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Newton tops final Heisman Watch after best performance yet

The speculation surrounding Saturday night's Heisman Trophy ceremony has little to do with which player is going to join the ranks of the icons of the past. Anyone watching college football this season knows the most outstanding player was without a doubt Auburn's Cam Newton.

But while the outcome is predictable, the numbers will still be worth watching.

For those like me who intended to vote for Newton despite the controversy swirling around him, the NCAA's eligibility ruling cleared up any immediate uncertainty. We can now vote for the junior quarterback with confidence. (Though the possibility of future action remains, as the governing body did not say the case is closed.)

For Newton's detractors, it could mean something else entirely. They now have verification from the NCAA that Newton's father, Cecil, shopped his son for cash. They're being asked to believe that Cam and Auburn knew nothing of it. Add in the criticism of the NCAA's ruling and this may lead to those who have railed against Newton continuing to do so -- and in the process producing a vote that may be closer than it should.

If my poll of the American public is any indication, it could happen. Of the 326 ballots I received, Newton got 203 first-place votes, roughly 62.2 percent. He was omitted by 17.4 percent of the voters. If we use that to project the ballots of the 925 official Heisman votes, Newton would finish with 573 first-place votes, well behind Reggie Bush's record 784 in the vote that never happened.

This is by no means an indicator of Heisman voters' mindsets. It's still conceivable that Newton could win in a landslide. In addition to Newton's unrivaled dominance, the fact that the three other candidates who have generated the most buzz (Oregon's LaMichael James, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Boise State's Kellen Moore) all come from the same region (Far West) means split votes where there would otherwise have been great support, further weighing things in Newton's favor. But will the negative publicity cost Newton a chance at rivaling Troy Smith's 1,662-point margin of victory in 2006?

Let's hope the NCAA's judgment is enough to clear the judgment of the voters. Filling out a Heisman ballot is about an obligation to honor greatness; it's no place to make a protest.

Below you'll find the Watchman's official ballot. As a refresher, here's how I ranked things after Week 13.

Last Week: 17-of-28 passing for 335 yards and four TDs; 14 rushes for 73 yards and two TDs in a 56-17 win over South Carolina

Season: 165-of-246 passing for 2,589 yards, 28 TDs and six INTs; 242 rushes for 1,409 yards and 20 TDs; two receptions for 42 yards and one TD

Amazingly, Newton's résumé has gotten even more impressive. With his performance in the SEC Championship Game, Newton wrestled the national passing efficiency crown away from Moore with a 188.1 rating, putting him on pace to break Colt Brennan's single-season mark of 186.0. He also joined Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick as the only players to throw and run for at least 20 touchdowns in the same season. Tebow, whom Newton once backed up at Florida, has been a logical measuring stick. But while Tebow's 20/20 season led to nine wins and a spot in the Capital One Bowl, Newton's has led to an undefeated season and a spot in the national title game, a true testament to all he's meant to Auburn. Newton also heads to New York with 294 more rushing yards than Eric Crouch, who holds the Heisman rushing record for a quarterback.

Last Week: Regular season completed

Season: 245-of-349 passing for 3,051 yards, 28 TDs and seven INTs; 51 rushes for 438 yards and three TDs

Let's call it the Newton Effect. Since Week 5, James had firmly held the No. 2 spot in the Watch, but the way Newton carried the Tigers on his back only magnified what Luck has accomplished in Palo Alto. James didn't do anything against Oregon State to hurt his candidacy, but would the Cardinal be in a BCS game without Luck at the controls? No way. With last year's Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart gone, Luck took a team Sports Illustrated picked to finish fifth in the Pac-10 and led it to an 11-1 record, with the sole loss coming on the road against Oregon. This trophy is as much about a player's value as stats, and there's no denying Luck's importance in getting Stanford to the Orange Bowl.

Last Week: 28 rushes for 134 yards and two TDs in a 37-20 win over Oregon State

Season: 281 rushes for 1,682 yards and 21 TDs; 13 receptions for 169 yards and one TD

James leads the nation in rushing yards, yards per game (152.9) and points per game (12.0) despite missing the season opener due to a suspension. Many a reader has grumbled that James is a system back benefitting from Chip Kelly's high-octane offense, but one could argue the system thrives because of James. Consider this: The Ducks have played two games decided by less than 19 points, and in those games they were held at least 150 yards below their average of 537.5 yards per game. Those are also the only two times James was kept below 100 yards. When he's on, it opens up Oregon's entire offense. He's proven durable in attempting 51 more carries this season than last, averaging 29.4 carries per game these last five weeks en route to breaking Steven Jackson's Pac-10 sophomore rushing record.

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