This is not about the Heisman Trophy, that beloved hunk of bronze that is awarded each December by New York's Downtown Athletic Club (D.A.C.) and that only by occasional coincidence goes to the best college football player in America. The Heisman is an institution replete with brand-name visibility, an austere Saturday-evening television show and a black-tie presentation dinner two nights later in a swank Manhattan ballroom. If the trophy were to spring to life, it would step regally off its pedestal, order a brandy and light up a cigar. Yet the criteria for selecting its winner are ill-defined, and the decision of the voters—who at last count numbered nearly 1,000, far too many—is disproportionately driven by statistics and publicity, so that the trophy is nearly always won by a quarterback or running back on a high-profile team.
Deal with it: The Heisman Trophy will float on the Hudson River before the D.A.C. changes anything about the way it is awarded. For that reason it will be a huge shock if somebody other than Tennessee senior quarterback Peyton Manning wins this year's Heisman. College football could do much worse than hold up Manning as its ideal. He is a great player, a student-athlete in the truest sense, and he has given four productive, exciting years to the game when he could have left for the NFL after three seasons or even two. The Heisman is often a lifetime achievement award, which Manning richly deserves.
Yet his knee-jerk coronation sidesteps an intriguing argument about who has been the best college football player of 1997—and only the '97 season. The prominent coach at one school in the South sat in his office recently and was given the opportunity to name his player of the year. Speaking anonymously because he didn't select one of his players, the coach said, without hesitation, "Peyton Manning. No doubt." Then he paused and thought for a moment. "Of course, that linebacker at Ohio State, [Andy] Katzenmoyer, he's a football player...and don't forget about [Marshall wide receiver] Randy Moss. He might be the best of the bunch." The room was quiet for several seconds before the coach began to chuckle. "I guess there are a few of them this year, aren't there?" He was wise to reconsider.
Manning has thrown for 2,764 yards and 26 touchdowns, and he has conducted himself with poise and class as the most publicized player in the country. What's more, fifth-ranked Tennessee will find the back door to the national championship race open if No. 1 Michigan and No. 2 Florida State should both lose—to Ohio State and Florida, respectively—this weekend. But the Volunteers wouldn't need any help if Manning had been better in a 33-20 loss to the Gators on Sept. 20. The key play in that game was his ill-advised throw, under pressure, that Florida's Tony George intercepted and ran back 89 yards for a touchdown. In trying to single out the best college football player in a year like this, one hiccup can make a difference.
No, Manning hasn't been the best player of this wild autumn. The best college player in America has been junior Charles Woodson of Michigan, a 6'1", 198-pound cornerback-punt returner-multiple offensive threat who has been at the core of the Wolverines' rise to No. 1.
Woodson doesn't win by a landslide. Besides Manning, the 6'4", 260-pound Katzenmoyer at times has been the most fearsome presence on any college field. But his tour de force in an Oct. 4 win over Iowa has faded in the wake of his mediocre play ever since. "He's going through the motions," says a Big Ten offensive assistant coach whose team played Ohio State in the second half of the season.
Florida State defensive end Andre Wads-worth, with 16 sacks, has been as dominant a defender as Woodson, but until he lines up at tight end, he's not as versatile.
Then there's the 6'5", 210-pound Moss, whose 22 touchdown receptions this fall ties the Division I-A single-season record. Ball State defensive coordinator Bob Bartolomeo, whose team surrendered five touchdowns to him on Sept. 27, says, "I've been in this league for six years, and I've never seen anybody who comes close." But the league is the problem. Moss plays in the Mid-American Athletic Conference, which isn't the SEC. No rewards for dominating lesser athletes.
What distinguishes Woodson is that he does something no other player has done to such great effect since two-platoon football took hold more than three decades ago: Because of his ability to overwhelm on defense and his threat to score on offense, he demands that the other team find him on every snap. It's no longer true that only a quarterback controls every play—Woodson has seen to that this season. Midway through the second quarter against Penn State on Nov. 8, he lined up in the left slot at the Nittany Lions' 37-yard line. Penn State defenders began chittering in desperation, "There's Woodson. There's Woodson." Confused and, perhaps, intimidated by Woodson's presence, the Lions failed to cover him as he sailed straight up the seam and caught a touchdown pass from Brian Griese. "We believe if you aren't prepared, Charles is going to beat you," says Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. "That play against Penn State was the turning point in the game."
Woodson's stats are modest: Six interceptions, four pass breakups, 40 tackles (four for losses) and one sack. Ten receptions for 194 yards and two touchdowns; three rushes for 15 yards and one touchdown. Twenty-eight punt returns for a 6.6-yard average. His accumulated yardage (402) this season is roughly equal to one good game for Manning.