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November 17, 2010

Heisman Watch: Issues at the top

The awards watch
A weekly look at the top three candidates for some key postseason awards:
Outland (best interior lineman)
Butkus (most outstanding linebacker)
Nagurski (most outstanding defensive player)
Thorpe (most outstanding defensive back)
Rimington (most outstanding center)
Biletnikoff (most outstanding wide receiver)
Doak Walker (best running back)
Mackey (top tight end)
Lou Groza (top kicker)
Ray Guy (top punter)

In any other season, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton would have clinched the Heisman in last week's victory over Georgia.

Yet this clearly isn't like any other season because of the controversy surrounding Newton, who accounted for 299 yards of offense and four touchdowns in a 49-31 victory that secured a place in the SEC championship game for the Tigers.

Newton has passed for 2,038 and 21 touchdowns, and he has run for another 1,297 yards and 17 touchdowns. He's accumulated those gaudy statistics against a schedule that thus far has included seven teams that are ranked among the nation's top 50 in total defense. He also has starred in big games against Georgia, Arkansas and LSU.

But there remains a cloud of suspicion hovering around Newton and questions of his eligibility. Those questions apparently will go unanswered for a while.

"Let me say this up front," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said after Saturday's game. "Any questions I entertain about Cameron Newton will only be solely pertaining to the game he just played in.

"The only thing I can tell you is by his performance, he's done just about what he's done in every other game this year."

No doubt Newton has been consistently excellent. But some voters already have stated that they won't vote for Newton.

Of course, the critics could find reasons not to vote for the other top candidates, too.

Oregon running back LaMichael James was suspended for the first game of the season in response to offseason harassment charges in which he allegedly tried to choke his girlfriend.

Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore is having an excellent season, but he's faced some of the softest defenses in the country. Seven of the nine teams he has faced rank between 83rd and 115th in passing defense. Another (Wyoming) is 65th. He still gets to play Nevada (104th) and Utah State (101st). Some might doubt the Heisman should go to a player based largely on what he has done against the likes of Toledo, New Mexico State, Idaho, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is having a tremendous season. But critics may hesitate to vote for someone who doesn't rank in the top 20 in passing or passing yardage and has had as many (or more) interceptions than touchdown passes in three games.

All the top contenders are Heisman-worthy; they all have some issues, too. The Heisman vote may be decided by what issues are easiest to overlook.

Here are this week's top four:

1. QB Cameron Newton, Auburn: If not for the controversy surrounding him, Newton would be close to a lock to win the Heisman. Newton is coming off one of his best performances of the season in a 49-31 victory over Georgia in which he rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 148 yards and two touchdowns.

2. RB LaMichael James, Oregon: His candidacy faded in last week's 15-13 victory over Cal. Though James remains the nation's leading rusher with 1,422 yards and has 17 touchdowns, he rushed for just 91 yards on 29 carries against the Golden Bears.

3. QB Kellen Moore, Boise State: He had a typical showing in a 52-14 blowout of Idaho, throwing for 216 yards and three touchdowns. He has thrown for 2,588 yards and 24 touchdowns with just four interceptions.

4. QB Andrew Luck, Stanford: He threw an interception and lost a fumble, but Luck also was 4-of-4 (including two third-down conversions) on the winning touchdown drive in last week's 17-13 victory over Arizona State. He finished with 292 passing yards and completed more than 80 percent of his attempts.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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