Heisman Trophy Winners in the Sugar Bowl
It is fitting that the Sugar Bowl, one of the highlights of every college football season, has also included many of the greatest players in the game’s history. In its first 87 years, the New Orleans Classic has featured 19 Heisman Trophy winners – many who only enhanced their reputations with their performances in the bowl. Those efforts lead to a pair of trivia questions – which Heisman winner threw for 700 yards in the Sugar Bowl? And which one ran for 337 yards?
Though these individual stars led their teams to New Orleans, the Heisman have proven to be no guarantor of victory in the Sugar Bowl. In the 24 Sugar Bowl games in which those 19 individuals were on the roster, their teams won nine and lost 15.
Nine times the recipient played in the Sugar Bowl the same season he won the award; 14 times the player got it in a later season; and once the star played in the Sugar Bowl after he won the Heisman in an earlier season. In addition, three times the player played in the Sugar both before and during the gilded season – which provides the hook to the trivia questions.
Florida’s Danny Wuerffel quarterbacked the Gators in the 1995 Sugar Bowl, when he was a sophomore, throwing for 394 yards and a touchdown in a 23-17 defeat against archrival Florida State. Two years later, after Wuerffel was presented the coveted bronze statue, he was 18-of-34 for 306 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-20 victory against the same rival Seminoles. As lagniappe, this time Wuerffel was also the Miller-Digby Award recipient as the game’s most outstanding player – and his team also was accorded the national championship.
Georgia’s Herschel Walker, in three straight appearances in the Sugar Bowl, most of any Heisman winner, rushed for 150 yards, 84 yards and 103 yards against Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Penn State, respectively. Just for seasoning, he also caught three passes for another 53 yards.
Walker’s performance against the Irish was especially noteworthy, not only because the 17-10 victory gave the Bulldogs the national title but because he did it under extreme duress: he separated a shoulder early in the game, but still played well enough to score two touchdowns and be named MVP. The 150 yards he gained came against a defense that hadn’t given up as much as 100 to any opponent during the regular season – and taking away Walker’s yeoman’s effort and the Bulldogs registered minus-30 yards of rushing offense.
That’s one impressive day of football, coming in the only Sugar Bowl Walker and Georgia would win in their memorable three-year run.
Two other Heisman winners made multiple appearances in the Sugar Bowl. LSU’s Billy Cannon was the MVP of the 1959 Tiger win over Clemson after throwing a halfback pass for a touchdown, kicking the PAT and being in on many defensive plays in the 7-0 victory. The next season, Cannon’s team was beaten 21-0 in a rematch from the regular season with Ole Miss. Burly Alabama running back Derrick Henry played in back-to-back Sugar Bowls in 2014 and 2015. Despite the Crimson Tide losing to Oklahoma in the 2014 game, it was Henry’s breakthrough performance as he rushed for 100 yards and a TD on just eight carries and added a 61-yard catch-and-rumble TD. The 2015 Sugar Bowl served as one of the first College Football Playoff Semifinals in history and Henry collected 95 rushing yards, 54 receicing yards and another touchdown, despite the Tide losing to Ohio State.
Florida’s Steve Spurrier played a part in three Sugar Bowls, but only one as a player: in a memorable 1966 game against Missouri in which he became the first athlete from a losing team to be named MVP after throwing for 352 yards. He then coached in two, including the national title Sugar Bowl in which Wuerffel shone in 1997.
For a one-Sugar Bowl appearance, it would be hard to overlook Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett, who rushed for 202 yards and a touchdown in the 1977 game against Georgia. That rushing total stood as the Sugar Bowl record for almost three decades, until West Virginia’s Steve Slaton broke it by one yard in the 2006 game – coincidentally, also against Georgia in a 38-35 Mountaineer upset. However, in 2010, another Florida star and Heisman winner turned in a dominant performance as quarterback Tim Tebow set the Sugar Bowl record with 482 passing yards, completing 31-of-35 passes, in a 51-24 shellacking of third-ranked Cincinnati.
Another legendary tailback who added the Miller-Digby Award to go with a Heisman Trophy was Auburn’s Bo Jackson, who ran for 130 yards in a 9-7 victory over Michigan in the 1984 Sugar Bowl. Jackson added to his legend in the Superdome in his rookie year in the NFL when he threw a ball which hit the Dome’s overhead scoreboard, believed to be the only player to manage that trick.
The very first Heisman recipient to make an appearance in the Sugar Bowl was Texas Christian’s Davey O’Brien in 1939. O’Brien, playing in an era when the pass was rarely the first option, put up numbers which would not be out of place in today’s pass-happy style. In a 15-7 victory over Carnegie Tech, O’Brien was 17-of-28 passing for 224 yards and one touchdown.
The single Heisman recipient who never did make a dent on the Sugar Bowl stat sheet was Penn State’s John Cappelletti, whose team played Oklahoma on New Year’s Eve of 1972. He earned his Heisman trophy the following season. Cappelletti had the flu and was in his hotel bed when his Nitttany Lions took the field against the Sooners in the Sugar Bowl. The only indication he was on Penn State’s squad afterward was the designation: DNP, nonetheless, he was a part of that team.
Kyler Murray, the winner of the 2018 Heisman Trophy, was a member of the Oklahoma team that topped Auburn in the 2017 Sugar Bowl. However, as he was ineligible to play in the game due to NCAA transfer rules, he is not included in this list.
HEISMAN TROPHY WINNERS IN THE SUGAR BOWL
|YEAR IN SUGAR BOWL
||RECORD IN SUGAR BOWL
||PERFORMANCE IN SUGAR BOWL
||17-27-0; 224 yards; 1 TD
||2 receptions for 21 yards
||1959: 51 rushing yards; 9 yards passing; 1 TD
1960: 8 rushing yards; 3 receptions for 39 yards
||22-45-2; 352 yards; 2 TDs
||20-44-1; 250 yards, 2 TDs
||Did Not Play
||202 rushing yards; 1 TD
||1981: 150 rushing yards; 2 TDs
1982: 84 rushing yards, 2 TDs, 53 rec’g yards
1983: 103 rushing yards, 1 TD
||130 rushing yards
||20-36-3; 217 yards; 1 TD
||24-56-3; 278 yards
||1995: 10-27 rushing; 28-39-1; 394 yards, 1 TD
1997: 18-34-1; 306 yards; 3 TDs
||62 rushing yards, 1 reception for six yards
||20-34-1; 329 yards; 4 TDs
||13-37-2; 102 yards
||31-35-0; 482 yards; 3 TDs
| 2014, ’15
||2014: 8-100 rushing, 1 TD, 61-yd TD catch; 2015: 13-95 rushing, 1 TD
||19-28-0; 296 yards; 2 TDs
||1 reception, 4 yards
* Smith was a freshman in the 2018 Sugar Bowl; he would win the Heisman three years later after a dominant senior season.
Initially compiled by Marty Mulé, the author of the history Sugar Bowl Classic. Updates followed by the Sugar Bowl staff.