Tim Tebow, the tackle-breaking, touchdown-making Florida quarterback whose fans make up absurd jokes about his all-encompassing greatness ("When Google can't find something, it asks Tim Tebow for help"), does his best work in a crowd. It can be a gaggle of Gators fans, to whom he is so accommodating that he has been known to ask the football staff for a few more minutes to sign autographs after a game, or a cluster of potential tacklers, who tend to scatter like shards of glass when he comes crashing through, or even a gathering of prison inmates, many of whom were so moved by Tebow's inspirational talk during a recent visit that they came up and hugged him afterward.
Darren McFadden, the shoulder-faking, history-making Arkansas tailback who caused yet another drastic resketching of the national championship picture by leading the Razorbacks to a triple-overtime 50-48 upset of No. 1 LSU last Friday, is more at home in open space, which tends to be plentiful because there are so few defenders who can stay with him. "I've seen lots of guys on defense who think they've got him all lined up, that he won't be able to get around the end, for instance, and then he just makes a move, accelerates and he's gone," says fellow Arkansas runner Felix Jones. "D-Mac's speed gets him to spots you don't think he can get to."
The outcome of the most oft-changing, closely contested Heisman Trophy race in years will be a testament to either Tebow's knack for standing out in a crowd or McFadden's ability to run clear of one. After the wild twists and turns of a season in which a new Heisman favorite seemed to step forward every Saturday, Tebow made his typical emergence from the pack in recent weeks to become the front-runner to take home the award on Dec. 8 -- until, that is, McFadden applied pressure with his customary late burst. McFadden slashed through South Carolina for an SEC-record-tying 321 rushing yards in a 48-36 victory on Nov. 3 and followed that with 206 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries (as well as a touchdown pass) in the shocking win over the Tigers. "He certainly had a Heisman performance today," said LSU coach Les Miles. But the 6' 3", 225-pound Tebow, a sophomore, has been just as impressive to coaches who have been burned by his rare combination of rugged running and pinpoint passing. "I've seen quarterbacks who can run, but not with that kind of power and toughness," says Georgia coach Mark Richt. "He's a freak of nature."
Both players were at their best over the Thanksgiving weekend, which turned out to be a microcosm of the ever-shifting Heisman race. Within a 48-hour period the consensus shifted from Tebow's being the obvious choice on Thursday, to McFadden's overtaking him on Friday, to Tebow's perhaps reemerging as the favorite on Saturday when he answered McFadden's virtuoso performance against LSU with his own impressive work in a 45-12 victory over Florida State. Tebow threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more (he played on after breaking his nonpassing hand on a third-quarter TD dash), leaving the voters, who must turn in their ballots by Dec. 4, with the equivalent of choosing between a hot fudge sundae and a banana split -- no matter which one they pick, they'll regret having to pass up the other.
McFadden and Tebow are reverse images of each other. Tebow isn't the runner that McFadden is, but he has rushed for 838 yards and 22 touchdowns this season, and McFadden isn't the passer that Tebow is, but he has thrown four touchdown passes operating out of Arkansas's WildHog formation, in which he takes a direct snap. In fact, McFadden's TD toss against LSU, on which he faked a run up the middle, then stopped and tossed the ball to fullback Peyton Hillis, looked like an imitation of a similar play Tebow pulled off against LSU last year.
McFadden, who has 1,725 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, and Tebow, who has thrown for 3,132 yards with 29 TDs and six interceptions, are even similar in the ways in which they fail to fit the Heisman profile. Neither plays for a team that has a chance to win the national championship -- 10th-ranked Florida is 9-3, unranked Arkansas 8-4 -- which in most other years would have virtually disqualified them. Of the past 71 Heisman winners, only 13 have come from teams with three or more losses; only two of those winners, Texas' Ricky Williams (1998) and BYU's Ty Detmer (1990), have been chosen in the last 17 years. It is also a near certainty that this year's winner will become the first to be shut out of a BCS bowl since the Bowl Championship System was put in place in 1998.
There's another historical precedent working against Tebow, one that could make the difference for some voters: No sophomore has ever won the Heisman. The 6' 2", 210-pound McFadden, a junior who is almost certain to enter the NFL draft next April, may have an edge because, unlike Tebow, he'll probably never have another chance to win the award. "If [Tebow] doesn't win the Heisman, it's because of the sophomore thing," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said after watching Tebow throw for 262 yards and run for 89 more on Saturday. "But if he doesn't, he should win the next two years."
