What is a buckeye? Do the USC song girls buy those sweaters a size too small on purpose? And how can Tennessee be so bad? ¶ These are among college football's vexing mysteries. Here is another: Every December the Heisman Trophy is bestowed on the sport's "most outstanding player." But what, precisely, is "outstanding" supposed to mean? ¶ This year, apparently, it means "Big 12 quarterback putting up the most monstrous numbers." This Saturday's showdown between No. 2 Texas Tech and fifth-ranked Oklahoma will be more than a battle to probably represent the Big 12 South in the conference championship game and remain relevant in the national title chase. It will serve as a late elimination round—think Dancing with the Stars—for this year's Heisman race. Presumptive front-runner Graham Harrell, the Tech senior who has thrown for 4,077 yards and 36 touchdowns in 10 games, could tighten his grip on the 25-pound doorstop or be leapfrogged by Sam Bradford, the Sooners sophomore whose 38 TD passes lead the nation. If recent history is our guide, Harrell should start worrying.
It's been a tough season for Heisman favorites and front-runners (box, page 52). The campaign of Ohio State's Chris (Beanie) Wells was over before it began, torpedoed by a toe injury on his 13th carry of the season. And two other star backs, Knowshon Moreno of Georgia and Javon Ringer of Michigan State, could generate only sporadic buzz. Just as the profusion of prolific Big 12 offenses has been the story of the 2008 season, the quarterbacks engineering those attacks have hijacked the Heisman conversation. The early favorite was Missouri's Chase Daniel, who was eclipsed by Texas's Colt McCoy, who was bumped aside by Harrell, who may yet be supplanted by Bradford.
Busting a move on the outside, meanwhile, reminding voters of the power of incumbency, is Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who has been on a tear since his team's upset loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 27. In the six wins since that stunner in the Swamp—and his cathartic apology to Gator Nation—Tebow has rushed or passed for 22 touchdowns. Florida has averaged 49.8 points per game during that stretch, making the Gators arguably the hottest team in the nation. While Tebow's slow start this season lengthened his Heisman odds considerably, he does enjoy one clear advantage over the other candidates: He's the only guy who can vote for himself.
On the subject of politics, brace yourself for a riot of lobbying and vote-grubbing should Oklahoma beat the Red Raiders. That's because a Tech loss in Norman will vastly increase the likelihood that the Sooners, the Red Raiders and No. 4 Texas will all be 11--1 and sitting on identical 7--1 league records at the end of the regular season. In that case, which of the three should represent the Big 12 South in the conference title game? The first four divisional tiebreakers don't break the tie. The fifth gives the title-game slot to—sigh—"the highest-ranked team in the Bowl Championship Series Poll" on Nov. 30.
Which means that, a few weeks after polling places closed across the country, the real campaigning will begin. Like it or not, says Sooners coach Bob Stoops, "you're gonna have to tout your team."
The player best positioned to spare America this unseemly politicking can be seen, ironically, in a variety of "campaign materials" sent to Heisman voters last week. On bumper stickers and 8-by-12-inch glossies, Harrell appears alongside his go-to guy, All-America wideout Michael Crabtree, whose 18 receiving touchdowns are tops in the nation and who, come to think of it, will probably rate an invitation to the Heisman ceremony.
Lubbock's dynamic duo posed for those pictures in August, when Harrell was still considered a Heisman long shot. But a funny thing happened on the way to another fair-to-good season for Texas Tech. With an upgraded running game and a beefed-up defense, the redheaded stepchild of the Big 12 South finds itself undefeated and sitting on the nation's longest winning streak, at 12 games. Should Harrell lead his team to a victory over the Sooners, two things are likely to happen:
• Tech will be favored to dispatch Missouri in the Big 12 title game on Dec. 6 in Kansas City, Mo. A win there would earn the Red Raiders a ticket to Miami for the BCS title game, most likely to face the SEC champion, either Alabama or Florida.
• Harrell, who in 463 attempts has thrown only five interceptions this season, will become "the most unlikely Heisman winner since [Oklahoma State's] Barry Sanders, who beat out [UCLA's] Troy Aikman and [USC's] Rodney Peete 20 years ago." That is the opinion of Chris Huston, proprietor of the authoritative HeismanPundit.com, whose "10 Heismandments" stipulate, among other things, that "the winner must be a quarterback, a running back or a multi-threat athlete" and "must put up good numbers in big games on TV."
Heismandment No. 6, "The winner cannot be considered an obvious product of his team's system" (also known as the Andre Ware Rule), would seem problematic for Harrell. But he doesn't see it that way.