He said that he was “relieved” when it was finally over after hearing about it non-stop for 10 months.

The guy who many thought was a lock to become Tennessee’s first Heisman winner was, as Vols fans said, robbed by Woodson. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Tennessee fan today who wouldn’t argue that Woodson stole the Heisman from Manning.

The worst take you can have about this debate

There are a few.

“Peyton deserved it for what he did in his entire career.”

The Heisman, in its current format, is not a lifetime achievement award (my idea for a “Decade Heisman” would have eventually rewarded Manning). We blame voters when they do that, so to make an exception for Manning on that premise wouldn’t have made sense.

What didn’t sit right with the pro-Manning crowd was that he finished in the top 8 of the Heisman voting 3 times, yet he never won the award. It’s a bummer. It really is. But if we made the Heisman strictly a lifetime achievement award, we might as well say that no freshmen or sophomores should win — which was unofficially said until Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win it in 2007 — and that individual seasons don’t matter.

If you’re going to argue that voters shouldn’t have held Manning’s 0-3 Florida mark against him and that the 1997 game was the only one that mattered there, you can’t then turn around and say he deserved it for what he did over the course of his career.

Should the Heisman committee have at least 5 players at the ceremony every year and give a couple upperclassmen that opportunity regardless of if they have a legitimate chance to win the award? Yes. In my opinion, watching guys like Jonathan Taylor never even get invited seems odd. But winning the award is not supposed to be about career stats.

Another bad take?

“What happened in the bowl game confirmed that Manning didn’t deserve to win.”

Again, that’s dumb because the voting all takes place before the bowl games. In the same way that what happens in a player’s NFL career shouldn’t be used to determine whether a player deserved to win a college award, neither should the bowl game.

Manning’s Vols got blown out by Nebraska while Woodson’s Wolverines beat Washington State and earned a shared national title. That matters for their overall legacy, of course, but it doesn’t matter to me when it comes to the Heisman.

Oh, and 1 last bad take.

“Tennessee winning the 1998 National Championship after Manning left showed he wasn’t as valuable as we thought.”

Woof, do I hate that take. It plays on Bill Simmons’ belief of “The Ewing Theory.” That is, when a team gets immediately better and plays for a championship after the franchise player leaves. It happened to the Washington Nationals with Bryce Harper last year, too.

Why I hate using that logic to form some anti-Manning narrative is because it ignores the fact that the Vols used the doubt surrounding the program in the post-Manning era to fuel that “us against the world” mantra. Cliché? Absolutely. But is it crazy to think that a preseason top-10 team just needed a little kick in the pants to truly reach new heights? Not at all.

Don’t use those takes. They’re all awful.

Thing I didn’t know/forgot about until revisiting this debate

How do I phrase this in a way that doesn’t sound stereotypical … thinking, thinking, thinking. Ok, I’ve got it.

Peyton could scoot!

I forgot that Manning had 12 rushing touchdowns in college. I say that not because my most recent memory of him was as a statue-esque quarterback in his mid-30s, but because I don’t even remember thinking in his early years with the Colts that he was particularly mobile (he had 9 rushing touchdowns in his last 12 years in the NFL).

I’m not saying Manning was Michael Vick, but he ran that naked bootleg extremely well. And while he might not have been the most fleet of foot, he made a ton of plays outside the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. We remember Manning as this pocket passer who was as good as there was at going through his progressions, which he was. But his footwork and the things he did just to get some throws off was incredible.

Neither Manning’s skills, nor loyalty to Tennessee were never in question. Woodson is a God in Ann Arbor, but I forgot the story of how he almost left Michigan for Miami. That’s right. He explained it a few years ago on “The Rich Eisen Show.”

Here’s what happened (I wrote about this a few years ago on our Big Ten site.)

Woodson told a Michigan trainer the week before the Ohio State game in 1996 that his back was tight. The Michigan trainer gave him a pain pill and told him not to worry about practicing.

Lloyd Carr, whoever, was not made aware of this.

When Woodson showed up at practice in his school clothes, he made him get his practice gear on. That day, Carr called Woodson over 3 different times to tell him to focus. Woodson said that he was focused, he was just laughing with his teammates. Carr then apparently said that if Woodson didn’t like it that way, he could leave.

So he did. He walked all the way back to the dorm room and told himself something that would’ve shocked the college football world.

