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College Football Nation: No clear Heisman winner this year

Eric Avidon

Ladies and gentleman, the winner of the 2009 Heisman Trophy is ... a mystery.

For the first time in a while, since Eric Crouch won the award in 2001, no one jumps out, no one or two players had such statistically superb seasons that they separated themselves from the rest. Last year there were three quarterbacks who each had such stellar seasons that there was no question the Heisman would go to one of the three. It was merely a matter of which - Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Texas’ Colt McCoy or Florida’s Tim Tebow - was favored by the most voters.

The award went to Bradford, and no one could argue that he wasn’t the right choice. Same with Tebow in 2007.

The year before, Ohio State’s Troy Smith was a no-doubter. USC’s Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, Jason White of Oklahoma and USC’s Carson Palmer were all superb the seasons they won the Heisman. And before Crouch in 2001, you’d have to go back to the 1960s before hitting another name that raises questions.

But just because picking the winner isn’t statistically simple, that does not mean there isn’t an obvious choice, not for anyone who can look beyond their comfort zone.

Seven players can make a case for winning the Heisman - Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, Alabama running back Mark Ingram, McCoy, Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, Clemson running back/returner C.J. Spiller, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Tebow. All but Moore and Spiller were named finalists on Monday.

Only one, however, had an historic season. The name called Saturday night at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club should be ... Ndamukong Suh.

“It is a tremendous honor and very humbling to be a finalist for a prestigious award like the Heisman Trophy,” Suh said on Monday. “I’m excited to be included with a great group of finalists for this year’s award.”

He shouldn’t merely be a finalist. He should win, become just the second defensive player ever to receive the Heisman, following Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997.

No offensive player had a sublime season. Plenty of players had pretty good ones, but none had one of those years that feels special. A defensive player, however, did have one of those years.

It’s tough to measure the impact of defensive tackles, since so much of their job is to do the dirty work that linebackers and safeties can clean up. So much of their job is to simply - or not so simply - occupy multiple blockers and push linemen into the backfield so pockets break down before quarterbacks can find their targets and holes never form for running backs to break long runs.

That said, look at Nebraska’s team defensive numbers, statistics that start with the play in the middle of the defensive line.

The Cornhuskers, who ranked just 112th in the nation in total defense a mere two years ago, are ninth in the nation, allowing 284.5 yards per game. More importantly, they are second in scoring defense, giving up 11.2 points per game - two years ago they were 114th, giving up 37.9 points per game. They’re 11th in rushing defense, and third in pass efficiency defense.

And all those numbers come without the benefit of any semblance of an offense to give the defense a rest - Nebraska is 102nd in total offense and 80th in scoring.

Beyond the overall statistics, look at what Nebraska’s defense did against Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game, against one of the best offenses in the country.

The Longhorns came in scoring better than 41 points per game, but scored just 12 against the Cornhuskers, their fewest of the season. They came in averaging more than 440 yards per game, but managed just 184 against Nebraska. And McCoy, who had thrown just one interception in the last five games and passed for more than 400 yards in three of the last four games, was harassed into three picks and managed just 164 yards through the air.

The only reason Nebraska didn’t beat the Longhorns was the play of its offense, which did nothing, and that’s no fault of the defense.

Individually, even though his job is to disrupt the play before it can begin and not necessarily finish it with the tackle, Suh’s individual numbers are astounding for the position he plays. The 6-foot-4, 300-pounder does things interior linemen just aren’t supposed to do. He occupies blockers and disrupts plays, but then cleans up the damage all on his own.

His 12 sacks and 10 pass breakups are remarkable for a defensive tackle. His 50 solo tackles and 32 assisted stops resemble the numbers of a linebacker, someone who roams free on the second level and only has to take on blockers downfield, not a player getting double and triple-teamed at the snap of the ball.

And in Nebraska’s biggest game of the year, against Texas, Suh was by far the most dominant player on the field, significantly more impressive than McCoy. Suh had 10 solo tackles, assisted on two others, sacked McCoy four times on his own and was in on a fifth.

