April 5, 2007

Heisman contenders all chasing McFadden

Football season doesn't start for almost five months, so surly critics might protest that ranking 2007's top Heisman Trophy contenders is just rushing into a bad idea.

My mother-in-law said that, too. But after a dozen or so counseling sessions, everything turned out OK.

Besides, no one complains that it's too soon to speculate whether Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani or John McCain might prevail in the next presidential election, and that won't be held until November 2008.

With that in mind, we proceed in lifting up our top contenders for the '07 vote without fear of retribution, and only mildly dreading the "I-told-you-so'' chastising that will inevitably come from gloating fans and overbearing in-laws.

Before clicking on that "send'' button consider more than just 2006 statistics and note the historical trends of Heisman balloting.

Electrifying Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, last year's Heisman runner-up to Ohio State's Troy Smith, is the early favorite to hoist the hardware in December. However, he must face traditionally strong defensive teams on the road at Alabama, Tennessee and LSU.

He must overcome a measure of history, too. Only three players Army's Glenn Davis in 1946, Southern California's O.J. Simpson in 1968 and Georgia's Herschel Walker in 1982 won the Heisman Trophy after finishing as the runner-up the preceding year.

Also, don't minimize the candidacies of West Virginia running back Steve Slaton and Southern California quarterback John David Booty.

Conventional wisdom says that a team with two Heisman candidates really has none, and West Virginia has two in Slaton and quarterback Pat White.

But history also shows that in that situation the running back emerges as the contender and sometimes the winner. That was the case in 2005 when USC running back Reggie Bush won and Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart was third. That was also the case in 1983 when Nebraska I-back Mike Rozier received the Trophy and Huskers quarterback Turner Gill finished fourth.

Southern Cal doesn't appear to have a running back candidate (though the Trojans have several who could emerge), so that's not an issue for Booty. He will be a contender simply because he's the quarterback of a team that could win the national championship.

However, he has other historical factors going for him, too. USC has produced seven Heisman winners (tying Notre Dame for the most) and the Trojans' two previous quarterbacks Leinart and Carson Palmer won the Heisman.

Additionally, there is a precedent for a recipient named John David. Texas A&M's John David Crow won in 1957.

Heisman Hopefuls
1. Darren McFadden, RB, Arkansas: The lightning-fast McFadden hogged the spotlight for the Razorbacks by rushing for 1,647 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also lined up at quarterback at times and completed seven of nine passes for three touchdowns. He caught 11 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. On special teams, McFadden averaged 26.2 yards on 10 kickoff returns and had a 92-yard touchdown. Also consider that he put up those numbers against a schedule that forced him to play against six defenses that ranked among the nation's top 23. He accomplished all that despite starting the season recovering from a broken toe. His toe is healthy and strong, and so is his Heisman candidacy.
Video: McFadden in action
2. Steve Slaton, RB, West Virginia: Life begins at 40, and Heisman eligibility begins in the junior year - as evidenced by the fact that no freshman or sophomore has won the award. Slaton's production increased by 616 yards (1,128 to 1,744) from his freshman to sophomore seasons. If he can continue at that pace he'll run all the way to New York. A Heisman winner needs highlight reel material, which is no problem for Slaton. His 16 rushing touchdowns last season covered an average of 29.4 yards, and he scored eight on runs of 30 yards or longer. If he can avoid fumbling in the big game (see Louisville) he'll be hard to beat. Another key could be if teammate Pat White steals some of his votes.
Video: Slaton in action
3. John David Booty, QB, Southern California: Sure, he has his detractors, but last season Booty ranked 12th nationally in passing. He completed 61.7 percent of his attempts and threw for 3,347 yards. Booty had 29 touchdowns and just nine interceptions for an 11-2 team, which this season is the consensus preseason No. 1. The quarterback of a national championship contender is always a Heisman contender witness Miami's Gino Torretta in 1992. Besides, the last two USC starters at his position were Heisman recipients and six of the last seven winners were quarterbacks. The Trojans lost Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, but there are capable receivers waiting for their chance to shine.
Video: Booty in action
4. Mike Hart, RB, Michigan: A perfect example of substance over image, he's the kind of back a coach loves and highlight shows don't. A year ago Hart, who always seems to fall forward, rushed for 1,515 yards and gained at least 91 yards in all 12 regular season games. He also hangs on to the ball and rarely fumbles. The Wolverines struggled in 2005 when Hart was struggling with injuries, but the Hart-healthy Wolverines finished 11-1 in 2006. The senior-to-be showed Michigan can count on him in big games. Hart rushed for 142 yards and three scores on 23 carries (6.2-yard average) against Ohio State, Michigan's only loss. On the downside, Hart had runs of at least 30 yards in just three games.
Video: Hart in action
5. Colt Brennan, QB, Hawaii: While passing for a nation-leading 5,549 yards and 58 touchdowns last season, Brennan broke 12 NCAA records and tied four more in leading the Warriors to a 10-3 record. The Warriors should be at least as good in 2007 - and Brennan's stats probably will be, too. The biggest obstacle facing Brennan in the Heisman race is that he plays at a low-profile school in a time zone far, far away. Forget West Coast bias, he's dealing with Pacific Ocean bias. Small-school star LaDainian Tomlinson didn't win in 2000, Steve McNair didn't win in 1994 and Marshall Faulk didn't win in 1992. Of course, it used to be that a defensive player couldn't win the Heisman until Charles Woodson did.
Others to watch:
Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville: Completed 199 of 313 passes (63.6 percent) for 3,049 yards with 16 TDs and five INTs. ( Video: Brohm in action)
P.J. Hill, RB, Wisconsin: Rushed for 1,569 yards and 15 TDs on 311 carries for a 5.0 yards-per-carry average. ( Video: Hill in action)
DeSean Jackson, WR, California: Had 59 receptions for 1,060 yards (18 yards per catch) and nine TDs. He also averaged 18.2 yards on 25 punt returns and scored four TDs on special teams.
( Video: Jackson in action)
Matt Ryan, QB, Boston College: Completed 263 of 427 passes for 2,942 yards (61.6 percent) with 15 TDs and 10 INTs. ( Video: Ryan in action)
Ray Rice, RB, Rutgers: Rushed for 1,794 yards and 20 TDs on 335 carries (5.4 yards per carry).
( Video: Rice in action)

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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