Usually, the Heisman is a two-man race; three at the most. So most of the time when they bring five finalists to New York City for the award ceremony, three of them can jump into a cab and go to the Copacabana (if it still exists) and get loaded, and they won't be missed.
But this year all five finalists have a shot at winning. This year's race is so hard to call that even if those Drexel frat boys already had half the votes in their hands they might not be able to wheel the winner.
In alphabetical order, the finalists are Brad Banks of Iowa, Ken Dorsey of Miami, Larry Johnson of Penn State, Willis McGahee of Miami and Carson Palmer of Southern California. At various points this season there were other contenders. Heading into the season Rex Grossman of Florida and Chris Simms of Texas were on everyone's short list. But Grossman stumbled out of the gate without Steve Spurrier, and Simms had his habitual disasters against top-10 teams.
It's said that every Heisman winner needs one big, spectacularly memorable play that burns into the minds of the voters. Early on Seneca Wallace of Iowa State appeared to be the leader in the clubhouse after that serpentine, cross-field scramble he took for a touchdown against Texas Tech that was replayed 10,000 times. (Officially, the run only measured 12 yards, but it seemed that Wallace ran 80 yards to make 12.) But Wallace imploded, ending the season with a horrific four-interception, no-touchdown game against U-Conn.! And Byron Leftwich of D.C. and Marshall, who was a long shot to begin with, had only one televised showcase, against Virginia Tech. And though he played well, his team got drummed. The indelible image we have of Leftwich is being literally carried up the field to the line of scrimmage against Akron by his teammates, so he could keep a drive alive and avoid putting too much strain on his tender shin. If they recast the Heisman statue so the guy posing with the football is on crutches, Leftwich is a lock.
So we come to the question of who will win the trophy Saturday night, and who will leave, instead, with a parting gift like the Trent Lott home version of the U.S. Senate Game. Bear in mind: Be careful what you wish for. In recent years the Heisman has regularly been a millstone rather than a gem when the winner tries to move on to the NFL. Consider Heisman winners like Gino Torretta, Ty Detmer, Andre Ware, Rashaan Salaam, Danny Wuerffel and Eric Crouch who failed to make a big splash in the NFL. In many cases it's like the Heisman is the gold watch they give you when you retire from football.
For example, noted draft expert Mel Kiper predicts Banks and Dorsey are unlikely to be drafted before the fourth round. By contrast, Kiper says Leftwich will be a high first-round pick, and Simms might be a late first-round pick. Kiper does say that right now Palmer looks like the No. 1 overall pick. (Kiper projects Johnson will go in the second round, and says McGahee will be a top-10 pick if he chooses to pass up his remaining two seasons of college eligibility.)
If I had a Heisman vote, I'd cast it for Dorsey. (Actually, I'd cast it for Al Gore; I'm still sore about what happened in 2000.) Dorsey may not have the strongest arm, or the best completion percentage. But over the last two seasons Miami is 25-0 with Dorsey running the show; Dorsey is 37-1 in his career as a starter. Nobody has those kinds of numbers. That's a higher winning percentage than Saddam Hussein has in "elections."
One of Dorsey's problems, though, is his teammate, McGahee, who might well be even more valuable to this Miami team than Dorsey. But because McGahee is only in his first season as a starter, he may not command many first-place votes around the country. The fear in south Florida is that Dorsey and McGahee will split the southern votes, permitting some outsider to sneak off with the Heisman. Come on. If the 2000 election taught us anything, it's that there are enough votes in Florida to elect anybody you want -- if you just count them all. It's not like Katherine Harris is going to certify the Heisman vote after the first ballot, is she? We haven't heard from Broward and Palm Beach counties yet.
I don't think Banks has much of a shot. And I say this because Banks hasn't played a game since Nov. 16. Banks's season has been over for so long it's possible he left Iowa altogether and he's now touring in "Les Miserables." Seriously, who even remembers Banks? The sad truth is: Nobody saw Banks play when he was playing. When was Iowa on TV? Nobody even TiVoed Banks. Tyra Banks will get more Heisman votes than Brad Banks.
I'm not sold on Johnson's chances, either. Gaining 2,000 yards is an extraordinary accomplishment, particularly considering Johnson wasn't even a starter prior to this season. But Johnson totaled 212 yards against the three best teams in the Big Ten -- Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan. And voters may be wary of voting for a Penn State running back after D.J. Dozier, Curtis Enis, Blair Thomas and Ki-Jana Carter all bombed in the NFL. Johnson's best chance to win may be to declare that he's actually a linebacker.
That brings us to Palmer. He has two more losses than Dorsey this year, but he also has maybe the most spectacular win. A couple of weeks ago on national TV, at night, against Notre Dame (so everybody watched), Palmer shredded Notre Dame's ballyhooed defense. He completed 32 of 46 passes for 425 yards and four touchdowns. The last time Notre Dame got its bell rung like that was by The Hunchback. It gave Palmer 23 touchdown passes and just four interceptions in his last six games.
Palmer has momentum. And he has geography; he's the only finalist west of the Mississippi, so he'll surely benefit from the other guys poaching on one another's territory. And he has timing. Most voters wait until the last minute to be sure, and Palmer's performance against Notre Dame came in USC's final game, on the last big weekend of the season. He went out like Ted Williams hitting a homer in his last at-bat, you know, before that unfortunate freezing situation. In a race too close to call, Palmer looks like he's surging at the tape.