Why you should care

The Big Ten Conference is pinning its Heisman hopes on an Ohio State quarterback.

Troy Smith leaned in toward the microphone, eyes downcast, wide smile fixed. “I just can’t believe this is happening,” he said. The hands that clutched both sides of the podium in front of him were the same hands that had thrown 30 touchdown passes with the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2006 season, helping Smith win the Heisman Trophy by a record voting margin that stands to this day.

It was a proud day not only for Smith and his family in attendance but also for his second family — his teammates and coaches at Ohio State University. Smith’s win marked the program’s seventh Heisman nod, a tie with Notre Dame for the most of any school. However, in the past 12 years, neither Ohio State nor its parent conference, the Big Ten, has produced another winner.

A Heisman Trophy powerhouse, with 18 wins overall, the Big Ten Conference hasn’t had a player honored with the award since 2006.

The Big Ten has historically dominated Heisman Trophy voting — thanks in large part to Ohio State’s own haul. The conference with the next-highest Heisman total is the Southeastern Conference, or SEC, at 14.

But in recent years, the SEC has risen to Heisman Trophy dominance, producing five winners since 2006. The Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference are next, with three each, and the Pac-12, with one.

What’s going on down south? Well, to start, the Heisman has become almost exclusively a passing award. In the past 12 years, only two non-quarterbacks have won: Alabama running backs Mark Ingram (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015). No defensive player has earned the honor since Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997.

When the Big Ten has seemed poised to win the award in recent years, it’s been thanks to its consistent running back talent — be it Penn State’s Saquon Barkley in 2017, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon in 2014 or Wisconsin’s Montee Ball in 2011. At 5-3 overall in 2018, Wisconsin is out of the discussion for the College Football Playoff. But the program continues to produce game-changing running backs. The Badgers’ Jonathan Taylor leads Division I FBS in rushing, with 1,155 yards and eight touchdowns. “He has a legitimate shot,” says former NFL player and Big Ten analyst Corey Wootton.

In the contemporary NCAA, the Big Ten hasn’t recruited or produced top-tier quarterback talent as well as the SEC or ACC — with some notable exceptions. The Big Ten’s Heisman drought is partially “because of the pass-happy offenses around the country,” says Wootton. “The Big Ten still has a lot of great ground-and-pound teams,” he explains, noting the conference hasn’t produced a first-round NFL quarterback since Penn State’s Kerry Collins in 1995.

But in 2018, the conference could buck that recent trend, pinning its Heisman hopes on Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, whom Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck called “one of [the best], if not the best, quarterbacks in the country.”

Thanks to its 7-1 record, Ohio State’s shot at a national title is in jeopardy. But the program’s record doesn’t overshadow Haskins, who leads all FBS quarterbacks in touchdowns (30) and is fourth in passing yards. “He’s playing lights out,” says Wootton.

After more than a decade of being on the outside looking in, the Big Ten has its best shot in years of ending its Heisman Trophy drought and reclaiming its reputation as college football’s Heisman powerhouse.

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