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January 7, 2007

Looking for an MVP? Start with Smith

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. The Heisman Trophy already is in hand, so national championship game MVP would seem the next logical award for Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith.

After all, Smith has been at this best in the biggest games this season. He threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over then-No. 2 ranked Texas and passed for 316 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan, when the Wolverines were ranked second.

So as Smith leads the No. 1 Buckeyes (12-0) against No. 2 Florida in Monday night's BCS national championship, the trend shows we should expect him to again have a brilliant performance.

Even Florida coach Urban Meyer seems to think so. Meyer compared Smith to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and Florida quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow.

"Alex Smiths, Chris Leaks, Troy Smiths, Tim Tebows, those are the kind of quarterbacks that are difference-makers," said Meyer, who coached Alex Smith two years ago at Utah. "There are a lot of guys that can stand there and throw the ball, but there are few that can create plays out of a bad situation.

"Troy Smith is obviously a Heisman Trophy winner. He won that Heisman because he has good personnel around him, but he is a playmaker when the plays aren't there."

For the season, Troy Smith completed 67 percent of his passes and threw for 2,507 yards and 30 touchdowns.

But before anyone rushes to Las Vegas and places a bundle on a side bet that Smith will emerge as the championship game most valuable player, they should consider the history of Heisman recipients in championship games.

Over the last 40 years, the Heisman Trophy winner has played in 16 games in which the national championship was directly won or lost. Only Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart (2004 Orange Bowl), Florida's Danny Wuerffel (1996 Sugar Bowl) and Florida State's Charlie Ward (1993 Orange Bowl) were named MVP.

In fairness, Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett probably deserved it after rushing for 202 yards and a touchdown in a 27-3 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, but the award went to quarterback Matt Cavanaugh instead.

Just as surprising, the teams for which the Heisman winner played have lost 11 of those 16 games. In some cases, the Heisman winner either played poorly or did not play to the level that earned him the prestigious award.

Oklahoma quarterback Jason White threw five interceptions in 21-14 loss to LSU in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke completed fewer than 50 percent of his attempts and threw two interceptions in a 13-2 loss to Oklahoma in the 2000 Orange Bowl. Miami quarterback Gino Torretta completed less than half of his attempts and threw three interceptions in a 34-13 loss to Alabama in the 1992 Sugar Bowl. Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw five interceptions in a 14-10 loss to Penn State in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl.

There is no obvious explanation why Heisman recipients have floundered in championship games, but one theory is that the whirlwind of activity (dinners, talk shows, interviews) and increased scrutiny affects their preparation for the game.

Trophy trouble
Here's a look at how Heisman Trophy recipients have fared in the BCS national championship game or bowl games in which the championship was directly won or lost in the last 40 years. (Note: * indicates he was named MVP):
2005: Reggie Bush, RB, USC Texas 41, USC 38 Bush ran for 82 yards on 13 carries and lost a fumble
2004: *Matt Leinart, QB, USC USC 55, Oklahoma 19 Leinart passed for 322 yards and 5 touchdowns
2003: Jason White, QB, Oklahoma LSU 21, Oklahoma 14 White completed just 13 of 37 passes and had 2 INTs
2001: Eric Crouch, QB, Nebraska . Miami 37, Nebraska 14 Rushed for 114 yards, but just 5 completions and an INT
2000: Chris Weinke, QB, Florida State Oklahoma 13, Florida State 2 Completed 25 of 51 passes with 2 INTs
1997: Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan Michigan 21, Washington State 16 Statistics not available
1996: *Danny Wuerffel, QB, Florida Florida 52, Florida State 20 Passed for 306 yards, 3 TDs
1993: *Charlie Ward, QB, Florida State Florida State 18, Nebraska 16 Passed for 286 yards
1992: Gino Torretta, QB, Miami Alabama 34, Miami 13 Completed 24 of 56 passes with 3 INTs
1986: Vinny Testaverde, QB, Miami Penn State 14, Miami 10 5 INTs
1983: Mike Rozier, RB, Nebraska Miami 31, Nebraska 30 Rushed for 147 yards, but was injured in second half
1982: Herschel Walker, RB, Georgia Penn State 27, Georgia 23 Rushed for 103 yards, 1 TD
1977: Earl Campbell, RB, Texas Notre Dame 38, Texas 10 Rushed for 116 yards, no TDs
1976: Tony Dorsett, RB, Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 27, Georgia 3 Rushed for 202 yards, 1 TD
1975: Archie Griffin, RB, Ohio State UCLA 23, Ohio State 10 Rushed for 93 yards
1968: O.J. Simpson, RB, USC Ohio State 27, USC 16 Rushed for 171 yards, 1 TD
Smith said that hasn't been case for him.

"It hasn't affected my preparation for the game because any time I am in a situation to where I can give back, I give back to my teammates," he said. "I think brining them and putting them into the situation where they can get just as much notoriety as I am getting levels everything out.

"I don't take it as if it is just me in a situation. I try to bring and incorporate them into everything and obviously it has paid off because I haven't pulled my hair out yet."

His hair intact, Smith may indeed buck the Heisman winner trend of championship game futility. But if he does struggle it won't be a surprise if lesser-known players star.

LSU freshman running back Justin Vincent upstaged White in the 2003 Sugar Bowl, while Oklahoma linebacker Torrance Marshall was MVP of the 2000 Orange Bowl.

Defensive players like Marshall rarely are named MVP unless they share it with an offensive player. Penn State linebacker Shane Conlan shared honors with Nittany Lions running back D.J. Dozier in the '86 Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame linebacker Bob Golic shared MVP honors with Fighting Irish running back Vagas Ferguson in the 1977 Cotton Bowl.

But that doesn't stop defensive players from dreaming about making the big play that would win the game.

"Most of the time when I think about a game it doesn't turn out that way because I think about myself getting the pick and taking it 108 yards to the house," Ohio State defensive tackle David Patterson said. "I don't think that's going to happen unless I get some serious blocking."

Teammate Quinn Pitcock has the same dream.

"I would run 108 yards all day long," Pitcock said. "You always lay in bed thinking about getting the interception or fumble for a touchdown. I mean, I had an interception two or three years ago, and after that catch I had tunnel vision and broke for it real quick. But I got hit from behind.

"It always has been a dream to take one back. We have one more chance and most likely it won't happen, but you are always still dreaming for one more time."

If making a long shot bet for a defensive player to become MVP, the best choice is likely Florida All-American free safety Reggie Nelson. He has six interceptions this season including one returned for a touchdown against Alabama. Nelson will play a vital role, especially in deep coverage against Ohio State's explosive receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez.

A Florida upset would likely require Nelson to turn in an outstanding performance.

"I believe Reggie Nelson is the heart of the defense," Florida defensive tackle Joe Cohen said. "He brings excitement to the game and he's the last man standing when it is time to stop the pass or the run. I am just glad that we have him back there. I think he is probably the best safety I have ever seen in my life."

But Smith is one of the best big-game players many others have seen, including Florida's Meyer.

"He plays best in his big games for a lot of reasons, mostly him," Meyer said. "I know Troy Smith. I have known him as a young player. I think great players play their best in those type games."

Smith heads our list of possible MVPs on Monday night. Here's a look at the most likely candidates from each team:

Potential MVPs: Ohio State
Troy Smith, QB: Heisman Trophy winners tend to bomb on the national championship stage, but Smith figures to buck that trend. In the Buckeyes' previous games against the nation's second ranked team, Smith passed for 269 yards and two touchdowns against Texas and threw for 316 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan. He struggled against former Florida coach Ron Zook's woeful Illinois team (108 yards passing). But he also threw four touchdown passes in a mid-season game at Iowa, which was then ranked No. 13 and thought to be a huge threat. The bigger the game, the better Smith performs.
Ted Ginn Jr., WR: He's a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and no doubt the Buckeyes will seek every opportunity to get it to him. His 29-yard touchdown catch with just 16 seconds remaining in the first half proved a huge momentum changer in the Buckeyes' victory over Texas. That score might be the biggest of his nine touchdown receptions this season. Ginn has also returned a punt for a touchdown this year and has returned six for scores in his career. He will take a handoff on occasion, too. The championship game just may be the right occasion.
Antonio Pittman, RB: Ohio State's dangerous passing game gets so much attention that Pittman could emerge as a difference-maker if the Gators are too preoccupied with the Buckeyes' receivers. He rushed for 136 yards and a victory-clinching touchdown in last year's Fiesta Bowl. Pittman is coming off a similar performance in a Big Ten championship victory over Michigan. He's easily overlooked because of all the talent on the Ohio State offense, but he'll offer an emphatic reminder if Florida forgets about him.
Anthony Gonzalez, WR: Perhaps the most eye-opening entry on the Ohio State stat sheet is that Gonzalez actually averages more yards per catch (14.8) than the mercurial Ginn (13.2). Gonzalez runs sharp routes, has good speed and better hands - which explains his eight touchdown catches.
Quinn Pitcock, DT: The best way to contain Florida's excellent receivers is by not allowing QB Chris Leak to get them the ball. Pitcock, who tops the Buckeyes with eight sacks, needs to lead a pass rush that doesn't allow Leak to feel secure in the pocket. Pitcock will play a vital role in Ohio State's attempt to contain Florida's running game, particularly when backup QB Tim Tebow comes into the game.

Potential MVPs: Florida
Chris Leak, QB: The Florida career passing leader with 11,000 yards, Leak has thrown for 22 touchdowns this season and has rushed for three scores. If he can avoid the big mistake a thorn in his side at times Leak could lead the Gators to an upset. That may require him getting exceptional protection, which would be a credit to his offensive line. But offensive linemen never are afforded MVP recognition.
Percy Harvin, WR: The fast freshman is not only a dangerous receiver, but also has become the Gators' primary rushing threat. He was hobbled by injuries early, but is now healthy and it showed when he was named MVP of the SEC championship game. In that contest he scored two touchdowns, including one on a 67-yard run. Rivals.com's No. 1 recruit in the 2006 class, Harvin averages 12.7 yards per touch.
Dallas Baker and/or Andre Caldwell, WR: Baker grabbed a career-high 56 receptions this season and averaged 16 yards per catch while notching nine touchdowns. He made two 25-yard receptions (one for a touchdown) in a game-winning drive against Florida State. Caldwell has just one fewer catch than Baker and has averaged 10.4 yards per reception with five touchdowns. He also has rushed 18 times for 89 yards this season and scored a touchdown.
Reggie Nelson, FS: Arguably the best defensive back in the nation, Nelson's play at free safety will be crucial against Ohio State's dangerous receivers. He'll have to provide deep help, especially when the Buckeyes are looking for Ted Ginn Jr. Nelson has grabbed six interceptions this season and has 11 passes defensed. He has also recovered two fumbles and can return punts.
Tim Tebow, QB: Suggesting a freshman backup could be an MVP seems like a stretch, but don't underestimate Tebow. He gives the Gators a change-of-pace with his strong running ability. Tebow, who will replace Leak at times, has rushed for 430 yards and seven touchdowns. He's also passed for 357 yards and four touchdowns. His versatility would enable him to be a key figure in any trick plays the Gators might attempt.

For more coverage of the BCS Championship Game, check out GatorBait.net and BuckeyeGrove.com.

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