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A Race to the Finish

Nov. 24, 2008
Nov. 24, 2008

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Nov. 24, 2008

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A Race to the Finish

The Heisman Trophy may be Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell's to lose, but the voters could still be swayed by what happens in a handful of games with national-title implications

What is abuckeye? Do the USC song girls buy those sweaters a size too small on purpose?And how can Tennessee be so bad? ¬∂ These are among college football's vexingmysteries. Here is another: Every December the Heisman Trophy is bestowed onthe sport's "most outstanding player." But what, precisely, is"outstanding" supposed to mean? ¬∂ This year, apparently, it means"Big 12 quarterback putting up the most monstrous numbers." ThisSaturday's showdown between No. 2 Texas Tech and fifth-ranked Oklahoma will bemore than a battle to probably represent the Big 12 South in the conferencechampionship game and remain relevant in the national title chase. It willserve as a late elimination round—think Dancing with the Stars—for this year'sHeisman race. Presumptive front-runner Graham Harrell, the Tech senior who hasthrown for 4,077 yards and 36 touchdowns in 10 games, could tighten his grip onthe 25-pound doorstop or be leapfrogged by Sam Bradford, the Sooners sophomorewhose 38 TD passes lead the nation. If recent history is our guide, Harrellshould start worrying.

This is an article from the Nov. 24, 2008 issue

It's been a toughseason for Heisman favorites and front-runners (box, page 52). The campaign ofOhio State's Chris (Beanie) Wells was over before it began, torpedoed by a toeinjury on his 13th carry of the season. And two other star backs, KnowshonMoreno of Georgia and Javon Ringer of Michigan State, could generate onlysporadic buzz. Just as the profusion of prolific Big 12 offenses has been thestory of the 2008 season, the quarterbacks engineering those attacks havehijacked the Heisman conversation. The early favorite was Missouri's ChaseDaniel, who was eclipsed by Texas's Colt McCoy, who was bumped aside byHarrell, who may yet be supplanted by Bradford.

Busting a move onthe outside, meanwhile, reminding voters of the power of incumbency, is Floridaquarterback Tim Tebow, who has been on a tear since his team's upset loss toOle Miss on Sept. 27. In the six wins since that stunner in the Swamp—and hiscathartic apology to Gator Nation—Tebow has rushed or passed for 22 touchdowns.Florida has averaged 49.8 points per game during that stretch, making theGators arguably the hottest team in the nation. While Tebow's slow start thisseason lengthened his Heisman odds considerably, he does enjoy one clearadvantage over the other candidates: He's the only guy who can vote forhimself.

On the subject ofpolitics, brace yourself for a riot of lobbying and vote-grubbing shouldOklahoma beat the Red Raiders. That's because a Tech loss in Norman will vastlyincrease the likelihood that the Sooners, the Red Raiders and No. 4 Texas willall be 11--1 and sitting on identical 7--1 league records at the end of theregular season. In that case, which of the three should represent the Big 12South in the conference title game? The first four divisional tiebreakers don'tbreak the tie. The fifth gives the title-game slot to—sigh—"thehighest-ranked team in the Bowl Championship Series Poll" on Nov. 30.

Which means that,a few weeks after polling places closed across the country, the realcampaigning will begin. Like it or not, says Sooners coach Bob Stoops,"you're gonna have to tout your team."

The player bestpositioned to spare America this unseemly politicking can be seen, ironically,in a variety of "campaign materials" sent to Heisman voters last week.On bumper stickers and 8-by-12-inch glossies, Harrell appears alongside hisgo-to guy, All-America wideout Michael Crabtree, whose 18 receiving touchdownsare tops in the nation and who, come to think of it, will probably rate aninvitation to the Heisman ceremony.

Lubbock's dynamicduo posed for those pictures in August, when Harrell was still considered aHeisman long shot. But a funny thing happened on the way to anotherfair-to-good season for Texas Tech. With an upgraded running game and abeefed-up defense, the redheaded stepchild of the Big 12 South finds itselfundefeated and sitting on the nation's longest winning streak, at 12 games.Should Harrell lead his team to a victory over the Sooners, two things arelikely to happen:

• Tech will befavored to dispatch Missouri in the Big 12 title game on Dec. 6 in Kansas City,Mo. A win there would earn the Red Raiders a ticket to Miami for the BCS titlegame, most likely to face the SEC champion, either Alabama or Florida.

