Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston seems like such a favorite to capture the Heisman Trophy on Saturday he could borrow an old line from former NBA star Larry Bird.
As he was sizing up the competition for a three-point shooting contest, Bird looked over at his rivals and asked, “All right, who’s playing for second?”
The six stars invited to the 79th Heisman presentation Saturday in New York matches a record for finalists. The group includes four quarterbacks — Winston, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel — along with running backs Tre Mason of Auburn and Boston College’s Andre Williams.
A large group might suggest a close race. And it should be — for second place.
Winston brings all the credentials of a heavy favorite with eye-popping statistics, such as 3,820 passing yards and 38 touchdown passes. He plays for the nation’s lone undefeated team, the top-ranked Seminoles, who face Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game next month.
The best-player-on-the-best-team argument applies, and Winston also supplied a Heisman moment when he served up his best performance in the team’s biggest game, at Clemson. Winston threw for a season-best 444 yards in a 51-14 triumph.
At that point, Winston rocketed up Heisman watch lists and the possibility of him following Manziel as the only other redshirt freshman Heisman winner was taking shape.
It was off-field matters that put doubt into Winston’s candidacy. Last month, a report surfaced that Winston was part of an ongoing investigation into a sexual assault complaint filed a year earlier.
In late November, after the Heisman voting window had opened, Winston’s attorney told ESPN that he and his client wanted a decision from the state prosecutor “sooner rather than later. We are concerned the delay will hurt his reputation and affect his Heisman chances.”
That had to be first: a legal request based on Heisman voting. On Dec. 5, state’s attorney Willie Meggs announced Winston wouldn’t be charged with sexual assault.
That cleared the path for a likely trophy presentation Saturday. On Wednesday, while attending the College Football Awards Show in Orlando, Fla., Winston said he was about 12 when he first heard of the Heisman while playing college football video games.
“Playing ‘NCAA 2006’ was the first time I was aware of the Heisman,” Winston said. “When you could create a player and do the ‘Road to Glory,’ and you could get the Heisman.”
Manziel is looking to become the second player to win multiple Heismans. Ohio State running back Archie Griffin captured the award in 1974 and 1975.
As Alabama’s starting quarterback for the previous two national championship teams, McCarron has plenty of hardware. He’d be the first quarterback to win the Heisman for a program that has produced the likes of Joe Namath and Ken Stabler.
Jordan Lynch averaged 350.5 yards of total offense and accounted for 45 touchdowns, rushing and passing. He’s second in the nation in rushing behind Williams, who has amassed 2,102 yards and ran for 339 in a victory over North Carolina State.
Mason made the latest statement with 304 rushing yards against Missouri in the Southeastern Conference championship. He rushed for 868 of his 1,621 yards and scored 13 of his 22 touchdowns in Auburn’s last five games.
But Mason, and all of the candidates, appear to be chasing Winston.