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Voter evolution could deliver closest Heisman finish in history

There was a time when this seemed the unlikeliest of seasons to produce an unpredictable Heisman finish. Entering the year, the decorated quarterback trio of Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy and Florida's Tim Tebow -- last year's top-three finishers -- figured to put a season-long stiff-arm on the rest of the competition.

But here we are, on the eve of the 75th Heisman Trophy presentation, and virtually the only certainty is that none of those three will win. Bradford's hopes ended the moment his shoulder hit the turf of Cowboys Stadium on opening weekend against BYU. McCoy's likely ended on the same field three months later when Nebraska's defenders sent him to the ground repeatedly. Tebow's biggest impact on the race may be his own ballot.

McCoy and Tebow will both be in New York for Saturday's ceremony at the Times Square Nokia Theatre, but it appears the race is down to three tightly bunched candidates: Alabama running back Mark Ingram, Stanford running back Toby Gerhart and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

As of late Thursday, StiffArmTrophy.com -- which has pegged the last seven winners' victory margins with remarkable accuracy -- had solicited ballots from 277 of the 926 registered voters. In what would be the closest margin between first- and third-place in Heisman history, the site's projected order was: Ingram (1,229 points), followed by Gerhart (1,129) and Suh (1,119).

"What's interesting to me so far is the regional diversity," said the site's publisher, Kari Chisholm, a political consultant. "The big question was what are voters in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast going to do, because there's no Heisman candidate up there? What are voters in Big Ten country going to do? The Big Ten is very split between the three, but in the Northeast Ingram is really pulling away with it."

Ingram, Gerhart and Suh. Think about those names for a second. In what was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback, the top-three may not include a single signal-caller. That hasn't happened since 1980. Meanwhile, two of the projected top-three -- a white tailback from an 8-4 Pac-10 team (Gerhart), and, well, a defensive tackle (Suh) -- couldn't fall farther from the traditional Heisman mold.

Ingram, meanwhile, could become the third straight sophomore to win the award. Recall that, prior to Tebow's win in 2007, a sophomore had never won.

"It reflects that Heisman voters are getting smarter and a little more fair," said Chris Huston, the publisher of HeismanPundit.com. "They're not automatically disqualifying someone that plays for an 8-4 team and they're recognizing a defensive tackle, also for a 9-4 team."

Suh's ascension in particular is a landmark moment. It's been 15 years since a defensive lineman (Miami's Warren Sapp) last finished in the top five. Suh, whose 82 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 12 sacks are all incredibly high numbers for an interior lineman, first started garnering Heisman hype following a monstrous Thursday-night performance against Missouri on Oct. 8. As might be expected, however, he faded from the conversation as the Huskers (who lost consecutive games to Texas Tech and Iowa State immediately afterward) fell off the national radar.

"After the Missouri game there was some Heisman talk, but I never expected to be there at the end," Suh said Thursday night.

However, in the course of one night last Saturday -- one truly remarkable Big 12 championship night in which the Huskers star sacked Texas' McCoy 4.5 times while notching 12 overall tackles and seven tackles for loss -- Suh went from Heisman afterthought to Heisman finalist.

"I'll guarantee you most of the people who watched Suh in that game hadn't seen much of him all year," said Huston. "Word kind of spread like wild fire. It all kind of happened instantaneously. That never would have happened a couple of years ago."

Lest we start giving voters too much credit for originality, the guy who looks most likely to win, Alabama's Ingram, fits roughly the same profile as five of the past six winners (Oklahoma's Jason White, USC's Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, Ohio State's Troy Smith and Bradford). In short, he's the star player for the nation's No. 1 team.

Ingram, who initially burst into the Heisman conversation following a 246-yard game against South Carolina on Oct. 17, made a convincing final argument in Alabama's 32-13 rout of top-ranked Florida in last weekend's SEC Championship Game. The Flint, Mich., native ran 28 times for 113 yards and three touchdowns and also broke a screen pass for 69 yards.

However, his season-long production was fairly modest by Heisman standards. He ranks 12th nationally at 118.6 yards per game, which would be the lowest of any Heisman-winning running back since Archie Griffin in 1975. In fact, he's not even the leading rusher in his own conference, the SEC. (That would be Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon.)

Perhaps that's why voters for the Doak Walker Award cast their ballots for Gerhart, who leads the nation in carries (311), rushing yards (1,736) and touchdowns (26). Alabama fans will quickly point out that their guy averages more yards per play (6.2) than Gerhart (5.6), who benefited from an additional 62 attempts. Stanford fans would likely counter that Gerhart's durability (he averaged 26 carries per game) is a feat unto itself.

It's hard to tell whether Ingram's ascension is a sign of laziness or evolution on the part of voters.

"Colt McCoy has probably had as good as season as Ingram, he plays for the No. 2 team and has as much if not more name recognition," noted Huston. "Traditionally, that'd be a no brainer. Voters would say 'McCoy deserves it, we can vote for Ingram next year.' Something's happening."

That "something" appears to be the work of a more modernized Heisman electorate, one that's more open-minded and more informed than those of earlier generations. They're also, however, still human, and therefore still very much influenced by "last impressions."

Had the polls closed just a week earlier, it's very likely that either McCoy (who lit up Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night) or Gerhart (who went for 205 yards and three touchdowns against Notre Dame two nights later) would be the prohibitive favorites over Ingram (who posted a season-low 30 yards on 16 carries against Auburn that same weekend) and Suh (who likely would not have been invited).

"This the first fully implemented information-age Heisman race, where all the ballots are [cast] online, the first one where Twitter was used full-time," said Huston. "It seems like the race may be a little more prone to wild swings."

Remember that next year when the inevitable preseason Heisman lists start appearing. As we've now seen, they no longer hold up over the course of a season -- or even a week.

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