- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Few sciences are more inexact than the science of filling out a Heisman Trophy ballot. It’s part alchemy, part voodoo, part gut reaction — with a coin flip or two mixed in.

Worse, you’re not just comparing apples to oranges — 45 touchdown passes in Conference USA (Case Keenum, Houston) to 11 interceptions in the ACC (David Amerson, North Carolina State). You’re comparing pumpkins to boysenberries, cantaloupes to nectarines.

And no matter how seriously you take this weighty responsibility, there are people out there who would, if they could, toilet paper your house because you didn’t back Their Guy. It gets pretty emotional in Heisman Land, what with everybody having his or her favorite. But as I always say: “Hey, don’t look at me. I didn’t vote for Gino Torretta.”

This year’s deliberations were particularly difficult. You could make a strong argument for half a dozen candidates, maybe more. The numbers these players put up nowadays, the quarterbacks especially, are overwhelming. Throwing for 5,000 yards (Keenum)? Preposterous. Completing 74.1 percent of pass attempts (Kellen Moore, Boise State)? Ridiculous. Scoring 38 TDs (Montee Ball, Wisconsin)? (Sound of sportswriter breathing into a paper bag.)

So what’s my method for splitting hairs? Well, one of the things I try to do is distinguish the best players from the players in the best circumstances. Take Ball, for instance. He had a phenomenal year, no question. But did he have a phenomenal year because he’s the most outstanding player in the land, or did he have a phenomenal year — in part, at least — because he got to play with N.C. State transfer Russell Wilson, the No. 2-rated passer in the Football Bowl Subdivision? Think about it: How many Heisman-winning running backs have had a QB like that to keep defenses honest?

(Yes, Ball is just one touchdown away from Barry Sanders’ record of 39 — set in 1988, when Sanders beat out Troy Aikman and others for the Stiff-Arm Trophy. But Sanders also rushed for 2,628 yards in 12 games that season. Ball had 1,622 yards through 12 games this year, more than 1,000 less. These are the kinds of things that go through your mind.)

Something else I try to take into account is the humongous advantage quarterbacks have in the Heisman race because the college game has become such a passing game. Since 2000, only two Heisman winners haven’t been QBs (though a couple of them, Eric Crouch and Tim Tebow, were running QBs). Contrast that with the 1972 to-‘83 period, when every winner was a running back. Is it ever healthy that one position should have headlock on the top award in college football?

Then there’s the other side of the ball. There is another side of the ball. (We’re reminded of this every so often when somebody such as Mario Williams, a defensive end, is taken first in the NFL draft.) You’d have to make an awfully big impact as a defensive player to crack any Heisman voter’s top three, but I do what I can to acknowledge the existence of the Other Half of the game. I’ve had Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey and Terrell Suggs, among others, on my ballot; and if I’d known Ndamukong Suh might stomp on my arm, I probably would have included him, too.

It’s in this spirit that I gave Tyrann Mathieu, the LSU cornerback, my third-place vote. In addition to being a terrific cover guy — and one who can tackle, to boot — he has the highest punt-return average in the country (12.7) and made big plays in big situations (most notably his tide-turning runbacks of 92 yards against Arkansas and 62 against Georgia). Granted, he sat out a game this season for violating his team’s drug policy, but the Heisman isn’t about perfection off the field, it’s about excellence on it. (How’s that for a rationalization?)

My runner-up is Oregon running back LaMichael James. James — elusive, super quick — isn’t one of the five finalists, but I’m used to that. Despite missing two weeks with a dislocated elbow, he ran for 149.6 yards a game and a whopping 7.4 a carry, more than Ball (135.3/6.4) and Alabama’s Trent Richardson (131.9, 6.0), who are finalists.

Heck, James has had three high-level seasons like this. Maybe that’s his problem. Ball and Richardson, the fresher faces, got a lot of attention this year by essentially doubling their previous output, but it would have been impossible for James to double his previous output … unless, of course, he rushed for 3,500 yards.

(As you can see, I also don’t subscribe to the idea that you can’t get hurt and still have a shot at the Heisman. It didn’t keep me from voting for Marshall Faulk in the ‘90s, even though he was knocked out of some games. Again, the word on the trophy is “outstanding,” not “indestructible.”)

Finally, my first choice: Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. To me, he’s that rare talent: a first-rate passer who’s also a superior athlete. Forget the stats. Plenty of quarterbacks — Keenum, Moore, Stanford’s Andrew Luck, USC’s Matt Barkley — have eye-popping stats. Just watch this kid play. There’s a gracefulness to him that you don’t often see. He moves gracefully, throws gracefully, seems at ease in front of a microphone. The others, I think, have a chance to be good in the pros, maybe better than good. Griffin has a chance to be an all-timer.

Anyway, that’s my ballot, and I’m sticking to it. Let the brickbats begin.

• Dan Daly can be reached at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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