“Suh is certainly deserving of any honors that may come his way this week,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said on Monday. “He is a special football player - as good as anyone in the country, in my opinion. It’s good to see that the Heisman voters have recognized the true impact a dominant defensive lineman like Suh can have on a football game.”

The Heisman has been almost exclusively the domain of offensive players, but the award is supposed to go to college football’s most outstanding player, and that includes defense.

Stanford’s Gerhart has had a tremendous year, gaining 1,736 rushing yards and scoring 26 touchdowns. He’s had his biggest games against Stanford’s biggest opponents, gaining 223 yards in a win over Oregon, 178 in a victory over USC and 205 in a win over Notre Dame. But there’s nothing unusual about Gerhart’s season - plenty of running backs in the past have done what he’s done.

Ingram, who may walk away with the award because he’s the best offensive player on the best team, doesn’t even measure up to Gerhart (1,542 yards, 15 TDs). And Spiller, as dynamic as he’s been as a running back on offense and returner on special teams, has dominated some days but been held in check on others.

Tebow and McCoy, meanwhile, came up short in their biggest moments, their conference championship games last weekend - even though McCoy’s team won, he had his worst game. And Moore, as spectacular as his stats are, compiled his 38 touchdown passes - against three interceptions - and 3,325 yards against bad teams.

The player who had the historic season is Suh.

“Suh is as productive a defensive tackle prospect as I can remember in my 32 years in the business,” ESPN.com’s Mel Kiper wrote this week.

The name that will be called Saturday night is a mystery, but that’s only because the Heisman remains the domain of offensive players. If the award goes to a running back or quarterback, it is unclear which name should be called, probably Gerhart.

But the best player in the country is clear. It’s Ndamukong Suh.

What We Learned

We learned a lot in the last week, on a lot of different topics, so rather than focus on just one, some words on each.

College football has a problem.

What’s going on this week between Notre Dame and Brian Kelly is not uncommon. Here’s the coach of an undefeated Cincinnati team that’s about to play the biggest game in school history - against Florida in the Sugar Bowl - but instead of focusing solely on the Gators he’s going through the interview process with the Fighting Irish.

If he’s hired by Notre Dame, the Bearcats will either be without their head coach when they play Florida, or be led by a coach who the players know is abandoning them for a supposedly better place.

It happens just about every year. It doesn’t necessarily happen with an undefeated team playing in a BCS bowl, but it does happen.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution, and it comes down to recruiting.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football teams, and the most crucial recruiting period comes just after the end of the season in the month before signing day in early February. In order to compete for top high school players, a school needs its coaching staff in place, so you can’t blame Notre Dame for pursuing candidates like Kelly.

Conversely, you can’t blame Kelly for trying to get the best job possible, the same as anyone in any walk of life.

And now there’s news that Notre Dame is interested in Connecticut’s Randy Edsall and that he’s interested in Notre Dame, as he prepares his team to play South Carolina in the Papjohns.com Bowl on Jan. 2.

Should schools be forced to pursue only coaches whose teams don’t have a bowl game left to play? Should schools be forced to wait until after the bowl games to start pursuing coaches, putting them at an even more significant recruiting disadvantage? Should signing day be moved back a month, giving schools and potential candidates more time but extending an already brutally stressful time for high school kids?

It’s a dilemma with no easy answer.

* The BCS Championship Game is set.

It’s Texas against Alabama, two undefeated teams from two power conferences, a pair who were among the top three in the polls from very early in the season right through today. Yet suddenly, based on what happened in their respective conference championship games, the national-title match-up looks like a mismatch.

Alabama whipped defending national-champion Florida and Texas struggled against three-loss Nebraska. The conventional wisdom says the Crimson TIde will crush the Longhorns, become the fourth straight national champion out of the SEC.

But that’s shortsighted.