• Harrell, who in463 attempts has thrown only five interceptions this season, will become"the most unlikely Heisman winner since [Oklahoma State's] Barry Sanders,who beat out [UCLA's] Troy Aikman and [USC's] Rodney Peete 20 years ago."That is the opinion of Chris Huston, proprietor of the authoritativeHeismanPundit.com, whose "10 Heismandments" stipulate, among otherthings, that "the winner must be a quarterback, a running back or amulti-threat athlete" and "must put up good numbers in big games onTV."

Heismandment No.6, "The winner cannot be considered an obvious product of his team'ssystem" (also known as the Andre Ware Rule), would seem problematic forHarrell. But he doesn't see it that way.

"I've beenhearing that since high school," says the 6'3", 205-pound gunslinger,who lit up scoreboards at Ennis (Texas) High, where his father, Sam, was thecoach. Saying thanks but no thanks to Oklahoma, Georgia and Wisconsin, amongothers, he cast his lot with Tech coach Mike Leach. "Getting a chance toplay in this offense," Harrell says, "that was the main draw."

To label Harrella "system quarterback" is to shortchange him, according to one NFLdraft expert who asked not to be named because he's not authorized by hisemployer to speak to the press. "He was a big-time player coming out ofhigh school, and he has more physical tools" than Leach's previousquarterbacks. "He's got more arm strength, he's very accurate and he moveswell in the pocket. And he's a tough kid. When there's pressure in his face,he'll step into a throw. He'll take the hit but deliver the ball.

"This guy'san NFL quarterback. I don't think he's an elite player. I think he's amiddle-rounder who's got a chance to move up with a good [college] all-stargame. But calling him a system quarterback—that's just a lazy way of scoutinghim."

The NFL source isslightly higher on the 6'3", 210-pound McCoy, a junior whom he describes as"very intelligent, very accurate, very tough. I see him as a second-rounderwho'll spend a couple of years as a backup and develop into a starter."Where Harrell throws primarily hitches and slants, "Colt is throwingdownfield a little more," an indication that he might more quickly adapt tothe pro game.

Harrell's mostmemorable throw of the season, of course, was not a hitch or a slant but aperfectly thrown fade to Crabtree, who broke the tackle of Texas cornerbackCurtis Brown and scored the game-winning touchdown with a single second left inthe Red Raiders' 39--33 win in Lubbock. Harrell's Heisman moment marked theinstant when McCoy lost his hold on the award. "Colt was two seconds fromwinning it," says Huston. "He'd just brought them back. If Texas winsthat game, the race is over."

With Harrell andBradford idle last week, McCoy rushed for 78 yards and threw for 255 yards andhis 29th and 30th touchdowns of the season in a 35--7 cakewalk at Kansas. Nowhe and the rest of Longhorn Nation will be forced to hold their noses and rootfor Oklahoma to beat Texas Tech. A Sooners win gives the Longhorns their onlychance of advancing to the Big 12 title game.

HAD THE votingbeen held last week, Huston believes that Bradford would have finished behindHarrell and McCoy. But what of the hard-charging Tebow, who, as a formerHeisman winner, gets to vote in the proceedings? The bad news for him isHeismandment No. 9, which decrees, "There will never be another two-timeHeisman winner." Then again, Tebow, who became the first sophomore to winthe Heisman in the 73-year history of the award, knows the Pundit is notinfallible. After all, the second Heismandment states, "The winner must bea junior or senior."

Bradford, aredshirt sophomore, will need a big statistical night against the Red Raidersif he is to overcome the second Heismandment. Don't shoot the messenger,Longhorns fans, but a Sooners win over Tech, followed by a Bedlam Seriesvictory at Oklahoma State, could very well vault your despised rivals over youin the BCS rankings—despite Texas's 45--35 upset in this year's Red RiverRivalry. In what would be his third straight appearance on national TV,Bradford could then seal the deal with Heisman voters on the eve of theelection, in the Big 12 title game.

Regardless ofwhere he finishes in the balloting, the 6'4", 220-pound Bradford is firstin the heart—and on the draft board—of the previously mentioned NFL personnelexpert. "I think he's the best pro prospect of the group and will go thehighest," says the source. "He's got the height. He's got a good arm,not a great arm. A functional NFL arm. But he's very accurate, has very goodtiming and great intangibles. He is undoubtedly a starter in the NFL."Should Bradford enter next spring's draft, "he may be the fifth- orsixth-most-talented quarterback, but I think he'll be the best pro prospect ofthe group."

