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Did Peyton Manning Deserve ‘97 Heisman?

In 1997, the Heisman Trophy debate came to a head about Peyton Manning, whose senior season was statistically magnificent. But the lone regular season loss for the Vols came to rival Florida - Manning’s third in as many seasons -  and dampened his hopes for the Heisman.

Charles Woodson, primarily a cornerback at Michigan, took home the hardware for his role on the Wolverines, who went on for a share of the national title.

To this day, Woodson-over-Manning is heavily debated between those that think it was about time a defensive player won the award and those who think Peyton Manning was robbed.

We debate.

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Yes, Peyton Got Robbed: During their NFL careers, both Manning brothers are victims of what I believe to be a reverse bias.

Many think that Eli and Peyton earn more praise than they deserve when things are going well and aren’t taken to task often enough when things are heading South.

To me, it’s the opposite because of their notoriety, visibility and, yes, their last name. When Manning is great, it’s just expected. If he makes a mistake, that’s all you hear about.

Let’s consider just Peyton for the purposes of this debate. His perennially playoff-bound Colts are on the fast track to a winless season in a year during which he hasn’t played a game due to a neck injury. He’s an irreplaceable talent, a Picasso with the football in his hands.

But it has taken his absence for everyone to fully appreciate what he brings to the table.

What does this have to do with the 1997 Heisman, you ask? It’s simple. People were spoiled by Manning as far back as his days in Knoxville.

He returned for a senior season when he could have entered the NFL draft after his junior campaign, ratcheting up the expectations and setting the bar so high that anything less than a national championship was deemed a disappointment.

Yes, Manning’s senior season - which was capped by an Orange Bowl loss against Nebraska - was a letdown from a team perspective, and his performance against Florida is blemish on his resume.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the best player in college football during the 1997 season. The Heisman voters should have recognized that and awarded it to Manning, who threw a video-game worthy 36 touchdowns, while completing 60% of his passes and nearly hitting the 4,000-yard plateau - in the SEC, no less.

While many chide him for shrinking in the big game, Manning followed up the loss to Florida in Week 3 with a nine-game winning streak that he capped with a stirring one-point win over No. 11 Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.

Just as he is for the Colts, Manning was a coach on the field for the Vols and certainly was more important to his team than Woodson - an admittedly dynamic all-around player - was at Michigan.

However, when it comes to Manning, everyone puts the bad stuff in bold and the good as footnotes. Let’s remember that the Vols’ offensive line was manhandled by their Gator counterparts to swallow up Manning in that much-criticized loss.

Tennessee’s 1997 shortcomings shouldn’t be blamed solely on Manning - just as it’s not all A-Rod’s fault when the Yankees don’t win the World Series and LeBron’s Heat wouldn’t have been in the 2011 Finals if it weren’t for him.

That’s why they call them team sports.

The Heisman, on the other hand, is an individual award, and Peyton Manning deserved it. - Anthony Olivieri

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No, Charles Woodson Deserved It: I’m a Michigan alum, so I won’t even pretend to be unbiased. But I’m so tired of hearing Tennessee fans that have been spewing conspiracy theories since Johnny Majors got screwed out of the 1956 trophy still cry about how Peyton Manning was robbed of the 1997 Heisman and point blame at the media.

Yes, Manning is one of the greatest college football players ever and one of the top five quarterbacks in NFL history. The funny thing is that when people now whine about Manning getting snubbed, they just point to his current greatness and future bust in Canton, OH.

None of that matters. The fact is, he wasn’t the best player during the 1997 season.

Let’s compare the two seasons between Manning and Woodson, shall we?

Yes, Peyton had a monster statistical campaign, throwing for nearly 4,000 YDS, 36 TDs and 11 INTs. But look closer. In Tennessee’s lopsided loss to Florida, dropping Manning to 0-3 against the Gators as a starter, he did most of his damage in garbage time and threw two costly picks, one of which was returned 89 yards for a touchdown to fall down 14-0.

And a lot of Manning’s gaudy numbers came from piling on inferior opponents like Texas Tech (310 YDS, 5 TD), Kentucky (523 YDS, 5 TD) yard and Southern Miss (399 YDS, 4 TD). Yes, Manning played great against Georgia and Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, but proved again that he wasn’t the best player in college football when Nebraska hammered Tennessee in the bowl game, 42-17.

Manning’s numbers? 134 YDS passing, 1 TD, 1 INT.

Just proving how much talent Manning had to work with, including WR Peerless Price, the Vols went on to win the national title a year later with Tee Martin at quarterback. The Colts they were not.

Manning’s 1997 season reminds me a lot of Andrew Luck’s 2011 campaign: Overwhelming pre-season candidate with very solid campaign who will be a great pro but shouldn’t win the Heisman because he fell flat in the national spotlight and didn’t have that epic “Heisman moment” like the other candidates.

I don’t have nearly enough space here to rant about how defensive players often get robbed out of the Heisman award but remember that Woodson is the only primarily defensive player to ever win the award. Defensive players are always undervalued in the Heisman and the backlash against Woodson’s win just proves how much fans don’t get their importance.

Just look at the man’s 1997 season. He had eight interceptions despite offenses knowing how great he was and going to the other side of the field as often as possible. He also contributed in the other two phases of the game, combining for 500 yards and three touchdowns as a wide receiver and punt returner.

You want to talk about Heisman moments that wowed you? How about this insane interception vs. Michigan State or Woodson’s Desmond Howard-esque punt return Ohio State? Do those work?

Unlike Manning, Woodson elevated his game to another level in the biggest games. Shutting down OSU wide receiver David Boston except for one fluke play and adding another INT, Woodson said afterward it was “like a father chastising his son.” Michigan won by six.

And in the Rose Bowl against Washington State, Woodson had another key interception in the end zone of a five-point win that gave Michigan a co-national title.

On those plays alone, I’d say Woodson was pretty important to his team’s success.

Sadly, there will always be people who claim Peyton Manning got robbed of the ‘97 Heisman because as a society it’s always so much easier to blame someone else rather than admit your best just wasn’t good enough. - Jim Weber

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Who do you think deserved the ‘97 Heisman: Charles Woodson or Peyton Manning? State your case below.

 
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