This year's race for the Heisman Trophy is a bit like your 20-year-old black-and-white TV: Adjust the antenna, fiddle with the vertical hold, thump it on the side—the darned picture still won't come into focus. As the season heads into the final full Saturday, there is still no clear-cut favorite for the award, although nearly all of the 918 Heisman voters would agree that the campaign has boiled down to five survivors: quarterbacks Major Harris of West Virginia, Tony Rice of Notre Dame and Andre Ware of Houston, and tailbacks Emmitt Smith of Florida and Anthony Thompson of Indiana. Each is deserving, yet each has his shortcomings, which means the voting should be the closest since 1985, when Auburn running back Bo Jackson came out ahead of Iowa quarterback Chuck Long by a scant 45 points.
While neither Houston nor West Virginia played last Saturday—bad luck for Ware and Harris at this critical stage in the campaign—Rice took full advantage of yet another national TV appearance by the Irish. He rushed for a career-high 141 yards in a 34-23 victory over Penn State while orchestrating a Notre Dame attack that had its way with the previously impregnable Nittany Lion defense.
The Irish generated 425 yards on the ground, the most rushing yards ever yielded by Penn State. Even Lion coach Joe Paterno appeared to climb on the Rice-for-the-Heisman bandwagon, saying, "He is the one guy we just couldn't handle."
But Penn State linebacker Andre Collins credited Rice's supporting cast. "The offensive line was the big thing," said Collins. "A couple guys on their right side go 290 [Dean Brown, 291; Tim Grunhard, 292], and at the same time you're trying to shed 290, you've got to track down [tailback] Ricky Watters and Tony Rice."
Collins cut to the nub of the controversy over Rice's Heisman candidacy. Though unquestionably a leader and a winner—the Irish will take a 23-game victory streak into Saturday's game at Miami—Rice's numbers are decidedly un-Heisman-like. Deftly directing coach Lou Holtz's balanced, close-to-the-vest attack, Rice has rushed for roughly 75 yards a game and passed for fewer than 100. Some voters think Rice isn't even the most deserving candidate on the team. They accord that distinction to sophomore big-play specialist Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, who as a kick returner, receiver and runner has numbers comparable to those put up by Notre Dame flanker Tim Brown when he won the Heisman two years ago.
Indeed, Ismail might have won the national title for the Irish with two high-voltage kickoff returns for touchdowns in a 24-19 win over Michigan on Sept. 16. Afterward, someone pointed out to Holtz that he had two Heisman candidates on his squad. "I don't want any," he said. Unfortunately for Holtz, the nation's appetite for Heisman winners from Notre Dame seems insatiable. Seven Irish players have won the award in its 55-year history.
Florida, on the other hand, has but one Heisman in its trophy case. Steve Spurrier won it as a quarterback for the Gators way back in 1966. Smith, a junior, finished ninth in the Heisman voting two years ago—the best showing by a freshman since Georgia's Herschel Walker finished third in 1980. Injuries knocked Smith out of contention last year, but his consistent performance this fall—126 yards per game and a remarkable 316-yard effort against New Mexico on Oct. 21—has been overshadowed by the threat of probation that hangs over Gainesville.
On Oct. 8, coach Galen Hall resigned amid charges that he improperly paid two assistant coaches, and a week later quarterback Kyle Morris received a one-year suspension for betting on college football games. Smith's Heisman hopes began to sag even though, being the Gators' only remaining offensive threat, every defense was keying on him—and he still gained his 100 yards per game.
If statistics were votes, Ware would be a lock. He has 40 touchdown passes this season (Rice has two) and has passed for more than 400 yards in six games. But Ware, a senior who has exploited the Cougars' run-and-shoot offense for 3,824 passing yards—and has two games still to play—must face the fact that the Heisman has never been won by a player whose school is on NCAA probation. That he could miss out on winning the award because of violations committed years ago understandably irritates him. "I was in junior high when all of this started," Ware says, "and I wasn't aware of it when I was recruited or when I signed."
Thanks to the probation, Ware has not appeared this year on TV. That will cost him votes, as will the fact that his team lost its two biggest games, to Texas A & M and Arkansas. Then there's the matter of Houston's 95-21 gutting of SMU on Oct. 21. A lot of voters might turn thumbs down on Ware as a way of punishing the Cougars and their coach, Jack Pardee, for that display of excess—even though Ware was out of the game by halftime.