Ness: Heisman Watch
by Larry Ness
I featured my Heisman preview back in late August and pointed out the obvious. The 2008 Heisman was won by Oklahoma's Sam Bradford with Colt McCoy of Texas finishing second and Florida's Tim Tebow (the 2007 winner) finishing third, despite garnering more first-place votes than either Bradford or McCoy. With all three players back for the 2009 season, it would be a year like no other in Heisman history. Tebow became the first sophomore to win the award in 2007 and Bradford became the second to do so last season. Never before had a college football season opened a year in which two Heisman winners were active.
Throw in McCoy and it was expected to be a clear-cut three-man race in 2009. While I cautioned that one can never say "no one else has a chance to win," it seemed highly unlikely any player outside of the "Big Three" had much of chance to win the 2009 Heisman. However, "#hit happens." Bradford was hurt in Oklahoma's first game, sat out the next three games and then after returning for a win over Baylor, was hurt again (and lost for the season) vs Texas.
McCoy struggled against the best defenses he faced (Oklahoma and Nebraska) and while his overall stats are impressive, they don’t match the numbers he put up last season. While Tebow led the Gators to 12 straight wins to open the 2009 season and to a second straight SEC championship game appearance (the Gators also took an overall 22-game winning streak into that game), his stats compared to his sophomore and juniors seasons were to say the least, underwhelming.
QBs have dominated the Heisman award this decade, as every winner since 2000 has played that position save Reggie Bush of USC, who won in 2005. However, RBs have won the Heisman 42 times since Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago won the first-ever Heisman back in 1935.
The Heisman Trophy will be awarded Saturday in a ceremony which has been televised since 1981 in New York. At least three players have been invited to attend since 1982 but five players were invited this year for the first time since 2004, when USC quarterback Matt Leinart won the award. In alphabetical order, the five invitees are Toby Gerhart, Mark Ingram, Colt McCoy, Ndamukong Suh and Tim Tebow.
Tebow becomes the first player to be invited to the Heisman Trophy presentation ceremony three times. He also becomes the first player to finish in the top five of the Heisman balloting three times since Georgia's Herschel Walker did it in the early 1980s. McCoy was the runner-up last season and has led Texas to the BCS national championship game this season. Suh is the first defensive player to be a finalist since 1997, when Michigan CB Charles Woodson became the first full-time defensive player to win the Heisman. As for Gerhart and Ingram, they were nowhere to be found an anyone's preseason Heisman lists.
The Heisman ballot allows voters to list three players, so I'll fill out my personal Heisman ballot (one of whom was not invited to New York) plus comment on all five finalists in this, my final Heisman report of the 2009 season.
NDAMUKONG SUH (Nebraska): I'm not much on defensive players winning the Heisman. This is a very subjective process (at best) but trying to compare a defensive player (with no real stats) to an offensive player (with long-established and readily understandable statistical categories) is almost an impossibility. Pitt launched a major Heisman campaign for DE Hugh Green back in 1980 and he finished second to George Rogers (South Carolina) that season. Nebraska center Dave Rimmington finished 5th in 1982 and OT Orlando Pace of Ohio State finished 4th in 1996. As already mentioned, Michigan CB Charles Woodson won the award in 1997 and here's the short list of other defensive players who finished among the top-five since 1980. Oklahoma LB Brian Bosworth finished 4th in 1986, Washington DT Steve Emtman 4th in 1991 and Florida State LB Marvin Jones 4th in 1992.
I realize that Suh is a dominating presence, no one who watched last Saturday's Big 12 championship game could deny that, but he's really only the choice of the "Johnny come latelys." He’s had a great season with 82 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. He also has 10 pass breakups and three blocked kicks. His dominating performance in the Big 12 championship game ( 4 1/2 sacks) has picked up a lot of steam and a bunch of votes but frankly, he didn’t show up on most Heisman 'radar screens' until three-fourths of the season had passed. Those who have really paid attention will not just remember his Texas performance but also the fact that he was a non-factor in back-to-back losses to Texas Tech (31-10) and Iowa State (9-7). Suh as the 2009 Heisman winner is a joke.
