Monday, November 30, 2009

The Heisman Race

The 2009 Heisman Trophy race is shaping up to be the most compelling since, well, last season. The 2008-race was perhaps the most exciting three-man race in college football history. It was so whacky that the third-place finisher received more first place votes than the winner. This year’s stage doesn’t have the same hyperbole as we saw last season and for good reason. Although there have been the requisite number of solid performers, nobody has stood out quite like the contenders from last season. Case in point, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow are likely to be the top two quarterbacks in the Heisman voting. They have 29 and 30 total touchdowns, respectively. When Tebow won in ’07, he had 55. When Sam Bradford won in ’08, he had 55. Heck, McCoy and Tebow had 45 and 42, respectively, in losing efforts last season.

What this season doesn’t have in gaudy statistics, however, it more than makes up for in voting uncertainty. Just a week ago, sports publications—as well as Vegas bookies—were in agreement that Alabama’s Mark Ingram was the clear frontrunner. A mediocre performance against Auburn last weekend and four monumental performances by the other players in the race have changed things significantly. Check out how costly college football’s 12th week was to Ingram:

Not only is Ingram unlikely the overall leader in the Heisman race anymore, he’s not even the top running back. That distinction goes to Stanford’s Toby Gerhart who has stolen “Touchdown” Tommy Vardell’s nickname with the greatest rushing season in Stanford history. Don’t count Ingram out, just yet. Gerhart’s resume-building ended on Saturday. Ingram will play on the biggest of stages against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. If Ingram has a signature performance, then he could shoot right to the top again.

Gerhart and Ingram are unquestionably the top two running back contenders, but if you have a sense of history, then you’re probably aware of the affinity that voters have for quarterbacks. The Heisman has gone to a signal-caller the last three seasons and eight of the last nine overall. There’s a better than even chance that you’ll see that trend continue this season. The three biggest winners on Saturday besides Stanford’s touchdown machine were quarterbacks. The Holy Man put up five touchdowns in a throttling of Florida State. Colt McCoy threw down five against Texas A&M, and Kellen Moore held serve with five of his own.

With the exception of Ingram, a strong case could be made for any of the above players. Considering Ingram was the near-unanimous leader as of last week, who knows what next week will bring. With the conference championships this weekend, McCoy, Tebow, and Ingram will have an opportunity to make their cases for the award. Stanford is done until its bowl game and Kellen Moore has hapless New Mexico State to beat up on. If nobody asserts themselves this weekend, then look for Gerhart—and Moore with a big game—to stay in the race.

I don’t see Moore appealing to voters in most regions. He will have the gaudiest statistics but he’ll have beaten just one ranked team and that was 12 weeks ago in the season-opener at Oregon. The days of quarterbacks from weaker conferences winning the award with gaudy statistics ended with Andre Ware and Ty Detmer 20 years ago. Moore might get an invite to NYC, but he seems to be headed for a 5th-place finish.

Ingram could reclaim his lead with a huge game against Florida but that seems unlikely considering Florida’s defense and his ineffectiveness against Auburn. Without something eye-opening, it’s impossible to place Ingram ahead of Gerhart considering the vast statistical edge in favor of Gerhart. Ingram is a sophomore and plays for a loaded team. It’s doubtful he’ll finish better than 4th place.

The fact that Tebow’s name was even in the Heisman discussion for most of the season was just out of respect for his career accomplishments. His early-season concussion combined with a less-explosive-than-normal Florida offense has his numbers way down from last season and infinitesimal compared to two years ago. Eight touchdowns in his last two games brought his seasonal statistics to a more respectable level and give him an opportunity to really make things interesting with a stellar performance against Alabama. The problem is that “stellar against Alabama” means two touchdowns and not a lot of yards. There’s a good chance that Tebow and Ingram will split the South Region making it difficult for either to seriously contend for the award.

Gerhart is on the wrong end of some nasty west-coast discrimination. While Stanford isn’t in the same class as Alabama and Florida, the Cardinal has beaten USC, Notre Dame, and Oregon in high-profile games. Gerhart averaged 202 rushing yards and three touchdowns in those games. If he put up those numbers playing for USC or Notre Dame, he’d have his name on the trophy already. He leads the NCAA in rush attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. He should strongly carry the Far West Region but it’s doubtful he has enough name recognition nationally to win.

Although few are saying it, I think Colt McCoy has to be the overwhelming favorite at this point. He has no competition in the Big XII. He’ll easily carry the South West Region and he’ll show up on voter ballots in every region. He has a huge advantage over Ingram and Tebow because, unlike those two, he doesn’t have the task of playing a stout defense this weekend. He’ll likely have his way with Nebraska which should give him the best “last impression” before voters send in their ballots. I also think the fact that McCoy very easily could’ve won last year might sneak into the voting process. I’m guessing there will be a large sentiment among voters that it’s “his turn.” Plus, he arguably has the best resume...

Click image to enlarge.

The only outcome that could change McCoy’s likely Heisman win is if Texas loses to Nebraska. That’s not going to happen. Nebraska is generously a 14-point underdog and if Texas’s success against the Big XII North this season is any indication, it’ll be much worse than that. The Longhorns beat Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado by an average of 30 points.

If McCoy wins, a Tebow vs. McCoy showdown in the National Championship Game would continue a recent trend of Heisman winners playing against each other. Interestingly, they've all come in the National Championship Game. Through the first 69 years of the Heisman Trophy, no two winners had faced each other. If McCoy and Tebow meet in Pasadena, it will be the third time in the last five years. I would venture to say that the odds of going 0 for 69 and then 3 for 5 are pretty small. Maybe "playing for the best team" is more important now than it has ever been when it comes to handing out Heisman votes. Or, maybe team success is predicated more on having the best player than ever before.


Anonymous said...

"[McCoy] has a huge advantage over Ingram and Tebow because, unlike those two, he doesn’t have the task of playing a stout defense this weekend." Just FYI, Nebraska has the #2 scoring defense in the country this year. Not saying they're gonna shut down McCoy, but they are at least as stout as Bama, who's #4 in scoring defense, against a similar schedule.

Jake said...

Fair enough. Statistically, Nebraska has a great defense. If you want to go strictly by yards/points allowed then they are stout and if that’s what your criteria is going to be, then I can’t argue. Nebraska’s schedule was atrociously easy. They got Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State, and Florida Atlantic in the non-conference not to mention the horrible Big XII North. Throw in the worst team in the Big XII South (Baylor) and the worst Oklahoma-team in the Bob Stoops era and you’ve got a favorable schedule for any D.

I guess my point was that Colt McCoy will have a much easier time scoring points against Nebraska than Tebow will against ‘Bama. Maybe it won’t turn out that way but I would be surprised if it didn’t.

Jake said...

Gotta give credit to the Nebraska D. They looked amazing. This Heisman vote is going to be crazy.


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