Thursday January 20th, 2005

There is but one burning question in the Heisman race after this, the penultimate weekend of the regular season: Did USC quarterback Matt Leinart already win it?


If you can avoid going Beano Cook on the decision-making process and look at it rationally, Leinart's 400-yard, five-TD game against Notre Dame on Saturday night merely put him back on par with Oklahoma's Jason White and Utah's Alex Smith.

Prior to Saturday, Leinart was barely within striking distance; he had nary a 300-plus-yard passing game to his name (White and Smith had two each) and just one four-plus-TD game (compared with three each for White and Smith). His entire body of work for the 2004 season is now comparable to those of the other two Heisman frontrunners at QB; although Leinart still trails both White and Smith in QB rating and TD-to-INT ratio, he is tops in yards per game and completion percentage.

The final decision -- on which QB the voters prefer -- likely will come down to intangibles: Should Leinart get bonus points for putting up big numbers with an inexperienced corps of receivers? Should White get credit for playing the toughest schedule of the three, and re-emerging from Adrian Peterson's shadow? Should Smith's rushing numbers -- a dimension that makes him unique in this race -- be given much weight?

Of the top four on this list, Leinart and White -- but not Smith or Cedric Benson -- get one last chance to bolster their arguments on Dec. 4. Whichever QB plays better, I'm guessing, takes home the trophy.

Unless, of course, a certain back named Peterson runs away with the show.

Nov. 20 (at Baylor): 19-of-32 passing, 194 yards, 2 TDs in 35-0 win Season (11-0): 209-of-325 passing (64.3 percent), 2,707 yards, 30 TDs, 4 INTs

If he finishes his career with just one Heisman on the mantle, White will be kicking himself for not coming out firing against, of all teams, Baylor. White's 194-yard, two-TD afternoon against the Bears on Nov. 20 left the door open for Leinart during the Sooners' bye week ... and we all know what happened.

Last Week (vs. Notre Dame): 24-of-34 passing, 400 yards, 5 TDs in 41-10 win Season (10-0): 227-of-343 passing (66.2 percent), 2,748 yards, 28 TDs, 5 INTs, 3 rushing TDs

A rainy Coliseum provided the setting for the season's first high-quality episode of The Leinart Zone: "I've seen this before in him, where he just has games where he's just on fire," Reggie Bush told the Los Angeles Times. "There's not much a defense is going to be able to do to stop him, because he's on fire, he's seeing his reads, he's slowing down the game.

"He's a great player. He's my pick for the Heisman." (Bush, you recall, was ahead of Leinart in this race before he fell under his QB's spell.)

Nov. 20 (vs. BYU): 16-of-24 passing, 184 yards, TD, 2 INTs; 14 carries, 34 yards, TD in 52-21 win Season (11-0): 185-of-280 passing (66.1 percent), 2,624 yards, 28 TDs, 4 INTs; 120 carries, 563 yards, 10 rushing TDs

Last week, Smith admitted he hadn't been paying too much attention to this Heisman thing, what with the Utes in the midst of a dream season. "I think I handled it differently during the season," Smith told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I was focused on the games and winning. Now that the season's over, I'm obviously going to keep track [of the battle for the Heisman], see how the other guys are doing."

You wonder, after watching TV Saturday night, if he doesn't get the sneaking suspicion he'll only show in this race.

Last Week (vs. Texas A&M): 33 carries, 165 yards, TD in 26-13 win Season (10-1): 303 carries, 1,764 yards (160.4 yards per game), 19 rushing TDs, 1 receiving TD

Benson, a senior, made his final statement on Thursday: 168 yards, one touchdown and a victory lap around the field at Royal-Memorial Stadium. "That was spontaneous," Benson told the Austin American-Statesman. "I thought I'd take one last go-round, get a good look at everything. It was my last game."

Nov. 20 (at Baylor): 32 carries, 240 yards, 3 TDs in 35-0 win Season (11-0): 286 carries, 1,671 yards (151.9 yards per game), 12 TDs

There's little doubt that Peterson's team will win the Big 12 championship game; but will they be the Runnin' Sooners (star: Peterson) or the Air Sooners (star: White) against Colorado? That will go a long way in determining which OU player makes the most noise in New York. The odds favor White: The Buffs are ranked No. 70 in the nation against the run, 100th against the pass.

Side notes: The list had to be slimmed down to a realistic five this week, and there wasn't room for USC's Bush or Cal's J.J. Arrington. Bush conceded, and while Arrington didn't do anything to deserve demotion, I doubt even a mammoth game against Southern Miss is going to garner him the attention needed to vault both Benson and Peterson in the running back hierarchy. ... One name that should be included on every preseason Heisman Watch next season: Bowling Green QB Omar Jacobs, who, if he weren't playing on a three-loss team, would be in the mix this season. His 36 touchdowns and three INTs are unmatched across the nation.

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