COLT MCCOY (Texas) and TIM TEBOW (Florida): Both players have had great careers but I don't know how anyone who held his ballot until after last Saturday's games, could place either one of these players No. 1 on their ballots. I'll start with McCoy. Texas won its first Big 12 South title since 2005 this season but needed a 'miracle' to escape with a 13-12 win last Saturday over Nebraska. The win improved McCoy to 45-7 in his career, the most-ever wins by an NCAA starting QB (Georgia's David Greene held the previous record with 42). However, McCoy completed 20-of-36 passes for just 184 yards and three INTs. After never being sacked more than four times, McCoy was taken down nine times (4 1/2 by Suh) as the "dazed and confused" winningest QB in college football history made a bunch of freshman mistakes, including the nearly costly flub of letting time run out (do I really need to rehash the ending to the Big 12 championship game?). McCoy was held without a TD pass by the Cornhuskers, ending a streak of 29 consecutive games, which was the longest active streak in the nation (has thrown at least one TD pass in 38 of his last 40 games). I've mentioned almost weekly that while McCoy will finish with outstanding numbers this year, he'll fall short of last year's incredible stats. Most notable is the fact that he had rushed for better than 500 yards in each of the last two seasons (McCoy led Texas in rushing LY with 561 yards while scoring 11 TDs on the ground), but has hardly run the ball at all in 2009, finishing with just 348 yards (2.7 YPC / 3 TDs). McCoy posted a 34-8 ratio last year but it's a much more modest 27-12 this year. He completed an NCAA single-season record 76.7 percent of his passes last year but "just" 70.3 percent this year. His 112 TD passes in his career are the most of any active QB and he continues to extend his career record of TDs responsible for (passing, rushing, receiving) at Texas, as his total is now up 132 (in comparison, Young had 81 and former Heisman-winner Ricky Williams had 76). McCoy has 15 career 300-yard passing games, which includes two 400-yard passing performances, vs UCF on November 7 and a 414-yard effort in last year's Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State. Thursday, McCoy won the Walter Camp award for the second straight year. He'll have to settle for that one and hopefully a national championship, as I can't imagine him winning this year's Heisman.
Tebow’s place in CFB history is secure but chances for a third national title (he was a part-time player when Florida won in 2006) plus a second Heisman are all but 'dead.' Florida's national title hopes 'died' in the Georgia Dome last Saturday when Alabama dominated the Gators 32-13 and this Saturday, it seems almost hard to believe Tebow's 2009 performance will garner enough support for a second Heisman. He lost in a head-to-head meeting with Alabama’s Mark Ingram and McCoy, another former finalist and finalist again this year, had a better season for an undefeated team. However, nobody in the sport is more recognizable on and off the field and some voters will choose to recognize his overall career. Tebow set the SEC career record for rushing TDs (has 56 and counting) and for rushing yards by a QB (has 2,896 and counting). Alabama ended Florida's 22-game winning streak last Saturday. During that span, Tebow helped the Gators outscore its opponents 907-to-246 while throwing 41 TDs with just eight INTs plus adding 23 rushing TDs. He has thrown 85 TD passes against just 16 INTs in his college career and his 141 TDs accounted for is also a SEC record. He will take a 34-6 record as a starting QB into this year's Sugar Bowl, having thrown a TD pass in 38 of those 40 games. However, his 247-yard passing game in Florida's losing effort in the SEC championship game marked his second-highest yardage total all season (his season-high was just 255 yards vs Arkansas). He failed to reach 200 yards passing in seven of 13 games this year and after seasons of 32 TDs (six INTs) and 30 TDs (four INTs), he threw just 18 TDs this year with five INTs. How could someone seriously place him No. 1 on their ballot?
My Heisman ballot:
3) CASE KEENUM (Houston): I realize that Keenum competes in C-USA and that his Cougars lost 58-41 at UTEP, 37-32 at UCF and 38-32 at East Carolina (C-USA championship game). However, no player was more outstanding in 2009 than Keenum. He finished with under 300 yards passing just once in 13 games, passing for 233 yards in Houston's 38-15 win over SMU. He topped 400 yards seven times with four games of better than 500 yards. He attempted a remarkable 659 passes in 2009, completing 468 for 71.0 percent. He has 5,449 yards passing (43 TDs / 9 INTs / 4 rushing TDs) which is fourth-most in a season in FBS history (with one game still remaining). Keenum led the nation in total offense with 429.3 YPG, which is 105.4 YPG more than Levi Brown of Troy, who finished second. I'm placing him third on my ballot (ahead of McCoy and Tebow) because of his accomplishments this year but he's racking up some pretty impressive career marks as well. Keenum's 5,449 passage yards in 2009 is a school record and he's joined Texas Tech's Graham Harrell (2007-08) as the only players in NCAA Division I history with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons during their careers. Keenum has 101 career TD passes (just 30 INTs) and with 20 rushing TDs, has a career total of 121 TDs accounted for (also a school-record). Keenum saw his run of 18 consecutive 300-yard passing games in the regular season end vs SMU back on October 24 but he’s topped 300 yards in 25 of his last 27 games overall. He has 12 career games of 400-plus yards passing (one better than the previous school record of 11 held by David Klinger) and he's thrown for at least one TD pass in 29 straight games, a school-record and the longest active streak in college football. If he chooses to return for his senior season, he's a 'lock' to surpass Harrell's all-time record for most TD passes (134) and Dan LeFevour's all-time mark of TDs accounted for. LeFevour currently has 148 but will surely add to that total in this year's GMAC Bowl. Also, Keenum has 12,728 career passing yards going into this year's Armed Forces Bowl. Hawaii's Timmy Chang owns the all-time record with 17,022 yards but Keenum could catch him next year as well if he were to return.
