Heisman Trophy voters faced perhaps the most intriguing dilemma in the award’s history this season.
Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is unquestionably the best player in the country, but it’s reasonable to wonder whether he should be playing at all.
His father’s involvement in a pay-for-play scandal is enough to give any reasonable voter pause, but when the Heisman Trophy Trust presents the coveted award tonight, Newton will be the rightful winner.
According to early projections, Newton might even threaten the all-time record for widest margin of victory in Heisman history.
We’ve covered this subject thoroughly in this column space before, so let’s summarize my take on the Newton situation with this: I don’t believe any of Newton and Auburn’s story, but that matters not.
The facts of his case as we know them today, on Dec. 11, are enough for him to continue playing according to the NCAA.
Maybe additional facts will eventually emerge that will invalidate Newton’s season and Auburn’s perfect run to this point. But I’m unwilling to convict Newton on the off chance that he’s actually innocent of everything, despite my suspicions to the contrary.
It’s impossible to know the entire story today, which is why I believe most voters will also give Newton the benefit of the doubt, even if they’re uncomfortable with that decision. That’s the only fair way to vote, since we don’t have a crystal ball that will reveal how Newton’s case will eventually be settled.
Fact is, if there had even been a viable second candidate, voters likely would have flocked in his direction to avoid this situation – only a few months after a relatively similar situation resulted in Reggie Bush forfeiting his 2005 Heisman.
The problem is that Newton’s impact has been so much greater than every other player in the sport.
Newton led the best conference in college football in rushing yardage, going off for 1,409 yards and 20 touchdowns, while also leading the nation in passing effiency (188.16) and passing for 2,589 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. He and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick this season became only the second and third quarterbacks ever to both rush and pass for 20 touchdowns in the same season – joining Newton’s former teammate, Tim Tebow, from his 2007 Heisman season.
Plus, Newton took over a team that had been a half-step better than decent, led it to an undefeated record, a surprising conference championship and did it by producing record numbers and countless highlight-reel moments.
That being the case, it was much more difficult to decide which players would receive my second- and third-place votes than to pick Newton for the top spot.
There were plenty of good choices, but few approached Newton’s value.
The other finalists who will join Newton in New York tonight – Oregon running back LaMichael James, Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck – play for teams that were at least in the conversation for the national title until the end of the regular season.
That might be my biggest issue with Heisman voting. Somehow it has too often become a celebration of the player with the best offensive numbers on the nation’s best few teams.
I try to avoid that line of thinking. Yes, I voted for Newton this year, but I selected Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with my first-place vote last year and Tebow the two years before that, simply because nobody seemed capable of stopping them.
I attempt to put the players I believe to be the most dominant players in the country on my ballot, not the offensive stars from the nation’s most dominant teams.
Thus, I didn’t include James or Moore on my ballot at all, just as I didn’t vote for 2009 Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram of Alabama. All three are good to very good players, but their numbers are and were products of factors outside of ability alone.
Another player on Alabama’s roster, Trent Richardson, could have taken Ingram’s 2009 carries and turned in similar rushing totals. James has rushed for 1,682 yards, but he produced those numbers for an offensive juggernaut in a conference that plays little to no defense. And I simply don’t believe Moore would have enjoyed a fraction of his passing success if his Broncos played a schedule that didn’t include the New Mexico States, San Jose States and Idahos of the world.
Instead, I picked guys who also exhibited legitimate individual dominance for second and third place – going with Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon in second place and Luck in third.
It would be easy to knock Blackmon’s numbers for being only a product of the Cowboys’ pass-happy offense, but that would be an incorrect assumption.
I might have used that rationale myself except that I watched him dominate on of the nation’s top defensive backs – Nebraska’s Jim Thorpe Award finalist Prince Amukamara – to the tune of five catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn’t even a fair fight.
Blackmon totaled more than 100 receiving yards in every game in which he appeared, led the nation with averages of 151.3 receiving yards and 9.3 catches per game and hauled in 18 touchdown receptions.
Likewise, Luck helped coach Jim Harbaugh give the Cardinal offense a complete facelift, and he only got better as the season unfolded. Yes, he exploits the same weak defenses as James, but it took a greater individual effort for Luck to make the impact he made this year.
A year after Stanford’s Toby Gerhart ran the ball more times than any player in the country – and finished second in the Heisman vote – Luck helmed a diverse and explosive Cardinal offense, and his team improved from 8-5 last year to 11-1 entering its Orange Bowl date with Virginia Tech.
Luck ranks among the nation’s most efficient passers and also showed better-than-average running ability, which is why he’s an odds-on choice to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft if he leaves school early.
There’s no right answer here. I considered lots of players – Kaepernick, Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor, LSU’s Patrick Peterson and Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers among them. Each could make a valid case for consideration.
There was only one correct choice for the top spot, however, and that’s why Newton will leave New York with the trophy.
• David Ching is sports editor for the Athens Banner-Herald. Phone: 706-208-2239. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org