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Every year at this time, we play the game of who will win the Heisman Trophy as the most outstanding player in college football.
We hold this award up in recognition of our sport's very best player, knowing good and well that this is just not so. The Heisman Trophy really is not about who is the best player in college football, but actually who is the right player at the right position on the right team.
That would most likely be the quarterback on the team that has the best chance to play for the national championship. Or it could be the running back on a BCS team who rushes for more yards than anyone else. There is a slight chance that it might even be a great wide receiver, who has a bunch of exciting 10-second video clips shown every week on television.
But it won't be a lock-down cornerback, or a dominating left tackle, or a bone-crushing middle linebacker. It won't necessarily be the best athlete on the field or the No. 1 player taken in the NFL draft.
It will be a guy such as John David Booty of Southern Cal. That is, the starting quarterback on the team that is most likely to be ranked No. 1 at the end of the regular season. Under the unstated guidelines for selecting a Heisman Trophy winner, he is the perfect candidate. He is Troy Smith, Eric Crouch, Danny Wuerffel and Gino Torretta all rolled into one. (And please, this is not a knock on Booty … he didn't make up the rules.)
The Heisman Trophy winner will be just that. … The Heisman Trophy winner.
Now don't get me wrong. I love the Heisman Trophy as much as anybody. It is still the greatest individual award offered in the game and, as a former keynote speaker at the prestigious Heisman dinner event in New York City, let me say that it is great for college football. The list of award winners is a virtual who's who of the game's most famous personalities.
But if you're looking to find the definitive list of the most outstanding players in college football, they all won't be on the list of Heisman finalists. That is why I am going to give you my own special list of the top 10 candidates for college football's very best player. So, without further ado, here are my preseason predictions for what I call the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" Heisman Trophy Award:
1. Darren McFadden, RB, Arkansas – This guy is the best back to come out of college football since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001. He is a big, powerful runner who can fly. If he had come out after last season, he would have been drafted ahead of Adrian Peterson. He can run over you, around you, or past you, and also has really soft hands. At times, he even lines up as the shotgun quarterback and has completed 7 of 9 passes for three touchdowns. He is the second running back in the SEC to rush for over 1,000 yards as a freshman (along with Herschel Walker) and after gaining 1,647 yards last season, he was second in the Heisman voting. If Arkansas can stay in the hunt for the SEC West title for most of the season, McFadden will remain the front-runner. And folks, I'm not just putting him No. 1 because he is a running back. He is the best of the best.
2. Jake Long, OL, Michigan – This guy is the elite offensive lineman in the country. At 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, he is big enough to pile drive any defensive lineman off the ball, and with his quick feet he can still pass protect with the best of them. Tailback Michael Hart made most of his 1,562 yards behind Long last season, and the Michigan passing tandem of Chad Henne to Mario Manningham also will benefit from Long's presence. He has lined up extensively at both right and left tackle and plays with a mean streak that makes him downright nasty to line up against. Long is the top-rated offensive tackle in the 2008 NFL draft and he will be the favorite for the Lombardi and Outland awards.
3. Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville – When you see this guy playing quarterback in the Big East, he looks like a man among boys. I'm not just talking about his physical size (6-4, 224) but his demeanor and presence as a leader and field general. He plays especially big in big games and shows Joe Montana-like poise under pressure. He is 18-3 as a starter and led Louisville to a 12-1 record last season, including a 24-13 victory over Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl, where he was named most valuable player. Louisville should be favored in every game this year, except perhaps at West Virginia, and if he can lead the Cardinals to a victory in Morgantown, he just might take his team to the national championship game.
4. Calais Campbell, DE, Miami – In 2006, North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams was selected No. 1 in the 2006 NFL draft, but Campbell is a better football player. At 6-8, 280, the Miami junior is clearly the "prettiest" player in the country. But don't think for a second that Campbell looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane. He is the best defensive player on the best defensive team, and with his speed and quickness he is nothing less than a sack machine. Calais has a very low stance for a player as tall as he is and with his quick first step and long arms, he is almost impossible to stop at the line of scrimmage. He will be the first defensive player taken in the 2008 NFL draft.
