Monday, October 09, 2006

Heisman Race Heats Up

I'll never figure out the mainstream sports media. This is an entity that has been completely obsessed with the Heisman Trophy for years, no matter what the candidate pool is like, no matter how irrelevant the award seems to become, and in spite of the fact that universities basically started buying the statute 10 years ago through mass marketing campaigns.

Now, when the race is truly exciting for the first time in ages, no one seems to care. I give up.

But you know what? I still care. That's why I've decided to cobble together my own midseason Heisman top-10 list. This is kind of a cross between how I would vote if the season ended today and how I could see things developing as the season goes on. Confusing enough? Did I make it ambiguous enough to eliminate all accountability? Sweet. Let's get into it then.

1. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State. He hasn't been incredible this year, but he's done enough to win and his team is ranked number one, so he is in the catbird's seat. He played well against Texas in the season's biggest game to date and no one seems to recall that he pretty much sucked against Penn State (the only lasting memory from that game was that fadeaway heave into the end zone), so unless the Buckeyes lose or someone else on the list goes wild, the award is probably Smith's to lose.

2. Garrett Wolfe, RB, Northern Illinois. The diminutive running back from the MAC is an absolute beast. Wolfe has almost five hundred more rushing yards than anyone else in the country, is going for 223.8 yards per game, leads the nation in touchdowns (13), is averaging a ridiculous 8.6 yards per carry, and is on pace to break Barry Sanders' NCAA record for yards in a season. Not only that, but in his one real chance to play against the big boys, Wolfe shredded Ohio State for almost 300 yards of total offense and a touchdown. He probably can't overcome the fact that he plays for Northern Illinois, but Wolfe deserves to be in New York for the ceremony, at the very least.

3. Brady Quinn, QB, Notre Dame. I don't particularly care for Notre Dame, but Quinn is still lurking in this race. The Michigan game was brutal and served to knock him out of contention initially (and, as a byproduct, destroy the media's will to cover the Heisman chase), but the comeback against Michigan State breathed new life into both the Irish's season and Quinn's Heisman hopes. He's averaging 272.3 yards per game and has thrown 16 touchdowns against four picks. The only guys that can claim better those numbers are "system" quarterbacks at places like New Mexico State, BYU, Texas Tech, and Hawaii. With the big tilt against USC still on the schedule, Quinn has the stage necessary to get back on top. (I have to say though, I saw Quinn play live against Stanford on Saturday and not once did I feel like I was watching a Heisman-winning quarterback.)

4. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma. Troy Smith must really love Texas. First, he lit them up in his best game of the season. Second, a lot of people feel like maybe they missed the boat on Vince Young last year and now seem dead set on giving the award to a "Vince-like" quarterback this season (which would be Smith, of course). Third, Texas knocked off Oklahoma, which really damages Peterson's chances. The Sooner running back was probably Smith's chief competition and had OU defeated the 'Horns, Peterson might have been at the top of this list. Given the controversy surrounding the Oregon game, people really weren't holding Oklahoma's first loss against Peterson. Two losses? That is a different story. Since Peterson trails Wolfe, Ray Rice, and Steve Slaton in virtually every statistical story, "team success" becomes a vital factor. Now the margin for error is incredibly slim. If Oklahoma loses another game, Peterson's going to need Barry Sanders circa 1988 numbers to win the Heisman.

5. Steve Slaton, RB, West Virginia. He's got the big yards per carry (6.9, second best among BCS conference running backs, behind Cal's Marshawn Lynch), the big national TV showcase performance (when he had what seemed like 700 yards in the first quarter of the Maryland game), and he's playing for a team that has a legit chance to run the table. The downside is West Virginia's schedule. Not only does the cupcake nature mean that people aren't respecting the stats, it means that Slaton actually gets less of them. The Mountaineers often win so easily that he can't get more than 15-20 touches. He has 30 fewer carries than Peterson and Rice in as many games, and the trend may not change.

6. Ray Rice, RB, Rutgers. Here is your big sleeper. Rutgers is the feel-good story of the year so far in college football with the 5-0 start and Rice is the straw that stirs that particular drink. He's second in the country in yards per game with 161.2 and has scored 11 touchdowns. If Rutgers can get to 8-0 heading into their home date with Lousville on national TV (the Thursday night game), Rice may have his chance to win over the hearts of voters everywhere. After that it is Cinci and Syracuse, which means that Rice and the Scarlet Knights could conceivably meet Slaton and West Virginia in a battle of unbeatens with both the Big East title and the Heisman on the line. Not likely, but conceivable.

7. Michael Hart, RB, Michigan. The Wolverines are rolling and Hart is the best running back that nobody really talks about. He leads the nation in carries (157) and is averaging 132.3 yards for a team with serious national title hopes. Of course, he shares the spotlight with ...

8. Mario Manningham, WR, Michigan. Call it the David Ortiz/Manny Ramirez problem that cost Big Papi the AL MVP in 2005. Whenever two players from the same team both have a strong claim for the award, they tend to split votes. Hart is probably the true heart (no pun intended) and soul of the team, but people are going to remember that monster game that Manningham had against Notre Dame. Plus, he leads the nation in receiving touchdowns (9), averages a whopping 22.0 yards per catch, and has an absolutely fantastic name. The problem for Manningham is ...

9. Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech. This is the best wide receiver in the country. Manningham has been huge and Dwayne Jarrett would be in the mix if not for injuries, but Johnson is the man. He's averaging 93 yards per game and has scored eight touchdowns, many of them in huge situations. He led the Jackets to a surprising beatdown of Virginia Tech, almost helped them topple Notre Dame, and has emerged as the most devastating red zone weapon in the game.

10. Erik Ainge, QB, Tennessee. How come this guy is getting absolutely no attention? He shredded Cal on national television and recently hung 51 on Georgia - a team that had the nation's best defense heading into that game. This guy has ironed out whatever problems he has had in the past and has the Vols back in the BCS picture. His numbers (276.2 yards per game and 14/5 touchdowns to interceptions) are right there with Quinn's and he's done it against an equally daunting schedule while accumulating the second-best passer rating in the country (171.6). Throw him in with Rice as a darkhorse candidate.

On the Verge: John David Booty (USC keeps on winning and Booty's stats aren't far off from those of Quinn and Ainge), James Davis (the best running back in the ACC has 11 touchdowns through six games), DeSean Jackson (with Nate Longshore's opening-game struggles and Marshawn Lynch's injury problems, Jackson has become the face of the dynamic Cal offense with 522 yards receiving and nine touchdowns, while also ranking sixth in the country in punt return yards), and Darren McFadden (the SEC's best back got a big boost when Arkansas upset Auburn and moved into the top 25 - he's coming on fast).

Falling Out of It: Chris Leak (it is ironic that Leak's fortunes are plummeting as his Gators soar to #2 in the polls, but when a different quarterback (Tim Tebow) is scoring all the points, I don't see any other way), Kenny Irons, Dwayne Jarrett (injuries suck), Ted Ginn Jr. (not enough big plays to stay in the top 10), and Lynch.

Bonus Thought: Injuries and a tough loss to Cal have dampened this year, but watch for Oregon's Jonathan Stewart in 2007 - I'm going on record right now as saying he will be a top three candidate next year.

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