Picking five for Heisman no easy thing

BY Peter Schrager • November 13, 2011

Ask any recently engaged couple what the hardest part about planning a wedding is, and they won’t tell you it’s the flowers, picking the band or trying to get one of those cutesy write-ups in the New York Times’ “Weddings and Celebrations” section. It’s the unavoidable “cut line” of their wedding invite list.

You can’t invite everybody, and Aunt Bernice assumes she’s a shoo-in because of the cookies she baked for you on your 13th birthday, and there’s only so many distant cousins, friends from summer camp and colleagues from work who can be invited to your big day.

As I do for any young couple with the unenviable task of deciding who’s in and who’s out just months before they exchange vows, I sympathize with the Heisman Trust this week.

A minimum of three and a maximum of five players can be invited to New York City for the Heisman ceremony in December, and here we are, just three weeks from the big day, and there are more than 10 young men worthy of those five spots. Think there’s difficulty in picking a winner this year? Good luck even picking the five guys who’ll get asked to the dance.

On top of Saturday’s Stanford and Boise State losses costing both schools millions in revenue and all but ensuring they won’t play in the BCS championship game, the two bad defeats also threw major wrenches into their star quarterbacks’ Heisman campaigns.

Instead of being the celebrated, undefeated, Pac-12 champion golden boy with a Heisman runner-up and a BCS bowl win under his belt, Andrew Luck now is a very good college quarterback for a one-loss team that won’t win its division, let alone its conference. Luck’s not in the top five in any major passing statistics and failed to lead his team to victory in his one nationally televised prime-time game. As is the case with Stanford and its BCS prospects, Luck’s Heisman detractors could ask the same thing come December: “Sure, we heard a lot about the guy, but who’s he beaten? What’s he really done?”

Kellen Moore’s in a similar boat, too. As a junior he went to New York last year, finishing fourth, and he broke Colt McCoy’s career wins record this season. But does the starting quarterback for the second-best team in the Mountain West Conference deserve an invitation to the Heisman? Is putting up big numbers against the likes of Colorado State and UNLV enough to ensure a top-five slot? Moore’s numbers are better than Luck’s, but they came in wins that included just one Top 25 team.

On career merits and his four-year statistics, Moore’s as good as they get. As far as being one of the top five players in 2011? I’m not quite as confident about that.

Luck and Moore likely will end up getting two of the five coveted invites, but I wouldn’t be outraged if they didn’t. In fact, nobody this year is a sure thing for New York — probably a first in the Heisman’s long and storied history.

Trent Richardson’s carried the load for the Alabama offense all season, but you could make the argument that ’Bama’s success has been far more a result of its punishing defense than its junior running back. Richardson’s 1,205 yards are nothing to sneeze at, but they’re 155 fewer than Virginia Tech’s David Wilson has compiled. Richardson’s 18 touchdowns are noteworthy, but they’re five fewer than Wisconsin’s Montee Ball has. In the one game in which Richardson was needed most, he failed to break the 100-yard mark or score a touchdown in a 9-6 overtime loss to LSU.

Is Richardson the best running back in America? Perhaps. But if Oregon speedster LaMichael James and either Wilson or Ball were to make the first-team All-America squad over him, there’d be few second-guessers outside of Tuscaloosa. And if that’s the case, is he any more Heisman worthy than those three?

If there are two “definites” on my Heisman invite list, they are two quarterbacks not named Luck, Moore or Landry Jones. Houston’s Case Keenum and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden are first and second in my book.

Keenum, a sixth-year senior coming off a devastating season-ending knee injury suffered last October, had 40-1 Heisman odds in Vegas before the season. He leads the nation in passing yards (3,951) and touchdown passes (37) for an undefeated Houston team. Weeden, a 28-year-old former New York Yankees farmhand, opened with 32-1 Heisman odds in July. He’s second in both categories (3,635, 31) for an undefeated Oklahoma State squad.

Keenum married his high school sweetheart last summer and graduated with a degree in kinesiology in May. When I interviewed Weeden for GQ magazine’s college football preview this summer, he told me he felt like Rodney Dangerfield in the movie “Back to School,” an old dude hanging around a bunch of college kids. Weeden said, “It’s not like I’m sitting in the corner of the locker room, doing The New York Times crossword puzzle, smoking a pipe and wearing a robe. But the guys on the team do call me ‘Grandpa.’ ”

Five months later, “Grandpa” and “The Graduate” are the two players who’ve had true Heisman-esque campaigns. But if Houston loses to SMU this weekend or Southern Mississippi down the line, and Weeden’s Cowboys get rocked in The Bedlam Game on Dec. 3, both of their invites might get lost in the mail, too.

So who else is out there?

Oregon’s James is a worthy candidate and Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson has had a fantastic one-year stint as the Badgers’ do-everything quarterback. Neither is a sure bet for NYC, though. Wide receivers Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State), Sammy Watkins (Clemson) and Robert Woods (Southern California) all have had big seasons, too. But unless Blackmon tosses the Cowboys on his back and singlehandedly beats Oklahoma on Dec. 3, I don’t see any of them as Tim Brown/Desmond Howard-like candidates.

What about on defense? If LSU is the top team in the nation and its success is built on its rock-solid defense, surely there’s a player worthy of consideration, right?

That noise right there? Crickets.

You can make the case that Morris Claiborne, the exciting Tigers cornerback with four interceptions and a bright NFL future ahead of him, has been LSU’s defensive star. But you also can make the case that defensive backfield partner Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu has been the most dynamic. Alas, neither player’s going to be invited to New York.

There’s Boston College All-America linebacker Luke Kuechly, the nation’s leader in tackles (168) for the second straight season. But all the tackles in the world won’t be enough for the Heisman Trust to overlook the Eagles’ 3-7 record. Two conference wins in a down year for the ACC just won’t cut it.

Luck, Moore, Jones, James, Russell Wilson, David Wilson, Keenum, Weeden, Richardson, Ball, Blackmon, Kansas State’s Collin Klein and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III — this year makes for a veritable game of “Pin the Tail on the Heisman Candidate.”

Pick any five of those players as your Heisman finalists and there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be wrong. You’d also have scores of outraged detractors, each calling for one or more of the other eight players to get their free weekends in New York, too.

Think the BCS is a muddied mess? Take a look at the task the Heisman Trust has.

Deciding whether Aunt Bernice is invited to the wedding is child’s play compared to that one.

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