Early Heisman race takes unexpected turn

I know it is only three weeks into the 2002 college football season, but it is never too early to evaluate the Heisman Trophy race. The Heisman is clearly the most coveted award in all of college athletics, and although it may be a bit premature, the early candidates are making all the so-called experts, including myself, look foolish in predicting that this season would be the “year of the quarterback”.

The season began with all the hype revolved around the easy favorites in Miami’s Ken Dorsey, Florida’s Rex Grossman, and Marshall’s Byron Leftwich. However, Dorsey’s numbers are not outstanding and Grossman and Leftwich’s teams have already lost a game.

It’s time to notice new players who are going to battle for the Heisman, and these players play a different position. It may in fact be the year of the running back. My new early Heisman watch list includes the following running backs: Miami’s Willis McGahee, Colorado State’s Cecil Sapp, Southern Mississippi’s Derrick Nix, Oregon’s Onterrio Smith, Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett, Florida State’s Greg Jones, Virginia Tech’s Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones, and Texas’ Cedric Benson.

Out of this list, only Smith, Suggs and Benson were even mentioned in the pre-season Heisman hype. The rest came out of near obscurity and are now very much alive in the battle for college football’s best all around player.

Lets first examine my somewhat biased favorite in Miami’s McGahee. McGahee has jumped out to an amazing start after playing exclusively as a reserve to Clinton Portis last season. He has rushed for 398 yards (7.8 yards per carry) and five touchdowns in three games. Head coach Larry Coker said that this year’s offensive line is a great run-blocking unit, which should result in even better numbers for McGahee in the following weeks. If Miami continues to dominate and the coaching staff sticks to the game plan of running the ball down the throats of its opponents, then McGahee should at the very least get an invite to New York.

Colorado State’s Sapp and Southern Mississippi’s Nix have also come out of nowhere to jump near the top of the Heisman race. Sapp, a physical senior, has rushed for 509 yards and seven touchdowns this season after missing the entire 2001 season. He led Colorado State to an early upset of instate rival Colorado and will attempt to keep his team in the national rankings.

Nix, also a senior, is seeing his first extensive playing time and has led Southern Mississippi to a 3-0 start. Nix has rushed for 482 yards and seven touchdowns, and his team has a relatively easy schedule, which will help pad his stats.

The Buckeye’s Maurice Clarett is hands down the best freshman in the nation, but that will hinder his chances, as many writers won’t vote for a freshman. Either way, Clarett (477 yards and six touchdowns) is a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten. If not this year, he will have his chance soon.

The Seminoles’ Greg Jones went from a role player in a passing offense last season, to the focus of this year’s offense. Jones has compiled 398 yards and four touchdowns, but will be tested with games against Miami and Florida remaining.

Finally, there are the running backs that actually did get hype in the pre-season along with the surplus of quarterbacks. Oregon’s Smith (360 yards and five touchdowns) and Texas’ Benson (258 yards and three touchdowns) are playing well as expected. Smith will have a good shot if the Ducks win the Pac-10, while Benson may have trouble since Texas’ offense is based on the passing game.

Virginia Tech has a two-headed monster rushing attack with senior Lee Suggs and sophomore Kevin Jones. The two will cancel each other out in the voting, however.

As for the quarterbacks, Dorsey is still very much alive due to the ‘Canes success, but his numbers do not jump out at you. Through three games, Dorsey is 44-of-80 for 626 yards and nine touchdowns, but he has also already thrown four interceptions. Miami’s offense should focus on its rushing attack since it has been successful in the early going. This will limit Dorsey’s numbers, but it is known that what he covets is a second National Championship.

Florida’s Grossman hurt his chances early putting forth the worst performance of his career in the Gators loss to Miami two weeks ago. Grossman has not been able to find the endzone in the first three weeks, throwing for only three touchdowns on the season. He will need to finish the season exceptionally strong to even be considered for the award, and this seems highly unlikely with games remaining against Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State.

Leftwich, the probable number one pick in next year’s NFL draft, is putting up monster numbers so far, throwing for 875 yards and seven touchdowns in only two games. However, Marshall lost last week to Virginia Tech, possibly ending Leftwich’s campaign since its nearly impossible for a mid-major team member to win the award without his team going undefeated on the season.

There is a lot of football left, meaning my Heisman watch list will definitely change as the season progresses. However, don’t be surprised if a running back runs home with the Heisman.

Brian Poliakoff can be reached at b.poliakoff@umiami.edu.