“Man,” Woodson said. “I’m transferring. I’m outta here.”

It gets more interesting.

Woodson met with some teammates later that day and what did they talk about? Transferring to Miami (FL). He said that they were all on board, too.

But fortunately for Michigan fans, they didn’t.

Woodson got his mom on the phone, and she set him straight. But think about that. Woodson, had he transferred, wouldn’t have even been eligible in 1997 because of NCAA rules.

Crazy thought.

Where do I stand on the debate?

I want to make 2 things clear.

One is that I have always rooted for Woodson and Manning. I had a Woodson Raiders jersey back in the day that I wore in middle school. A lot. I was also a Manning fan. I interned with the Colts — of course it was in 2011 when he was injured and they didn’t have Andrew Luck yet — and probably watched Manning play more than any other quarterback on this planet because of his games always being on CBS.

The other thing is that I have no personal rooting interest for or against Michigan/Tennessee.

Why do I say that? Because if I had a vote, I would have agonized … but I would have given it to Woodson.

Before you blast me, Tennessee fans, hear me out (those of you who didn’t click off this immediately). What more could you have wanted a defensive player to do than what Woodson did? It wasn’t just that he was the do-it-all, throwback player.

A few things swayed me on this. One of which was the quality of opponents. In the 5 matchups against ranked teams that Michigan had (in the final 6 games), Woodson had 4 interceptions, 5 catches for 101 yards and a receiving touchdown, plus that punt return touchdown against Ohio State. It wasn’t just what he did against the Buckeyes, though my goodness, it’s hard to ask a player to do more with so much on the line.

Woodson was as clutch a player as there was, and he was the driving force behind the nation’s No. 1 defense. That group allowed just 8.9 points per game (No. 1 in FBS), 206.9 yards per game (No. 1 in FBS), 4.37 yards per pass attempt (No. 1 in FBS) and just 4 passing touchdowns all year (No. 1 in FBS). Against the 5 top-15 teams they faced, they allowed just 11 points per game.

Oh, and another thing that needs to be brought up. Do you think Woodson was surrounded by NFL talent? Nope. On that defense, only 2 other players were drafted the following 2 years — 4th-round defensive tackle Glen Steele in 1998 and 6th-round cornerback Andre Weathers in 1999. That’s it.

If you don’t give it to Woodson, let’s just eliminate defensive players altogether. The guy didn’t have a knock on his résumé.

Manning’s season was exceptional, but was it something that was unprecedented? No. While I agree that numbers don’t tell the full story with his greatness — I’m not convinced we’ve ever seen better mechanics from a college quarterback — these weren’t “lock the Heisman and throw away the key” stats:

  • 36 passing TDs (No. 3), 11 INTs
  • 3,819 passing yards (No. 4)
  • 147.7 QB rating (No. 15)
  • 60.2% passer (No. 21)
  • 8 yards/attempt (No. 22)

Tennessee had the No. 14 scoring offense, too. And against top-25 teams, Manning completed 64% of his passes for 7.9 yards per attempt with a 15-5 TD-INT ratio. Solid? Sure. But good enough to be the slam-dunk winner? Not for my money.

Is this a slam dunk if Manning beats Florida? Yes, in my opinion. But he didn’t. Woodson did everything a player could have done when his team needed it, and then some. Manning still had that hurdle that he couldn’t clear. Is that everything? No, but it’s part of it.

The big thing for me is I tend to get frustrated with the lack of flexibility from voters. When Troy Smith won the Heisman in 2006, it felt lazy. Like, had they broke down Darren McFadden’s case more, they would have realized that he was a far more impactful player. I like that the voters said in 1997, “you know what? Why don’t we reward someone who has truly embodied what it means to be a football player.”

This wasn’t just a regional, narrative-driven award. Woodson won in 5 of the 6 regions, with the exception being the South. There wasn’t a conspiracy to take the Heisman away from Manning. It was a belief that Woodson did something we hadn’t seen in the modern era, and did so at such a high level. He deserved everything he got that year.

On the flip side, I don’t have a problem with anyone who voted for Manning. This was a year of personal preference unlike any other. I totally understand why Tennessee fans felt like their guy was robbed. I would, too.

But there’s a reason we’ve never seen a player repeat Woodson’s year. Quite frankly, I’m not sure that we ever will.

Dare I say — Heisman voters weren’t that crazy in 1997.