While there's never a good time for a Heisman candidate to get outplayed on national television, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty could have picked a worse time than Week 13 for it to happen to him.
That's because other quarterbacks considered to be in the Heisman discussion—Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Oregon's Marcus Mariota—had setbacks in Week 13 as well. Manziel was contained in a 34-10 loss to LSU; Mariota threw his first two interceptions of the season in a 42-16 blowout at the hands of Arizona.
And with the ongoing sexual battery case involving Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, voters could be hesitant to cast their ballot in favor of the redshirt freshman if details of the alleged incident remain murky.
"If you're handicapping James Winston's chances of winning [the Heisman], you have to concede the uncertainty around this situation might cause some people to think twice before voting for him," explained Tony Barnhart, CBS Sports' college football analyst and former Heisman voter. "What you don't want [as a voter] is to vote for him and then something bad come out later."
Joe Sullivan, the assistant managing editor for the Boston Globe and an active Heisman voter, agreed.
"With the way things are going with this case, it's going to hurt him—that would be my guess," Sullivan said.
It's a sensitive situation, one where football should be the last thing on anyone's mind. Nevertheless—and regardless of whether Winston is innocent or guilty—the investigation has a polarizing impact on the Heisman race.
All of which could help to mitigate the damage done to Petty's Heisman chances in Saturday's 49-17 loss to Oklahoma State. In that game, Petty passed for 359 yards and two touchdowns. But he was thoroughly outplayed by Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf, who threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score.
Bears coach Art Briles indicated on last Monday's Big 12 coaches teleconference that Petty isn't nearly as concerned about the Heisman as he is about winning.
"Bryce is very mature, intelligent," Briles said. "It's not something that he's thinking about at all. He's just trying to win."
Suffice to say, then, that Saturday's loss will hit Petty hard, as it all but officially knocked Baylor out of the BCS title picture. Baylor is ranked ninth in the latest BCS rankings, but there are only two weeks of meaningful football left.
But perhaps the blowout loss to the Cowboys didn't hurt Petty's Heisman chances nearly as much as they hurt the Bears' national championship chances, though. The recent on-the-field struggles of some candidates, coupled with Winston's off-the-field situation, has led to voters and pundits alike asking, "Now what?"
.@slmandel Needs to be a complete re-set on Heisman candidates. Step back and start over— Smart Football (@smartfootball) November 24, 2013
If there's going to be a restart of sorts for the Heisman, Petty has the opportunity to jump back into serious consideration. He has two games left—at TCU and at home against Texas—where he can put up big numbers.
That leads to another question: How stats-centric has the Heisman become, and how much does that benefit Petty? Certainly, it's possible that the most outstanding player doesn't have the most outstanding stats and vice versa.
"I do think the Heisman is too stats oriented," Barnhart said. "Some guys are set up to have big stats, other are not."
|Name||Passing Yards||Passing Touchdowns||Rushing Yards||Total Touchdowns|
That's where the so-called "eyeball test"—something Sullivan practices—comes in.
"As a voter, I try to keep an open mind," said Sullivan, who will not cast his vote until the last possible moment. "I try not to be the master of the obvious."
Still, the fallback has been, and will continue to be, what a player looks like on the stat sheet. With so much exposure to so many players, and with an ever-growing number of voters, it's the easiest metric to compare and contrast.
Petty, surrounded by NFL-caliber players on offense, has put up superb numbers. His 3,351 passing yards are good for 10th in the nation, and he has 36 total touchdowns (26 passing, 10 rushing) to just one interception. (It's also worth noting that, for at least half of the season, Petty never played a full game because of the score.)
"I don't care what system you play in," Barnhart said. "That's good."
Petty has been one of the best deep-ball passers in the country, though he has been off lately. He has excellent athleticism for his size (he's listed on Baylor's website as 6'3", 230 pounds) and can run the Bears' offense in his sleep. He's physically gifted and touches the ball on every snap.
That last part is important because not only has the Heisman race become stats-centric, it has become quarterback-centric. The top eight candidates on ESPN's latest Heisman Experts' Poll are quarterbacks, and nine of the last 10 Heisman winners were quarterbacks.
Of course, the Heisman has historically favored the offensive position of the times. Thirty-one of the first 50 winners were running backs, an indication of how offenses operated for many years, and through whom.
Nowadays, it runs through the quarterback.
"It definitely is quarterback-centric, but the game of football is more quarterback-centric," Sullivan noted. "It's from the NFL down. And people have gotten away from running backs."
Don't be surprised if AJ McCarron clinched the Heisman today.— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) November 24, 2013
At what point, though, does the Heisman stop being the Heisman and become a second, glorified Davey O'Brien Award (best quarterback)? That's not to say diversity is needed for diversity's sake, but it's evident the scope of who qualifies as a Heisman candidate has narrowed.
Take Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, for example. He doesn't have the most eye-popping stats, but he has lost just two games in his career as a starter—along with two national titles. That has unofficially put him in the running to win college football's most prestigious individual honor. As it so happens, Sports Illustrated ran a feature on McCarron last week. On the cover of the magazine, SI pondered "Is it time to think of AJ McCarron as one of the best ever?"
Still, wins are team efforts, not individual efforts—though a single player can have a "Heisman moment" by willing his team to a win. Save for the 2012 thriller over LSU, McCarron hasn't traditionally been asked to carry his team to victory. Yet, the McCarron-for-Heisman talk is a reality. That's the benefit of playing the right position in a winning program.
Who should win the Heisman Trophy?
Petty should benefit from some of those same factors. He puts up the proper numbers and plays the right position on a nationally relevant team, but the catch-22 is that his Heisman chances could be hindered by the dreaded "system quarterback" narrative.
Nobody outside Waco knew who Petty was before the season started. In fact, any preseason Heisman conversation coming from central Texas involved another Bears player: running back Lache Seastrunk. Yet, Petty took the field and instantly had success. Considering Baylor's past two quarterbacks were Nick Florence and Heisman winner Robert Griffin III—players who also put up big numbers—it's understandable that some voters would at least question whether Petty is a plug-and-go player.
"The biggest argument against these guys is the system," Sullivan explained. "Are they system guys? Because of the way Baylor plays, they're always going to have big numbers."
Barnhart has a different theory.
"I don't believe in system quarterbacks. Everyone has a system; it's about executing. What you're saying then is that you can plug anyone into the offense and have the same results," he said. "There are quarterbacks who execute systems, but I don't think the system makes the quarterback."
To Barnhart's point, is Petty any more of a product of his system than Alabama running back Mark Ingram when he won the Heisman in 2009? What about Tide running back Trent Richardson when he was a finalist in 2011? Playing in a scheme that suits a particular set of skills is how teams put themselves in the best position to win.
Like football, the Heisman race is a game. Play it correctly and you have a good chance to come out on top.
Though Petty had a rough weekend—Sullivan said, in his opinion, Petty had dropped in the Heisman race following the loss to the Cowboys—he wasn't alone. The game isn't over.
"November games are always important," Barnhart said. "Look at Manziel and the Alabama game last year. That was the turning point for him."
Will there be a turning point for Petty? There are still two chances for him to make it to New York, and maybe, become Baylor's second Heisman winner in three years.
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All quotes obtained firsthand through interviews unless noted otherwise. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval.