What If the Heisman Trophy Actually Went to College Football's Most Outstanding Player?
And the Heisman Trophy goes to the best player in football.
Radical, ain't it?
Ostensibly, the trophy is awarded to the "most outstanding player in college football," in the words of the Heisman's official site. In reality, its selection has become one of sports' unwritten rules, annually ending up in the hands of the best quarterback or running back on a highly ranked team. So, somewhere in the rush to drool over counting stats, what should be college football's answer to the best actor Oscar, has become the equivalent of the biggest popcorn movie star.
(The award itself is named after former Georgia Tech coach John Heisman, but we suggest a more apt name would be the Weis, awarded to the player who's on television and talked about the most without great attention to his actual level of ability).
This season, the Heisman has become an even more dubious prize,seemingly awarded weekly to the Big 12 South quarterback who last won a game against a ranked Big 12 team. First it was Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. Then Colt McCoy, when Texas toppled Oklahoma. Then it changed hands to Graham Harrell when Texas Tech shocked the Longhorns, as though McCoy, who led his team on a fourth quarter drive that would have made John Elway proud, could be faulted for his collapsing secondary. Finally, it was Bradford again, after Oklahoma shellacked the Red Raiders, with a growing contingent for defending champion Tim Tebow, whose Gators have mowed down a series of possibly-not-so-great opponents.
Why is this?
That much we get.
Quarterbacks and running backs are easily quantifiable positions with lots of big round numbers that don't require math or watching lots of games, which understandably is hard for the bulk of Heisman voters who are local writers inside the bubbles of their own teams and leagues. There are valid structural reasons as well. Running backs are in some way involved in most offensive plays and do the lion's share of scoring and SportsCenter-friendly things like hurtling linebackers. Quarterbacks are involved in every play of the game and have more control over their unit than any other position in sports. Further, the best athletes on any football team are generally quarterbacks and running backs. Only the best high school running backs and quarterbacks remain in those positions in college, while the rest are converted to wide receivers, defensive backs and other positions. So it's natural to expect more of these players to wind up on the right side of the talent bell curve.
But as logical as that seems, it's hardly the case that every Hall of Fame defensive player, wide receiver and lineman is the equivalent of a skilled relief pitcher who couldn't hack it as a starter, compared to the aces at quarterback and running back.
The Heisman's other unwritten criterion is that it goes almost exclusively to seniors. We get that, too. College football requires a physical maturation to excel. Unlike college basketball, there is no yearly emergence of a Kevin Durant or Michael Beasley. And even if a player has a Heisman caliber freshman season, like, say Adrian Peterson, because he's committed to be on campus for three years after his high school class graduates, the idea stands that his time will come for the trophy.
As for defensive players, singling out who's Heisman-worthy would require watching a lot of football, which with literally dozens of games going on at the same time on any given Saturday is difficult, and during the formative years of the Heisman Trophy when these selection biases became unwritten in stone, impossible.
Even now, if you wanted to watch Eric Berry perform for Tennessee, you run the risk of watching the Vols offense at work as well, which ranks somewhere along raking leaves in Yellowstone as a way to spend a Saturday afternoon. And if you don't watch the game, his impact is difficult to quantify. Looking solely at defensive boxscores is like trying to read a novel with every third letter missing. You might get the gist of it, but the full picture will be completely lost.
So, Heisman voters, we get it. But that doesn't make it right. That the Heisman Trophy is the most overrated award in sports -- not even mentioning that it's produced more busts than Pacman Jones with a wad of bills in hand -- is a column for next week, but what would a Heisman ballot look like if it truly went to college football's most outstanding player?
Here's how our ballot would look:
1. Eric Berry, S Tennessee: The Vols' athletic outlier plays the game like it's on a sheet of ice and he's the only one that brought skates. The sophomore leads the nation with seven interceptions, has 12 for his career and his 472 interception return yards shattered the SEC record two picks ago, a record set 59 years earlier. On the style point side, the sophomore lays down licks like he's playing with cement shoulder pads (see this cobweb-clearing pop on Knowshon Moreno). The Vols may have just finished a season it would prefer to consign to the depths of the Tennessee River, but Berry is the flower that's sprouted in a compost heap of a year.
2. Michael Crabtree, WR Texas Tech: Crabtree's six-catch, 62-yard effort against Oklahoma hurt his case, but Crabtree's stumble had more to do with his quarterback scrambling like he was late for a bus than it did with his own failings, outside of the odd drop. But what Crabtree is doing for a second season, even in a pass-early and pass-often Texas Tech offense, is unprecedented. His quarterback is in the Heisman mix, but both B.J. Symons and Kliff Kingsbury put up superior numbers for the Raiders in the pass. Crabtree, even with a marked drop in his production this year (a drop due in part to the Red Raiders' attention to the run game as well as increased coverage), still shattered the old single-season touchdown record at Texas Tech with 18 (the old mark was 13). He will almost certainly best the previous receptions mark of 98 if you count the pending bowl game (Crabtree has 93, despite leaving in the second quarter Saturday). Crabtree, of course, owns all the records now after last season's Biletnikoff effort. And the redshirt sophomore has the skills to back up the garish numbers, size, speed and hands that could rip a football from between any two defensive backs, and could probably even pry a dollar bill out of George Steinbrenner's hands. If ever there were a Heisman moment, it was his last-second grab and dash into the Texas end zone.
