FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. ? Starting a Heisman Trophy push in November usually works about as well as launching a presidential campaign the week before Election Day.
That hasn't stopped Arkansas sophomore Darren McFadden from throwing his helmet in the ring.
McFadden shed his label as the nation's most underrated tailback once and for all Saturday by delivering his second consecutive virtuoso performance in front of a nationally televised audience.
The sophomore sensation rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the 11th-ranked Razorbacks' 31-14 triumph over No. 13 Tennessee at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. And if that wasn't enough, he also threw a touchdown pass for the second time this season.
"He's a Heisman contender," Arkansas cornerback Chris Houston said. "He's done nothing but show to the world that he's the best right now."
Too bad Houston doesn't have a vote.
McFadden leads the Southeastern Conference with 1,219 rushing yards, but he rarely was mentioned as a Heisman contender until recently.
The Heisman remains Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith's to lose.
Smith has been the front-runner since he led Ohio State to a victory at Texas and Notre Dame's Brady Quinn struggled through a loss to Michigan on back-to-back September weekends.
If he throws a couple of touchdown passes and avoids mistakes in a triumph over Michigan next week, Smith will probably win in a landslide.
But what if the guy who stumbled through a 17-10 squeaker over Illinois last week has a repeat performance next weekend? If Smith comes up short in the game of the year, suddenly the Heisman Trophy race is just as wide open as the national championship picture.
That would throw Quinn back into the mix. The senior quarterback has thrown four touchdown passes each of the last two weeks and hasn't been picked off since Sept. 23.
Michigan running back Mike Hart also could stake a claim to college football's top individual prize by outperforming Smith in a Michigan victory next week.
"Those guys have been on the scene all year," McFadden said. "I just came on to the scene late."
But he sure has burst onto the scene in a big way.
He's not only one of the best tailbacks in the nation. He also just might be the most effective quarterback on his team.
McFadden showed off his remarkable versatility Saturday while he single-handedly turned a close game into a runaway.
He took a direct snap and ran for a 17-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to extend Arkansas' lead to 14-0. On the Razorbacks' next series, he took another direct snap and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Monk.
McFadden now has thrown for a touchdown on each of his two pass attempts this season.
"I've been asking if I can throw a deep pass," the former high school quarterback said, "but I don't think they'll go for that."
The next time Arkansas had the ball, McFadden took a handoff and rushed 5 yards up the middle for a third score ? giving the Razorbacks a 28-7 halftime advantage. He compiled 10 carries for 100 yards, two touchdown runs and one touchdown pass in that spectacular second quarter.
"It's hard to simulate the speed of No. 5," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, whose team kept California star tailback Marshawn Lynch in check earlier this season. "He is the best back we have seen this year."
And this performance was no fluke.
McFadden has rushed for at least 180 yards five times in his brief college career. He entered this game with more rushing yards than 30 percent of the 119 Division I-A teams.
He has led the SEC in rushing since he ran for 145 yards to outclass 2005 SEC rushing champion Kenny Irons in a 27-10 victory at Auburn last month. McFadden's 65-yard touchdown run in that game may go down as the play that sparked the Razorbacks to the SEC West title.
"Ever since Oklahoma's running back (Adrian Peterson) went down, he's stepped up," Houston said. "He's the best running back right now. He went to Auburn and showed Kenny Irons that (Irons) can't run with him. What's he got to prove to anybody else?"
So why wasn't he mentioned as a Heisman contender earlier?
McFadden has gone relatively unnoticed because he doesn't play on national television nearly as often as Smith, Quinn, Hart or any of the other Heisman hopefuls.
That's all changed this month.
Arkansas' victory over South Carolina aired on ESPN. The ESPN "College GameDay" crew was on campus this weekend to promote ESPN2's coverage of the Tennessee game.
McFadden has responded with a couple of star-making performances. He rushed for a career-high 219 yards against South Carolina and followed that up with an equally brilliant effort this week.
For his part, McFadden hasn't complained about the relative lack of attention he's received this season. He instead griped that pollsters have overlooked his team's nine-game winning streak.
"People have been disrespecting us," McFadden said. "When they talk about the one-loss teams, we don't get mentioned."
Arkansas now deserves mention in any discussion of the nation's top teams.
And its star tailback should appear on any short list of the game's best players.