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My toughest Heisman vote ever

The calls came from reporters in Florida and Oklahoma. A radio show in Portland wanted to know. Assorted bloggers wanted to know. And, it goes without saying, my editors wanted to know.

Meanwhile, the automated e-mails from the Heisman Trust started popping in several times a day reminding me, "We have not received your Heisman ballot" and could you please vote "IMMEDIATELY."

The deadline for Heisman voters to cast their votes was 5 p.m. EST on Wednesday. From the time the final games ended Saturday night until just minutes before I finally pressed "submit" on the voter Web site at 1:33 p.m. Wednesday, I went back-and-forth between three different players, talking things out with anyone who would listen and stressing myself out like a Deal or No Deal contestant.

It was the most difficult decision I've ever faced as a Heisman voter. And based on the early returns, I'd imagine it was the same way for many of my fellow electorate. All indications are that this will be one of the closest races in the award's 75-year history. For the first time in more than a decade, there will be genuine, heart-stopping suspense when that envelope is opened Saturday night.

"The last time I had no clue was in 1995, when Tommie Frazier, Eddie George and Danny Wuerffel all went into the ceremony with a shot at winning," said Chris Huston, publisher of the authoritative Web site HeismanPundit.com.

Much like that year, we know it will be one of three players: Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy. They were the three finalists invited to New York for Saturday's presentation, which means as of Wednesday the voting tabulators had figured out that they were the only three with a realistic chance of winning.

But what makes this year so unique, so potentially historic, is that any of the three could win it. That marks a far cry from the past few years, when the coronations of Tebow (2007), Troy Smith ('06) and Reggie Bush ('05) were foregone conclusions long before they arrived in New York.

"So far, 2008 looks to be the closest Heisman race since the one between Eric Crouch and Rex Grossman in 2001," said Kari Chisholm, a political consultant in Oregon and who runs the Web site StiffArmTrophy.com. "But it's even more interesting, since it's a three-way race -- which may make it the closest race of all time."

Over the past six years, Chisholm's site has correctly projected the winner every single time, and, even more impressively, come within about 2.5 percent each year of nailing the winner's vote total. He does it by contacting as many actual Heisman voters as possible (last year: 249), finding out how they voted, then weighting the collected ballots based on how many of them come from each of the six Heisman voting regions.

How close is this year's race? As of Thursday afternoon, Chisholm had attained 195 ballots (there are 926 registered voters), of which Tebow had received 74 first-place votes, Bradford 62 and McCoy 55. However, because a disproportionate number of his collected ballots had come from the South (where Tebow is dominating), and because Tebow had received far fewer second-place votes (31) than either Bradford (69) or McCoy (58), Chisholm's projected finish (which could change as more votes are collected) was:

1) Bradford (1,687 points) 2) McCoy (1,516) 3) Tebow (1,446)

If those numbers hold up, it will mark the third-closest margin between No. 1 and No. 3 in the past 50 years. But with plenty more ballots still to collect, and with the known "margin of error," Chisholm had yet to officially project a winner.

"A lot of the back-and-forth movement has come from big chunks of home-state votes," he wrote. "For example, we've got three times as many votes in the Southwest and in the South regions than we do in the Far West and Northeast regions -- and the outcomes in those underreported regions are very, very close."

The dramatic finish is a fitting ending to what has seemed like a constantly changing season-long race. In '06, Ohio State's Smith rose to the top of the pecking order by the second week of the season and never let go. Tebow sat in the driver's seat from the time SEC play began last year.

This season, by contrast, has seen a constant, revolving door of front-runners, with the media primarily fixated on a pack of prolific Big 12 passers. First, it was Missouri's Chase Daniel (a finalist last season), who then got usurped by Texas's McCoy, who then got usurped by Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, who then got usurped by Bradford. Realistically, both McCoy and Harrell probably could have locked the thing up weeks ago if not for their teams' late-season losses.

"McCoy was two seconds away from clinching the Heisman," said Huston, referring to Texas' last-second loss to Texas Tech. "If he beats Texas Tech, he wins in a landslide. In the end, Harrell was about 44 points away [a 65-21 loss to Oklahoma] from winning the Heisman."

Tebow, despite his incumbent status, never seemed to be in the mix, due in part to a slow start to his season. But last weekend's SEC title game performance apparently made quite the final impression on many voters (the large majority of whom waited until this week to cast their ballot.)

In the Rocky Mountain News' annual Heisman Poll, which has correctly tabbed the winner 18 of the past 21 years, Tebow appeared in the top three only twice: The first week and the last. That poll's electorate tabbed McCoy, by one point, over Bradford.

Meanwhile, the Gainesville Sun polled 98 voters across the six regions and came out with a tie -- Tebow and Bradford both notched 194 points.

One of the major reasons this year's vote was so difficult is because, in today's age, voters are usually swayed by the player with the most impressive stats. But what do you do when all of the primary candidates have at least one absurd stat to their credit?

Oklahoma's Bradford threw for an astounding 4,464 yards, 48 touchdowns and six interceptions. In any other year, those numbers would likely tower over those of any other candidate.

But another player in his own conference, Texas Tech's Harrell, threw for 4,747 yards, 41 TDs and seven INTs while playing one less game, causing his ever-outspoken coach, Mike Leach, to declare, "If Graham is not invited to the Heisman, they ought to quit giving out the award. It is a shameless example of politics ruling over performance."

(All due respect, Mike, but Harrell's fall from grace had less to do with politics than it did that 65-21 debacle.)

Meanwhile, Texas' McCoy threw for about 1,000 less yards than Bradford. However, he posted what will wind up being an NCAA-record 77.6 completion percentage for 32 TDs and seven INTs while also serving as his team's leading rusher (576 yards, 10 TDs).

Finally, there was Tebow, whose yardage totals (2,515 passing, 564 rushing) were more modest than his competitors, but who posted one of the most impressive stats of all: a 28-to-2 touchdown-to-interception rate, including 16-to-0 over the Gators' final six games.

Among the NCAA's passing efficiency leaders, Bradford finished first; McCoy third; and Tebow fifth.

Personally, I pored through all those numbers about 20 times over a three-day span. I looked back at game-by-game performances. At one point or another, I managed to sell myself on one of the three ... only to change my mind again later.

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that this was not a race that could be decided by stats. The fact is, all of the candidates' stat lines were impressive in their own ways, making it impossible to quantify one guy's as "better" than another's.

So I finally asked myself, "Who do you truly believe is the nation's 'most outstanding player?'"

Prior to last weekend, I believed it to be McCoy. Simply put, he was Texas' offense this season, which he directed remarkably and almost flawlessly en route an 11-1 season. I watched him in person direct two fourth-quarter comebacks, first against Oklahoma, then against Texas Tech (Harrell and Michael Crabtree wound up rendering that one moot).

But then I covered last weekend's SEC title game and was reminded first-hand why I, and so many others, deemed Tebow the "most outstanding player" a year ago. Everything the Gators do, they do because of Tebow. It's not just his razor-sharp passes. It's not just his relentless, fullback-style running. It's all the little things in between -- the lethal play-fakes, the precise option pitches and, most importantly, his emotional leadership -- that make him the most dominant player in the sport.

Put it this way: Tebow was the most outstanding player a year ago, and he's only gotten better. All three quarterbacks, as well as Harrell, are phenomenal players, but if you asked me to choose one to build a team around, I would choose Tebow in a heartbeat -- which is why I voted for him.

Considering just how difficult a decision it was, I would not argue with anyone who voted for Bradford or McCoy. Now, I anxiously await the result.

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