Here we are again on MNC Wednesday, evaluating Heisman Trophy history like good sports historians should: In 32 seasons overall now, we have confirmed just 11 winners—demonstrating that a lot of the voting process really came down to hype and mediots voting blindly. Will anything change in this review of a late-1980s season? We shall see below …

1988 Heisman Trophy winner: Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State (original, confirmed)

As a sophomore backup to Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State (one of our many Heisman finalists last year), Cowboys running back Barry Sanders still put together 1,347 total yards and 14 touchdowns. As a junior starter, Sanders set records that still exist today: 2,628 rushing yards and 39 TDs. Those totals do not include his bowl game stats, which added 222 rushing yards and 5 more TDs.

Oklahoma State lost twice to Top 10 teams in conference: Nebraska and Oklahoma. The Cowboys played a weak schedule, admittedly (No. 75 SOS), but the fact Sanders tore up that schedule says volumes. But a 9-2 regular season with those kind of historical statistics will be hard to top.

Routinely, there are always other candidates to consider here. So, this is our final list of vetted Heisman candidates for the 1988 Heisman Trophy, which is quite quarterback heavy:

  • Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State: 619 return yards, 5 INTs, 3 TDs (No. 24 SOS)
  • Timm Rosenbach, QB, Washington State: 158.4 QB rating on 3,433 total yards with 34 TDs and 11 INTs (No. 12 SOS)
  • Troy Aikman, QB, UCLA: 147.4 QB rating on 2,854 total yards with 25 TDs and 9 INTs (No. 9 SOS)
  • Rodney Peete, QB, USC: 137.8 QB rating on 2,880 total yards with 23 TDs and 12 INTs (No. 1 SOS)
  • Steve Walsh, QB, Miami-FL: 145.2 QB rating on 3,115 passing yards with 29 TDs and 12 INTs (No. 10 SOS)
  • Major Harris, QB, West Virginia: 159.2 QB rating on 2,525 total yards with 20 TDs and 8 INTs (No. 50 SOS)

The Seminoles had a Top 10 defense, allowing just 14.3 ppg on their way to an 10-1 regular season and a berth in the Sugar Bowl against Auburn. But we just don’t have enough statistics to truly evaluate Sanders’ impact, other than knowing the theoretical way he could have shut down half the secondary for his teammates, etc. Either way, it’s not like he was setting records that still exist today, right? Right.

The five QBs need to be classified and divided: Pac-10 guys and the others. Rosenbach was clearly the best QB in the Conference of Champions, and the Cougars put together an 8-3 regular season behind his arm—including a win over Aikman and the Bruins. WSU got an Aloha bid, which was a big deal then, and so now it’s between Walsh and Harris on the other side.

Harris topped the nation in QB rating, slightly ahead of Rosenbach, but his SOS was weak for the undefeated Mountaineers, who landed in the Fiesta Bowl against top-ranked Notre Dame. Walsh’s season was solid as the Hurricanes were No. 2 in the country with their loss famously coming against the Irish. We have to give the nod there to Walsh, due to SOS, as Harris’ QB rating wasn’t that dominant.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter: Neither Rosenbach or Walsh had the kind of season Sanders did, and yes, we know the SOS is weak—but like we do with our MLB Monday series, there’s a certain historical threshold that, if reached, overrides everything else, and Sanders reached two such thresholds with over 2,950 scrimmage yards and 44 scrimmage TDs. That’s insane, and it’s enough by plenty.

Congratulations to Barry Sanders, the legitimate Heisman Trophy winner from 1988.