For the past several years, I have had the honor of being on the panel of voters for the Heisman Memorial Trophy. It is an honor that I do not take lightly, but it is a task that is usually not very difficult.
Most years, the choice is pretty much cut and dried. Three years ago, the clear favorite was Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith. The only thing left to decide was placing Arkansas running back Darren McFadden and Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn in second- and third-place order.
My vote has always been a personal thing. It has never been about trying to project the winner although I have cast my ballot for the Heisman winner most often than not. The last time I missed picking the winner was in 2005 when I went with Texas quarterback Vince Young. He finished second to USC running back Reggie Bush.
My reasoning for that pick was pretty simple. When I tried to project how each team would have performed without their star player, I thought USC would probably have done very well even without Bush. I doubt the Longhorns could have done as well without Young in their lineup, so his value to his team led me to place Young in the No. 1 spot on my ballot. Bush was No. 2.
Obviously, not many of my fellow voters agreed. Bush won the 2005 award in a landslide, garnering 784 first-place votes and 2,541 overall points. Young finished second with 1,608 votes but was named on only 79 first-place ballots.
This year presented the most unique Heisman race since I have been a voter. The season began with three clear favorites – Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford (last year’s winner), Florida QB Tim Tebow (the 2007 winner) and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy.
Bradford quickly dropped off the radar with a season-ending shoulder injury and that left Tebow and McCoy to duke it out for frontrunner status. Along the way, other players began to make headlines as the college football season played itself out with five undefeated teams and a handful of bona fide Heisman Trophy candidates.
Unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame balloting where you can vote for as many players as you like, Heisman voters have to narrow their voting to three players. Five players were invited to New York this week as finalists for the award and I can think of at least three more that were more than deserving of being invited to the Big Apple ceremony.
My final pool of candidates came down to quarterbacks McCoy, Tebow and Kellen Moore of Boise State, running backs Mark Ingram of Alabama, Tony Gerhart of Stanford and C.J. Spiller of Clemson, defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska and receiver/kick returner Mardy Gilyard of Cincinnati.
With eight names and only three ballot spots, I had to begin the process of elimination and began comparing the bodies of work from each of the candidates.
At quarterback, there was no doubt that Moore had the best season. He led the nation in pass efficiency, threw for 3,325 yards, had 39 touchdowns to only three interceptions, and quarterbacked his team to an undefeated season. In any other year, Moore would be a slam-dunk to be on my ballot, but the fact that he is a sophomore and plays for a non-BCS conference team, I reluctantly crossed his name off my list.
McCoy and Tebow were left in a virtual dead heat. Tebow was better in pass efficiency; McCoy had the numbers in passing yards and touchdowns. In the end, I truly did not feel Tebow’s overall body of work this season rose to the level of being a Heisman Trophy award winner. I passed on him and left McCoy on my list.
I had always considered Suh and Gilyard as my wild card picks. Unlike some who only noticed Suh during his dominating performance against Texas, I knew the Nebraska defensive star was a candidate for nearly every major award – except the Heisman. I had already pretty much made up my mind before last Saturday that if he had a standout game in the Big 12 title matchup, I would put Suh on my ballot. He had that standout game – and then some.
Gilyard, too, had an outstanding game for Cincinnati against Pittsburgh. While head coach Brian Kelly and the quarterback tandem of Tony Pike and Zach Collaros got most of the attention in the Queen City this season, Gilyard was establishing himself as the best player on that team. He is an excellent receiver, a lethal kick returner and his life story is a truly compelling story.
Unfortunately, there were receivers with better seasons and kick returners with more touchdowns and more yardage, so Gilyard’s name was dropped from my list.
That left me with a conundrum at running back that was more easily solved than you might think.
Like Gilyard, Spiller is a double threat. He ran for 1,145 yards and 11 TDs and tallied five more scores on kick returns – four kickoffs and one punt. There were, however, holes in his résumé. He disappeared in too many games, and failed to top 80 yards in six of his 13 games.
That left me to decide between Gerhart and Ingram. I know the Alabama running back is probably the frontrunner for the trophy, and he did have an excellent outing in the SEC championship game against Florida. Despite his 1,542 yards, though, Ingram had three games during which he failed to crack 60 yards.
Meanwhile, Gerhart was the nation’s top rusher with 1,736 yards and 26 touchdowns. He rushed for 100 yards or more in 10 of his 12 games – topping the 200 mark three times – and never ran for less than 82 yards in a game all season.
Critics of Gerhart will argue that he played against competition inferior to that of Ingram. That is simply incorrect. In games against opponents who finished the season with winning records, Gerhart averaged 156.4 yards per game. What’s more, those opponents averaged a national ranking of 43 against the rush. Using the same criteria, Ingram averaged 127.1 yards against teams that averaged a national ranking of 57 in rushing defense.
That left me with McCoy, Suh and Gerhart as the three names on my ballot. Three great players any one of which would be deserving of this year’s Heisman.
But I had to rank them some way. I placed Gerhart third because his team finished out of the running for the Pac-10 championship.
Then I used the same criteria to break the tie between McCoy and Suh that I did four years ago with Bush and Young. Would Nebraska have been 9-4 and headed to the Holiday Bowl without Suh? Maybe. Would Texas be undefeated and playing for the national championship without McCoy. Probably not.
Yes, McCoy nearly had an epic blunder at the end of the Big 12 title game. But he didn’t have that blunder. What many tend to forget is that he moved his team into position to win that game and have a chance to play for the national championship. That is what great players are supposed to do. That is what Heisman Trophy winners are supposed to do.
Therefore, my final ballot read: 1. Colt McCoy; 2. Ndamukong Suh; 3. Toby Gerhart.