He has been obscured by Southern California, by Notre Dame and by the rejuvenation of Joe Pa. He is always second in the highlights, to Matt Leinart, to Reggie Bush, once even to a Halloween prank that had a USC coach pretending to throw LenDale White off the roof of a building. But that doesn't change the fact that Vince Young is the best thing in college football this season. He runs and throws better right now than Michael Vick did when he was in college.

With 22 touchdown passes this season, Young is reasonably close to Heisman Trophy incumbent Matt Leinart as a passer. After rushing for 267 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma State a few weeks ago, one can conclude that Young might even be in Bush's class as a runner. Bush can't pass like Young. Leinart can't move like Young. And oh, by the way, Young's Texas Longhorns are undefeated and ranked No. 2.

And while Leinart and Bush have each other, not to mention White, Young has a talented safety valve receiver in tight end David Thomas and an emerging sophomore running back in Ramonce Taylor, but nobody else making the trip with him to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

If I still voted for the Heisman, my ballot would list Vince Young first, Reggie Bush second and Matt Leinart third. And there are crusty old football men who quite possibly agree . . . at least with the top choice. Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr, who can be as disagreeable as they come, told reporters after losing to Texas in last season's Rose Bowl, "Vince Young is the finest athlete I've ever been on the field with."

Dan Fouts (okay, not so crusty), who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said during a broadcast of a Texas game, "People ask me who he reminds me of. The way he's playing, I'd say he doesn't remind me of anybody. I've never seen anybody -- running back, quarterback, wide receiver -- make the plays that Vince Young made today."

That comment came during last year's Rose Bowl, when Young wasn't near the player he is now, as a fourth-year junior.

Look, the kid rushes for nearly seven yards per carry. And when the inevitable questions came about his passing accuracy, Young torched Colorado by completing 25 of 29 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions), while still rushing 10 times for 58 yards and three touchdowns. Against Missouri, facing third and 30, Young ran for 34 yards and a first down. When Leinart or Bush or Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn can do all that, I'll shut up.

During his next game, in mid-October, another Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-analyst, Bob Griese, said Young was out of place playing on Saturdays, that college defenses were now incapable of dealing with him, that the only defenses equipped to counter Young are in the NFL.

Of course, Griese knows what he's looking at, as do all the scouts trying to find flaws in the kid. It's time for Young to leave Austin and go to the NFL.

Young has remained very, very neutral on the topic for the most part. When asked recently what he would tell the Longhorns' rabid fan base, Young said essentially, "Tell 'em I'm coming back."

That sounds great when you love college life and you're rolling through college defenses and you're pretty close to graduating. Just like Leinart, who came back for his senior season, Young could take minimal classes next year and earn his degree. But folks tend to forget, Leinart had something going on with his shoulder after last season and didn't want to hurt his draft position by throwing for the scouts while hurt. So beyond hanging out with Nick Lachey and attending the occasional Victoria's Secret lingerie party, staying at Southern Cal had a practical football value for Leinart.

Young, at least so far, doesn't have that worry.

Hardly ever do I subscribe to the notion that kids should leave college early. But this is an exception for the simple fact that Young has finished his apprenticeship. That's what Griese was saying, that Young had outgrown college football. He's 22 years old. Don't get me wrong: He'll have plenty to work on despite the 4.5 speed in the 40 and ability to throw deep (like shortening that rather long throwing motion that would make him a sitting duck for defensive ends in the NFL). But at 6 feet 5 and 235 pounds, he'll fill out over time, but he's certainly big and strong enough to absorb a pro beating. And as a fourth-year junior, it's not like Young is skipping out after a year or two. He would be leaving college with other graduating seniors. And he would have used college for all the right reasons: to get the four years of education he came for and to set himself up for his early life after college.

It would be risky to come back to campus now, whether because of injury or a less-than-stellar fifth year. As a quarterback who has already run 117 times, Young is more vulnerable to injury than Leinart, who has run 35 times for 34 yards. It's hard to imagine Young's stock being higher than it is now. Texas should beat Texas A&M on Friday, win the Big 12 Conference championship game the following week, and prepare to meet Leinart, Bush and White in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.

Certainly the Trojans, not the Longhorns, will be favored to win that game and a third straight national championship because USC has negotiated a tougher schedule and won all its games . . . again. But even if Young's season ends with that blemish on his record, his game is already too polished to do anything but find bigger boys on a bigger lot and see whether he can conquer them, too.

VINCE YOUNG

Texas quarterback has 2,414 yards passing, 774 rushing.

Texas quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Vince Young has thrown 22 touchdown passes and rushed for eight while leading the No. 2 Longhorns this season, making many wonder if it's time he should enter the NFL draft.