- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

Eli Manning knows he’s about to face the blitz of a lifetime.

When you’re the son of Archie and the sibling of Peyton, you can’t escape the subject. When you take an NFL rain check for one more run at college glory, there’s no avoiding the hype. When you’re a second-generation Ole Miss legend fighting a three-time near-miss legacy, it’s impossible to elude the issue.

Will the Heisman finally get its Manning?

“That’s certainly not why I decided to come back for my final year,” said the fifth-year senior quarterback and everybody’s All-American. “There were really a couple of things that motivated me. For one, I didn’t play as well as I could have last season, and I wanted to go out on a high note after a really good year. And for another, I didn’t want to leave some guys behind that I helped to recruit. Guys like [sophomore] receivers Mike Espy and Taye Biddle came here in part to play with me. I felt like I owed it to those guys to finish this thing out right. I came back to win games and enjoy friendships, not to chase a Heisman Trophy.”

Like it or not, the youngest Manning will start his season Saturday against Vanderbilt as one of the favorites to win the college game’s most coveted individual award.

He’s already been pegged by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the top quarterback in next year’s NFL Draft. According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, he’s a 2-1 pick to be the top selection. He already owns every meaningful Mississippi passing record. So barring an unlikely breakthrough by the Rebels in the loaded SEC West, the only remaining college accolades for Eli to collect are conference MVP honors, the Davey O’Brien Award and the Heisman.

To bronze or not to bronze, that is the question.

The entire college football world is, of course, quite familiar with the Manning family history concerning the Heisman. In fact, it’s tough to say whether the Mannings are more famous for being the most high-profile three-star sports family in history or for their role as the ultimate bronze boy bridesmaids.

Father Archie finished fourth in the Heisman balloting in 1969 and third after his senior season at Ole Miss in 1970.

As a senior quarterback at Tennessee in 1997, brother Peyton moved one step closer with a second-place finish behind Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson — but the Mannings felt Peyton was unfairly snubbed by voters that year. And Peyton’s subsequent selection as the first pick in the NFL Draft seemed to confirm the betrayal.

“Like any brother probably would, I felt [Peyton] earned it that year,” said Eli. “I just remember thinking that the whole thing kind of put a damper on his final season.”

Afraid the same might happen to his youngest son, Archie forbade Mississippi from running a Heisman campaign for Eli last season.

“The funny thing is, that kind of backfired,” Eli said. “The fact that we said we weren’t running a campaign probably made more people interested in the story.”

That story fizzled when Eli followed up his outstanding sophomore campaign (2,948 yards, 31 TDs, nine interceptions) with a pedestrian junior season (3,401 yards, 21 TDs, 15 interceptions) by his standards.

“I wasn’t as patient as I needed to be at times last year,” said Eli, who has grown from a gangly 6-foot-3, 195-pound freshman better known as Peyton’s little brother into a 6-5, 225-pound man. “I made some bad decisions, forced some balls, probably didn’t just eat it and take a sack as much as I should have.”

It didn’t help that Manning had absolutely no ground support last season. The Rebels’ rushing offense ranked 110th among the 117 Division I-A teams, averaging just under 99 yards. Leading rusher Ronald McClendon had 378 yards, allowing opposing defenses to attack the pocket with impunity on every down.

But in spite of last season’s struggles, Eli’s numbers are very similar to those of his ballyhooed older brother. Through 30 starts, Peyton had thrown for 6,902 yards with 50 touchdowns and 21 interceptions; Eli has 6,519 passing yards with 52 touchdowns and 25 interceptions.

“In many ways, I’ve always said they’re almost like clones,” said Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe, who was Peyton’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee. “Eli is a little more laid back, and so the offense has a slightly different rhythm than it did under Peyton. But both are so flawlessly prepared, incredibly accurate and emotionally unflappable. I sometimes do think I’m watching a replay.”

Ole Miss doesn’t want a replay of last season, even though the 7-6 campaign ended on a positive note with a 27-23 victory over Nebraska in the Independence Bowl. And both Eli and Cutcliffe are confident that the Manning family’s college curtain call will be more memorable thanks to a stronger supporting cast. The defense returns eight starters. Senior tailback Tremaine Turner enjoyed an excellent fall camp. The offensive line is significantly more talented than last season’s. And all three of Eli’s top targets are back at wideout.

Even Archie is feeling a surge of optimism, clearing the school earlier this summer to launch a subdued Heisman campaign for his youngest son. Actually, calling the school’s promotion subdued would be an understatement. Eli is listed as an “All-Star Candidate” in the Mississippi media guide. And Eli’s Web site, easily accessed only from the school’s athletic home page, makes no mention of the Heisman.

That’s just fine with Eli, who has tired of the subject even before the season’s first snap.

“I’m not against them promoting it, as long as it’s not overdone,” said Eli. “I told them I just don’t want to see myself on any billboards or bumper stickers when I’m driving around Oxford. Let’s just play the games and see what happens, you know? Nobody wins the Heisman based on billboards and fliers and magazine articles. All that matters to me or anyone else is what goes on between the lines on Saturday.”

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