Who’s Who In ’08 Heisman Race

It’s never too early to begin the preseason Heisman hype. And since I’ve got an honest-to-goodness vote, here is an alphabetical list of 15 players I’m going to zero in on once the 2008 season begins a mere 66 days from today. (Of course, I reserve the right to add and/or subtract to this list before the end of November.)

Todd Boeckman, QB, Ohio State – Yes, I know what you’re thinking but I said in a print column last fall and I’m sticking with it. If you are the quarterback on the No. 1 team in the nation, by all rights you ought to be a Heisman candidate. Last year’s late swoon aside, I thought Boeckman did a credible job in his first year as a starter. I think he continues to improve and get better, especially with a push from behind by freshman phenom Terrelle Pryor.

Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma – Bradford will be only a sophomore in a Heisman field that will be top-heavy in upperclassmen. But the mold was broken last year, so if the Sooners rebound like many experts believe they will, their quarterback will undoubtedly make the short list of bona fide contenders. It’s difficult to believe he could improve much on his freshman season, however. After all, you can’t get much better than No. 1 in the country in pass efficiency.

Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech – The 6-3, 208-pounder is definitely a wild card pick especially since his team is considered a one-dimensional offensive freak show. Nevertheless, a freshman year during which he led the nation with crazy numbers – 134 catches for 1,962 yards and 22 TDs cannot be ignored. If he somehow improves on those kinds of numbers, he certainly gets into the mix this season and sets himself up for potential glory in 2009.

Chase Daniel, QB, Missouri – Daniel has had all winter to think about how he dropped last year’s Heisman in Tim Tebow’s lap. All the Mizzou quarterback had to do was play under control in the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma. Instead, he lost his cool and the Sooners ran away with a 38-17 victory. But Daniel came back to lead a big victory over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl and finished the season having completed 68.2 percent of 563 pass attempts, good for 4,306 yards and 33 scores. If the Tigers can approach the level of success they enjoyed last year, Daniel will again be in the Heisman race until the end.

Matt Grothe, QB, South Florida – Dark horse alert! A lot of people who should know what they’re talking about figure the Bulls are going to topple West Virginia this season and become the Big East’s representative in the BCS. If they do, expect Grothe to be the catalyst. He’s not the most physical specimen around, and at only 6-0 and 213 pounds, his penchant to run the football may not allow him to stay healthy all season. But the kid’s a winner. Eight times in high school Grothe led his team to come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter and he did it twice more last year with USF.

Cullen Harper, QB, Clemson – Here is the best quarterback in college football you’ve never heard of. If the Tigers can avoid their usual slow start, Harper could establish himself as an early front-runner for national honors. Last year in his first year as the starter, he led the ACC in pass efficiency by completing 65.1 percent of his passes for 2,991 yards and 27 touchdowns against only 6 picks. Plus, he has the luxury of playing in the same backfield with the one-two tailback punch of James “Thunder” Davis (1,064 yards, 10 TDs) and C.J. “Lightning” Spiller (768 yards, 3 TDs).

Graham Harrell, QB, Texas Tech – Crabtree had to have someone throwing him all those footballs last year and Harrell was the guy. There is no doubt that the 6-3, 203-pound gunslinger is a one-trick pony and Tech quarterbacks are more products of head coach Mike Leach’s pass-happy system than star players. But there is no use denying the raw numbers. Last year, Harrell completed 512 of 713 attempts (71.8 percent) for 5,708 yards and 48 TDs. If Hawaii’s Colt Brennan could make it to New York last year on numbers alone, why can’t Harrell do the same thing in ’08?

Percy Harvin, WR, Florida – I look for the Gators to rebound from last year’s rather disappointing 9-4 finish, and Harvin could be the guy that lights their fire. Heisman voters love a do-everything player and the 5-11, 178-pound speedster certainly fits that bill. He can hurt defenses at running back and receiver, then go break your heart as a kick returner. Maybe you think there’s no way Harvin can take the award playing on the same team as the incumbent winner. If that’s the case, you’ve forgotten Reggie Bush won the year after his quarterback Matt Leinart took home the trophy.

Dan LeFevour, QB, Central Michigan – Can you imagine voters giving the trophy to a guy from the Mid-American Conference? Heck, Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t finish any higher than ninth despite a stupendous year at Miami (Ohio) in 2003. Still, LeFevour is worth a mention here. He is the quarterback of the team that is likely the class of the MAC this season, and probably the best player in that conference. He was MAC freshman of the year in 2006 and followed that with league offensive player of the year honors last season, a campaign that saw him become only the second player in NCAA history to total 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season. (The other one was Vince Young. Remember him?)

Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia – The Bulldogs are everyone’s preseason pick to keep the SEC’s streak of national championships going and Moreno has emerged as UGA’s star offensive player. Last season, he ran for 1,334 yards and 14 TDs as a freshman and figures to up those numbers with more carries this year. Moreno has already drawn comparisons to former Georgia greats Garrison Hearst (who finished third in the 1992 Heisman voting) and Herschel Walker (the 1982 winner). That’s some pretty lofty company.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Oklahoma – Murray was injured part of last season or would have made a much bigger splash. Even so, he racked up 764 yards and scored 13 touchdowns while averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Since the Sooners are expected to make a run at the national title game this season, and since Bob Stoops loves to let his featured tailback run the ball, if Murray can stay healthy, look for some huge numbers – numbers that Heisman voters will be hard-pressed to ignore.

Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia – If Moreno isn’t the touchstone for the Georgia offense, it’s Stafford. The 6-3, 237-pounder is still a little streaky for my taste, but more than one NFL scout has projected him as the first quarterback taken in the 2009 draft. Stafford will have to make some improvement on his completion percentage (just 55.7 in 348 attempts) and his touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (19-10) if he is truly to make a dent in this year’s Heisman race.

Tim Tebow, QB, Florida – I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that Tebow won this thing last year. It’s true that he had a very good season, throwing for 3,286 yards and 32 TDs while rushing for 895 yards and 23 scores. I mean, anyone who accounts for 55 touchdowns in a single season has accomplished something truly remarkable. I’m just not sure that, as a sophomore, he was the most outstanding player in college football in 2007. Like it or not, though, he was the winner and enters this season trying to join Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winners.

Chris “Beanie” Wells, RB, Ohio State – The preseason favorite around these parts, Wells had a breakthrough season last year with 1,609 yards and 15 TDs. Since he did most of that work with a bad ankle and broken bone in his hand, one can only wonder what he can do at 100 percent. If the Buckeyes decide to run the ball more this season, their schedule sets up in such a way that Beanie could make an assault on Eddie George’s school record of 1,927 yards in 1995. And we all know what award Sir Edward won at the end of that season.

Pat White, QB, West Virginia – His head coach Rich Rodriguez went to Ann Arbor and his backfield mate Steve Slaton bolted to the NFL, and still White is a bona fide Heisman candidate – but only if he can stay healthy. He remains extremely dangerous with his arm and legs, and even though Rodriguez is gone, his spread option attack remains. It is an offense in which White thrives, and it is quite possible the Mountaineers could be undefeated when they host South Florida in the Dec. 6 regular-season finale for both teams.

MORE REASONS WHY I HATE ESPN THE MAGAZINE

The big, glossy rag usually features more than its share of self-absorption but the June 30 issue may have set a new low in that regard.

Stephen A. Smith, who probably fist-bumps himself when no one’s looking, offered this piece of journalistic pie: “Justin Timberlake was nice enough to stroll over to me at the Staples Center and say, ‘I’m a huge fan of yours. I watch you all the time. Keep doing your thing.’ I know it’s name-dropping, but I appreciate the love.”

If you thought that was bad, here is Stuart Scott’s description of meeting Presidential candidate Barack Obama: “When I met Obama last year, he walked up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘You and I have spent many evenings together.’ I don’t get star struck often, but at that moment I felt the way I did at a Prince concert three years ago when, in the middle of a song, Prince walked to the edge of the stage and pointed directly at me. Grown men aren’t supposed to feel like OMG! OMG! OMG! But when he did that, I got weak in the knees. And when Obama told me he watches (SportsCenter), it was exactly the same.”

Add in Mike Greenberg’s fashion tips on page 36 (“Summer is the season of linen”) and a four-page spread on the national oil-wrestling tournament in Turkey (and I’m not making that up), and you’ll understand why we can’t use “The Rag-a-zine” to line the birdcage. No self-respecting bird would drag his bottom on it.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

On a lighter note, some of the fine folks celebrating birthdays throughout the world today include actress June Lockhart (“Lassie,” “Lost In Space”); civil rights advocate Dr. James Meredith; Oscar, Emmy and Grammy award-winning singer Carly Simon; Seventies television icon Jimmie “Dyn-O-Mite” Walker; comic actor Ricky Gervais (the original version of “The Office”); pop singer George Michael; Nickelback bassist Mike Kroeger; retired NHL star Doug Gilmour; Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo; New York Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado; and TV chef and world traveler Anthony Bourdain.

It’s also the 84th birthday of Academy Award-winning director Sidney Lumet, whose 50-year career has resulted in such Hollywood classics as “12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” and “The Verdict.”

AND FINALLY

** I like boxing. Not too keen on that MMA stuff, but I still like what they call the “Sweet Science” even though most guys are simple headhunters these days with no idea what a body shot looks like. That’s why I’m a little disappointed Welsh super middleweight Joe Calzaghe (45-0, 32 KOs) is refusing to lace ’em up against middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik (34-0, 30 KOs). At least that’s what Calzaghe is saying right now. Most people figure when the price gets high enough, he will sign a contract to meet Pavlik, the Youngstown, Ohio, native, who has one of the best nicknames in sports: “The Ghost.”

** NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller issued an apology for saying on-air that Rocco Mediate looked like the guy who cleans Tiger Woods’ pool. Later, Mediate said he wasn’t offended by what Miller said. So why did Miller apologize? And whom did he offend? The Loyal Order of the International Brotherhood of Pool Boys?

** Speaking of NBC, something you may have missed about the network’s announcement that it had extended its contract through 2015 to broadcast Notre Dame football games: The extension came despite the fact the Fighting Irish had their lowest ratings last year since NBC began broadcasting their games in 1991.

** SI.com basketball writer Chris Mannix has come up with an interesting concept. He held a mock NBA draft with a twist – every current player in the league was eligible. Not surprisingly, he figured the Bulls would select LeBron James at No. 1. But the head-scratcher was down at No. 14. That’s where Mannix had Golden State selecting former Ohio State center Greg Oden, who missed all of his rookie season following knee surgery. Oden was “selected” ahead of such players as Tony Parker, Paul Pierce, Tracy McGrady, Carlos Boozer, Steve Nash and Michael Redd.

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