Heisman pool deeper than it looks

The Heisman is supposed to go to the player who had the best season.

It’s not supposed to go to a player based on talent — that’s what the NFL draft is for — and it shouldn’t matter what a player could’ve or should’ve done if he had better receivers to throw to or an easier slate to deal with. It’s about the season and the body of work taken as a whole, and it’s also about who’s the best combination of the most valuable player, the most outstanding player and the signature player who defined a college football campaign.

So let’s get past the easy narrative that fits a programming schedule and go with the honest truth that no one wants to talk about.

Alabama running back Trent Richardson shouldn’t be the clear-cut favorite to win the Heisman, and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck shouldn’t even be the All-Pac-12 quarterback, much less a Heisman front-runner.

There’s no question Luck is the be-all-end-all No. 1 pick in the draft. There’s no question he represents everything that’s great about college football, and there’s no question he’s the most talented player in the country. But that’s not what the Heisman is for.

Southern California’s Matt Barkley has been better, and so has Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Houston’s Case Keenum and Baylor’s Robert Griffin.

Luck got the head-to-head win over Barkley and USC, but he didn’t necessarily outplay his counterpart by leaps and bounds. Stanford beat USC because the Cardinal O-line dominated the Trojan D-line late, and because Curtis McNeal lost a fumble.

Oregon was the signature game for both the Cardinal and the Trojans, and Luck was awful  against the Ducks, completing 27 of 41 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions in a home loss. Barkley beat Oregon in Autzen Stadium by completing 26 of 34 passes for 323 yards and four scores with a pick.

For the season, Barkley completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Luck completed 70 percent of his throws for 3,170 yards and 35 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Granted, Barkley had more receiver talent to work with, but that doesn’t matter in the equation; the Heisman and the all-star honors are based on who did what and not who could’ve done more. Barkley also had to carry a team with nothing to play for; Luck and the Cardinal had the BCS carrot at the end of the stick.

Weeden still deserves to be in the Heisman chase as a brilliant conductor for the high-powered attack with 4,111 yards and 34 touchdowns — ranking second in the nation in completions per game — with 12 picks. His three interceptions in the loss against Iowa State weren’t all his fault, and he threw for 476 yards and three scores. Think of it this way: If Quinn Sharp’s 37-yard field goal that went over the upright had gone an inch the other way, the Cowboys would be No. 2 in the BCS and Weeden would be the Heisman front-runner. If he rocks against Oklahoma, he deserves to be in New York as an MVP as well as an MOP.

Keenum has Houston unbeaten and on the verge of a conference title — something Luck won’t have on his resume this year — with off-the-chart stats, completing 73 percent of his passes for 4,726 yards and 43 touchdowns with three picks. He’s third in the nation in passing efficiency while averaging 10.12 yards per attempt; Griffin is No. 2 in efficiency — behind Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson — completing 73 percent of his throws for 3,678 yards and 34 touchdowns with five picks. More important, Griffin had his Heisman-moment games that changed a season in wins over TCU and Oklahoma.

On the flip side, while Richardson has been outstanding and he should be in the Heisman hunt, he hasn’t proved he deserves it in any sort of an MVP way.

In 2009, Mark Ingram won the honor because he ran for 144 yards on 22 carries against LSU, and in the game of the year, he ripped apart No. 1 Florida — and made Tim Tebow cry — with 113 yards and three touchdowns to go along with two catches for 76 yards on the way to the national title. Those were signature games. Those were difference makers. Those were performances and wins on the biggest stages against the best teams.

Richardson ran through an Auburn defense that didn’t stop Utah State from running wild in the opener and hadn’t done much since.

In his biggest game of the year, against LSU, he was limited to 89 yards on 23 carries in a loss. Of course, the Tiger defense is a killer, but that’s the point. That’s the deal. A Heisman winner needs to be special against the great defenses in the biggest of moments — as Cam Newton did when he pounded through a brick wall of an LSU defense last year and came through late in the win over Alabama to lead his team to a national title. Richardson hasn’t done it.

How inflated are his stats? He faced four run defenses currently ranked in the top 50. Throw out the Kent State game in which he ran 13 times for 37 yards and three short scores — that was Kent State, and he wasn’t needed much. In a win at Penn State, he ran 26 times for 111 yards and two scores and caught four passes for 19 yards.

Wisconsin’s Montee Ball ran 25 times for 156 yards and four scores against Penn State with the Leaders Division title on the line.

Richardson ran for 181 yards and two scores against Florida, but the Gator "D" got pounded on by anyone with a ground game. ‘Bama didn’t really need Richardson to beat Florida, and he didn’t have to go against Georgia’s No. 6 run defense or South Carolina’s aggressive defensive front.

Other than the Florida game, his biggest games came against North Texas, Ole Miss, Georgia Southern and the miserable Auburn defense.

And it’s not like Ball is playing in the Sun Belt.

This isn’t Western Kentucky’s Bobby Rainey tearing it up against Florida Atlantic and Troy. This isn’t San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman running wild in the Mountain West. This is the Big Ten, and while that might not mean anything to the SEC snobs, it’s a real, live BCS conference, and Ball has faced as many BCS-league top- 50 run defenses as Richardson while having a much, much better year.

Put it this way: If people are starting to compare your season to what Barry Sanders did in 1988, you’re doing something special.

Unlike Richardson, who piled up mega-stats against Georgia Southern and North Texas, Ball wasn’t used much against UNLV and South Dakota, and he ran only 14 times for 142 yards and three scores against Indiana. Against Nebraska on the biggest of early season stages, he ran 30 times for 151 yards and four scores. Against Michigan State, he ran 18 times for 115 yards and a score and caught two passes for 24 yards and a touchdown, despite missing a chunk of the game dinged up.

Fair enough. Ball didn’t carry the team to a win against the Spartans, just like Richardson failed to do against LSU, and he was limited to 86 yards and a touchdown on just 17 carries against Ohio State. But Ball still has a chance to make amends in the Big Ten championship game. If he comes up big and the Badgers win, then that’s the signature game that Richardson won’t have. Basically, Wisconsin wouldn’t be in the Big Ten title game without Ball. Alabama would still be 11-1 and playing for the national title without Richardson.

Statistically, it’s not even close.

Ball has averaged 6.54 yards per carry with 1,622 yards on 248 attempts. Richardson has averaged 6.02 yards per carry with 1,583 yards on 263 attempts. Richardson has caught 27 passes for 327 yards and three scores, and Ball has caught 17 passes for 248 yards and five scores. For the season, Ball has 34 touchdowns to Richardson’s 23 and has been the model of consistency with two touchdowns or more in every game, including the losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. Richardson caught a scoring pass against Arkansas and didn’t score against LSU.

(By the way, Doak Walker voters, as a side note, Oregon’s LaMichael James was stuffed in two of his big games — LSU and USC, both losses — but destroyed Stanford for 146 yards and three scores.) Heisman voters, there’s still a week left. Watch Ball. Watch Weeden. Watch Keenum. Take into account Griffin’s season before he suffered a concussion last week against Texas Tech.

And do your homework. After this weekend, those four — and throw Barkley in the mix — really might deserve the Heisman votes ahead of the ones the Worldwide types are pushing on you.