Gotta Start Somewhere – Season-Opening Efforts From Some Of Our Heisman Winners

The 2021 college football season is well under way and we haven’t reached the official Week 1 Saturday yet, set for Sept. 4.

Heisman hopefuls dot the collegiate landscape. We tend to remember their fantastic finishes, but what about their starts.

Continuing the theme of our last post detailing the earliest starts of Heisman-winning seasons — the earliest of which belongs to Eric Crouch for his Aug. 25, 2001 opener — here are a few noteworthy performances from Heisman winners in their first games of their trophy season.

Only two began when most teams will begin this year, on Sept. 4. Ron Dayne started his Heisman campaign on that date in 1999, rushing for 135 yards on 20 carries against Murray State, his three rushing TDs the second-highest total of his year.

Eleven years later, Cam Newton made his debut as an Auburn Tiger on Sept. 4, 2010, throwing for 186 yards on just 9-of-14 passing and three TDs while also running for 171 yards and two more scores, catching the nation’s attention. It was one of six 100-yard rushing games, all of which saw him go for 151 yards or more.

Lamar Jackson posted an eye-popping eight TDs in his 2016 opener, throwing for six (with 286 yards passing) and running for two (with 119 yards rushing) while leading Louisville to a 70-14 rout of Charlotte.

In 2013, a redshirt freshman Jameis Winston took over a Monday night match-up by debuting with a 25-of-27 passing performance (92.5%) with four TDs and one rushing score in Florida State’s 41-13 road win over Pitt.

Barry Sanders got off to a fast start in 1988, rushing for 178 yards on a season-low 18 carries, scoring three times on the ground to go with a kickoff return for a score in a 52-20 win over Miami (Ohio).

In 1985, Bo Jackson kicked off his Heisman season for Auburn with a monster effort against Louisiana-Lafayette, barreling for a season bests of 290 yards and four TDs, averaging 12.6 yards per carry.

Some games were modest. Charles White’s 1979 start saw him get banged up in the opener, going for only 39 yards while leaving the game early and missing the next week as well. But, he ran for at least 142 yards in each game after that.

Archie Griffin rushed for 133 yards and a score to start his 1974 season in a win at Minnesota while, a later later, in a win at Michigan State, he clamored for 111 yards and three rushing TDs.

UCLA’s Gary Beban made a big splash to open the 1967 season, leading the Bruins to a 20-16 win over No. 2 Tennessee. He ran for 72 yards and two scores (his second-most yards of the season) while throwing for 107 yards.

Steve Spurrier, in 1966, opened his season with 222 yards passing and three TDs in a win over Northwestern. How does that stack up against fellow Gator QBs in their Heisman openers? Danny Wuerffel threw for 224 yards in his 1996 opener and one score in a win over SW Louisiana while Tim Tebow, in 2007, passed for 300 yards, three TDs and ran for one more in a victory over Western Kentucky.

In 1952, Oklahoma opened the season with a 21-21 tie at Colorado. QB Billy Vessels rushed for 110 yards and two scores, to go with a modest 1-of-3 passing.

Notre Dame’s Johnny Lujack opened his 1947 Heisman year with three TD passes in a 40-6 road romp over Pitt. And in our earliest lookback, Davey O’Brien directed TCU in its 1938 opener to a 13-0 win over Centenary with 228 passing yards and a score.

Time will tell which game of the 2021 season we will look at for comparison.