Two weeks before the University of Wisconsin opens its football season with a nationally televised heavyweight bout against LSU, there’s not an oversized photo of Badgers Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon anywhere to be found.
Not on that billboard on the south wall of the UW Field House like the school did for Ron Dayne in 1999. Not on the side of a city bus like it did for Montee Ball in 2012. Not even on a postcard mailed to the 1,000 or so Heisman voters.
But if the lack of an orchestrated Heisman campaign is a problem for Gordon, a top-10 candidate on almost every preseason Heisman watch list, you would never know it.
“It really doesn’t matter that much,” the UW tailback said. “If they do it, they do it. If they don’t, whatever.”
A few years ago, Gordon would have had a right to be upset over UW’s inaction. After all, one of his stated goals upon spurning the NFL draft and returning to school was to join Dayne and Alan Ameche as UW Heisman Trophy winners.
But times have changed, and Gordon has no reason to feel slighted by his own athletic department. Indeed, the Heisman campaign has gone the way of the wishbone offense in college football. It doesn’t really work anymore, so most schools have abandoned it. At least before the season.
In recent years, Heisman winners have tended to come out of the blue, a phenomenon due largely to the rapidly changing landscape in both college football and social media. Once a regional sport, college football has morphed into a national entity since the advent of the BCS. And thanks to pervasive weekly watch lists in newspapers and on websites, there is little need to introduce a candidate in August or constantly update his progress, even for those voters in out-of-the-way college towns.
Not since Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford won in 2008 has the eventual Heisman winner shown up on any preseason watch lists. The past five winners — Alabama’s Mark Ingram, Auburn’s Cam Newton, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Florida State’s Jameis Winston — weren’t on anyone’s top-10 list at the start of the season. In fact, their names never appeared in any preseason Heisman discussions.
Clearly, the road to the Heisman has changed. Instead of a school putting up a larger-than-life billboard in New York’s Times Square, as Oregon did with Joey Harrington in 2001, or changing the pronunciation of a candidate’s name to rhyme with Heisman, as Notre Dame once did with Joe Theismann, the trophy is now all about a candidate playing well in big games and being on a very good team.
A riveting performance or a signature victory can launch a candidacy much more readily than filling the email boxes of voters with spam. Look at Manziel in 2012. His campaign caught fire when he led the Aggies to a victory over No. 1 Alabama on the road.
It also helps greatly to be a quarterback and play on a team that contends for national honors. Of the past 13 winners who didn’t forfeit their trophy (sorry, Reggie Bush), 12 were quarterbacks. The only running back was Ingram in 2009.
Meanwhile, three of the past five winners played on teams that went 14-0 and won national championships. Only two Heisman winners — Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2007 and Griffin in 2011 — played on a team that won fewer than 11 games.
Just because he’s not a quarterback doesn’t mean Gordon isn’t a Heisman candidate, though. The latest Heisman odds on Bovada.com have quarterbacks in eight of the top 10 spots, with the only exceptions being Georgia running back Todd Gurley sixth and Gordon tied for seventh.
So Gordon is solidly in the mix heading into the season. The trick in the now-volatile world of Heisman voting is staying there. Every week of the season, it seems, someone wins the Heisman and someone loses it.
Unless he puts up numbers that are so spectacular they can’t be overlooked, Gordon’s candidacy will hinge on two things.
First, he has to come up big on the national stage. If he plays well against LSU, Gordon will shoot up the lists. If he doesn’t, he’ll have a long, hard comeback because UW doesn’t play nationally significant games until it meets Nebraska and Iowa in November.
“If you go out there and have a great game, it’ll definitely spring it,” Gordon said. “I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.”
Second, the Badgers have to have a good season. If they don’t win 10 games and at least get to the Big Ten Conference championship game, Gordon likely will get lost in the Heisman shuffle.
“At the end, we just want what’s best for Melvin and whatever path that takes him down,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “Hopefully, we get a team around him that can support him because he’s had a tremendous camp. You can see how that kid practices. It’s not hard to fall in love with the way he practices and his work habits and his leadership.”
But Heisman voters don’t see any of that. They only see what happens on Saturdays.
“Ultimately,” Andersen said, “it will come down to how Melvin plays on the field.”
As it should be.