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November 12, 2013

HURT: Heisman watch needn't be weekly melodrama

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The Heisman Trophy, at one time, wasn't a weekly miniseries.

Back in the days before every college football game that mattered was easily available on television, most voters probably didn't even think about their ballots as weekly changing things. Players played for a season, it ended, and the electorate thought about who was best, voted for that player, and that was that.

It wasn't a perfect system. It favored the players more voters saw, which tended to skew the electorate to the East and Midwest. Southern players didn't draw the same attention from the big newspapers that roamed the landscape like so many mastodons, nor did players on the West Coast, until Southern California cracked that barrier in the 1960s.

That didn't mean they couldn't win occasionally. It was just tougher.

Those days are long gone. The last six winners have come from either the South or Southwest. Of the five candidates who have emerged, there is one from a school in Florida, one from Alabama and two from Texas, just one more indication that the geographic center of college football is no longer somewhere in the middle of Ohio, but is probably closer to Nashville.

The profound change, though, is in the cottage industry that "guessing" the winner has become. There is a word for it: "Heismanology." It has evolved in order to feed the ever-increasing demand for content on all the networks that broadcast college football to the masses. Straw polls are conducted every week, and candidates are dismissed or embraced on the basis of their weekend outing. The process now is very similar to the way our political parties pick presidential candidates. You have a series of primaries, and the really big games are a sort of Super Tuesday, where a defeat can be hard to overcome.

As a voter, I try not to get caught up in thinking about the Heisman Trophy right now. Manziel or McCarron or Winston or Mariota? Right now, I don't know. We don't have a complete body of work. It is frustrating enough that we vote in December, before the postseason.

That timetable is a holdover from an earlier era of college football when it was chosen even earlier - Pat Sullivan already was the 1971 winner before Alabama blew out Auburn in the season finale. (How different were things then? Sullivan found out he was the winner watching the television broadcast at the Heart of Auburn motel.) The early timetable has actually cost deserving candidates in recent years. Vince Young of Texas would definitely have won in 2005.

Hypothetically, voters may have to choose between AJ McCarron and Jameis Winston four weeks before seeing them perform on the same field. What sort of sense does that make?

There is nothing wrong with watching highlights, or handicapping the race, or arguing whether you choose based on stats - hand it to Johnny Manziel, if so - or intangibles - McCarron, probably. But my mind isn't made up because the season isn't over, and the current atmosphere of "find flaws in the leader" doesn't always produce the best result.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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