Returning Heisman Winners And Their Season Openers

Tim Tebow was named to the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023.

Whether we call it Week Zero or Week 1A or simply fold the seven-game slate of games this Saturday into an expanded Week 1, college football season is here!

Caleb Williams and the USC Trojans are part of that first mini slate of action and he will play his first game as a Heisman Trophy winner Saturday with a 6 p.m. (PT) home date against San Jose State at the L.A. Coliseum.

He is the 17th Heisman winner to return to college for another season (including Tim Tebow, who returned for two) and the 10th in just the past 20 years.

You’re likely not on this web site if you’re not already aware that Archie Griffin is the only player to win back-to-back Heisman Trophies in 1974 and 1975. The first four to try to win two in a row were Roger Staubach in 1964, Vic Janowicz in 1951, Doak Walker in 1949 and Doc Blanchard in 1946.

Now it’s time to ask the obvious question. How have Heisman winners faired in their debut efforts AFTER joining the Heisman Fraternity.

As for Griffin, he opened up the 1975 season with 111 yards and three touchdowns in an Ohio State shutout of Michigan State. The Buckeyes wouldn’t lose another regular season game and Griffin was crowned a repeat Heisman winner.

Alabama’s Bryce Young is the latest to try for two trophies in a row in 2022 and ultimately finished sixth in Heisman voting after a strong season. Young opened his quest for a repeat by throwing for five touchdowns and rushing for 100 yards and another score as Alabama romped to a big win over Utah State.

Williams is the second Trojan to return to the Cardinal and Gold after a Heisman win, the first being Matt Leinart in 2004.

Leinart didn’t account for six scores, but he did get to open the 2005 season in Hawai’i, so bonus points for that. The top-ranked Trojans defeated the Warriors in Honolulu, 63-17, and Leinart kicked off his Heisman campaign with 332 yards passing and three scores in three quarters of action.

Prior to Young, the most recent Heisman winner to return was 2016 trophy-holder Lamar Jackson. He opened his 2017 season with 485 total yards, including two TD passes and over 100 yards rushing, leading Louisville to a Week 1 win over Purdue, 35-28. 

In 2014, 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston led top-ranked Florida State to a season-opening win over Oklahoma State, 37-31, throwing for 370 yards and a score.

Johnny Manziel played less than a half of football in his first game in 2013, but he still threw three TD passes in only eight attempts in a win over Rice.

Alabama’s first Heisman winner in 2009, Mark Ingram, missed the first two games of 2010 with a knee injury. His first carry of the season came against Duke in game 3 and he promptly broke it for a 48-yard gain en route to 151 yards and two scores in a big win over the Blue Devils.

Oklahoma 2008 winner Sam Bradford suffered a shoulder injury in the 2009 season opener, a 14-13 loss to BYU. The QB would only play in three games due to injuries that year.

2007 Heisman winner Tebow let his teammates do most of the work in the 2008 opener (also against Hawaii, albeit in Gainesville), competing nine passes for 137 yards and a score. Fun fact, 2010 Heisman winner Cam Newton saw action in that game as well in what would be his last appearance for the Gators.

Of course, Tebow also returned in 2009. His season-opening numbers in a blowout of Charleston Southern were equally modest, completing 10 passes for 188 yards and a score.

2003 Heisman winner Jason White returned to Oklahoma and led the Sooners to a spot in the BCS title game. He started the 2004 campaign by completing 21 of 31 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Bowling Green.

Ty Detmer won the 1990 Heisman at BYU and opened his 1991 season at UCLA. Although the Cougars fell to the Bruins, Detmer became the all-time NCAA passing leader in the game, breaking the record and finishing the contest with 11,606 yards. He threw for 377 yards and two scores.

Billy Sims, after winning the 1978 Heisman, opened his 1979 Heisman campaign against an Iowa team that featured eventual OU Coach Bob Stoops (who coached Bradford in 2008) as a freshman defensive back. He ran for 106 yards and two scores. He ultimately finished second in the Heisman race, the second-best finish behind Griffin among these players.

Staubach, the 1963 winner, was held to just 30 total yards by Penn State in the 1964 opener, but Navy still won, 21-8.

Woody Hayes made his Ohio State head coaching debut in 1951 with Janowicz back on offense, and the Buckeyes defeated SMU 7-0.

SMU’s 1949 season opener saw the return of Doak Walker and a 13-7 win over Wake Forest at the Cotton Bowl. 

And in 1946, Doc Blanchard was the first Heisman Trophy winner to play in a college game again as the Cadets shut out Villanova, 35-0. Blanchard accounted for one touchdown, but he was limited to first-quarter action due to an ankle injury.