Though he was regarded as little more than a dark-horse candidate for most of the fall because of his sophomore status, Tebow has a unique combination of skills -- he's the first player in NCAA history to run and pass for at least 20 touchdowns in a season -- as well as a durability and consistency that will be hard for Heisman voters to ignore. His only performance that could be called subpar came in the Gators' 28-24 loss at LSU, in which he completed 12 of 26 passes and threw an interception, but even then he accounted for all three Florida touchdowns, two throwing and one rushing. Other than that, he has been exceedingly accurate (68.5 completion percentage) and equally dangerous with his arm and his legs. His 22 rushing touchdowns tied the major college record for a quarterback, set by Chance Harridge of Air Force in 2002.
If Tebow does win the Heisman, it will undoubtedly add to his Bunyanesque legend, which is furthered by Tebow-isms, the jokes about his seeming omnipotence and perfection that are proliferating on the Internet. Among them: "Before the bogeyman goes to sleep, he checks his closet for Tim Tebow," and, "Some people wear Superman pajamas. Superman wears Tim Tebow pajamas." Although Tebow admits that a few of the one-liners have made him chuckle, he's too humble to be completely comfortable with the over-the-top worship he often receives. "I would never consider myself better than someone else just because I happen to play football," he says. "That's not the way I was raised."
Though the way he was raised has been well-documented, Tebow is more than happy to recount it as many times as he is asked. Born in the Philippines to Christian missionary parents, Bob and Pam, he moved to the U.S. with his family when he was three. Tim, who was homeschooled in Jacksonville until he enrolled at Florida, still makes regular visits with his family to the Philippines, where Bob Tebow helps operate an orphanage and medical clinics. It's hardly the typical college athlete's background, and Tim is hardly the typical college athlete. "When you've visited orphanages and hospitals and prisons, and you've seen another side of life, it makes you appreciate what you've been blessed with," he says. "You don't worry so much about what you did on fourth-and-one against Tennessee, because you understand that there are so much more important things in life."
While Tebow seems mature beyond his years, McFadden's charm is that he still has a childlike playfulness. On Halloween no one was surprised to see him walking across campus dressed as Fred Flintstone with his buddy Jones decked out as Barney Rubble. "Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I'm always going to have fun," he says.
The Heisman competition is one of the few races in which McFadden has been caught from behind. After finishing second to Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006, he began this season as the favorite, and for the first five games he played like one, with more than 120 yards rushing in each of them, including 195 in a 41-38 loss at Alabama. But he hit a midseason lull in which he gained only 43 yards in a 9-7 loss to Auburn and 61 in a 58-10 victory over winless Florida International two weeks later. Meanwhile, other contenders such as quarterbacks Andre Woodson of Kentucky, Pat White of West Virginia, Matt Ryan of Boston College and Dennis Dixon of Oregon, as well as Tebow, were drawing Heisman attention.
McFadden's slump was at least partially caused by the bruised ribs he suffered in the third game of the season, against Kentucky. After gaining 121 yards in the first half, he took a hard hit early in the second and gained just 22 yards the rest of the way. "It might have taken a toll," McFadden says, "but I'd never blame an injury for the way that I play. I felt good enough to keep playing, so I expect to produce."
Like an experienced campaigner, McFadden knew that elections aren't won in the early primaries. He finished second a year ago even though he wasn't considered a serious candidate until he ran for 219 yards in the Razorbacks' ninth game, against Tennessee. This year, although the consensus was that he had slipped well down the list of candidates because of his October slump, he seemed to sense that an instant replay was coming in the ninth game, against South Carolina. "I'm not really concerned about it," he said of his Heisman status on the Monday before playing the Gamecocks, "because I don't feel like I came onto the Heisman scene until around this time last season."
Even McFadden couldn't have predicted how emphatically he would declare his reentry into the race. In his historic performance against the Gamecocks, he broke an 80-yard touchdown run and averaged 9.4 yards per carry. "[The Heisman voters] took him out of the race, but I bet they'll open their eyes now," Razorbacks right guard Robert Felton said afterward.
But the issue isn't whether the voters' eyes are open, it's which vision they prefer -- a one-of-a-kind quarterback who played at a consistently high level from the beginning of the season to the end, or a brilliant tailback who provided two of the season's greatest individual performances. With all due respect to McFadden, there is at least one ballot that will have the kid quarterback's name at the top.