FOOTBALL

Snubbed?! Yes, but Hendon Hooker's Heisman Trophy finalist omission is no shock | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

No college football quarterback outperformed Hendon Hooker throughout late September and October. He was sublime in Tennessee's win against Florida, a cool customer in a road triumph at LSU and played to his peak in an upset of Alabama.

Unfortunately for Hooker, the Heisman Trophy remains an award in which votes are heavily influenced by November and conference championship performances and whether a player's team appears in a conference championship game or qualifies for the College Football Playoff.

That made the Hooker's omission from the Heisman finalist list on Monday cruel but unsurprising.

Southern Cal's Caleb Williams, TCU's Max Duggan, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Georgia's Stetson Bennett IV form the quartet of leading vote-getters, and they will be in New York for Saturday's award ceremony.

Tennessee lost twice in the span of three weeks in November, and the opponent's quarterback outdueled Hooker in each loss. For many Heisman voters, that overshadowed the season’s first two months, when Stroud and Duggan were the only quarterbacks who rivaled Hooker’s performance.

The five-week sprint throughout November and conference championship weekend carries outsized weight in Heisman voting, and that did Hooker no favors.

This was no Machiavellian development. Rather, this is another example of how college football’s top award remains captive to recency bias, conference championship games and a team's College Football Playoff candidacy.

The height of hubris is demanding that voters cast their ballot in a certain way.

I figure, your ballot, your choice.

My ballot, my choice.

And yet, I consider Hooker's absence from the finalist list to be a clear snub, if players are viewed by their full body of work. The AP named Hooker the SEC's offensive player of the year, and he played an instrumental role in Tennessee (10-2, 6-2 SEC) achieving its best season since 2001.

Nonetheless, Bennett was chosen as the SEC’s lone Heisman finalist. Bennett plays on the No. 1-ranked team, he outperformed Hooker in a November head-to-head meeting, and he delivered a season-best performance in his final appearance in front of voters, throwing four touchdown passes in Georgia’s SEC Championship rout of LSU.

Voilà, to the Big Apple Bennett goes.

The Heisman Trust requires voters to withhold publicly disclosing their ballots until the winner is announced. So, I cannot reveal yet whether I voted for Hooker or Bennett, or if I did, where I placed them on my ballot's one-two-three pecking order.

TOPPMEYER:Why conference championships will gain relevance in the 12-team playoff era

ADAMS:Could Tennessee football be headed where Clemson has been?

Instead, I’ll put it like this: If it were up to me, Hooker would be in Manhattan this weekend.

So, why is Hendon Hooker not a Heisman Trophy finalist?

Hooker had three factors working against him:

1. Recency bias. Heisman voters gravitate to players who dazzle in November or in a conference championship game. Late-season exploits attract media hype that influences votes.

Williams and Bennett performed best among Heisman candidate quarterbacks throughout the season's final five weeks. Bennett surely received a voting bump from his standout performance in the SEC Championship.

Only three times in the past five years has a player finished in the top four of Heisman voting without appearing in a conference championship game. Stroud achieved this twice. West Virginia's Will Grier, who placed fourth in 2018, is the other player to do so during this stretch.

2. The College Football Playoff effect. Players on top teams gain a voting advantage. Three of the four finalists are on playoff qualifiers.

Since the start of the CFP era in 2014, 58.3% of the players to finish in the top four of Heisman voting played for a CFP qualifier. Lamar Jackson of Louisville, in 2016, is the only Heisman winner from a team that did not qualify for the CFP. Williams likely will become the second, but USC was positioned to make the playoff entering the season’s final weekend. Many voters probably expected USC would be in the playoff, and some may have cast their ballot before the Trojans lost in the Pac-12 Championship.

Appearing in a conference championship game also boosts a candidate. Since 2014, 72.2% of the players to finish in the top four of Heisman voting played on a team that reached a conference championship game, and 77.8% (28 of 36) played for a team that either appeared in a conference championship game, qualified for the playoff or both.

This suggests Hooker faced an uphill climb to a top-four finish even if he had not suffered a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 19. Tennessee neither appeared in the SEC Championship nor qualified for the playoff, affecting Hooker's candidacy.

3. Region voting blocs. The four finalists come from different regions of the country. Heisman finalists being sprinkled spread across a few conferences is not unusual, and the SEC infrequently produces multiple players toward the top of balloting.

In 1993, Tennessee’s Heath Shuler placed second for the Heisman and Alabama’s David Palmer finished third. In the 29 seasons since, the SEC has only twice supplied multiple players in the top-four of Heisman voting. That occurred in 2007 and 2020. In the latter instance, SEC players claimed four of the top five spots during the pandemic season, when other conferences, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, played more abbreviated schedules.

Southern voters may have felt comfortable putting multiple SEC players on their ballot this year, or they may have gravitated to Hooker if they voted for just one SEC player. However, voters from other regions are less likely to put two SEC players on their ballots, and they’re less likely to intently follow the SEC throughout the whole season. If all a voter saw of the SEC was Georgia beating Tennessee or Georgia throttling LSU in the SEC Championship, then that voter would be persuaded to go for Bennett over Hooker.

For Hendon Hooker, too bad the Vols didn't beat Alabama in November

If Tennessee were a CFP qualifier, I believe Hooker would be headed to New York.

If he didn't injure his knee against South Carolina and had lit up Vanderbilt in UT’s November finale, his chances would have improved.

A more subtle factor that I believe worked against Hooker: His season-best performance, a 385-yard, five-touchdown masterpiece in Tennessee’s thrilling upset of Alabama, occurred on Oct. 15. Had that game occurred a month later, I think Hooker would be a finalist, even though the Vols did not play in the SEC Championship or qualify for the CFP. In other words, if the dates of Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina and its win over Alabama were flipped, Hooker's chance of a top-four finish would have catapulted.

September and October performances position players in the Heisman conversation, and the season's opening months cull the herd of potential candidates, but November and conference championship performances carry outsized weight with voters.

Stroud and Hooker entered November as Heisman frontrunners. Neither finished as well as he started, and Hooker had no opportunity to make a final appeal to voters these past two weeks. Although Stroud made the finalist cut, I believe his two interceptions in Ohio State’s Nov. 26 loss to Michigan will cost him the award.

Conversely, Bennett’s brilliant displays in a November victory over Tennessee and in the SEC Championship fueled his surge.

How to address recency bias and the CFP effect

Heisman ballots are due less than 48 hours after conference championship games conclude and about 30 hours after the playoff bracket is revealed.

The vote's timing naturally positions voters to approach their ballot with conference championship performances and playoff qualifications weighing on the brain, whether intentionally or subconsciously.

If the Heisman Trust wanted to reduce recency bias, it could delay distributing ballots until a week after the CFP bracket was revealed. That would put more distance between conference championship games and the playoff reveal and Heisman voting, and it may encourage voters to approach their ballot from more of a full-body-of-work lens.

As the process stands now, the best path to winning the Heisman or even becoming a finalist includes playing well in the season’s final weeks, along with leading a team to a berth in the conference championship game, the playoff or both. Some players prove exceptions to this rule. Not many.

Hooker’s body of work is that of one of the nation’s best players, but Heisman voting trends show that his absence from the finalist list should come as no shock.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsletter