In one of the strangest ironies of a bizarre college football season, the profusion of talent that has helped the University of Miami build a 33-game winning streak -- and makes the No. 1 Hurricanes 171/2-point favorites over No. 18 Virginia Tech on Saturday -- may deprive Miami of the ultimate in college football prestige: a Heisman Trophy winner.
The Hurricanes have a pair of players considered strong Heisman hopefuls, and that may be one candidate too many.
When the Heisman finalists are announced on Dec. 11, quarterback Ken Dorsey and running back Willis McGahee are expected to be among them. Though such an honor would be an historic achievement for the Miami program, twin invitations could also prove a liability, possibly killing the chances of both.
"You know what's liable to happen?" said ABC Sports commentator Keith Jackson, a Heisman voter. "They'll split the vote -- those who favor the Miami program and Miami's success. It'll probably hurt both Dorsey and McGahee. . . . One guy might have gotten all those votes."
Analysts say even more difficult than selecting this season's most outstanding player from a field of tepid candidates is determining the strongest contender in Miami's powerful backfield. Is it Dorsey, the cool-headed senior and owner of a 37-1 career record? Or is it McGahee, the flashy sophomore with a rags-to-riches story, 1,481 rushing yards and a 6.6 yards-per-carry average?
The very real possibility that each could be just well-regarded enough to cancel each other out has Miami Coach Larry Coker about as upset as he ever gets, which is merely gently -- and almost imperceptibly -- peeved. The mannerly Coker would sooner taunt an opposing coach than get himself, or his players, involved in a debate that doesn't further Miami's goal of beating Virginia Tech on Saturday, which would guarantee the Hurricanes a spot in the national title game on Jan. 3 at the Fiesta Bowl opposite No. 2 Ohio State.
Yet even Coker seems to sense that Dorsey and McGahee might be penalized by their dual success, and he doesn't like it one bit.
"I hope someone from our team wins the trophy," Coker said, adding that a split vote might "even cheapen the trophy a little bit . . . [if] it goes to someone . . . of lesser" qualification.
Read: Either Dorsey or McGahee deserves to win the award, which will be presented in New York on Dec. 14.
"I'm not going to endorse either one," Coker said, officially. "I think it would be a great honor for either one, and I think both are deserving."
McGahee and Dorsey have handled the subject graciously, each refusing to promote himself or disparage the other. Each says he is more concerned with winning a national title than winning a bronze statue.
"As long as it stays between the two of us," McGahee said, "I don't care."
That, however, is very much in doubt.
Since 1950, two players from the same team have been named finalists six times, most recently in 1994 with the selection of Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter, who finished second overall, and Kerry Collins, who finished fourth. Only twice -- in 1972 and 1983 with Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers and Mike Rozier, respectively -- has one of the teammates claimed the award. (In the 15 years the trophy was awarded prior to 1950, teammates made the top five six times and one of them won the award five times.)
An ESPN.com poll suggests that a split vote between Dorsey and McGahee is likely. A survey of 11 college football analysts shows Iowa senior quarterback Brad Banks collecting the most points -- 35 -- in a weighted vote (five points for first place, four for second, etc.), just ahead of Penn State senior running back Larry Johnson, who has 34, and McGahee (31) and Dorsey (30).
The most interesting -- and perhaps telling -- aspect of the poll? Dorsey earned the most first-place votes with four. McGahee had the second-highest total with three. Banks received only two; and Johnson, zero. USC senior quarterback Carson Palmer (29 points) received two.
Saturday's nationally televised game against Virginia Tech not only will help clarify the national championship picture, it could also play a decisive role in the ultimate Heisman selection. ESPN analyst and radio show host Mike Golic predicted that Dorsey will win or lose the trophy on the basis of his showing this weekend.
"No one else has really stood up and grabbed the bull by the horns," Golic said. "You can make an argument for Brad Banks or Larry Johnson or Carson Palmer, but if Dorsey has a big game against Virginia Tech, he's going to win it.
"I honestly think if McGahee has a big game, and Dorsey has an average game, that stops Dorsey from winning it . . . but I don't think it will get McGahee the trophy."
Golic says Dorsey's problem -- besides McGahee -- is his relatively ordinary resume (leaving aside his 97.4 winning percentage over more than two seasons). His 55.2 percent completion rate, 2,773 yards, 24 touchdowns and 9 interceptions this season don't quite match the numbers of Banks (60 percent, 2,369, 25, 4), Palmer (62.9, 3,639, 32, 10) or dark horse Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech (66.8, 4,642, 42, 12).
"Make no mistake, Dorsey has done a fantastic job," Golic said. But "it's not a career achievement award, or shouldn't be. The question last year, and the question this year, is he the best player on that team?"
The question clearly rankles Dorsey, who doesn't understand when Lombardi's winning-is-the-only-thing mantra became passe.
"For me, the biggest thing is winning games," he said. "That's all I'm about, no matter how we do it."
McGahee's problem, some say, is his age. Or lack of it. At 21, he's an overachieving sophomore who won the starting job this season only after Frank Gore was felled last spring by a knee injury. Also, his numbers can't touch the stunning ensemble collected by Johnson, who compiled 2,015 yards, 20 touchdowns and a whopping 8.0 yards per carry.
Still, McGahee's highlight film cutbacks and dashes have awed opposing coaches.
"He's a good physical back that makes you miss," Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said after Miami defeated Tennessee, 26-3, on Nov. 9 with McGahee collecting 154 yards. "I don't think they're great run blockers; he just goes in a lot of places and falls forward and breaks tackles and does a good job."
But McGahee, Jackson is quick to point out, has two more years of eligibility (whether he chooses to stick around or dash to the NFL is another story).
"I don't . . . vote for sophomores," Jackson said. "My Heisman vote has very seldom gone to juniors. My vote will go to a senior who has proven himself not only on the athletic field but in life. . . . I'm interested in a guy who goes through four or five years of college."
Jackson refused to reveal his preferred candidate, but he disputed Golic's assessment of Dorsey.
"About half the people doing all this criticizing [of Dorsey] don't know what they're talking about," Jackson said. "Dorsey doesn't give a damn about statistics. He wants to win football games, and he's done a very good job of it."
In Saturday's 49-7 route of Syracuse, the alternately brilliant play of both McGahee and Dorsey made it seem as if each were auditioning for Heisman votes. McGahee sprinted 61 yards for a touchdown on the game's second play and added a 51-yard score later. During the game, he broke Edgerrin James's school rushing record for the season; Ottis Anderson's record for all-purpose yards; and Anderson's and Clinton Portis's record for 100-yard games (he has nine).
Dorsey, meantime, completed 10 consecutive passes on the way to a 16-of-25 performance for 345 yards and two touchdowns.
"Both of them together is what makes you lose sleep," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said. "McGahee, that guy is for real. He's got great vision, patience and he's very explosive. Dorsey is very mature. He knows what's he's doing. He's a great leader of that football team.
"They're both Heisman candidates, there's no doubt about that."