3. Brian Orakpo, DE Texas: The Longhorns' 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end is what would happen if you put a cow catcher on the front of a stock car and lined it up in a college football game. And if performance in big games is what defines college football's most outstanding player, then he should cast as large a shadow over the rest of the field as he does opposing offensive lines. Orakpo had six tackles-for-loss, including three sacks against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Orakpo and the Texas front line are the biggest reason the Longhorns suspect secondary has held its own, as they've put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to disrupt the air attack without having to bring extra blitzers.
4. Sam Bradford, QB Oklahoma: Bradford's stats are rightfully called video game numbers, assuming, of course, you're playing Tiger Woods Golf. Bradford has thrown for more than the length of the Augusta front nine this season with 46 touchdowns against six interceptions. Bradford has an NFL caliber cadre of wide receivers with heady yards-after-catch totals and an offensive line that could probably block a front line of Hummers, but the redshirt sophomore has a complete set of Sunday skills. Even though Oklahoma lost to Texas in the Red River Rivalry, it's hard to blame Bradford, who threw for 387 yards and five touchdowns, despite the absence of a ground game. If he needed any more of a case, his movie-comes-with-that flight through the Stillwater sky in the Sooners' win over Oklahoma State was a Heisman moment by Kodak. Or Continental.
5. Tim Tebow, QB Florida: Tebow's offensive numbers aren't the statistical eclipse of his 55-touchdown Heisman deserving 2007, but he's still the most unique player in college football and the engine that makes Urban Meyer's offense run. As far as "outstanding" is concerned, last year's winner's skill-set is unmatched. He's thrown for 25 touchdowns against two interceptions, and, if needed, he can run through a linebacker like he's dashing through a pre-game banner on the way out of the tunnel.
6. Shonn Greene, RB Iowa: Greene is the only player in the nation to rush for 100 yards in every game this season and currently leads the nation in total rushing yardage (though Connecticut's Donald Brown might overtake him). He won Big Ten player of the year award, blocked Penn State from the BCS title game and ground out 6.2 yards per carry, despite playing behind a muddled quarterback situation. Unfortunately, like Berry, Greene will get no consideration because being the most outstanding player to Heisman voters means that you're surrounded by other outstanding players.
7. Andre Smith, OT Alabama: An offensive lineman will win the Heisman the day LSU renames Tiger Stadium in honor of Nick Saban, but Smith is as good as they come in college. A city block of a lineman, Smith guarantees that if you're going to touch quarterback John Parker Wilson, it'll be in the post-game handshakes while you're figuring out exactly what went wrong.
8. Aaron Maybin, DE Penn State: Maybin's Lions finished well enough, but as a sophomore defender, he's as likely to get a Heisman vote as Joe Paterno is to wind up on the cover of Tiger Beat. But Maybin puts the teeth in the Nittany Lion defense. He's fourth in the nation in sacks and has 19 tackles-for-loss.
9. Rey Maualuga, LB USC: If there were style points available for defensive players in the Heisman, Maualuga would be the linebacker version of Reggie Bush. His grab-you-by-the-collar power and range make Southern Cal's pitbull of a linebacker not just the best at his position, but the most stylish. Never was it more evident than Saturday's game against Notre Dame. Using the Trjoan defense to stop the Irish' offense may be using the Hoover Dam to handle a leak in kitchen sink, but give Mauluga and USC all sorts of credit for the near shutout.
10. (tie) Jeremy Maclin, WR Missouri: If Maclin played in a different era and at a more traditional football power, he might be working on his second Heisman. In 1987, Notre Dame's Tim Brown won the stiff-arm statue with 39 catches, 846 receiving yards and three touchdowns, paired with three punt return touchdowns and solid work as a kick returner. Maclin has Brown's line with the BALCO treatment. The Tiger has 88 catches, 1,175 yards and 11 touchdowns, matched with 261 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He also averaged 25.2 yards per kickoff return, took one all the way to the end zone and is 40th in the nation in punt return average. Brown played in a different era and a radically different scheme, but were Maclin in a different jersey, his Heisman hopes may be radically different. (Kansas' talented sophomore receiver Dezmon Briscoe also deserves consideration in the great talent, wrong jersey category.)
10. (tie) Jerry Hughes, DE TCU: Hughes leads by example, and on the nation's stingiest defense at TCU, that means crashing through the line like he's trying to take a beachhead. Hughes' 14 sacks lead the nation; four of them came as the Horned Frogs blitzed then-undefeated BYU.