2) MARK INGRAM (Alabama): Neither Ingram nor Gerhart were on anybody's preseason Heisman lists. I've mentioned this before but it's hard to imagine that in Phil Steele’s CFB annual (page 328), he listed nine Heisman favorites, 11 more “contenders,” 28 “possibilities” and 19 “darkhorse” candidates, yet none of those 66 players were named Mark Ingram or Toby Gerhart. That proves what a strange year this has been. Ingram has two major advantages over Gerhart and neither have anything to do with the players' on-field accomplishments. Ingram plays for the No. 1 Crimson Tide, who are headed for the BCS championship game January 7 vs Texas. Alabama beat Florida 32-13 last Saturday in convincing fashion in a 1 vs 2 showdown with Ingram rushing for 113 yards (three TDs) and catching two passes for 76 yards. Also, Alabama is one of CFB's most storied programs yet the Tide have never had a Heisman winner. I can't help but believe that there will be "sentimental votes" cast for Ingram. I'm placing him second on my ballot because I don't believe he was a good a Gerhart this year. With all due respect to his performance last Saturday, Alabama's offensive line was the real 'star' of the game and let me note that Ingram averaged a modest 4.0 YPC vs Florida and his 69-yard gain on a screen pass was a perfectly conceived and blocked play in which a high school freshman could have "finished off.'" Ingram played behind Glen Coffee (1,383 YR) last year, gaining 728 yards (5.1 YPC / 12 TDs), topping more than 100 yards just once (113 yards vs Arkansas St). He became a star this year though, reaching 100 yards (or more) in eight of 13 games, including a career-high 246 yards vs South Carolina. His 1,542 yards (6.2 YPC / 15 TDs) in 2009 breaks the Alabama single-season record held previously by Bobby Humphrey, who ran for 1,471 yards in 1986. Ingram also added 30 catches with three more TDs. I have a feeling Ingram is going to win this thing but he didn't have a more impressive season than Gerhart.
1) TOBY GERHART (Stanford): Will Gerhart really become Stanford's second Heisman winner? Jim Plunkett captured the award back in 1970 but was actually among the preseason favorites. That 1970 season also contained senior QBs Joe Theismann (finished 2nd), Archie Manning (finished 3rd), Ken Anderson, Lynn Dickey and Dan Pastorini. Gerhart ran for 1,136 yards (5.4 YPC / 15 TDs) in 2008, which was a Stanford single-season record for rushing yards. However, few paid attention as the Cardinal were just 5-7 and hadn't posted a winning season since 2001. Gerhart has led Stanford to an 8-4 season in 2009 and a Sun Bowl meeting with Oklahoma. He's run for 1,736 yards (5.6 YPC) which easily surpassed his school record set last year. He ranks second in the nation in rushing with 144.7 YPG (Ingram ranks 12th at 118.6 YPG) heading into the bowl season. His 26 rushing TDs leads the nation and he's No. 1 in scoring as well, averaging 13.3 PPG. He's topped 100 yards in 10 of 12 games, rushing for 82 and 92 yards in the games he didn't. Stanford lost back-to-back games at Oregon St and Arizona in October but won four of its final five games, losing only a heartbreaker to Cal on Nov 21. In those final five games (against ASU, Oregon, USC, Cal and ND), Gerhart averaged 173.4 YPG on the ground while scoring 13 TDs as the Cardinal averaged 42.4 PPG. In Stanford's loss to Cal, one could hardly blame Gerhart. He broke away for a 61-yard TD run and then added a two-yard TD to give Stanford a 14-0 vs the Bears. However, Cal came back behind the play of Shane Vereen, who was filling in for Jahvid Best (an early season Heisman contender). Vereen had career highs in carries (42), rushing yards (193) and tied a career high in touchdowns (three). Down 34-28, Gerhart carried defenders on a 29-yard reception that set up Stanford at the Cal 13 with less than two minutes left. It could have been a “Heisman moment.” However, freshman QB Andrew Luck threw an incompletion on first down and was then intercepted with 1:36 to go on the next play. Should we hold that against Gerhart? I think not. Will Gerhart win? I have a feeling Ingram will but I believe Gerhart is the most deserving and he gets my vote.
I'll be back early next week with some early bowl thoughts and a comment on how the Heisman voting turned out.
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