5. Steve Slaton, RB, West Virginia – I know I'm revealing my age, but Slaton reminds me of a young Tony Dorsett. Dorsett won the 1976 Heisman Trophy and redefined "great college running back" with his ability to "accelerate into a crack" and "split the seam." Anybody who remembers the great DOR-sett ripping apart a very good Notre Dame team for 303 rushing yards in 1975 knows what it means to compare a running back to Dorsett. "Touchdown Tony" was literally in a class by himself. Slaton now sits in the front row of that same classroom, and as Bum Phillips used to say, "they may not be the only backs in that class but it doesn't take very long to call roll." Last season, Slaton rushed for 1,744 yards and 16 touchdowns. He solidified his position as one of the great running backs in college football in the 2005 Sugar Bowl against Georgia, rushing for 204 yards in an upset victory and being named MVP. That performance remains a record for most rushing yards in a BCS bowl game.
6. Sam Baker, OL, Southern California – Another great offensive lineman who could work his way into becoming the game's best player. If not for offseason knee surgery, I might even have him rated above Michigan's man mountain Jake Long. Although all indications are that Baker is fully recovered, he had to remove some loose cartilage in his kneecap, I still want to see how he performs in his first few games. This will be his fourth year starting for the Trojans. Coach Pete Carroll brags on Baker's tenacity and savvy and also has high praise for his dedication and leadership. At 6-5, 305, Baker has shown the ability to fill that all-important left tackle spot, which in the NFL, remains the second-highest paid position after quarterback.
7. Glen Dorsey, DT, Louisiana State – Dorsey has all the physical tools to dominate on every single play. He is big, strong, fast and has exceptional athletic skills. But his greatest attributes are his intangibles. Dorsey plays with a non-stop motor on every snap – in every practice as well as every game. He is a great leader on and off the field. He is heavily involved in community service and espouses the theme "Dream Big" when addressing youngsters across the state of Louisiana. He is the bell cow of a defensive front that gave up only 97.1 yards rushing per game last season. With All-American Tyson Jackson playing next to him at defensive end, Dorsey will face fewer double teams than any defensive lineman of his caliber in the country. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said that Dorsey is so hard to block that offenses must design their entire game plan around him. And, adds former LSU offensive coordinator, Jimbo Fisher, "He is the nicest kid on the team, too."
8. DeSean Jackson, WR, California – This diminutive 6-0, 170 wideout, who runs a 4.38 40-yard dash, is arguably the most exciting offensive player in college football. A junior, he will be one of the top NFL draft choices of 2008. Not only was Jackson the Pac-10's second-leading receiver in touchdown catches in 2006, but he also had four punt returns for touchdowns (five in his career). With the emergence in the pros of guys such as Devin Hester and Ted Ginn Jr., college coaches are understanding even more the importance of a player who can take it to the house in the kicking game as well as on offense.
9. Kenny Phillips, S, Miami – Like Ed Reed and Sean Taylor, Phillips is the next great Hurricanes safety. He is coming off a sensational sophomore season. During his first start as a true freshman against Clemson, he led the team in tackles with 13 and made the game-winning interception in the third overtime. He comes into 2007 as the No. 1 defensive playmaker in the country. Not only is he an exceptional pass defender with his quick reaction time and sub 4.5 40 speed, but he is also big and physical enough to come down into the box and play the run. His label as the quarterback of the Miami defense is bolstered by the fact that he is a 2006 ACC All-Academic team selection. Coach Randy Shannon says of Phillips that he has "the body of Sean Taylor and the knowledge and speed of Ed Reed." I say he might just be the best player in college football.
10. Matt Ryan QB, Boston College – Don't be surprised if Brian Brohm and Ryan go 1-2 in the NFL draft in 2008. But because Ryan matriculates in Chestnut Hill, and not a more high-profile football program, he will come into the season under the radar. But don't be surprised when he ends the 2007 season by shattering virtually every ACC passing record. Even though he suffered a sprained ankle in his opening game against Western Michigan and a broken foot in a victory over Virginia Tech on Oct. 12, Ryan put up some pretty impressive numbers in 2006. He led the ACC in total offense (242.2 yards per game) and passing yards per game (245.2) while leading BC to a 10-win season. Ryan's teammates call him "Matty Ice" because he is cool on the field, never losing his composure while staying in charge of the huddle and game plan. No quarterback in college football "manages" the game better than Ryan. He is a tough, gutsy competitor with a powerful arm and excellent mechanics who prefers to stand in the pocket rather than scramble around.