Thursday October 15th, 2009

In the latest Heisman Poll on HeismanPundit.com -- a weekly survey of 13 Heisman voters (myself included) that accurately predicted five of the top six finishers last year -- Florida's Tim Tebow increased his stranglehold on the top spot, which he's held every week since the preseason, while Texas' Colt McCoy came in second for the fifth time in six weeks.

I'm not sure why.

Nearly halfway through the regular season, Tebow has thrown for a whopping 777 yards. McCoy has thrown nearly as many interceptions (six) as he did all of last year (eight). Tebow ranks fifth in his own conference in total offense, one spot behind Auburn's Chris Todd. McCoy ranks 22nd nationally in pass efficiency, one spot below Florida State's Christian Ponder.

"The race has been pretty lackluster," said Chris Huston, editor of HeismanPundit.com. "It's sort of like watching a TV show that's won a lot of Emmys. The new season hasn't really gotten good yet, but you assume it will eventually be good by season's end. It's kind of that thing with McCoy and Tebow."

Perhaps the plot will thicken this weekend. Perhaps McCoy will once again shine during Saturday's Red River duel against Oklahoma. Perhaps Tebow, having survived the scare of his concussion, will go back to being the one-man wrecking crew of old against Arkansas. Or perhaps Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, who's thus far been racking up big numbers against mediocre competition, will launch himself to the front of the pack by knocking off No. 6 USC.

But what if none of those things happen? What if Tebow puts together another 172-yard day while Florida's running backs and defense carry the load against Arkansas? What if Oklahoma beats Texas? (Is it too late for Sam Bradford to get back in the race?) And what if the Trojans throttle the Irish yet again?

Perhaps it's time for the nation's Heisman electorate to start prepping itself for the reality that the nation's best player this year might not be one of last year's darlings. In fact -- brace yourself -- he might not even be a quarterback or running back (gasp!).

"Of course you have Tebow and McCoy, but neither one has lit up the college football world so far," said ESPN analyst Desmond Howard, the last receiver to win the trophy back in 1991. "If another guy just jumps off the screen, he can really get into this race because it's wide open."

All but five winners in the award's 74-year history have been quarterbacks or running backs, with quarterbacks claiming eight of the past nine. The rare exceptions like Michigan's Howard, fellow Wolverine Charles Woodson (1997) and Notre Dame's Tim Brown (1988) have benefited from a common trait: they also returned kicks and punts.

On that note, I'd like to introduce my fellow Heisman voters to Jordan Shipley and Mardy Gilyard.

Shipley, Texas' sixth-year senior receiver, has managed to upstage best buddy McCoy with his penchant for breathtaking plays. The all-purpose threat ranks seventh nationally in receiving yards (116.6 per game), fourth in punt returns (18.9 per kick, including two touchdowns) and last week added kick-return duties to his repertoire. On Saturday, he returns to the scene of his game-changing 96-yard kick return in last year's Oklahoma game.

"Jordan Shipley is amazing," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "What he's been able to do in the first five games seems to still not be as nationally recognized as I think it should be. He's done an amazing job."

Gilyard has done much the same thing for 5-0 Cincinnati, averaging 166.4 all-purpose yards. While Bearcats quarterback Tony Pike -- the nation's ninth-rated passer -- receives far more pub, Gilyard plays as big a role with his breakaway ability. In fact, one of Cincy's most dangerous plays is the screen pass to Gilyard, who's tied for the national lead with seven receiving touchdowns. On Thursday night will provide a showcase opportunity when the Bearcats visit 5-0 South Florida.

"Mardy has made himself a complete player," said Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly. "He is more of a downfield threat. He was a big screen guy for us last year. He would make a couple of guys miss and go. His game now has developed to the point where he can be a guy that catches the slant and catches the post-corner. He's more of a complete wide receiver than he was last year."

Moving to the other side of the ball, no player has received more national acclaim over the past week than Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who delivered an eye-opening performance last Thursday against Missouri. (See here, here, here and here.) He topped my ballot in this week's HeismanPundit.com poll and came in second behind Clausen in Gene Menez's latest Heisman Watch.

"Being an ESPN game, being the only show in town, a lot of people got to see what he can do [last Thursday]," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. "He's a guy that controls a football game."

Suh, quite simply, is doing things unheard of for an interior lineman. He leads the Huskers in tackles (32) to go with three sack and seven tackles for loss. Most impressive, however, is that he's tied for sixth in the country with eight passes defended (seven pass break-ups and one interception). No other defensive lineman ranks in the top 100.

"Did you ever think you would see a defensive tackle have as much impact as he does?" defensive coordinator Carl Pelini told the Lincoln Journal Star. "He comes along once in a career."

Suh may have a hard time maintaining his spot in the limelight as the season progresses, however. No defensive tackle has finished among the top five Heisman vote-getters since Washington's Steve Emtman placed fourth in 1991. Defensive tackles don't often make the weekly SportsCenter highlights, which means voters would have to be extra diligent about tracking his weekly progress.

"It's a sign of some dissatisfaction with the status quo candidates," said Huston. "People are shopping around, and some people are saying 'Why not someone like Suh?' His chances of actually winning are 0.0 percent, but he has chance of finishing in the top five."

Suh's biggest problem could be the fact that there's not a consensus he's the top defensive player in the country. Tennessee safety Eric Berry entered the season with that tag -- not to mention an aggressive promotional campaign by the school -- and has done little to disappoint. He's second on the Vols with 50 tackles, returned a fumble 46 yards against Georgia and, in his most visible performance to date, intercepted Tebow when the teams met Sept. 19.

There's also been a budding push lately for Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain, the undisputed leader of the Crimson Tide's second-ranked defense. He leads his team in tackles (42) and tackles for loss (5.5) to go with two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

"Suh is not the only defensive player getting pub," said Huston. "For him to finish in Hugh Green territory [the Pitt defensive end who finished second in 1980] and have a chance to win, there can't be an Eric Berry in the race."

Maybe that's the case. Maybe we should just sit back and wait for the inevitable late-season push by a Tebow or McCoy -- or a Clausen, Pike, Case Keenum or Jacory Harris -- that assures the bronzed statue stays in the quarterback family tree.

Or maybe the voters should start taking a look around the landscape to realize this isn't necessarily another Year of the Quarterback. Right now, only two of the aforementioned quarterbacks, Cincinnati's Pike and Houston's Keenum, are on pace to reach 30 passing touchdowns, a mark Bradford (50), McCoy (34) and Tebow (30) all achieved last season, as has every Heisman-winning quarterback since 1996 (with the exception of option QB Eric Crouch).

Rushing statistics are down even further. Among BCS-conference running backs, only West Virginia's Noel Devine is on pace to eclipse 1,500 yards. The last runner to win, USC's Reggie Bush in 2005, had 1,740. And Bush was also a receiver/return man who averaged 222.3 all-purpose yards. Marshall's Darius Marshall (211.0) and Clemson's C.J. Spiller (206.6) are the only running backs in the country close to that mark.

Heisman voters have softened several historic barriers in recent years. They crowned the first-ever sophomore winners, Tebow (2007) and Bradford (2008), the past two seasons. They came darn close to crowning the first freshman (runner-up Adrian Peterson) in 2004 as well as a pure receiver (runner-up Larry Fitzgerald) in 2003.

But are they ready to crown the first defensive tackle or safety? Or restore glamour to the lost art of the punt return? It would certainly be something if it happened in a year that was supposed to belong to Tebow, Bradford and McCoy.

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