College teams fluctuate from week to week, sometimes wildly. Based on last weekend, sure, it makes sense that Alabama is favored. But look at what the Crimson Tide did just the week before struggling to pull off a late comeback win against mediocre Auburn. Look at how Alabama needed a blocked field goal to beat mediocre Tennessee. And look at how Texas scored a minimum of 35 points for six straight weeks before beating Nebraska 13-12.

The conference championship games may have been a harbinger of things to come, but they also may have just been one of those weekends when one team played its best while another played its worst, and reality is somewhere in the middle.

* What Pellini has done in two years at Nebraska is remarkable.

The Cornhuskers were 5-7 and in shambles when he was hired, and the defense - as mentioned earlier - was horrendous. This year, boasting one of the top defenses - lead by the nation’s best player - they nearly beat Virginia Tech and Texas, and did beat Oklahoma.

Should they beat Arizona in the Holiday Bowl they’d have 10 wins, a tremendous accomplishment given where the team was just a short time ago.

* College football may finally be getting its minority hiring practices right.

With the hiring of African-Americans Charlie Strong at Louisville and Mike London at Virginia, 11 of 120 head coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision are minorities. It’s not a high number at all, representing 9 percent, but it does show a trend in the right direction. There were fewer than five for many years. Last year the number grew to seven, and now it’s 11.

Minority hiring progress has come slowly in college football, slower than other major sports, but perhaps it’s finally arriving.

Game of the Week

There is only one game this week, and it’s a game that deserves to stand alone.

Army will play Navy at 2:30 on Saturday in Philadelphia. No championships will be on the line when the 5-6 Black Knights play the 8-4 Midshipmen. What will be on the line is pride in one of the finest traditional games in a sport rich in traditional games, and a possible bowl berth for Army.

It’s football in its purest form, a game played by men who have no aspirations of the next level, who play it for joy.

“Before the season started I probably would have said that ... it’s appropriate that this game stands alone,” said Army coach Rich Ellerson.” As you get closer to the game itself, that’s one more distraction that you have to put on the shelf. Those are the types of things that, at this point in the game, become a little more incidental. As I looked at the season in general and the scheduling ideas, I think that this game should have its own place - it’s unique enough, it’s special enough, and it deserves it.”

Army hasn’t beaten Navy since 2001, and hasn’t had a winning season since 1996. Before this season, the Black Knights had three straight 3-9 years, they were 0-13 in 2003 and won one game in both 2000 and 2002. But Ellerson has them in position to finish at .500 in his first season, if they can upset the Midshipmen.

Navy, meanwhile, has won a minimum of eight games each year since a 2-10 season in 2002, and could win 10 this year with wins over Army and then Missouri in the Texas Bowl. The Midshipmen haven’t lost a beat in the two years since the departure of coach Paul Johnson to Georgia Tech, rolling right along under Ken Niumatalolo.

It will be football from a bygone era. In the time of the spread, Navy’s No. 3-ranked rushing offense will meet Army’s 14th-ranked rushing offense. It will be a game that deserves to stand alone, serve as the bridge between the end of the regular season last weekend and the start of the bowl season in just over a week.

If I Had a Ballot ...

1. Alabama (13-0): The Tide looked unbeatable last weekend.

2. Texas (13-0): The ’Horns looked vulnerable last weekend.

3. TCU (12-0): The Horned Frogs deserved a crack at Florida or Cincinnati.

4. Florida (12-1): It’s been a brilliant run.

5. Cincinnati (12-0): Fantastic comeback against Pitt, but a terrible defense.

6. Boise State (13-0): The Broncos deserved a crack at Florida or Cincinnati.

7. Oregon (10-2): Roses sure smell nice.

8. Georgia Tech (11-2): In two years, Paul Johnson has taken the Yellow Jackets from mediocrity to the BCS.

9. Ohio State (10-2): Oregon will give the Buckeyes all they can handle.

10. Iowa (10-2): An Orange Bowl berth is a great reward for a surprising season.

Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809 oreavidon@cnc.com.