Breaking down the Heisman candidates

Updated: December 12, 2009, 11:36 AM ET
ESPN.com

The 2009 Heisman class has it all: a former winner in Tim Tebow, a former candidate in Colt McCoy, the nation's best defensive player in Ndamukong Suh, a national-title-contending running back in Mark Ingram and a running back who put Stanford football back on the map in Toby Gerhart. Each has impressive numbers. Each helped his team win.

Only one can walk off with the statue Saturday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). Should it be Gerhart, Ingram, McCoy, Suh or Tebow? Our experts make the case for each finalist:

Toby Gerhart

By Pat Forde
[+] EnlargeToby Gerhart
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireToby Gerhart led Stanford's improbable run this season.

Heisman attribute: His greatest attribute is consistency. Find a game in which Gerhart was shut down (like Colt McCoy against Oklahoma). Or in which he just didn't have it (like Tim Tebow against Tennessee or Mississippi State or Alabama). Or he was stopped by injury (like Mark Ingram against Auburn). There were none in 2009. He never ran for fewer than 82 yards and never had a game in which he averaged less than 4.4 yards per carry. And he was at his best against the best competition. Stanford played seven bowl-eligible opponents this season, and Gerhart pounded them for an average of 156 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Coaches value few things more than knowing they can rely on a player to perform at a consistently high level every week, and no player was more dependable than Gerhart.

Heisman moment: Gerhart's Heisman moment actually stretched across two weeks and 120 minutes, when he trampled then-No. 8 Oregon and then-No. 9 USC on consecutive Saturdays. He pounded the Ducks for 223 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 51-42 Stanford upset, then turned around and bruised the Trojans for 178 yards and three more scores in a 55-21 Stanford beatdown that officially ended USC's run of Pac-10 dominance. Against Oregon, he had 59 rushing yards and two touchdowns by the end of the first quarter as the tone was set. Against USC, Gerhart had the privilege of personally burying the Trojans in the fourth quarter, when he ran for 56 yards on a 65-yard touchdown drive to put Stanford up 48-21.

Why Gerhart should win: Gerhart clearly has the individual excellence aspect of the award covered, leading the nation in rushing touchdowns (26) and ranking second in rushing yards per game (145). There also is team success -- the Cardinal are 8-4, their first winning record since going 9-3 in 2001. Given Stanford's recent history, going 8-4 is like going 13-0 at Alabama or Texas. Gerhart is directly involved in lifting his team far beyond its recent status -- a clear indicator of his value to the program. And don't let Tebow and McCoy get all the headlines for being high-character guys. Gerhart is an All-Academic Pac-10 selection as well. He's carrying a 3.25 grade-point average as a management, science and engineering major, and he's on schedule to graduate a quarter early. At Stanford. Where they don't do bunny classes.


Mark Ingram

By Pat Forde
[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireMark Ingram's eye-popping numbers came against the nation's toughest defenses.

Heisman attribute: Ingram was routinely productive in arguably the toughest league for a running back to survive and thrive in, the Southeastern Conference, and he did so despite a rebuilt offensive line. His 119 yards-per-game rushing average is 12th nationally but could have been much higher if Alabama coach Nick Saban had cut him loose against subpar competition; Ingram got only a total of 29 carries and 249 yards in blowouts of Florida International, North Texas and Chattanooga. The only game in which Ingram didn't produce was against Auburn, when he was held to 30 yards and suffered a hip pointer. In the ultimate proving ground, against the nation's No. 1 defense in the SEC championship game, Ingram gouged the Gators for 189 total yards and three touchdowns.

Heisman moment: When Ingram took in a short screen pass from quarterback Greg McElroy in the second quarter of the SEC championship game this past Saturday, the Crimson Tide led Florida 12-10. Tim Tebow was just getting untracked, the Gators had cut into a 9-0 deficit and momentum was switching sidelines. Sixty-nine yards later, Ingram changed all that -- outrunning defenders, defying an attempt to push him out of bounds, tightroping the sideline and taking the ball all the way to the Florida 3-yard line. One play later, Ingram burst into the end zone and a 19-10 Alabama lead. For all intents and purposes, Florida was a broken team thereafter, especially its No. 1-ranked defense, which could not force a meaningful stop for the rest of the game. And Ingram had his Heisman moment.

