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The Best of the Rest: Top 5 Heisman Trophy Runners-Up

Heisman runners-up
© USA TODAY Sports

In the annals of college football history, there exists an exclusive fraternity of athletes whose extraordinary talents elevated them to the pinnacle of the sport, yet narrowly missed out on its highest individual honor, the Heisman Trophy. These runners-up though denied the coveted trophy, left an indelible mark on the gridiron, etching their names into the lore of the game with performances that transcended statistics and resonated with fans for generations to come.

Join us as we revisit the journeys of these exceptional athletes and celebrate their enduring legacies in the tapestry of college football.

5. Vince Young, QB, Texas (2005 Heisman Runner-Up)

Young, hailing from Houston, had one of the greatest seasons in Texas Longhorn football history during his junior year in 2005. Leading the Longhorns through an epic campaign that culminated in a national championship win against defending champions USC, Young's performance was nothing short of legendary. The championship game, one of the most electrifying in the BCS era, saw Texas defeat a USC team featuring two Heisman winners, Matt Leinart and that year's winner Reggie Bush. Despite not winning the Heisman, Young was a first-team All-American and won the Maxwell Award and the Davey O'Brien Award, recognizing him as the nation's top quarterback. He was also the unanimous Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

In 2005, Young posted impressive stats, throwing for 3,036 yards and 26 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions, while also rushing for 1,050 yards and 12 touchdowns. With a remarkable 30-2 record as a starter at Texas, Young holds the record for single-season (1,079) and career (3,127) rushing yards for a quarterback. Following his college success, Young was drafted third overall in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans and went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year (2006).

4. John Elway, QB, Stanford (1982 Heisman Runner-Up)

Before Elway was a two-time Super Bowl champion and NFL Hall of Famer, he was college football's first can't-miss prospect. Known for having one of the biggest arms the sport had ever seen and the ability to make plays off-script, Elway stood out as one of the best players in the nation. In his senior season at Stanford, Elway posted impressive numbers for his era, passing for 3,242 yards and 24 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Unfortunately for Elway, Stanford's 1982 squad lacked the talent to support their star signal-caller. Their 4-7 record did not bolster Elway's Heisman chances or favor with voters that year. Additionally, that season was marred by "The Play," where Stanford's band ran onto the field prematurely and interfered with the final play, costing Stanford the game. Despite these setbacks, Elway was a unanimous All-American, but he lost the Heisman Trophy to Georgia's Herschel Walker. Nevertheless, Elway went on to reach football immortality.

3. Darren Mcfadden, RB, Arkansas (2006, 2007 Heisman Runner-Up)

McFadden, from Little Rock, Ark., was a spectacular running back for the Razorbacks. Not only did he rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his three collegiate seasons, but he was also the Heisman runner-up two years in a row, 2006 and 2007. In the 2006 campaign, McFadden rushed for 1,647 yards with an average of 5.8 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns while passing for three more scores. Despite these remarkable numbers, the then-sophomore came in second in Heisman voting to Ohio State's Troy Smith. McFadden followed up in 2007 with an even better season, rushing for 1,830 yards, scoring 16 rushing touchdowns, and passing for four more scores. This time, McFadden missed out on winning the Heisman to Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

While McFadden never won the Heisman, he left an indelible mark on college football. He leads the Southeastern Conference in all-time rushing attempts (785), 100-yard rushing games (22) and single-season rushing yards (1,830). McFadden also holds the single-game rushing record in the SEC with 321 yards against South Carolina in 2007. Although McFadden's time at Arkansas didn't include a Heisman win, he certainly left his mark, almost literally putting the Razorbacks on his back. McFadden went on to be drafted fourth overall in the 2008 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders, though he never reached the heights he did in his collegiate career, struggling to stay healthy in the NFL.

Heisman Runners-Up
© Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

2. Adrien Petterson, RB, Oklahoma (2004 Heisman Runner-Up)

Peterson arrived in Norman, Okla., as the No. 1 overall recruit in his class, already a legend in the high school ranks. After a stellar freshman season, Peterson was injured during his junior year but came back with a vengeance as a senior in 2004. Peterson rushed for 1,925 yards on 339 carries, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and scored 15 touchdowns. He was a unanimous All-American that same year. As a runner, Peterson was gifted with every tool a back would need: elite power and speed, amazing agility, the ability to change direction on a dime, and a burst like shooting a rocket through the middle of opposing defenses. Peterson was undoubtedly one of the most impressive runners in college football history.

Peterson was taken by the Minnesota Vikings seventh overall in 2007 and rushed his way into becoming the NFL's fifth all-time leading rusher. He is a sure bet to be inducted into Canton in the coming years.

1. Andrew Luck, QB, Standford (2010, 2011 Heisman Runner-Up)

Luck is the second two-time Heisman runner-up on this list, having missed out on the award in both 2010 and 2011 despite stellar campaigns. In 2010, Luck passed for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions, while also adding 453 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground. Despite these astonishing numbers, Luck finished second in Heisman voting to Auburn's Cam Newton. He followed up in 2011 with an equally impressive season, passing for 3,517 yards and 37 touchdowns while throwing only 10 interceptions, but this time losing out to Baylor's Robert Griffin III.

Despite missing out on the Heisman, Luck earned numerous accolades. In 2011, he won the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. Luck's collegiate career was nothing short of dominant. He went on to be drafted No. 1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, where he enjoyed success before retiring relatively young due to persistent injuries.

Heisman Runners-Up
© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The players highlighted here—Young, Elway, McFadden, Peterson and Luck—each had remarkable collegiate careers, leaving an indelible mark on the sport despite never winning the Heisman Trophy. Their legacies remind us that greatness isn't solely defined by individual accolades but by the impact they've had on their teams, fans and the game of college football.

As we celebrate their achievements, we acknowledge that being a runner-up in the Heisman race doesn't diminish their contributions or the memorable moments they've provided. These athletes exemplify excellence and have set a standard for future generations to aspire to.


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