There are worsethings in the world than finishing second in the Heisman race. Ask Vince Young,who was runner-up to USC's Reggie Bush in the 2005 voting but then outplayedBush—and everyone else on the field—as Texas took down the Trojans in thenational-title game. Or ask Bradford's position coach, Josh Heupel. Afterleading the Sooners to a 12--0 record in 2000, Heupel narrowly lost the Heismanto Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke. The national-championship ringHeupel earned 2 1/2 weeks later in the Orange Bowl—with a win over Weinke'sSeminoles—took much of the sting out of that disappointment.

Heupel ended upin Norman after what may have been the least glamorous recruiting visit incollege football history. His host was Oklahoma's new offensive coordinator,Mike Leach, an odd bird with a brilliant football mind. "It wasn't one ofthose deals where you're introducing him to pretty girls and taking him for asteak dinner," recalls Leach. "I didn't have a lot of furniture in myoffice, so we basically sat cross-legged on the floor watching video andtalking until he said he'd rather be a Sooner than go to Utah State."

The sensationalnumbers Heupel put up the following season helped Leach land his current gig.Since then, all of the passers he has plugged into his system have thrown,quite literally, for miles, but no Tech quarterback has finished higher thanninth in the Heisman voting. Harrell marked a departure because he was thefirst true blue-chip quarterback to choose the program.

"I loveLubbock," he recently proclaimed, before ticking off several things not tolove about Lubbock. "You look around, there's not many trees, the wind'salways blowin', there's not as much going on here as at some other schools withstronger traditions.

"But that'swhy I came here. To throw the ball around and get to a higher level and createsome traditions of our own."

Because he has, aprogram that started the season with zero Heismans and zero national titlescould finish with one of each.

McCoy has already set a SCHOOL RECORD for TD passes ina season, with 30.
Tebow has run or thrown for 22 TOUCHDOWNS duringFlorida's six-game win streak.
Despite playing just 10 games, Bradford LEADS THENATION with 38 TD passes.

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Who Wants It?

From the opening week of the season, the most covetedaward in college football has been passed around like a hot potato. Here arethe key games that have shaped the Heisman race.

AUG. 30: Coming off a 1,609-yard season, Ohio Staterunning back Chris (Beanie) Wells injures the big toe on his right foot in thethird quarter of the Buckeyes' opener against Youngstown State. Wells, apreseason Heisman favorite, misses the next three games, effectively killinghis chances for the award.

SEPT. 27: Tim Tebow, who last year became the firstsophomore to win the Heisman, can't rally Florida to victory in the Swampagainst heavy underdog Ole Miss. The Gators' final drive ends when Tebow isstuffed on a fourth-and-inches at the Rebels' 32-yard line. In Norman, SamBradford of Oklahoma carves up the nation's top-ranked defense with 411 passingyards and four touchdowns in a 35--10 victory over TCU.

OCT. 4: Chase Daniel, a Heisman finalist in '07,throws three touchdown passes as Missouri routs Nebraska 52--17, giving theTigers their first win in Lincoln in 30 years. Two days later The New YorkTimes says of Daniel and the Heisman race, "It's him, then everybodyelse."

OCT. 11: Hours after Colt McCoy upstages Bradford andrallies Texas to a 45--35 upset of No. 1 Oklahoma, Daniel tosses threesecond-half interceptions in a 28--23 home loss to Oklahoma State.

OCT. 25: McCoy throws for two touchdowns and runs foranother score as top-ranked Texas racks up its third consecutive victory over atop 11 team, beating Oklahoma State 28--24.

NOV. 1: Answering a late touchdown drive by McCoy,Graham Harrell connects with wideout Michael Crabtree on a last-second score asTexas Tech stuns Texas 39--33. Meanwhile, in his best game of the season, Tebowruns for three touchdowns and passes for two more in Florida's 49--10 whippingof Georgia.

NOV. 8: Tebow throws for three touchdowns and runs fora pair of scores in the Gators' 42--14 victory over Vanderbilt. Harrellresponds by throwing for 456 yards and six touchdowns to lead the Red Raidersover Oklahoma State 56--20.

PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverRED RADAR Harrell leads the country in passing yards and has thrown only five interceptions in 463 attempts.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above]PHOTODARREN CARROLLSO CLOSE McCoy may have lost the Heisman—and his shot at a BCS title—when Texas Tech rallied for a last-second win.PHOTODARREN CARROLL[See caption above]PHOTOGARY BOGDONCOMING BACK The first sophomore to get a Heisman, Tebow wants to join Archie Griffin as just the second two-time winner.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above]PHOTOBOB ROSATOLATE RUN With three nationally televised games still potentially on the slate—Bradford may yet reel in swing voters.PHOTOBOB ROSATO[See caption above]