December 11, 2009
Ages ago, waaaay back in August, I said this was shaping up as the most excruciating Heisman Trophy race ever, because it was so foregone: Last year's three top vote-getters, toothy, clean-cut quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy, were all back in full force, monopolizing the hype and restricting every other feasible candidate to the fringe. It's a testament to the sense of inevitability that hype created that Tebow and McCoy are still among the finalists in New York this week despite falling far short of last year's benchmarks statistically, and you can Bradford would be right alongside them under almost any circumstances that allowed him to actually finish the season rather than be knocked from the lineup (twice) with a bum throwing shoulder.
The hype wasn't quite loud enough in the end to drown out the other deserving candidates, though, none of them within the vicinity of anyone's Heisman radar at the start of the season, and the insurgent campaigns of Mark Ingram, Toby Gerhart and especially Ndamukong Suh have actually served to make this the most fascinating Heisman race in years -- for the first time since I can remember, I'm less preoccupied with the deserving snubs (with the exception of the exceptional C.J. Spiller) than I am in the actual winner.
That's due in large part to the outsized presence of Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh, who captured the purists' hearts with his absurdly dominant performance against Texas in the Big 12 Championship game last weekend. He gets my hypothetical vote and moral support simply for being a big, ugly defensive tackle holding his own with the sexier skill players, overcoming the hype machine entirely on his merit as an overpowering defensive tackle.
Suh is the only serious candidate in my lifetime who brazenly flouts every single unwritten rule about who is "allowed" to win the Heisman: He doesn't play quarterback, running back or receiver; he doesn't play for a championship contender; he hasn't had any cameos on offense or scored a touchdown of any variety this year. His defensive stats were good but didn't come close to breaking any records. He doesn't play anywhere near a major media market. His name is really hard to spell and pronounce. No one like him has ever really been in the discussion for the trophy before, but as of last count, he's carrying more first-place votes than any other finalist on official ballots that have been made public. If his name is called Saturday night, Suh could singlehandedly disrupt decades of skill player bias, if only for a year.
Toby Gerhart is an inherently weird finalist in his own right -- a white running back built like a refrigerator off an academically oriented Pac-10 also-ran -- and Ingram, of course, would be the first winner ever from Alabama. But mainly, the unusual drama this year comes from the fact that, for probably the first time in recent memory, I really have no idea who's going to win. One poll says it's Ingram in a close vote; another says Ingram in an extremely close vote. Vegas thinks it will be Ingram by a hair. ESPN, though, projects it for Colt McCoy, who has his backers elsewhere; Gerhart does, too. And Suh remains very much in the mix across the board, at least enough to have a fighting chance thanks to the hardcore/purist vote.
In fact, the only finalist who seems to genuinely have no chance of bringing home the trophy is Tim Tebow, who also happens to be the candidate most likely to earn a groundswell of votes -- especially early votes inexplicably cast before Florida's flop in last weekend's SEC Championship game -- that could potentially steal the trophy away on name value, sentiment and pure voter ignorance falling back on the familiar. This year, even that would be interesting, among other things.