Close Heisman race comes down to the wire

Saturday, December 14, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- Iowa quarterback Brad Banks used to strike the Heisman pose with friends while growing up in Florida.

Now he's part of what could be one of the closest races in Heisman history. Banks put up impressive numbers this season, but so did USC's Carson Palmer, Penn State's Larry Johnson and Miami teammates Ken Dorsey and Willis McGahee.

So who will get to strike the pose and clutch the prestigious award? The winner will be announced Saturday night in New York City.

"I'm probably in the same boat as everybody else in the country," Banks said. "I have absolutely no clue what's going to happen. I'm just glad to be invited and part of the ceremony."

This year's race already has been unpredictable. Dorsey and McGahee are finalists from the same school, the first time that's happened since 1994, when Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter finished second and Kerry Collins fourth.

Banks had never started a Division I-A game entering this season, and Palmer was 16-16 as a starter before leading the Trojans (10-2) to the Orange Bowl this year. Then there's Johnson, who split time with two other tailbacks in 2000 and considered transferring after two games.

"A lot of people say no one really stepped up and seized the moment," Dorsey said. "I think it's the complete opposite. People have such great expectations these days, maybe unrealistic."

Dorsey finished third in last year's voting, behind Eric Crouch and Rex Grossman, and he is the only of the five finalists who was touted as a Heisman contender entering the season.

The senior quarterback looked like he would emerge as a favorite early in the year, but then McGahee had big performances in big games. Some now believe McGahee, a sophomore tailback, is the best player on the top-ranked Hurricanes.

"This year, I've been in a situation where somebody thinks I'm going to win it, then the same guy thinks I'm going to come in last," Dorsey said. "It's not worth even thinking about. If it were up to me, I'd like to see Willis win it."

Dorsey, who is 38-1 as a starter, completed 194 of 350 passes for 3,073 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season.

McGahee broke the school record with 27 touchdowns and also set school records for yards rushing (1,686), total yards (2,036), and 100-yard games (10).

The last time two teammates finished in the top five was 1994. But the last time a player won with a teammate as a finalist was in 1983, when Nebraska's Mike Rozier took home the award and Turner Gill finished fourth.

There have been teammates as finalists 13 times in Heisman history. Eight of those times a teammate has won the Heisman. But no sophomore has ever won the award, and only 13 juniors have won, most recently Michigan's Charles Woodson in 1997.

"It's pretty cool to be in that category," McGahee said. "Not many programs can say they have two in the same year. I didn't have any idea I'd be part of it, so I'm pretty excited."

On Thursday, Johnson won the Maxwell Award, given to the nation's best all-around player, and was named the Walter Camp Player of the Year. He also beat out McGahee for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back.

The senior ran for 2,015 yards, becoming the ninth major college player to run for 2,000 yards in a season. He ran for a school-record 327 yards against Indiana on Nov. 16. He had 279 yards and five second-quarter touchdowns in a season-ending 61-7 victory over Michigan State.

"I wasn't supposed to win it in the first place, so it won't matter to me if I win it now," Johnson said.

Banks won the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's best quarterback. The last two O'Brien winners went on to win the Heisman -- Nebraska's Crouch last year, and Florida State's Chris Weinke in 2000.

Banks also was chosen as The Associated Press College Player of the Year on Monday. He'd love to add the Heisman to his collection.

"That was like the only thing my friends would know about growing up," Banks said. "We'd always play football and strike the pose."

The senior was the nation's pass efficiency leader, throwing for 2,369 yards with 25 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also ran for 387 yards and five scores.

"With all due respect to the other players, I don't know who has played better or done more for their football team," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Then there's Palmer, who completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 3,639 yards and 32 touchdowns with 10 interceptions this year. The last West Coast player to win the award was USC's Marcus Allen in 1981. Since Allen's win, 11 West Coast players have finished in the top five, including three who were runners-up.

"I'm sure there is a little bit of a bias, because it's real hard for people in the East to see all the West Coast games," Palmer said. "Hopefully, the West Coast guys will stick behind their man."

In close races, the number of voters who return their ballots becomes crucial. This year, 920 ballots were sent out -- 870 to media and 50 to former winners. There also is one fan vote.

Last year, Crouch beat Grossman by 62 points, the fourth-closest race in Heisman history. Only 585 of the 924 eligible voters (63.3 percent) returned their ballots, the lightest response in more than two decades and among the lowest in a half-century.

An 80 percent return is about average. In the closest vote ever -- Bo Jackson's 45-point win over Chuck Long in 1985 -- only 781 of the 1,050 eligible voters (74.3 percent) cast ballots.

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