Heisman nod is as iffy as Nov. 4 race

In most years, one or two players would have distinguished themselves by now as clear-cut favorites for college football's glamour award, the Heisman Trophy. Oddly, however, more players may have fallen out of contention than into it. If there's a leading candidate for the best-player sweepstakes it might be South Carolina's George Rogers.

Several other ballcarriers -- UCLA's Freeman McNeil, Southern California's Marcus Allen, and Nebraska's Jarvis Redwine -- also appear to be in the picture.

South Carolina's publicity department is pushing hard for Roger's selection. It puts out weekly reports on his rushing exploits and uses "Heisman candidate" as though it were a prefix to his name. And why not? George finished second in last season's rushing race, is second to Allen in this year's, owns a string of 17 consecutive 100-yard games, and is largely responsible for leading the once-woeful Gamecocks out of oblivion (they're 15th in the latest coaches' poll with a 6-1 record).

Normally, of course, the Heisman goes to a heralded player from a traditional power. Souther Cal, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Penn State, and Nebraska have supplied the last eight winners. But while still something of an unknown to the spectating public, Rogers is familiar to the writers and broadcasters, who made him the top nonsenior vote-getter after Ohio State's Art Schlichter in the 1979 Heisman balloting.

Schlichter, incidentally, may have "blown" his chance to win this year's award when UCLA blanked the Buckeyes 17-0 in a televised game. Recovering from such a widely publicized embarrassment can be next to impossible. On the other hand, having a big game before millions, as McNeil did against Ohio State (118 yards), provides instant recognition.

UCLA runners generally get overlooked in the annual hubbub surrounding Southern Cal's tailback. It's rather ironic then that McNeil is said to remind people of Mike Garrett, the Trojans' 1965 Heisman winner, particularly since he played in the shadows of Charles White, another Trojan trophy recipient, during the last two years.

Now Freeman's making his own mark. The third best runner in the country last year, he has racked up some eye-opening totals again, such as the 220 yards he registered against Stanford. The fact that the undefeated Bruins manhandled Ohio State in Columbus and have a shot at the national championship (they're No. 3) helps Freeman's Heisman chances. What may hinder them a bit is the sudden emergence of Marcus Allen, USC's latest wonder back and national rushing leader. But Allen is a junior, and the trophy usually goes to players in their fourth year of college eligibility.

Because of the wide-open nature of the Heisman race, a defensive player or two could conceivably gather more than a token mention in the balloting. Among the most highly touted defenders are UCLA safety Kenny Easley, Florida State noseguard Ron Simmons, Baylor linebacker Mike Singletary, and Pittsburgh lineman Hugh Green.

Easley ranks among the greats to play his position; Simmons, despite an injury that sidelined him for most of three games, is the defensive catalyst for the sixth-ranked Seminoles; Singletary has helped undefeated Baylor get off to its fastest start in 27 years; and Green, well, does a two-time All-America really need any introduction?

As exceptional as these players are, history's not in their corner. No defender has ever won college football's most prized individual honor, mainly because it's so difficult to measure defensive achievements statistically. In addition, offensive teams generally run their plays away from the "stoppers," making it hard for them to gild their tackling and interception totals.

Offensive and defensive linemen, as well as linebackers, actually have their own awards, the Outland and Lombardi trophies, which are sort of Heismans for the unsung. Singletary, Green, and Simmons have a shot at these, but for Easley it's the Heisman or nothing.

In recent years, running backs have dominated the Heisman balloting, winning the trophy the past eight years. No quarterback has won since Auburn's Pat Sullivan in 1972, a drought that should soon end with increased emphasis on the forward pass.

Because of the shifting focus, Purdue's Mark Herrmann and California's Rich Campbell were expected to throw their helmets (along with the ball) into the Heisman ring this year.

The failure of Purdue or Cal to crack the latest polls, however, pretty much eliminates these players from serious contention. Herrmann, absent from the lineup when the Boilermakers lost to Notre Dame, could conceivably squeeze back in the picture if Purdue wins the Big Ten championship.

Perhaps the fastest man out of the blocks in the Heisman race was Nebraska's Redwine, who was nothing short of sensational in the Cornhuskers' first four games. His Heisman Express received a major setback, though, when an injury kept him on the sidelines in recent weeks.

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