From the Sidelines: Sorting out the Heisman mess

Published 4:23 am Wednesday, December 3, 2008

So we’re down to that part of the season again. After Saturday’s conference title games, we’re left with nothing but to debate about whether or not the BCS got it right or whether or not it is even possible for the BCS to get it right.

Then there’s college football’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy. A week from Saturday, college football’s most exclusive fraternity will induct a new member. Or maybe it won’t. If Florida quarterback Tim Tebow becomes the first player since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin to tote the hardware for two consecutive seasons, the club will be a little more exclusive.

Since debates about the BCS have grown tiresome and fruitless, it seems the Heisman would serve as a more profitable topic of discourse.

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The prime candidates this season are Tebow, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell and his favorite target, wideout Michael Crabtree.

The players least likely to strike the Heisman pose this year are Harrell and Crabtree. The fact that the two are on the same team will undoubtedly play a hand in eliminating both from serious contention.

Yes, Harrell has 4,747 yards and 41 touchdowns on the season. He’s accomplished these gaudy numbers while completing 71.5 percent of his passes and throwing a paltry seven interceptions.

Then there’s Crabtree. He has caught 93 passes for 1,135 yards and 18 touchdowns and is averaging an impressive 12.2 yards per catch.

But again, one feeds the other, and they’ll both likely fall victim to college football’s rendition of the “chicken or the egg” debate.

Moreover, Harrell’s production still lacks some legitimacy, considering quarterbacks such as Kliff Kingsbury have found marked success in the confines of the Red Raiders’ wide-open offense.

Crabtree, widely considered the best receiver in the country, is also plagued by history. Only two receivers have ever taken home the Heisman. Tim Brown of Notre Dame accomplished the feat in 1987. Four years later, Michigan’s Desmond Howard earned the hardware in 1991.

For those keeping score at home, Brown went on to have a career worthy of the Hall of Fame, and Howard now serves as a co-host on ESPN’s College Gameday. But the professional success of Heisman winners is an entirely different debate. (See Ron Dayne, Chris Weinke, Danny Wuerffel, Rashaan Salaam, former New York Knicks point guard Charlie Ward, Gino Torretta and Andre Ware.)

For the purposes of this debate, Harrell and Crabtree can be celebrated, but cannot celebrate with the Heisman.

Staying in the Big 12, let’s take a look at Bradford and McCoy. Bradford got his team to the conference title game, something he accomplished with the help of the BCS despite losing to McCoy’s Longhorns head-to-head. But that goes back to a previously mentioned debate that has already been deemed fruitless. So, we press forward.

Bradford has completed 68.2 percent of his passes while throwing for 4,080 yards and 46 touchdowns against only six interceptions.

McCoy, meanwhile, has only 3,445 passing yards and 32 touchdowns by comparison. However, he has completed 77.6 percent of his passes and his 576 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground lead the Longhorns’ rushing attack. He is no Vince Young, but NFL general managers think that fact makes him more even enticing.

Nonetheless, the two are pretty comparable. And, if history is any indication, Bradford has the edge over McCoy by virtue of the fact that his team has the inside track to the national title game. The last 10 quarterbacks to win the award have been from the team widely considered to be the best in the country heading into the bowl season.

That fact makes Bradford and last year’s Heisman winner, Tebow, the odds-on favorites.

For the sake of numbers, Tebow has 2,299 passing yards and 25 touchdowns heading into Saturday’s SEC championship game. He also has 507 yards rushing to go along with 12 touchdowns. Add to that the fact that only two of Superman’s passes have been plucked by opposing defenses, and you have another very impressive season.

But is it enough?

Last season, his sophomore year, Tebow threw for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns while leading his team 895 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground. Clearly, his numbers are much less eye-popping this time around.

However, he is aided by popular consensus. That consensus maintains that Florida and Oklahoma are the two best teams in the country. So that means that not only are Tebow and Bradford trying to lead their respective squads to a slot in the BCS National Title Game this Saturday, they are also holding an open audition for the 2008 Heisman Trophy. But is that fair?

The trophy is billed as an award given to college football’s best player. However, it has only once gone to a defensive player. That happened in 1997, when Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson beat out Peyton Manning for the award. But, to be fair, Woodson logged significant time on special teams and offense as well as defense, so he wasn’t truly a pure defensive player. He also benefitted from what seemed to have been a contingent that had grown weary of hearing of the greatness of Manning.

So, while Manning was the best player in the country, Woodson won the award.

But again, the Heisman’s history is contradictory to its hype. If the trophy is to go to the best player in the country or even to the best player on the top team in the country, how has a lineman never gotten consideration?

I know that seems ludicrous to some. I know it is difficult to quantify the talent or effectiveness of a single offensive lineman. I know it isn’t the glory position. But I also know that offensive tackles are often the cornerstones of successful teams, whether they be a college or pro squad.

All of that being said, can Alabama’s Andre Smith get one vote in the Heisman race? Just one?

Alabama has spent the majority of the season in the top spot of the major polls and the BCS. John Parker Wilson’s numbers are rather pedestrian, as are the statistics compiled by the Crimson Tide’s stable of backs. In fact, the Tide boasts a rather anonymous team aside from gargantuan defensive tackle Terrance Cody, high-profile freshman Julio Jones and the Smith.

And believe me, opposing head coaches and defensive coordinators know all about Smith.

He is the ringleader of Alabama’s run-left offense. With remarkable consistency throughout the season, Alabama has chosen to run the ball to the left in big spots. And with uncanny consistency, they have found success behind the anchor of the left side of their line, Smith.

But the Heisman is very much numbers-based. So what does Smith have to offer in that regard?

How about the fact that the one game Smith missed, a Week 2 contest with Tulane, was the only time all season Alabama failed to rush for 100 yards as a team. In fact, without Smith, the Alabama offense mustered a measly 172 yards of total offense in that game.

I know. Giving the Heisman to an offensive lineman is taboo. Since 1970, the award has been given to a running back 19 times. It has gone to 16 quarterbacks, two wide receivers and that one do-it-all defensive back. But never in its 73-year history has it gone to a lineman.

So, if an unsexy Alabama team somehow upsets Florida and works its way into the national title game, why not keep tradition alive and give some consideration to the best player on the No. 1 team in the country? And if Alabama’s no-name squad beats Tebow’s Gators, can that other tradition be bucked just long enough to give the most valuable player in the country, Alabama left tackle Andre Smith, one vote for the Heisman Trophy?