Why Ingram should win: He has been the driving offensive engine on the No. 1-ranked team in America. It's inconceivable the Crimson Tide would be poised to play in the BCS Championship Game without Ingram, especially when the team's passing game was struggling badly in the middle portion of the season and he basically was the entire offense. And besides, Alabama somehow has never had a Heisman winner. While it wouldn't be correct to give him the award based simply on the Crimson's Tide's anomalous lack of players who have won the game's most prestigious individual award, shouldn't the school's Heisman trophy case start somewhere?


Colt McCoy

By Ivan Maisel
[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Matthew Emmons/USPresswireColt McCoy does it all for the Longhorns.

Heisman attribute: Having lived in the Texas offense through an NCAA-record 45 victories, McCoy wears it like a custom-made suit. His ability to find the open receiver on the run or to find the open run has been the reason Texas has averaged nearly 41 points per game. McCoy has thrown for 3,512 yards and 27 touchdowns while completing 70.5 percent of his passes. He has run for 348 yards. More important, he is the leader and the best player on a 13-0, second-ranked team that's playing for the national championship.

Heisman moment: On Thanksgiving night, with all of America too stuffed to lift itself off the couch, McCoy put on a show. He threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for a career-high 175 yards and a fifth score. Texas beat archrival Texas A&M 49-39, and after an inconsistent first half of the season, McCoy emerged among the leaders for the Heisman.

Why McCoy should win: As a make-up call for last year, when Sam Bradford of Oklahoma beat him out? That's what they think in Austin. No, McCoy can win on the merits of this season. He has planted himself at the intersection of personal stardom and team success. All Texas victories go through McCoy.


Ndamukong Suh

By Mark Schlabach
[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh could break the streak of offensive players winning the Heisman.

Heisman attribute: Nebraska's defense is designed for Suh to take on blocks and free up the team's linebackers to make tackles. But few opponents could handle Suh with double-team blocks, and perhaps no offensive lineman handled him one-on-one. Suh finished the regular season with 83 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. He is so athletic as a nose guard that he batted 10 passes and blocked three kicks. Suh, whose first name means "House of Spears" in his father's native Cameroon, already has won the Rotary Lombardi Award as college football's top lineman, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the country's best defensive player, the Outland Trophy for the nation's most outstanding interior lineman and the Chuck Bednarik Award for the defensive player of the year.

Heisman moment: In this past Saturday's Big 12 championship game at Dallas Cowboys Stadium, Suh nearly led the Cornhuskers to an improbable upset of then-No. 3 Texas. In Nebraska's 13-12 loss, Suh had a career-high 12 tackles, 4½ sacks and a school-record seven tackles for loss. Incredibly, he made nine tackles for zero or negative yards. "We're best friends," Texas quarterback Colt McCoy said afterward. "The guy's a playmaker. All night long, Suh played tremendous."

Why Suh should win: If the Heisman Trophy is going to become an all-inclusive award, and finally shed its history of favoring the guys who throw touchdown passes, catch them and run for them, Suh should be standing on the dias in New York on Saturday night. He was the most dominant player in the country and is among only a handful of defensive linemen in the sport's recent history who altered the way a game was played. Frankly, if Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson was good enough to win the Heisman Trophy in 1997, Suh's dominant performance this season shouldn't be ignored.


Tim Tebow

By Ivan Maisel
[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesTim Tebow could become just the second two-time Heisman winner.

Heisman attribute: The Heisman is not a career award, Tebow's detractors contend. That's a plus for Tebow. As good as his passing stats are this season -- eighth in efficiency (155.59), 18 touchdowns and five picks -- they pale in comparison to his previous two seasons as a starter. Tebow's best stat this season is his 12-1 record as a starting quarterback, a tribute to the intangible qualities that make him stand out.

Heisman moment: Tebow illustrated again his grasp of the emotional moment in his last home game at The Swamp. Against archrival Florida State, Tebow completed 17 of 21 passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 90 yards and two touchdowns in the 37-10 rout.

Why Tebow should win: If you like your history served sunny side up, there could be no worthier player to join Archie Griffin as a two-time Heisman winner. Tebow has represented the best that college football can offer for four years. Florida stayed at No. 1 until nearly the end of this season and goes into the Sugar Bowl at No. 5 in large part via Tebow's will and positive thinking.

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