September 01, 2010

The billboard towers over Insterstate 76 in Philadelphia, beckoning drivers going both east and west through the city. A slogan on the bottom offers the reminder: "You are now 1 mile from history!"

Occupying the right side of the billboard is Temple running back Bernard Pierce, captured during one of the 236 rushing attempts from his record-setting freshman campaign in 2009. A tagline sits just to the left of his wide eyes: "HUNT FOR THE HEISMAN."

The billboard is one of five scattered across Philadelphia promoting the Heisman candidacy of Pierce, a sophomore and preseason All-America who set a school record with 16 touchdowns last season. Temple's $60,000-plus campaign also includes advertisements on buses and a website,

"I don't look at it," Pierce said of the site. "I've seen it, like, twice."

It's easy to understand why Pierce isn't putting too much stock into the campaign. Since BYU's Ty Detmer won the Heisman Trophy in 1990, no college player from a non-BCS team has won the award. But with Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore directing the No. 3 team in the nation and a slew of other small school candidates like Houston quarterback Case Keenum, Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs and Pierce gaining national recognition, an non-BCS player could get into the race this season.

The contenders know a Heisman victory won't come without a flawless campaign -- and then some. That means constant promotion, be it in the form of a website (like Pierce) or an East Coast media tour (like Keenum). It also means constant results, because one loss or less than stellar performance could take them out of the hunt.

Moore led the nation in pass efficiency last season, and his team should content for a national title this year. Keenum could become the alltime NCAA leader in career passing yards. Dobbs' 27 rushing touchdowns last season -- recorded despite playing the final six games with a broken right kneecap -- set an NCAA record for a quarterback. But even those gaudy accomplishments might not be enough.

"In my own eyes, I just have to do what I can do," Dobbs said. "I just focus on the can-dos -- everything that Ricky can do... . But in the eyes of the voters and the general public, there has to be something extraordinary."

Detmer's road to the Heisman wasn't just extraordinary. It was, in his words, "perfect." His campaign began with a marketing ploy staged the year before he won the Heisman. During BYU's 1989 Holiday Bowl matchup with Penn State, the school distributed blue neckties featuring Detmer's sophomore year stats and the slogan "One Ty You'll Like."

If the ties didn't quite gain him national recognition, Detmer ramped up the talk with a record-setting performance against the Nittany Lions, setting bowl-game marks with 576 passing yards and 594 yards of total offense.

"It kind of opened the door going into next season," Detmer said.

In '90, Detmer had the good fortune of opening against defending champion Miami, which still carried the nation's No. 1 ranking. His 406 yards through the air and three touchdowns sparked a 28-21 upset of the Hurricanes. The next game was against Washington State, a contest BYU had no business winning after falling behind 29-7 at halftime. Forty-three points in the second half gave the Cougars a two-touchdown victory, and Detmer's season continued in an upward spiral from there. He finished the year with 5,188 yards passing.

Detmer knows small-school Heisman candidacy requires a formula. Promotion? Check. An upset or two? Check. And that something extra? Check.

"You just have to go out and play and hope things fall into place for you," Detmer said. "Things have to line up. It's the Heisman Trophy. There's only one a year. For me, things just lined up."

Other players from outside the BCS have challenged, but no one has gotten the formula just right. Garrett Wolfe, the former Northern Illinois running back, rose to prominence with an NCAA-high 1,928 rushing yards in 2006. He began the season with a 285-yard performance against No. 1 Ohio State, but Northern Illinois lost that game and five others on the season.

Ian Johnson, the former Boise State running back, had performance, an upset and a moment in the spotlight thanks to his post-Fiesta Bowl marriage proposal in 2007. But the latter two came during bowl season, after the Heisman had been awarded. On performance alone, Johnson only ranked as a darkhorse, failing to even earn an invite to New York as a finalist.

Johnson couldn't help that his marquee game took place in January. But for small-school hopefuls to stand a chance, they must make the most of that which they do control. "As a non-BCS conference player, you can't afford to slip up," Detmer said. "As an individual player, you have to do it every week. Week in, week out. One slip up, and it can cost you. ... They're going to have to go a little harder each week. There's no excuse for a letdown in the eyes of the voters. It's unfortunate, but it's the way it is right now."

Right now, though, the college football landscape is changing, and the gap between BCS and non-BCS conferences is shrinking. The No. 3 slot in the national rankings belongs to a team from the WAC. Since the end of the 2006 season, the Mountain West and WAC champions that have played in BCS bowls have been ranked higher than their ACC and Big East counterparts, and have also drawn higher TV ratings and more fans.

"I think with certain schools [the gap] is closing," Keenum said. "It's hard to say, because there are a bunch of politics that go into football and college football nowadays. ... But I believe there are a whole lot of talented players out there and a whole lot of talented teams."

Dobbs, for one, has his future planned. First, a stint of military service. Then, a Super Bowl. Finally, a bid for the Oval Office -- in 2040.

A Heisman Trophy, though?

"I do feel like there's less of a shot," Dobbs said. "A lot of people don't know about non-BCS schools and Navy. That makes it a lot harder. It looks impossible. But nothing is impossible."

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