In this tumultuous college football season memorable for a fifth-down victory, the unfailing curse of being ranked No. 1 and now thoughts of a two-loss national champion, it seems appropriate that the battle for the Heisman Trophy also must be muddled and contentious.
Either Brigham Young quarterback Ty Detmer or Notre Dame flanker Raghib (Rocket) Ismail likely will be awarded the 56th Heisman during today's ceremony at New York's Downtown Athletic Club, and the arguments on both sides of this dogfight still are raging even with the ballots already collected. Both continue to have vehement detractors, but they are the pair that apparently remains standing after the competition slowly was discarded.
"They tell me it's a two-man race," Detmer said this week. "I'll go along with that, being that I'm one of the two. . . . But this year has been too weird to take anything for granted. I think I should win it, but that doesn't count for much."
The selection process appeared to become primarily one of voting against certain players rather than for others. Houston quarterback David Klingler's four-interception undressing at the hands of Texas dealt his chances a potentially fatal blow, and his 11-touchdown ambush of Division I-AA Eastern Washington only served to repel hordes of voters.
Colorado tailback Eric Bieniemy -- with 1,628 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns in 11 games -- seems a natural choice for an award that has gone to running backs 36 times. But the backlash stemming from his one-game, season-opening suspension -- a tie against Tennessee -- and the top-ranked Buffaloes' tainted five-down win over Missouri is considerable.
Virginia's do-everything quarterback, Shawn Moore, once was considered the Heisman front-runner but now seems just an afterthought. He's the first Atlantic Coast Conference player to be among the finalists invited to New York and has been lauded for exemplifying the student-athlete because he's a fifth-year player competing as a graduate student.
But the Cavaliers' three late-season losses and his thumb injury that caused him to miss Virginia's final regular season game left some to speculate that the school directed its $12,000 Heisman campaign at the wrong Moore; Cavaliers wide receiver Herman Moore, with less fanfare, has made perhaps a stronger bid.
The remaining intrigue, however, is centered upon the Detmer-Ismail duel, a showdown between juniors. Most recent polls of voters show Detmer slightly ahead, but the race seems close enough that the verdict still is in doubt. Ballots from this year's 917 Heisman voters (870 media members and 47 former winners) were due on Thursday, and a New York accouting firm was to tabulate them yesterday.
Ismail, Bieniemy and Shawn Moore will be at the ceremony; Detmer and Klingler will be stationed by television sets overseas. BYU will play Hawaii in Honolulu tonight -- about five hours after the Heisman ceremony concludes -- and Houston concluded its season with a matchup against Arizona State in Tokyo last night.
Being at large is a good omen for Detmer, for neither of the past two Heisman winners -- Houston's Andre Ware and Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders -- was in New York for the announcement. "I'll take it anywhere they want to give it to me," Detmer said.
He has become publicly covetous of the award of late -- "Sure I want it; I downplayed this whole thing long enough," he said -- while Ismail has remained typically low-key. "It's out of my hands," he said recently. "They'll give it to the best man, and that'll be the end of it. . . . It won't change me either way."
Others are more than willing to do Ismail's talking, though. Fighting Irish Coach Lou Holtz said that if Ismail doesn't win then "they ought to stop giving it," and just weeks ago usually understated Penn State Coach Joe Paterno dubbed him "probably one of the three or four best" college football players ever.
The statistics favor Detmer overwhelmingly. He has completed 339 of 517 passes this season for a record 4,869 yards and 38 touchdowns (but with 24 interceptions). He holds or shares 25 other NCAA records, too, including an ongoing string of 23 consecutive 300-yard passing games.
Ismail is ninth in Division I-A in all-purpose yards with just under 157 per game. He's 23rd in kickoff returns and has six touchdowns, with his dazzling skills being rendered more often a decoy than a weapon. He touched the ball an average of about a dozen times per game.
Detmer almost singlehandedly beat then-No. 1 Miami on national television, but that was in early September. He also is burdened with the perception that the BYU system makes the BYU quarterback; his Cougars predecessors -- Robbie Bosco, Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Marc Wilson -- all finished in the top three in the Heisman balloting, but none won it.
The lingering memories of Ismail and his 4.28-second speed over 40 yards are visions of flash and dash: touchdowns of 76 yards against Pittsburgh, 44 yards against Tennessee, 54 yards against Navy and 94 yards on a kickoff return against Miami. His 16 career touchdowns with the Irish have covered an average of 62 yards. The two games this season in which he was hurt were the two games Notre Dame lost.