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January 7, 2007
Looking for an MVP? Start with Smith
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. The Heisman Trophy already is in hand, so national championship game MVP would seem the next logical award for Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith.
After all, Smith has been at this best in the biggest games this season. He threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over then-No. 2 ranked Texas and passed for 316 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan, when the Wolverines were ranked second.
So as Smith leads the No. 1 Buckeyes (12-0) against No. 2 Florida in Monday night's BCS national championship, the trend shows we should expect him to again have a brilliant performance.
"Alex Smiths, Chris Leaks, Troy Smiths, Tim Tebows, those are the kind of quarterbacks that are difference-makers," said Meyer, who coached Alex Smith two years ago at Utah. "There are a lot of guys that can stand there and throw the ball, but there are few that can create plays out of a bad situation.
"Troy Smith is obviously a Heisman Trophy winner. He won that Heisman because he has good personnel around him, but he is a playmaker when the plays aren't there."
For the season, Troy Smith completed 67 percent of his passes and threw for 2,507 yards and 30 touchdowns.
But before anyone rushes to Las Vegas and places a bundle on a side bet that Smith will emerge as the championship game most valuable player, they should consider the history of Heisman recipients in championship games.
Over the last 40 years, the Heisman Trophy winner has played in 16 games in which the national championship was directly won or lost. Only Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart (2004 Orange Bowl), Florida's Danny Wuerffel (1996 Sugar Bowl) and Florida State's Charlie Ward (1993 Orange Bowl) were named MVP.
In fairness, Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett probably deserved it after rushing for 202 yards and a touchdown in a 27-3 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, but the award went to quarterback Matt Cavanaugh instead.
Just as surprising, the teams for which the Heisman winner played have lost 11 of those 16 games. In some cases, the Heisman winner either played poorly or did not play to the level that earned him the prestigious award.
Oklahoma quarterback Jason White threw five interceptions in 21-14 loss to LSU in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke completed fewer than 50 percent of his attempts and threw two interceptions in a 13-2 loss to Oklahoma in the 2000 Orange Bowl. Miami quarterback Gino Torretta completed less than half of his attempts and threw three interceptions in a 34-13 loss to Alabama in the 1992 Sugar Bowl. Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw five interceptions in a 14-10 loss to Penn State in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl.
There is no obvious explanation why Heisman recipients have floundered in championship games, but one theory is that the whirlwind of activity (dinners, talk shows, interviews) and increased scrutiny affects their preparation for the game.
"It hasn't affected my preparation for the game because any time I am in a situation to where I can give back, I give back to my teammates," he said. "I think brining them and putting them into the situation where they can get just as much notoriety as I am getting levels everything out.
"I don't take it as if it is just me in a situation. I try to bring and incorporate them into everything and obviously it has paid off because I haven't pulled my hair out yet."
His hair intact, Smith may indeed buck the Heisman winner trend of championship game futility. But if he does struggle it won't be a surprise if lesser-known players star.
LSU freshman running back Justin Vincent upstaged White in the 2003 Sugar Bowl, while Oklahoma linebacker Torrance Marshall was MVP of the 2000 Orange Bowl.
Defensive players like Marshall rarely are named MVP unless they share it with an offensive player. Penn State linebacker Shane Conlan shared honors with Nittany Lions running back D.J. Dozier in the '86 Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame linebacker Bob Golic shared MVP honors with Fighting Irish running back Vagas Ferguson in the 1977 Cotton Bowl.
But that doesn't stop defensive players from dreaming about making the big play that would win the game.
"Most of the time when I think about a game it doesn't turn out that way because I think about myself getting the pick and taking it 108 yards to the house," Ohio State defensive tackle David Patterson said. "I don't think that's going to happen unless I get some serious blocking."
Teammate Quinn Pitcock has the same dream.
"I would run 108 yards all day long," Pitcock said. "You always lay in bed thinking about getting the interception or fumble for a touchdown. I mean, I had an interception two or three years ago, and after that catch I had tunnel vision and broke for it real quick. But I got hit from behind.
"It always has been a dream to take one back. We have one more chance and most likely it won't happen, but you are always still dreaming for one more time."
If making a long shot bet for a defensive player to become MVP, the best choice is likely Florida All-American free safety Reggie Nelson. He has six interceptions this season including one returned for a touchdown against Alabama. Nelson will play a vital role, especially in deep coverage against Ohio State's explosive receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez.
A Florida upset would likely require Nelson to turn in an outstanding performance.
"I believe Reggie Nelson is the heart of the defense," Florida defensive tackle Joe Cohen said. "He brings excitement to the game and he's the last man standing when it is time to stop the pass or the run. I am just glad that we have him back there. I think he is probably the best safety I have ever seen in my life."
But Smith is one of the best big-game players many others have seen, including Florida's Meyer.
"He plays best in his big games for a lot of reasons, mostly him," Meyer said. "I know Troy Smith. I have known him as a young player. I think great players play their best in those type games."
Smith heads our list of possible MVPs on Monday night. Here's a look at the most likely candidates from each team: