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December 7, 2009

Too close for comfort

The confetti had all flown, the trophies were secured and University of Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram was out of the trainer's room after having an IV to relieve cramping that caught up to him during the victory celebration at the SEC Championship Game.

With 113 rushing yards and 189 total yards against the No. 1 defense in the nation in tow he could finally be asked about his chances for the Heisman Trophy.

"I'd feel real good just to go represent our school, this rich tradition that we have and all the Alabama family, my teammates, my coaches, alumni and fans," Ingram said with a smile. "It would be great just to represent them and maybe bring back a trophy for them."

Maybe could be the key word, although it largely depends on whom you ask.

Monday evening, Ingram was one of five finalists named after voting was completed, joining Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the 2007 winner.

Ingram was the first Crimson Tide player invited to New York for the live announcement since quarterback Jay Barker in 1994, which was a year after David Palmer posted Alabama's highest showing ever, third.

That distinction may end Saturday, but about the only thing anyone knows for sure is that the voting was close, possibly hanging chads close. Three to six finalists can be named, which is determined by the voting percentage. Usually the more finalists the tighter the final tally.

"I think it's going to be very close," said "Mr. Football" Tony Barhardt of CBS and the Atlanta Journal Constitution said Monday after paying close attention to the weekend's final games. "Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy struggled. C.J. Spiller was magnificent but his team lost. Mark Ingram had a great game against the No. 1 defense in the country, but his quarterback was even better.

"It will be a very interesting vote."

So close that many voters were anxious to see who would be the finalists, nevermind the winner.

After Ingram was held to 30 rushing yards at Auburn on Nov. 27, McCoy became the clear front-runner only to have three interceptions and no touchdowns in the Big 12 Championship and literally nearly threw the game way against Nebraska. It gave him 12 interceptions for the season and a 147.5 passer rating, which ranked 19th nationally and would have been third in the Southeastern Conference.

Suh's 4.5 sacks in the game launched him into serious contention even though only one defensive player has ever won the award (Michigan's Charles Woodson edged Peyton Manning of Tennessee in 1997). He finished with 82 tackles, 23 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks.

"Ingram has been my top guy for most of the year," ESPN's Bruce Feldman said. "He's been the backbone of the top team's offense and he's been phenomenal against top-25 competition.

"I think Ingram will win because of how dominant Alabama was on Saturday and because of how shaky Texas was a few hours later. I was really impressed by Suh, but I just don't see how a defensive tackle from a non-top 10 team has much hope of winning."

Ingram, Coach Nick Saban's first Heisman finalist, finished with a school-record 1,542 rushing yards to go with 322 receiving and scored 18 total touchdowns.

Gerhart had more rushing yards (1,736) and touchdowns, but also with more carries (311 compared to Ingram's 246) and played in a conference that isn't known for its rushing defense. The Cardinal also lost four games.
The voting is done by a point system, with a first-place vote worth three points, second two and third just one. There are 925 Heisman selectors, comprised of 145 voters in each of six regions, plus 55 former winners.

Regional voting frequently plays an important role and this year the key could be the Midwest, which didn't have a serious candidate. Suh is the closest geographically, Gerhart had a huge game against Notre Dame - although Charlie Weis already had more than a foot out the door - but Ingram hails from Michigan.

Another interesting region will be the Southwest, where Suh obviously took votes away from McCoy.

The vote is also unpredictable because some submitted their ballot before Saturday's games, which could obviously work to the advantage of McCoy and Tebow, who have record-breaking career numbers.

"I don't know who the favorites will be," Dennis Dodd of CBS Sportsline.com said before casting his vote. "They say 90 percent of the voters saved their ballots. Suh was amazing and Ingram wasn't even the best player on his team (in the SEC Championship Game)."

Although Heisman organizers asked voters not to disclose whom they voted, many did via twitter, blogs and columns.

For example, ESPN's Chris Low wrote: "Ingram's performance against so many good SEC defenses is what sold me on him. That and his value to an Alabama team that's ranked No. 1 in the country. The guy is incredible after contact and to rack up 189 rushing/receiving yards against Florida's defense speaks for itself."

Rivals' Tom Deinhart voted Ingram, followed by Suh and Gerhart, and wrote: "If Ingram doesn't win, I will be stunned."

Ron Higgins, former president of the Football Writers Association of American messaged: "For the first time ever I listed a defensive player first. Can't tell you who he is, but you can ask Colt McCoy about him."

Chris Huston, who closely follows the Heisman chase on the website Heisman Pundit predicted Sunday that McCoy would win over Ingram, Gerhart and Tebow. However, the site's regular poll of 13 Heisman voters had Ingram edging Gerhart with McCoy tying Suh for third.

Stiffarmtrophy.com, which counts votes as people disclose them, had Suh with an early lead but with 121 ballots tracked down Monday night had Gerhart with a slim lead over Suh and Ingram with McCoy fourth.

Last year the "Three Amigos" quarterback group of Sam Bradford, McCoy and Tebow were separated by only 151 points, with Bradford winning despite Tebow having more first-place votes. The year before, Tebow beat out Arkansas running back Darren McFadden by 254 votes.

The closest voting in history had to do with another running back from this state, when Auburn's Bo Jackson edged Iowa quarterback Chuck Long by just 45 votes.

When asked if Alabama having never won a Heisman might help Ingram, Dodd said "Absolutely. People look at that.
"Heisman voters are inherently lazy because everything's given them."

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports agreed with that sentiment.

"I think last Saturday's games will determine the winner because so many Heisman voters pay little attention to their job; but Saturday was the most watched and compelling day of the season. That bodes well for Suh and, to a lesser extent, Ingram."

Good enough to put him over the top? We'll all have to wait until Saturday to find out.

"It is a great honor to be invited to New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy," Ingram said in a statement. "I'm looking forward to the experience and appreciate the opportunity to represent our team at the Heisman ceremony. It is a dream come true to be considered for the Heisman Trophy, but none of this would be possible without my coaches and teammates. The offensive line, tight ends, wide receivers and our quarterback have done an unbelievable job all season and our coaches have put us in a position to win each and every week."


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